These Films Nailed 70s Production Design

Christina Newland
Diary of a Teenage Girl.

This month sees the release of Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s blunt coming-of-age tale set in San Francisco circa 1976. Bel Powley stars as 15-year-old Minnie, recording her thoughts on tape after a series of sexual encounters — beginning with her mother’s boyfriend. Diary is nonjudgmental, tied to an adolescence which belongs wholly to the laissez-faire 1970s. Minnie and her best friend take turns licking a poster of Iggy Pop and live in their bell-bottoms. Only in the 70s.

The integrity of any period film’s costume + production design is vital, but after the signpost disco music and OTT fancy dress of a film like American Hustle, it’s easy to see how directors get it so terribly wrong. Done right, great production design can reveal both the aesthetic high points and missteps of an era. Frankly, after seeing the curated artistry and historical precision of Diary of a Teenage Girl not to mention latter-season Mad Men — it’s easy to be unimpressed by half-witted attempts. So here are some of the films that nail 70s production design.


The latest in the X-Men franchise sees a convoluted plot involving time travel and two versions of every major character, young and old. The older bunch travel back to 1974 to find that mutants are being drafted into the Vietnam War and Magneto has been arrested for the JFK assassination. For a superhero movie, Days of Future Past has a surprising amount of historical nuance. It even deftly nods to the era’s politics, dealing with Nixon and the Paris Peace Talks. Just as importantly, the film is judicious in its use of polyester and sideburns.


Lee’s hothouse drama imagines paranoia and fear in NYC during the summer of ’76 — a summer known for mass blackouts, race riots, Studio 54, and most of all, for a serial killer stalking the streets known as the ‘Son of Sam’. With typical aplomb and primary colour, Lee shows the subcultures and ethnicities of New York nightlife existing in uncomfortable parallel. Also, keep an eye out for John Leguizamo’s massive Tony Manero collars.


A very different kind of 70s is under the lens in the 2011 adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy novel — the bland British kind. In many respects, Alfredson’s grey, lived-in production design looks as shabby as it may have done in the immediate post-war years. Shooting was partially located in Hungary, but many interiors were shot in run-down London hotels and old army barracks — giving a drab, realistic antithesis to the glamorous fantasy of Cold-War era MI5.


Paul Thomas Anderson must be fascinated with 1970s California; his Boogie Nights was set in the outlandish world of LA porn, with a wardrobe that should have been a capsule collection. But Inherent Vice is also set in California — albeit in the fictional town of Gordita Beach at the dawn of the decade. The film feels dipped in sea salt, patchouli, and a heavy plume of pot smoke. For capturing a sun-drenched end-of-the-60s feel, Anderson hired production designer David Crank, who had also worked on The Master. The pair collaborated to achieve an otherworldly, feverish feel — and the film’s tapestry of hippies, bikers, and squares is evocative in a beautifully heightened way.


Beginning in 1977, Soderbergh’s HBO movie captures Liberace’s decadent inner sanctum, all sparkling costumes and flamboyant interiors. Matt Damon is cleverly postured as a David Cassidy-type pretty boy — all feathered hair and leather jacket — who undergoes a series of cosmetic surgeries at the behest of his famous lover. If the plush apartment isn’t enough to satisfy, the couple’s colour-coordinated style should be; from double-breasted linen suits to rhinestone-encrusted speedos, pretty much everything in the film is eye-popping. 


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