Ten episodes, 10 different looks including a big barbecue, seedy casino and dinner theater. That was the challenge production designer Judy Rhee set herself when she signed on to collaborate with Rian Johnson on his episodic Peacock series, Poker Face, and she jumped in with both feet. Result? A first-ever Emmy nomination for the episode “Orpheus Syndrome,” which is steeped in Hollywood history and starring Nick Nolte and Cherry Jones.
Rhee was perfect for this type of job, having worked for decades on shows like Jessica Jones and Better Call Saul, as well as the film Art House. Rhee chatted with The Envelope on a recent Zoom call about how to make the modern look retro (and vice versa), why she’s settling on the East Coast — and how she does a brilliant job that, ideally, audiences will ignore.
What is it like to have a production designer’s eye? Are you always on the lookout for great locations, props or buildings?
I actually can’t turn it off. Much of my experience comes from a lived life and from travel. I have taken in the things I encounter, and they go into the library of things and reappear in the strangest moments.
How did the “Poker Face” creator come about? Ryan JohnsonDid you read that a little before you signed up?
He drew inspiration from the mystery shows of the ’70s – like Murder She Wrote and Columbo and The Rockford Files, which were brilliant. My first assumption was that we would be traveling across the country for a lot of this filming – but that wasn’t the case. I had to create these different geographic locations [New York’s] Hudson Valley, with a few exceptions. There were no fixed sets, with 10 different stories based on an episodic schedule, so every 10 days [we shot another episode]. A lot has happened in the seven months we’ve been working on it.
The series has a retro feel even though it’s set in modern times. How did you create this look?
In many screenplays, the way the characters are written suggests that they are off the beaten path, hidden in their own worlds. I loved that this open palette is timeless because you have more to work with. Most people don’t keep upgrading and buying new things. It’s all about finding visual cues and clues as to who the characters are.
Why was “Orpheus Syndrome” the right episode for an Emmy?
It was a difficult call. It was one of the most unique in terms of what we did with it. We used this IM Pei [designed] Building [the former IBM Somers Office Complex in upstate New York], and how we expanded that was interesting on many levels. I was trying to tie all the story points together in such a huge space – it was as big as a complex… I wasn’t going to tell the location scout, “Find something unusual,” but rather, “What would contrast with Arthur?” [Nolte’s] Barn” which was made of natural wood and warmer colors.
Do you think voters reacted in some way to Hollywood’s historical basis for “Orpheus”?
Probably! That would be an added bonus. Nick Nolte played a character loosely based on it [Emmy and Oscar-winning special effects expert] Phil Tippett and what we did in this barn, in addition to what Phil built, I think really authentically helped to imagine the story of an artist – his 30 years of work.
You moved from LA to New York at the time to study film. Why cross the country to get into the film business?
Many of the filmmakers who spoke to me at the time – Jim Jarmusch, [Martin] Scorsese – and a lot of the ’70s movies I loved were set in New York. I felt like I needed to be here and I’ve been here ever since. It suits my personality.
Men dominate the field of production design. Does gender imbalance affect the dynamics behind the scenes when you lead production design?
I’ve never worked with a production designer during my artistic direction. That’s not to say they didn’t exist, but it rarely happened. There has now been a significant increase in gender awareness and openness in various positions, but women generally have to prove themselves more than men. After my recruitment there is a wait to see what I can do. It’s an odd compliment when someone says, “You did such a great job!” as if they’re surprised. I mean what did you think would happen?
What’s it like developing a skill that—if done right—goes unnoticed by most people who see it?
That’s the double-edged sword for production design, because you want it to feel integrated. You don’t want to draw attention to it because then it distracts from the story. My process is very intuitive, so it’s rare on a project that I make a conscious decision and say, “This character has to represent this color or style.”
If you win the Emmy, keep it in your beautiful piece of jewelry in a custom case designed home?
I think it would just sink into my bookshelf. I hadn’t thought about it, but now I will, since you brought it to my attention. But my apartment is pretty crowded and messy because I travel a lot for work. It is the situation of the cobbler’s child. I live in New York City in a small space of 700 square meters – but it’s mine and it’s my home.