Set Decorator Jon Bush SDSA
Production Designer Clayton Hartley
Production Designer Richard Toyon
WINNING TIME: THE RISE OF THE LAKERS DYNASTY is a fast-break drama series that goes back in time to chronicle the professional and personal lives of the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, one of sports’ most revered and dominant dynasties. -HBO
Outrageous, outlandish, outside-the-box optimist Dr. Jerry Buss [John C. Reilly] plunges into ownership of the then faltering Los Angeles Lakers basketball team in the late 1970s, having never before been involved with professional sports. Bringing an outsider perspective and the attitude of “Why not?”, he envisioned basketball as entertainment not just “twelve tall guys in tennis shoes”, as his business partner despairingly describes. And thus begins what has become known as the Lakers’ “Showtime” era.
The series is as fast paced as the sport. Spanning the era, from the drafting of Magic Johnson in 1979 to his retirement in 1991 due to HIV, and diving into the relationships and incredibly complex behind-the-scenes maneuverings and situations, it’s a run that doesn’t stop! Which could serve as a metaphor for the production teams...except for a pandemic forced halt! But even that was temporary. Production Designer Richard Toyon stepped in to take over the series from pilot PD Clayton Hartley, with Set Decorator Jon Bush SDSA collaborating with both throughout, and then their teams went into full court press!
SETDECOR had a great, immersive conversation with Jon, which will make you want to go back and see the series again!
That’s a very good thing!*
Karen Burg, Editor
*Editor's note: No it is NOT your screen! The series and the images were shot in the warm grainy style of the times!
SETDECOR: Process & collaboration: How did you become involved in this series?
Set Decorator Jon Bush SDSA: I was lucky enough to be working for Clayton Hartley on another project when he was offered a pilot about the ‘Showtime’ era Lakers, which was being directed by Adam McKay. I hurled-leaped at the opportunity.
I’m a lifelong basketball fan and I became of age during this era so I really believed my personal connection would serve me in bringing these sets to life.
SD: What spoke to you about it?
JB: Max Borenstein’s writing really captured the exquisite pain it takes to dream. I think that’s something everyone in the film business can relate to, and for me, having only begun to set decorate in the past five years after twenty years as a Leadman, I felt a personal tether. It’s scary and painful walking into [IATSE Union] Local 44 and signing a piece of paper that says I can’t go back to leading! But it was my dream.
The Forum, Owner’s Suite: Former owner Jack Kent Cooke’s suite was in green leather, conservative and patrician. Dr. Jerry Buss brings both the present and the future with him. We see the Owner’s Suite transform into a contemporary and hip environment. Photo by Todd Banhazl/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
SD: You began the series/pilot in 2019 with PD Clayton Hartley, tell us about the approach you two took...
JB: Clayton’s experience and wisdom allows him to project a confidence that’s contagious. He’s an easy natured soul, a positive supporter and I felt we worked well together to find the heart of each set. I believe our aim was to balance accuracy and authenticity with humor and imagination.
I try to approach any set as an anthropologist. Humans are fascinating. I love spending time in an environment imagining the characters that inhabit it. My wife complains that I’m a terrible interior designer because what really excites me has little to do with style and everything to do with people and their stories. But hey, it’s like Picasso said, “Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
On this show the Set Dec Department had a wonderful opportunity to shine, but honestly the best feeling is when you believe your set gives your collaborators the ability to inhabit the environment.
The Forum, Owner’s Suite. Set Decorator Jon Bush SDSA notes, “...the best feeling is when you believe your set gives your collaborators the ability to inhabit the environment.” Pictured: John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, Stephen Adly Guirgis as his business partner Frank Mariani. Photo by Todd Banhazl/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
SD: COVID forced a long hiatus and then PD Richard Toyon stepped in, and you began filming in April of last year. Please tell us about bringing this about with Richard and your teams!
JB: I was beyond grateful Rich brought me back to complete the first season. He is sincerely such a joy to work for because he’s a true artist. He’s passionate (about both film and basketball!) and he’s a native Angeleno with great instincts in general, but especially for this story. He welcomes ideas and allows you to feel a genuine sense of collaboration, and I am always learning from him.
I was also very thankful the vast majority of our team from the pilot wanted to join us in the series. Whew!
SD: Please tell us about your collaboration on this huge undertaking...with the DP, Costume, Props...Your teams...
JB: Todd Banhazl, our Supervising Director of Photography, is a dream for any decorator. He welcomed a dynamic approach embracing things that often would be out of the question. Whether patterned fabrics, unexpected color choices or mirrored surfaces, he perpetually turned challenge into opportunity, and not only that, he did it with grace and subtlety.
