For Emmy-nominated production designer Matthew Flood Ferguson, working on Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood” limited series was a labor of love. It’s a post-World War II ode to Tinseltown about aspiring actors and filmmakers with more at stake culturally than artistic success, which required authentic depictions of iconic locations along with fictional composites.
“For me it was a dream job because I had grown up loving the film industry and had been fascinated by it,” Ferguson said, who collaborated with art director Mark Robert Taylor and set decorator Melissa Licht. “So, with some of these locations, like the El Cabrillo [apartment complex], built by Cecil B. DeMille for out-of-state actors who came to work for him, I couldn’t help but feel extra special as we were making the show.”
Armed with volumes of historical photos as reference, Ferguson recreated such landmarks as Schwabs Pharmacy, the Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, a Hancock Park mansion, and the above-mentioned apartment complexes, among others, on two stages at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. In addition, he designed the fictional Ace Studios as a composite of Paramount and RKO (using Paramount exteriors as the reference point).
“For Schwabs, it was my responsibility to be historically accurate because there are so many great Hollywood stories,” Ferguson said. “I refer to it as the internet back then for out of work actors where they’d try to get jobs and network.”
There was an abundance of black-and-white images and movies to reference, but none were in color. So Ferguson’s team had the freedom to interior decorate the famous pharmacy with eye-popping primary colors. The chairs were done in a dark green based on dark-looking images.
“And we custom-built every little thing,” he said. “The cabinets, the small pharmaceutical items, the perfume bottles, boxes of candy, and all the shaving needs.”
Ace Studios required conference rooms, the commissary, and a screening room. Murphy recommended a color palette of gold harvest. “I looked at a variety of old studios for the commissary: Warner Bros., RKO, MGM, Paramount,” Ferguson said. “We landed with Paramount because it seemed appropriate with the big light fixture down the center and the old Kodachrome portraits of the movie stars on the walls. The chairs that Melissa found were the originals used at the Warner Bros. commissary [in the basement prop house], and I had reference pictures of Errol Flynn and Bette Davis.”
The Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow required meticulous recreation of the signature Martinique Banana Leaf wallpaper, using reference pictures after the hotel had been redone in the ’40s by architect Paul Williams.
“It was not cheap,” Ferguson said. “But it was beautiful. We contact a company that makes it to produce it for us. It’s so iconic and graphic.”
Ferguson was especially excited to recreate the El Cabrillo (where Chinese actress Anna May Wong lived, portrayed by Michelle Krusiec) and scouted the actual landmark location in Hollywood for interior decoration ideas.
“It’s a Spanish colonial revival courtyard apartment building in Whitley Heights, where many silent movie stars lived,” he said. “It was something I really wanted to highlight in our show. We went with the idea that Anna May Wong had such success early in her career and then it didn’t fully pan out. She decorated in the ’20s and 20 years later it’s still beautiful but behind the times.”
Finally, the other big build was the legendary Hollywoodland sign itself, which was constructed in 1923 to promote the fledgling real estate development in the Hollywood hills, and was later shortened to Hollywood in 1949.
“It was built during the rise of American cinema and now that sign is a major symbol for our industry,” Ferguson said. “We looked at old reference pictures [it was 30 feet wide and 50 feet high]. It had fallen into disrepair and it fell in the ’40s, and there was an image of a woman leaning up against one of the pieces, and we used that to try to get the proper scale so that it laid out within our set.”
The hardest part, though, was lighting the sign since it was studded with 4,000 bulbs. “There was a moment when people on the crew were surprised about that,” Ferguson said. “And that it blinked. Even I had forgotten that it was lit up, so I had to do some deep diving into the history books. We went back to our reference pictures and spaced it out for our lighting track.
“I recall as a kid reading Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon’ with all the salacious stories and that’s where I first heard about the actress Peg Entwistle jumping off the ‘H’ in 1932,” Ferguson said.
And it was the notorious legend of Entwhistle that served as Murphy’s launching pad for the Netflix limited series.