The Deuce ended its season Sunday with a five-star episode. The show captured the porn scene of ’70s Times Square with remarkable atmosphere and accuracy, partly thanks to its production designer: Beth Mickle, who “provides a look of authenticity,” Vulture wrote after the season premiere, “but also an indefinable raw edge to every storefront and dark corner, as if danger or opportunity could be hiding anywhere.”
Beth Mickle’s hometown couldn’t be further from the urban grit of Forty-Deuce, where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy plied her trade. After 18 years in Harlem, she now lives in trendy Hudson, in a mid-century farmhouse overlooking the Catskill Mountains, complete with white shaggy rugs and cabin-like rooms.
When Mickle began set design for The Deuce last year, she and the show’s creators wanted to do the best of Scorsese. “Like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, you want to feel like you were in that apartment with Robert De Niro or on the street with Jodi Foster,” Mickle told B+B. To set the scene for the grimy drama, she used glitzy neon signs, bad floral wallpaper, drab bedrooms, pay-by-the-hour hotels and old-school diners.
“We knew we didn’t want it to feel Disneyfied,” she said, “we just wanted it to be gritty, real and nothing should feel placed.” That meant a lot of layering, finding objects from 1910 or wallpaper from the 1950s. “One of the biggest mistakes period designers make is that they are so focused on the year that they’re doing – like only 1971 – everything in the set is from ’70 or ’71. People forget that we keep things for years, decades.”
Laurence Bennett, who took over from Mickle on The Deuce when she left to pursue a studio film in London, adds they tried to “honor, with as much visual and emotional accuracy as possible, the textures and vibe of the time and place.”
Mickle claims she’s “not very computer literate,” so she did a lot of drawing by hand. “My version of cut and paste is I take a piece of paper and cut out a lamp and then put it on top, get a bit of red lipstick and there’s the light.”
But as we walked along Warren Street, Hudson’s main drag, Mickle’s attention to detail and eye for style were wholly apparent. Antique shops dominate the strip; coffee shops rival Brooklyn’s; and vintage stores, farm shops and design studios are all perfectly curated. We passed a shop with furniture laying out on the street and Mickle pointed to some brushed gold side tables and lifted up a chair. “These are great,” she said. “I’m into a mid-century organic aesthetic.”
Collecting furniture and objects from thrift stores, yard sales and flea markets all over New York, with the occasional purchase from eBay, Mickle established the ultimate ’70s prop closet for The Deuce, heading down some “internet rabbit holes” in her research for the show. She was inspired by Pinterest as well as magazines, furniture catalogues, history archives, and old movies. “Midnight Cowboy was such a good reference from top to bottom,” she said, “Jon Voight walking through Times Square in the nighttime was perfect for us.”)
“We had to be really scrappy,” she added. “The Deuce was actually really low budget for the most part, it was what we would consider a limited D movie, like a 10 million range.”
To recreate the streets where the pimps and prostitutes conduct their business, Mickle scouted over 35 locations across New York’s five boroughs. But “a million factors made it really tricky,” she said. “The scale of Times Square and 42nd Street is just phenomenal. Not much exists like that in New York. It’s six lanes, twenty-two foot wide sidewalks and everything is very robust. Plus, there was no construction with scaffolding then and no trees. Somewhere would hit all the marks but then it would have a giant Foot Locker or a Victoria Secret.”
In the end she found Times Square on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, between 164th and 166th Street; after 15 years as a production designer, “nothing has been more exciting than that.”
Mickle started production design by accident when she was “one of four people,” studying art at Columbia University. Her brother Jim Mickle, who is one year older, was at NYU Tisch studying directing and would bring Beth in to design his sets. “I was the art girl,” she says. “I was 18, 19, 20, doing all these movies and getting to meet all these filmmakers.”
“There was this cinematographer who worked with my brother and he was going off to do his first movie, Maximum Genius, after my junior year. I did it for free, worked my ass off and the movie did really well. The director ended up in Sundance Lab with the directors of Half Nelson, which was Ryan [Gosling]’s first big film.”
Mickle was later brought in as the production designer on Half Nelson, which won Gosling the Best Actor Academy Award nomination and the pair have collaborated on several projects since. These include Drive, which “I thought was either the best thing I’ve ever seen or the worst thing,” and Only God Forgives, which they filmed in Bangkok.
In 2014, Damien Chazelle asked if she wanted to design the set for Whiplash, at the same time she’d been offered a big studio movie with Will Smith and Margot Robbie. This is her biggest regret. “It was the first time in my career I didn’t do the indie movie, and it’s such a shame because he’s been really loyal and is working with the same people. He went on to do La La Land and I can’t even watch it now.”
Whatever the project, production design is one of those jobs few people give credit to, but they’re the ones who dream up, draw up and imagine everything – even a New York that everyone else said was lost.