I was extremely fortunate to have an all-star team and, together, we decorated two hundred sets from the forties to the seventies. Everyone brought enthusiasm to the project. Kate Fettis and Katy Shirey were our Buyers for both the pilot and the series. Erika Rice joined us as an Assistant Set Decorator and Amanda Bromberg and Andrea Aidekman were additional Buyers during the season.
Rick Staves, our Leadman and resident miracle worker, was able to orchestrate our fifty-plus Set Dressers and ten Drivers with efficiency humor and grace. He attracted a team that was an embarrassment of riches — our Gang Bosses were almost all leads.
Bruce Seymour was our eyes and ears on set. It’s rare to have an On-Set Dresser with instincts as sharp as his, and even better, he’s a great defender of the set. His head is in the game and he takes enormous pride in ensuring every frame is inspired and on point.
It was also an enormous pleasure working with Karen Higgins, our Construction Coordinator. So often when I found myself not able to source a key item, Karen would save the day by creating it.
The Forum...Set Decorator Jon Bush SDSA and his core team!
SD: How did the different styles/approaches/perspectives of the various directors impact the set decoration needs/directions? Obviously, Adam McKay set a tone!
JB: Adam McKay definitely set a tone: smart, sharp, stylish and sexy. And it’s always amazing to see the unique perspectives that various directors bring to set, but of course we were lucky enough to have our ever-hard-working Showrunner Max Borenstein, the throughline keeping taut the soul of the show. We were also extremely fortunate to have Producers like Scott Stephens and Peter Feldman, who understood the job at hand and gave us the support we needed to complete our seemingly Herculean tasks...and the continual support of everyone at HBO.
SD: These are contemporary sports heroes, so obviously there is much visual research available on the Lakers of the ‘80s, but since this was an “unauthorized bio”, you didn’t have direct access to their home life...but what were you able to glean?
JB: Luckily most of the principals involved either wrote an autobiography or have been extensively written about by others. The entire project is based on Showtime by Jeff Pearlman, which of course was a tremendous resource and served as our bible.
However, we weren’t NBA or Laker authorized and had no direct contact with the Buss family, which meant we threw ourselves into intensely researching and relying on the actual words of the primary characters in order to represent them as faithfully in spirit as possible.
Lakers locker room...Quincy Isaiah, Solomon Hughes as Magic Johnson & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jason Segel as Coach Paul Westhead addressing the team. Photos by Warrick Page/HBO [top] & Todd Banhazl/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
SD: Again, how many sets in this series? It moves at such a fast pace, much like the Lakers’ Showtime team, it’s a whirl of sets!
JB: I lost count at two hundred sets. Most of the time we were juggling about eight to ten. The scale was akin to working on a giant tentpole picture, except for ten episodes in a row. My experience as a Lead on huge productions paid off, and again, I was extremely fortunate to have an all-star crew.
SD: Please tell us about 29 weeks for 9 episodes!
JB: It was a marathon. The pace never let up, and expectations, reasonably so, were extremely high. Fortunately, I love showing up each day, being in the present and meeting what feels impossible. That’s one of the best things about getting to be a set decorator.
SD: Were you shooting in more than one place simultaneously?
JB: Oh, yeah. Some days we had three separate shooting locations, while prepping the next three for the following day, also dressing on stage and continuing to scout future episodes.
SD: Looking at characters’ homes give us insights, whether about their background story, or visual clues to what they are “today”. In this series, we see the childhood homes of several great athletes.
Please tell us about delving into the past for Magic Johnson’s family home in Michigan, Jerry West’s childhood home in 1950’s West Virginia, Kareem Abdul Jabbar's childhood in Harlem, when he was known by his birth name Lew Alcindor...and later, we can briefly visit Pat Riley's equally impactful early home life...
JB: Magic Johnson’s childhood home is very near to my heart. I definitely identify with a large, vibrant, working class, tight-knit family, sharing a bedroom and a value system much like what you see in the Johnson home. I remember what it felt like to be in that kind of home, dreaming of something great that might be in store.
Johnson family home. Magic Johnson’s mother, Christine, in red, who would tell you his name is Earvin, not Magic...and the Johnson family [inset]. Photos by Warrick Page/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
We tried to tell the story, in part, via walls adorned with religious, political and basketball idols. Dr J, Martin Luther King Jr, The Jackson Five, and of course Magic’s prized Presidential Fitness Awards and the net from the NCAA tournament he’s just won.
Also, we wanted Magic’s room to be one that he outgrows. The lights were on chains and artwork was lowered to give the feeling that it’s time to be pressing on beyond these walls.
The adult Jerry West’s pool room is about all that haunts him. We bring back elements from his childhood home like that 48-star flag that was on top of his brother’s casket, his All Star jerseys, awards, plaques...all meant to evoke the torture and depression he feels as a coach meant to be doing something else.
