It doesn’t take a private eye to figure out that HBO’s stylish new Perry Mason looks very different than the series of the same name that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1966. Today’s Mason, starring Matthew Rhys as the detective turned lawyer, is a more rough and tumble affair; it tells the character’s origin story instead of relying on a crime-of-the-week formula and depicts a gritty, noirish, and altogether more fiendish world than Raymond Burr ever inhabited.
“I grew up with Perry Mason; when I was a kid, it was on TV all the time,” says John P. Goldsmith, the production designer for the HBO series. “But I knew going into our show that there was a certain style we wanted to showcase from 1930s Los Angeles, so carrying on the spirit of the original TV series was never a possibility.”
Instead, the series tells its own story—but not without a few key moments that discerning viewers might spot as clues to the world it inhabits. What are they and what do they mean?
When it came to the chilling murder at the heart of Perry Mason’s first season, Goldsmith and the show’s writers were quite literally on the same page. The designer and the writers alike referenced Tim Wride’s 2004 book Scene of the Crime: Photos from the LAPD Archive and found references to a fatal kidnapping—just like the one that takes place on screen.
The design team also looked to the collection of real-life crime-scene photos for visual inspiration. “For me, it was a really important reference, even if it was dark and heavy,” Goldsmith says. “There are crimes that are, if not flat out referenced on screen, at least in the background for our story—like the Lindbergh Baby. So, as a designer I was understanding where those things happened and what those places looked like.”
“We were all always interested in finding iconic locations to showcase Los Angeles in our time period,” Goldsmith says. “You’d walk into some and have that realization; this place is fantastic! But would be daunted by the prospect of stripping away everything that has happened between the 1920s when it was built and today.” When it came to creating an apartment for starlet Velma Fuller—whose exploits with a famous comedian in violation of a morality clause play out in the show’s first episode—the right location came with an appropriate Tinseltown heritage. “There’s a building in Hollywood called El Cabrillo,” Goldsmith says, “and when we went to look at the unit we ended up using for our scene, the owner told us that [legendary filmmaker] Cecil B. DeMille built the complex to house stage actors coming out from New York for his talkies. We were always looking for those coincidences; if your stylistic vision can be supported by a bit of history like that, it just locks it in.”
The British Are Coming
“The courtroom for me was always one of the most important sets to infuse with larger ideas,” Goldsmith says. “We wanted to express the idea that modernism was approaching.” The Mason team built the set on a soundstage—even if the real L.A. City Hall was used for hallway and exterior shots—to better control the space, however inspiration for the design ended up coming all the way from England. “There’s a place in London called Eltham Palace, which is exquisite,” Goldsmith says of the castle, which dates back to 1305 and is said to be where Henry VIII spent part of his childhood. “I drew a lot of our art-deco details from that palace and put them within the footprint we needed with the weight of a courtroom. So much of our drama takes place in that room, it had to be interesting.”
Location, Location, Location
The arrival of a new era doesn’t just play out in Perry Mason’s courtrooms but also where the characters live, especially police officer Paul Drake (played by Chris Chalk), a Black policeman who strains against his department’s corruption.
“When we were building a domestic interior for Drake and his wife, we were really looking to do something that wasn’t stereotypical or expected,” he says. “I had to get into my own research for what it was like for African American people in Los Angeles then. I found that there was what they call a ‘quiet migration’ of African Americans largely from the deep south coming to L.A. to a neighborhood that grew up on Central Avenue.”
The series puts the Drakes in this neighborhood, and places them among the city’s new generation of homeowners. “Here, we have Drake and his wife buying a home, giving them a pride of ownership,” Goldsmith says. “It’s not furnished the way Velma Miller’s place was, but they splurged and did wallpaper in some rooms, and there are pieces of good furniture and a radio. We wanted to have a place where domestic life was happening beautifully.”
Secrets in the Snow
When Goldsmith read a script that called for a lavish New Year’s Eve party held by a movie-studio tycoon, he knew it needed period elements to feel authentic, but wasn’t entirely sure where to start. That is until he visited Grosh, a Hollywood mainstay for rentals of backdrops. “They still have original backdrops that were painted for movies of the time,” he says, referring to the early 1930s when Mason takes place. “We were lucky enough to find six of them and stitch them together to create a kind of cyclorama for our party—giving it a grand entrance with snow and fake trees. Coming across that and knowing those backdrops were actually painted for movies being made during our period, it just felt like things had aligned.”
The backdrops did the heavy lifting of creating a glamorous, period-specific setting, even if nobody can remember exactly where they’ve been seen before. “I would have loved to know which movies they came from,” Goldsmith says, “but nobody still has the information.”
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