Interview: Production Designer Jon Hutman Talks ‘Being the Ricardos’ and Working With Aaron Sorkin

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star in BEING THE RICARDOS — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Jon Hutman didn’t set out to become a production designer for movie sets. At Yale, he started out in the theater department, quickly learning that he enjoyed working being the scenes far more than onstage. In the summer following his junior year, his friend Jodie Foster got him a job on the set of Hotel New Hampshire, which ultimately led him in a new direction. As he approached graduation, he thought of going on to graduate school, but on the advice from his father, he found himself heading to Hollywood instead.

It was the 1980s, a time when there was a lot of non-union work available, and Hutman took advantage of the opportunities that unfolded. He got started on formative films like Heathers, Little Man Tate, and A River Runs Through It, working with directors from Michael Lehmann, Jodie Foster, Robert Redford, and Lawrence Kasdan. By age 31, he was an industry veteran and eventually he would go on to work on many film and TV projects. He won a Primetime Emmy for The West Wing, where he first met Aaron Sorkin, and has been nominated for a number of awards from the Art Directors Guild.

For his latest film, Being the Ricardos, he finally got the chance to work with Sorkin again, helping recreate some of television’s most iconic sets from one of our most beloved TV shows: I Love Lucy.

I recently had the chance to talk with Jon Hutman about his work on Being the Ricardos, working with Aaron Sorkin, and why the film means so much to him.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

JAVIER BARDEM, J.K. SIMMONS, NINA ARIANDA, and NICOLE KIDMAN star in BEING THE RICARDOS Photo: GLEN WILSON © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: How did Being the Ricardos first come to you?

Jon Hutman: I worked with Aaron 21 years ago on The West Wing. And the way I ended up doing The West Wing — because I’d never done television before — I was doing a movie called 13 Days, not the version of that movie that got made, but an earlier version that Phil Robinson was directing. We had gotten hold of the sets that had been built for The American President, which were designed by Lilly Kilvert. And it was not just the Oval Office, there was some stuff from the residence and some other rooms and whatever. For 13 Days, we were trying to recreate the Kennedy White House to tell the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. While we were prepping that movie John Wells approached the producer of my movie and said can we come and shoot a pilot on The West Wing’s set that you build. And the producer said to me, “Talk to these people, because if we can get them to share the cost of the set with us, that would be great.”

That’s how the conversations began. Our version of 13 Days fell apart, so essentially I came with the set. I was talking to the West Wing people, we had begun our conversations and formulations, so I designed the set for that show and I consulted with them for a little while. I actually got to direct an episode of The West Wing. So I’ve known Aaron for a long, long time. And then when he did, [The Trial of the] Chicago 7… I’m the guy who you hire for the version of the movie that doesn’t get made. We were doing Chicago 7 in Toronto and literally had prepped the movie, scouted the movie design, the sets had started construction, and the financing fell apart in the version that I did. Somebody else ended up making that movie. So I think eventually he felt sorry for me and he offered me a job and that’s the way it happened.

But we’ve known each other for a long time. In almost every category, I don’t think there’s anyone who would turn down an offer to work on an Aaron Sorkin movie.

KP: I’m sure if I asked him, he would say, “I finally got the opportunity to work with Jon on a movie that got made.”

JH: {laughs} I mean, you’re right, he probably would, and that’s very kind. But movies don’t get better than their screenplays, that’s what I believe. It’s funny, we did a Q&A thing at one of the guild screenings of the film… I had just seen the movie for the second time in a row, in one weekend, Saturday, Sunday. And what really struck me from seeing the movie twice is how complex and subtle every single scene is. For example, when Lucy and Viv are having this conversation, which starts about Lucy sending breakfast and the dress, but then sort of morphs into their friendship. It’s not just, “Oh, I’m mad at you for sending me breakfast,” but “I love you and I respect you and at the end of the day I want to be you.” And every single scene has that combination of a positive and a negative charge. It’s complicated. And when you start with a script that’s as strong as the script for Being the Ricardos there’s not a lot of time wasted figuring it out. And what you get to do is explore that complexity.

One of the sets I like to talk about — because you don’t really see it in the movie — is their living room. What we tried to do with the house, there’s a lot of archival research on the show, on their three houses, etc. Aaron really was in love with the Chatsworth Ranch, which was their first house. You had to understand that they were at the pinnacle of their game. She was the most popular actor ever on a TV show. John Rubinstein says at the beginning of the movie, a popular show today has 10 to 15 million viewers. I Love Lucy had 60 million TV sets. Not viewers, TV sets. There was nothing else to watch. So I think what you need to understand is emotionally the stakes of the story, which is: what happens when your dreams come true and you risk to lose it all. That’s what it’s about.

So what we tried to do is with the exterior of the house, the scenes around the pool, understand the kind of the the space and simplicity of their ranch house. But in the living room, we tried to get more of the Beverly Hills house, which they moved into later around the same time that they bought the RKO Studios. I thought it was important for the audience when the movie opens to understand that that they’re living this really glamorous life.

Javier Bardem stars in BEING THE RICARDOS — Courtesy of Amazon Studios

KP: Can you talk about the sets you recreated from reference materials and which ones came together from the general look of the era?

JH: There’s two parts. We did our best to to accurately recreate the I Love Lucy set, the soundstage, the Italian vineyard set, the Italian hotel room, the train car. One of my favorites sets in the movie is this flashback to a movie called Too Many Girls, which is the movie that that [Lucy and Desi] met on. It’s this bad musical that’s set at a fictitious college in New Mexico. What we did was kind of a compressed version of the set with this signature adobe gate and this courtyard that has a drum that they dance on… It’s inexplicable, but there’s something about the colors and the patterns and the painted backdrop and the way Jeff Cronenweth lit it, it’s super magical and charming. And so those we tried to make.