Jerry West’s childhood home illustrated how his early loss instilled his great desire to prove himself. We tried to honor Jerry’s autobiography by representing it with his treasured objects like the 48-star flag that adorned his brother’s casket to the homemade backboard he used to develop himself into a future great. Photo by Todd Banhazl/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
Lew Alcindor’s home signifies his path to becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His parents were conservative Catholics, his father a transit policeman and jazz musician, but he grew up in the turbulent sixties. His bedroom features his early passions that contrast with his origins: books that were important to him, a budding obsession with jazz, his educational certificates.
Hanfi Mosque, 1960s, where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor, receives his new name. Inset: The young Lew and his parents in their Harlem, NY home. Photos by Warrick Page/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
One set I’m quite proud of is the Hanafi Mosque. For this, we transformed a Pasadena Elks Lodge into a 1960’s Harlem mosque at the height of the civil rights era. It was, of course, critical to us to authentically and respectfully represent Kareem’s Islamic faith, and this huge moment of transformation in his life. A sparse environment with only essential elements—the writings of Mohammad on the wall, the athan clock signaling Muslim prayer times, the minbar—allowed for Kareem inhabit the space.
SD: Which leads us to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's home during the Lakers 'Showtime' era…
JB: As Kareem’s faith evolves, and his life transforms, his environment does too. By the time we meet him amid the Showtime era, he’s fully immersed in his Muslim faith and has amassed a collection of Turkish rugs, Korans and one of the finest vinyl Jazz collections in the world.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles home offers refuge from being stared at, poked and prodded by a white world that probably never really understood him and often saw him as a non-conformist provocateur. Solomon Hughes. Photos by Todd Banhazl/HBO, Warrick Page/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also very funny, genuine and warm, and I hoped his home would reflect that. I wanted it to be comfortable for someone of his stature, so I sought out low slung furniture, hassocks and thick pile rugs and embraced inviting earth tones, rusts, golds and browns. Photo by Todd Banhazl/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
SD: You continue to delve deeply into conveying the personal lives of the characters in their homes of the 1980s storyline, particularly Dr. Jerry Buss and his mother, Jessie...and the troubled basketball great Spencer Haywood, eventual coaches Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead, Pat Riley. Here, and in the accompanying galleries, we see just glimpses of sets that immediately reveal character, time and place. Please give us some inside notes on these!
JB: For Dr. Jerry Buss, the unifying approach to all of his sets was: seduction. He wants to make you comfortable and to disarm you. For his introduction, the opening scene at the Playboy Mansion, we pulled out all the stops, creating a canopied nine-foot diameter waterbed on a rotating base complete with two-inch shag carpet to establish the spirit of the era, and Dr. Buss, himself.
[Editor’s note: See photo at end of the gallery!]
In all his sets that follow, you’ll find a bar, a stereo and comfortable furniture, like his chocolate sofa. But, you can also often see the kid in him, so he’s got jars of candy. And collections! A coin collection, a stamp collection...and...a book chronicling all the women he’s known. Dr Buss was quite the dichotomy.
I wanted Jessie Buss’s home to tell not only her story as mother of Dr Jerry Buss, but their story. The home was purchased by Jerry, and the look was a bit vintage Hollywood glamour along with that ‘80s Asian-modern decor, pastels and geometric shapes, but we juxtaposed it with a very traditional clunky wood roll top desk where she did her accounting for Jerry. Sally Field as Jessie Buss with Hadley Robinson as her granddaughter Jeanie. Photo by Mihai Malaimare Jr/HBO. Courtesy of HBO.
Spencer Haywood’s home was meant to reflect the crisis and conflicts he felt as a man. The place doesn’t all quite go together. He was married to supermodel Iman, and we wanted the home to feel very designed, like everything was hip and sourced in Europe, but interspersed with objects reflecting Spencer’s connection to his modest roots and his Black pride — all decorated into a 1940’s Spanish style bungalow in Los Angeles.
Basketball great Spencer Haywood’s designer den, sadly, became the setting for much drug abuse. Courtesy of Jon Bush/HBO.
[Editor’s note: For more photos of the personal spaces for key players, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!]
SD: The workplace “home” for many of these characters, certainly for the Lakers team and staff, was the Forum. Please tell us about set decoration for the Forum sets of the 'Showtime' era.
JB: We had no access at all to the actual Forum, and every set contained within it was built on a stage including the arena itself, all seating, offices, locker rooms, tunnels and The Forum Club.
