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‘Being the Ricardos’: Creating the Behind-the-Scenes Life of Lucy and Desi

Craft Considerations: How costume designer Susan Lyall, production designer Jon Hutman, and DP Jeff Cronenweth re-created the backstage world of "I Love Lucy."

Being the Ricardos

“Being the Ricardos”

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Amazon Studios, for this edition we look at how costume designer Susan Lyall, production designer Jon Hutman, and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth re-imagined the private and backstage life of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s new film “Being the Ricardos.”

For Jon Hutman, the production designer who built the original “The West Wing” sets, the focus of his latest collaboration with Aaron Sorkin was familiar territory. “What people want to see in this movie is not what happened on the stage; everyone wants to know what happens backstage.” Recalled costume designer Susan Lyall, “One of the first things Aaron said, ‘We are not doing ‘I Love Lucy.’ It’s the drama behind the comedy.’”

And while Lyall, Hutman, and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth each did the deep research and painstaking detail work to recreate the “I Love Lucy” set — closely scrutinizing each frame of relevant footage, and studying the breakthrough multi-camera setup that Arnaz pioneered — the real storytelling work came in how they used their own crafts to capture the real-life marriage behind America’s favorite TV couple.

In “Being the Ricardos,” the history of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s complex relationship comes to the fore during an extraordinary week in which their careers are threatened by a headline claiming Ball was a communist, while their marriage is put to the test by a different headline accusing Arnaz of extramarital affairs. That this drama plays out against the backdrop of taking episode 37 of “I Love Lucy” from table read to live studio audience allowed each of these three artisans to explore the duality of how Arnaz and Ball’s personal life was enmeshed with their public and professional lives.

The Cinematography of “Being the Ricardos”

While the behind-the-scenes setup of “Being the Ricardos” places it firmly in the Sorkin story realm, the writer-director was looking for a sharp departure from the visual language he utilized in his first two directorial efforts, “Molly’s Game” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” To do this, he reached out to the cinematographer whom director David Fincher used to shoot Sorkin’s “Social Network” script.

“Aaron [encouraged] me to push him out of his comfort zone, push him in new directions, open his eyes to things,” said Cronenweth, who indicated “Social Network” was the reference Sorkin used multiple times in their first conversation about “Ricardos.” What that meant was prioritizing different compositions and shifts in character staging, instead of relying on the long take walk-and-talk shots that became synonymous with Sorkin’s TV work. In the video above, the cinematographer breaks down how this varied and purposeful coverage – in longer dialogue scenes, like the cast table reads, or the Arnazs’ stand-offs with the CBS executives – unlocked layers of tension and subtlety that lay beneath that distinctive banter.

For the film’s flashbacks to the 1940s, when Lucille and Desi fall in love, Cronenweth went back to the hard light and set photography of that era – which included the work of his grandfather, Edward Cronenweth – to capture the feeling of what it was like to be on a Hollywood set in 1944, for a look the cinematographer dubs “fashion noir.”

The Costume Design of “Being the Ricardos”

In researching the private lives of Ball and Arnaz, Lyall came to admire the way they defied convention. “They were an extraordinary couple, who accomplished extraordinary things during a unique time.”

Despite the countless images that exist of Arnaz and Ball from the early 1950s, the costume designer admitted she had to use her imagination. “They were the kind of stars that were photographed consistently in a glamorous, fun, enviable lifestyle way. And you can’t always be like that.” It certainly wasn’t how the two “I Love Lucy” bosses would have showed up to work every day, while the often “infantilizing” costumes Lucille wore as Lucy offered Lyall no clues.

Armed with breadcrumbs gathered from their daughter Lucie Arnaz’s 1993 documentary “Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie,” Lyall dressed the power couple as a coordinated “color team,” setting the two trailblazers apart from more conventional wardrobe worn by the other characters. She put Kidman in high-waisted trousers modeled after Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall – two women who epitomized feminine modernity in the early ’50s and were friends of Ball.

She then dressed Bardem in clothes that reflected how Arnaz embraced both the California lifestyle and his Cuban heritage, to create a look that was intentionally more casual, stylish, and confident than the CBS executives who try to twist his arm. “I learned he liked to wear Cuban heels all the time, and as a result Javier liked to wear them,” said Lyall. “They really just changed his silhouette so much. Desi Arnaz was such a very spiffy dresser, with a natural elegance. It was hard to find a bad picture of him.”

The Production Design of “Being the Ricardos”

Although much of the work of accurately recreating the sets and backstage machinations of the “I Love Lucy” fell to Hutman and his team, their guiding force was the complex relationship of its two stars. “These are two people in love, desperately trying to hold onto their marriage,” said Hutman. “And the question I had to ask is how to support that with my design.”

At the heart of Hutman’s sets is the theme of home, which, according to Sorkin’s version of events, manifested itself in the simple domestic life Ball longed for versus the on-stage one she built to save her marriage. As Hutman discusses in the video above, he intentionally juxtaposed the trappings of success Arnaz and Ball amassed at their work home with the brief glimpses we get of the simple suburban life that Ball wished was enough to keep Arnaz at home.

The ballad of Lucille and Desi is one the production designer turned into a color story. On the set of the Ricardos’ “I Love Lucy” home the colors are intentionally desaturated, while the flashback scenes of Ball and Arnaz falling in love are colorful remembrances. “It was important you feel that exact moment they fall in love,” explained Hutman. “The memories are vivid; the present day reality sucks the life out of her, and the struggle is to hold on to that.”

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