Obviously, I Love Lucy… The set we used, if you go back and look at the episode “Fred and Ethel Fight,” that was actually from the first season of the show, which was a different set. They changed the set in the second season to the most familiar version, which is the one that has the piano and the window behind the couch. Basically I showed Aaron, I said, “Here’s the accurate set.” But he had moved it to the second season in terms of story timeline so that the show was already a hit, right? And so I said, do we want to do this or this, he said, “I like the one with the window.” And that’s what we did.

So it’s accurate in the same way that the script is accurate, which is to say the three conflicts depicted in the story — Lucy’s accused of being a communist, Lucy and Desi tell the network that Lucy’s pregnant, and Lucy finds evidence that Desi’s being unfaithful to her — those things did happen, but not all in the same week. So for the purposes of telling a story, Aaron compressed them in a way that felt more dramatic. And so we sort of did the same thing with the set. We did our best to have the stage sets be accurate. As I said, their home is sort of an amalgam of a nod to the Chatsworth ranch and a nod to the Beverly Hills house. So again, accurate, but sort of compressed for the purposes of storytelling.

The studio, we found this location which is a women’s club in Los Angeles called the Wilshire Ebell and it’s used for filming quite a bit. What we were able to do is take all of the backstage sets, Lucy’s dressing room, Viv’s dressing room, the wardrobe room, Desi’s office, the writers’ room, the hallways, and dress different parts of this building, but in a way that they were literally contiguous. So you understood dressing rooms and wardrobe on the third floor, writers rooms on the second floor, then they can go down the stairs and we cut to the stage.

There is this actual walk-and-talk scene with Desi and the writers that starts in his office, they head around the corner, you understand that they’ve come downstairs, you pick them up in the hallway outside the soundstage, and they go behind the set and they end up *boom* right in front of the of the audience. And so the idea is for the audience of the film and also for the actors to understand the world. When you see Lucy and Viv and Fred and Madelyn sitting outside the soundstage as Desi is talking to the audience and the reporter, holding the headline that accuses Lucy of being a communist, they are sitting outside of the soundstage where we shot. Although that door is fake, but you get the idea.

So it’s accurate in a movie way, I’m gonna say. And then there are sets that are more interpretive like Charles Koerner’s office — he’s the president of RKO — which we shot on the Queen Mary; Ciro’s Nightclub which we shot on the Queen Mary. I had an idea that the flashbacks should feel romanticized, which I think is something that memory does and I wanted her memory starting with Too Many Girls the night that she and Desi spend together in his hotel suite, Charles Koerner’s office and Ciro’s which is the nightclub where he works so they were idealized versions of reality.

KP: Can you describe what it was like to recreate some of I Love Lucy’s most iconic moments?

JH: It’s funny, when Stuart Besser first called me about the project — Stuart is the line producer — he was like, “I don’t know if you’re gonna want to do this.” He said, “You’re just copying something that’s already been designed,” which, to me, was like the gauntlet being tossed right? Here’s the bottom line, I love working on a period. Because we’re recreating a world that doesn’t exist anymore. But mainly it was the script, what happened when I read that script, especially because the world of Lucy was in my consciousness as it’s in, I think, everyone’s consciousness. But here’s the thing that Being the Ricardos and The West Wing have in common: people want to know what’s happening behind the scenes, right?

We made The West Wing at a moment right after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and so everybody wanted to know, where is that room? Where is that room between the Oval Office and the Chief of Staff’s office with the blue dress? Where is that room? And there I think there is a built in curiosity that wants to know what was going on behind the scenes, in their relationship, in their business.

I don’t know if you know this, Desilu produced Star Trek, Mission: Impossible. Desi invented this three camera system. They used to edit on film on these machines called cams, and they developed a three reel cam so that they could sync the footage. I mean, they had all of these amazing innovations.

But I would say, for me it was as much the journey of Aaron’s exploration as it was just recreating I Love Lucy. I think a mistake that people make with quote-unquote biopics is they mistake a life for a story. You see it all the time, and I’m not going to mention anything in particular, but every year there are several biopics and you get like, ah, here it comes. If you were writing a fictional story you wouldn’t put in their christening and college graduation, you know what I’m saying? Honing the story down to a dramatic tale is what’s appealing. And so for me, ultimately, you get the call that says someone’s doing an I Love Lucy movie, that could be interesting. You get the call that says Aaron Sorkin is doing an I Love Lucy movie and it’s a totally different thing for me.

KP: Yesterday I was talking to a friend about Being the Ricardos, which we don’t necessarily consider a biopic because it’s about something more than just one person, but in general we were talking about how these stories are so much more interesting when they are contained within a specific story or time.

JH: I don’t think of this as a biopic, it’s a week in the life, yeah. I talked about the complexity of the story… Here’s the thing, they were deeply in love. That scene where she calls Viv and Bill to the stage in the middle of the night to work out the staging and the timing of the dinner table scene and she has this monologue and she says, “I did this show to save my marriage. And I had this idea that I would just have the construction department build us this cute little home where we could be together.” That’s all she ever wanted and she said, “Now all I have to do to keep it is kill, kill every week for 36 weeks in a row. And then come back and do it again.”

That’s what the movie’s about. That’s what the stakes are about. And for me, that’s a story that I want to see and that I want to do. And so that for me, that’s the hook.

We Live Entertainment would like to thank Jon Hutman for speaking with us.

Being the Ricardos is now available to stream on Prime Video.

The film is eligible for Academy Awards in most categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Production Design, Costume Design, Cinematography, Original Score and Original Screenplay.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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