The Big Design Challenge for ‘Licorice Pizza': Find 1970s L.A. in the 2020s

TheWrap magazine: ”We were looking for pockets where people hadn’t demolished their ranch houses to build white modern monstrosities,“ production designer Florencia Martin says

This story about the “Licorice Pizza” production design first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

For “Licorice Pizza” production designer Florencia Martin, the COVID-19 pandemic made her job easier and also complicated it. Easier because the Paul Thomas Anderson film was one of the few productions filming when they shot it during lockdown in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, which meant that locations were available that otherwise would have been booked and agencies and businesses were ready to cooperate. More complicated because people also used the break to remodel and update their homes and businesses — and when you’ve got a film that’s set in 1973 and wants to use real locations, that creates a problem.

“We were watching the Valley evolve right in front of our eyes,” Martin said. “As COVID started happening, people started remodeling. We were thinking, ‘Wait, wait, wait! Don’t do it yet!’ We actually lost a few locations that we had planned, because we came back and they had freshly painted walls and carpets.”

Freshly painted and modern did not work for “Licorice Pizza,” a leisurely tour of the Valley circa the early ’70s. Most streets in the area have long since been reworked and plastered with modern signs and graphics, and even the street lights have been converted to LED lighting, which gave entirely the wrong look for what Anderson wanted.

“We worked with the city to bring in all the vintage cobra heads (lights), as they’re called,” Martin said. “The color of the light is really important, and we were looking at films to study the color of the mercury-vapor lights of the 1970s.”

“Fat Bernie’s Pinball Palace,” re-created in the Southern California town of Chatsworth (MGM)

Location scouting, she said, consisted of “just getting in the car and driving,” in search of pieces of old in a mass of new. “It was finding those pockets that are still preserved, where people haven’t demolished their ranch houses to build white modern monstrosities,” she said. “We were looking for parking lots, alleys, gas stations, sidewalks, empty fields, cul-de-sacs. There are no fibs in this movie — everything was shot where it took place.”

They found one untouched stretch of businesses in Chatsworth, which became the block where lead character Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) opens a waterbed store and then a pinball palace (which required finding dozens of working pre-1975 machines). For the mansion owned by producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), they got a famous actor who remains nameless to let them use a house he was remodeling; they rebuilt a couple of rooms, shot the scenes and then removed their handiwork, since the actor wasn’t particularly interested in brown shag carpeting and gold damask wallpaper.

Interior, Tail o’ the Cock (MGM)

They also turned an abandoned restaurant adjoining the Van Nuys Golf Course into the legendary Valley institution Tail o’ the Cock, keeping the red leather booths but bringing in false walls and real stained-glass windows. The keys to re-creating the look, she said, included anecdotes from people who were around at the time, event photos from the Los Angeles Times archive and “fabulous postcards of restaurants from the period.”  

The movie, by the way, is named after the Licorice Pizza record-store chain, a popular place to buy music with locations throughout Southern California in the ’70s. But there is no Licorice Pizza in “Licorice Pizza,” a film whose name was decided upon after shooting had concluded. “We did have a record store for a while, but it didn’t have a name yet,” she said with a laugh. “We could very well have had one if we had continued down that path.”

Read more from the Below-the-Line Issue here.

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