The coming of age movie is a Hollywood staple, which often depicts a young woman whose story is defined by a romantic relationship. Part of what made this past year's Lady Bird so special is that its subtle telling of a teenage female experience—from tenuous mother/daughter relationships to shifting friendship dynamics—relied on Lady Bird's personal growth as the main storytelling device. Its actors have received plenty of accolades ahead of Sunday night's Oscars. But one supporting role we think deserves mentioning is Lady Bird's wonderfully-nostalgic, turn of the millennium bedroom.
The teenage bedroom is also often integral to the coming of age story (think: Frenchy's bedroom in Grease or Dawson's movie-poster plastered room in Dawson's Creek). And Lady Bird is no different — the room is both the site of and the refuge from parental fights, as well as an expression of her personality. "We really wanted to show that she was somebody who cared about things as much as she's going through these pains, and trying to fit in," production designer Chris Jones told Apartment Therapy. We spoke to Jones about how he, along with writer and director Greta Gerwig, set decorator Traci Spadorcia, and the rest of the team built those feelings from scratch in a real home in Van Nuys, California.
I read that Greta Gerwig said she wanted Lady Bird to "look like a memory." I think a lot of us have these very real memories about our teenage bedrooms—whether it's the posters that hung on the walls, or the books on the shelves, what we stashed in the desk drawers. How did you go about creating those memories from scratch for Lady Bird? What feelings were you trying to convey with the objects?
We wanted the bedroom, most importantly, to show the layers of history that Lady Bird already had. The movie is about what happens to her throughout the film, but also what happened to her and what could happen to her in the future, that whole transitional period. We wanted the bedroom to feel like it was also in that transition and growing from something younger to something older.
We went looking for furniture that could be little girl furniture, but that she had kept. The desk in the corner was really an old white desk from, say the 80s and the 90s. Then the bed, it's missing a spindle here and missing a piece there, because it's been around for a long time. We wanted that to be the basic structure of the room. Then we built on top of that with the items that would be more teenage and more adult.
Why did you choose pink for the walls?
Greta and I had spoken about colors, and we wanted the entire film to have a pastel color palette, based on paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, a painter in Sacramento. When it came to her room, we talked about pink or purple. But purple is kind of a royal color, and pink is a bit more playful, and we felt that the character was more playful and strong.
The paint was something that we also thought might harken back to being a little girl, but it's a hip cool color. And it blended with her hair color that we had in the film. It was also very different, shockingly different, from the rest of the house. We did a lot of camera tests with the pink to make sure it was going to work, and to make sure it wasn't going to be too different from the rest of the house so it felt separate.
And how did you build on top of that?
When you work on a film with the budget that Lady Bird had, you can't always get everything you want. And one of the things that's hard to do in a room that's covered with all kinds of imagery like that, for a film or any kind of media, is getting the clearance on items you're showing. One of the things that was relatively inexpensive was album covers. We decided to pick music from the time to show bands she'd be interested in. There was a Bikini Kill cover, a Pixies cover—albums we thought would be cool in that time period and that Greta listened too as well.
We loved making it look like she was always working on something. Besides the art we found and made ourselves, one of the things that really added to the room and that she was proud of were those "Lady Bird for President" posters, and we ended up putting those on the walls too, and it just added to the mix. What was really cool was that we were designing those posters and doing samples for Greta early on, and we used construction papers and feathers and bird heads, until we decided to get kind of weird with it, which were the ones we ended up using in the film. But some of those early prototypes ended up being on the wall, and it was really a beautiful little addition because we tried to use birds throughout the film without being too heavy handed.
The messiness of the room felt very real. It reminded me of actually walking into a teenage bedroom. How did you create those layers?
We were working with April Napier, the costume designer, so we had the actual costumes she was wearing in the film in her closet. As we were doing that, we would find ourselves bringing the clothes in that wardrobe had on their racks, and we would lay them on the bed and start hanging them on the closet or getting them ready for the shot. We realized it was great that she hadn't put her clothes away. There's that whole scene where her mom comes in and is unhappy with the fact she's not taking care of her things.
