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‘Perry Mason’: Crafting the Sounds, Spaces, and Textures of 1932 L.A.

Craft Considerations: Watch costume designer Emma Potter, composer Terence Blanchard, and EP/director Tim Van Patten break down their work on “Perry Mason.”

HBO's Perry Mason: Behind The Scenes

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with HBO, for this edition we look at the creation of “Perry Mason” with executive producer and director Tim Van Patten, costume designer Emma Potter, and composer Terence Blanchard.

Terence Blanchard grew up watching the original “Perry Mason” series with his father. When the composer began working on HBO’s “Perry Mason” reboot, he was struck by creators Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones’ new origin story for Perry (Matthew Rhys).

“I remember when I finally started to see something from the show, I was just totally blown away,” said Blanchard. “Immediately, I started telling people, ‘This is not your daddy’s ‘Perry Mason,’ this is something else.’”

From exploring how a downtrodden Perry was haunted by the war, or showing how a Black cop like Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) was trapped by systemic racism, Blanchard and the other artisans knew the world of this new Perry Mason would require a visual and aural language that went far beyond genre and period filmmaking. In the videos below, you will see how Van Patten, Blanchard, and Potter crafted the textures, tones, colors, and spaces that brought Perry’s complex search for justice in Depression-era Los Angeles to life.

The Directing of Perry Mason 

For Van Patten, the joy of directing the first three episodes (in addition to the last two) of “Perry Mason” was more than designing shots and working with the talented cast; it was the world building. The long-time HBO veteran (“Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire”) was involved from day one, hiring artisans like Potter and Blanchard to collaborate as they figured out how the series would look and feel through the lens of this new Perry — or, as it was commonly referred to by Van Patten’s creative team, “under the fedora.”

“For me, it was a journey of discovery,” said the Brooklyn-based Van Patten, who walked around Los Angeles looking for visual slices of city’s architectural history that would help him avoid relying on CGI. Van Patten envisioned a “less presentational” approach than the one that is common with showy period television series and movies. To find the visual language, he turned to the American Realists of the early 20th century rather than lean into detective genre and noir conventions. As you will see in the video above, Van Patten was inspired by the compositions of artists like Edward Hopper and George Bellows to tell the characters’ stories.

The Costumes of Perry Mason

Costume designer Emma Potter rooted her work on “Perry Mason” in deep historical and visual research. In looking at photos and hearing Van Patten’s conception of how he’d spatially tell the characters’ stories, she knew it would be important to capture the rich tapestry of Los Angeles in 1932, a time when people from around the country started migrating to California and when Hollywood was booming.

“It was this idea that the city is beyond bustling, it’s almost exploding at this point,” said Potter. “Part of the world building for us is separating each of these neighborhoods and using color, texture, and pattern, even down to fabric choices, before you started thinking about bodies and people that inhabit the space. You could create a visual language for each neighborhood.”

When Van Patten’s camera pans the packed crowds of one of Sister Alice’s sermons, or Perry’s detective work brings us to different Los Angeles enclaves, Potter’s costumes instantly ground the viewer. Without exposition or knowledge of the LA neighborhoods, the viewer instantly knows the class, culture, and sense of how the Depression impacted people in the different areas on Perry’s journeys.

In the video above, you will see how Potter’s storytelling becomes richer and deeper as she captured the essence of the series’ protagonists. See how Potter captured the duality of Paul Drake and Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), two characters with distinct private and public appearances, and how the combination informs their complex characters.

The Music of Perry Mason

In the video above, Blanchard talks about an early series trailer that was edited to big band music of the 1930s. It was period accurate, but the composer instantly knew it was wrong for the series.

“The big band thing could have been nice, but we’ve seen that scenario so much,” said the composer. “One of the things I have a pet peeve about is people thinking jazz is such a historic thing, a museum piece, not like something that is growing and evolving, which it is.”

This perspective also came to define Blanchard’s “Perry Mason” score, which he believed needed to push music forward in the same way the series pushed Perry’s story forward. While Blanchard would use the trumpet, saxophone, and other jazz elements, they became “textures and colors” — one layer in a complex sonic landscape of different tones and ambience the composer created in his computer.

“What the show really allowed me to do was combine all these elements for their strengths,” said Blanchard, who credits the series with helping him advance his craft more than any other project in his storied career. “Like with the ambient elements, I didn’t try to get them to do what instruments can do.”

Below watch our full discussion with Van Patten, Potter, and Blanchard.

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