Because the room has a very busy, jewel-like quality, we wanted to keep it messy. The clothing was a big part of it and the rest of it really came from the way the way the room is dressed. We wanted to get it chock full. We started sticking stickers and little plastic spiders, and hanging Mardi Gras beads from a lamp or whatever. Once that layering started to happen, it really began to give a cluttered, yet not-difficult-to-look-at feel.
Where did you source everything from?
All of the furniture actually came from two big prop houses at the studios. They have furniture that is not in the best shape, which we wanted and the nice thing is that you can rent it. But all the ephemera, all the little pieces, the stuff that filled the room—the day before we were supposed to shoot the first scene in that room, we all agreed that we didn't really have enough stuff. So I went to a store in Downtown LA called Moskatels. Moskatels had all the stickers, all the hearts, all the spiders, all the snakes, all the bird feathers, all the green, all the dead roses. Everything you see in that whole room, a lot of those little pieces came from Moskatels in one big shopping trip I took the morning of the shoot. Then all of us worked together to get it up on the walls.
Any computers, phones, lights, clocks—any technology needed to feel just right. It's amazing to think that even in 2003, we barely had the phone technology we have now. Only 15 years ago, we were really lacking all the cords, cables, USBs, and chargers we have now.
What about the rest of her house? How did you design her room to be different in mood?
There's this line about the house being from the other side of the tracks, which can be a negative reference. But for us, wherever they lived, we knew that Marion and the husband loved this house, and it had been their house for a long time. We wanted the house to feel well loved, not sad or disgusting. It was always neat, it was always clean, but it was a muted tone. It showed there was a bit of sadness in the house.
So Lady Bird grows up with that, and starts her life with that as a kid. I felt with all of the items on the walls in her room, and everything that filled the space, it really felt loved. The house also had that, but it wasn't so blatant. It was more about the care and the placement of items.
It seems like bedrooms always play such an important role in classic movies and TV shows. Why do you think they're such a storytelling staple?
It's a person's private zone. It's important to show the character's personality in the bedroom, because that is where they will spend a good portion of their young life. It is almost like your psyche; your bedroom becomes a place where you lie and look at the ceiling—it's the place where you look at your world and experience your world.
It's also the place you go to escape. When you want to go someplace to get away from it all, you tend to go to your bedroom and lock the door.
Do you have a favorite pop culture teenage bedroom?
Maybe Ferris Bueller's bedroom. I was really into music so the fact that John Hughes used music so effectively in his films and that Ferris Bueller had posters for Morrissey and all the bands that I was into, struck a chord with me.
What's funny is that as old as it is, The Brady Bunch boys' bedroom is very similar to the way I grew up with a brother. We had bunk beds and you spend a lot of time connecting and communicating with your siblings on those bunk beds. Even though it's a bit generic and less naturalistic, I still feel that—I can picture The Brady Bunch bedroom in my head to this day, which is odd, but good.
We talked a bit about Greta's influence on Lady Bird's bedroom. Were there any of your own childhood bedroom influences, or anyone else involved in making the film?
Traci Spadorcia, the set decorator—she did little things that were personal touches, like tying up a ribbon that didn't make sense why it was there, putting a picture at a certain angle, or layering one picture over another because that's what she had in her bedroom.
At the end of the movie, when she's moving out, Lady Bird paints over the walls. Can you talk a bit about what that literal fresh start symbolized for you?
That wasn't in the script. But when we talked about how we had to put the room back for the homeowner, Greta and I talked about how long it was going to take to get all of these little items off of the wall. And she said, "Why don't we all help?" And I said, "Yeah," laughingly, and I included Saoirse [Ronan, who played the title character]. And then we all started thinking about it, and we thought, well what if Saoirse and the mom were taking the items off the wall?
We decided the art department would take down quite a bit of it, but we would have them take over. It happened organically. Yes it's symbolizing the end of something, but also the beginning of something else, which Greta has talked a lot about in interviews. They did it together for a while, but then Saoirse just kept going, she just kept wanting to do it. It was really nice to get a lot of footage of her really making the room fresh and clean. It's almost like she cares now. Before it didn't seem like she cared, but she's leaving something for her mom, who she hasn't spoken to much for the summer.
It's not just change, it's a clean slate. It means she's going to go on to something new. And in the next few scenes, you see she starts using her real name. She starts using Christine instead of Lady Bird after she does that change for herself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.