For The Forum Arena set, it was an enormous challenge to find stadium chairs from the sixties, but I was able to source about 500 from a theater in Chicago. They were disassembled and shipped to LA for reassembly, cleaning and painting. The period hoops came from a collector in upstate New York. An additional 200+ folding chairs came from the same vendor the Lakers used back in New Jersey and were built to order. We had working vintage 24-second clocks, microphones, scoreboard, controllers, PA system, typewriters...and, of course, ashtrays!
The Forum, home arena of the Los Angeles Lakers. Inset below: The same setting with clever changeover to become Boston Garden! Pictured: John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss, owner, Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach, famed coach of the Boston Celtics. Photo by Warrick Page/HBO. Courtesy of HBO. Inset [below] courtesy of Jon Bush.
The set we used created for The Forum Arena is the same stage we used for five other arenas, so I was challenged to innovate a way to very quickly, efficiently and believably transform it as needed. How? Well, jersey knit pillowcases, as it turns out! It’s funny how the simplest things are so often the best solution. So, when you see The Forum, you’re looking at real seats, which we painted yellow. Then, when you see Boston Garden, for example, we simply used scarlet red pillowcases to “reupholster” the seats. It saved more than $25,000 per changeover, and you can’t tell the difference, especially once people are sitting in them.
The tunnels are used numerous times for walk and talks, and signal transition. We built over 120-feet of tunnels, complete with thousands of feet of pipes, conduit, speakers, fluorescent lighting and paint, perpetually changing to stand in for various arenas.
The locker rooms were a collaboration with Costumes and Property. Each player’s locker was unique and reflected the character. I geeked out on the detail here. Things like getting my set dressers to tape their ankles, then cut it off just as you do at the end of the game, and it told a story as opposed to just a tape ball on the floor.
The coaches offices were all about clutter and scavenging. Assistant coaches were not held in high regard, so we created, essentially, big closets crammed with old seats, clocks, mops, etc...and imagined Westhead and Riley would need to “borrow” what they needed, be it a lamp or a beta max.
Also, game planning was done in these offices, so I worked with our basketball advisor to develop scouting reports for every opponent of the Lakers, and we see these on the chalkboards in these offices, as well as the locker rooms.
[Editor’s note: For more photos of the Forum, from tunnels to coaches’ offices, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!]
SD: You obviously had many location sets, which sets were key stage builds? (3-walls?)
JB: Key stage builds were The Forum (which includes the stadium itself, all seating, all offices, locker rooms, tunnels and The Forum Club), and Jessie Buss’s penthouse. There were a bunch of smaller swing sets, but really most else was location shooting. Every set was 4 walls.
SD: Palettes -- which were the most significant?
JB: The palette for the ‘70s was harvest gold and avocado greens, with copper, burnt oranges and browns...colors that were secondary, rooted in earthiness. So, the shift in palette for flashback work became important as a distinguishing element. If we were in the ‘40s and ‘50s, we embraced prominent colors of those periods, often a remnant of the depression, everything becoming weathered, worn and brought way down.
However, a counter example is that Todd, our brilliant DP, chose to use an infrared film stock for a flashback to when Spencer Haywood was born in Mississippi. It captures invisible infrared light from the red end of the spectrum and creates this wonderful dreamy pink effect. But that meant making very deliberate choices on set, such as eliminating faux green vegetation in favor of all live greens, because they really pick up that pinkluminescence, unlike plastic.
SD: What sets were the greatest challenge?
JB: I honestly think if your head is in the game, every set offers its own unique challenge. For me, it’s always about mining for the humane possibilities, so I try to approach the small stuff the same way I approach the big stuff. Who created this space? Who inhabits it? How does an environment naturally tell the story?
However, on a practical and logistical level, The Forum Offices were a particular challenge simply because the pilot was rental-only and we had to re-source and purchase everything in every one of the spaces. Ocotillo Lodge, the Palm Springs training camp, was tough simply for the scale...oh, and Happy Shoes, because I had to find 500 period-correct new shoes!
[Editor’s note: For photos of these and many of the other unique sets, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!]
SD: Any surprises?
JB: Literally everything was a surprise! We didn’t have shooting scripts on all the episodes until after we began filming, we never fully knew what the future held. So, that keeps you in the present and always finding natural ways for new key scripted items to be woven into existing sets.
SD: What were you glad to have in your back pocket for this?!!!
JB: On a practical level, my experience as a Leadman, which taught me to stay calm amid the storm, as well as all kinds of other stuff, like, for example, don’t trust the shooting schedule, because it’s always going to change...secure anchor pieces for every set for block shooting on day one because that way when they change the schedule, you’d have a solid starting point and an approved look. But again, it’s a constant learning process.
SD: Your key resources that particularly came through?
JB: Our LA vendors are truly the best. We’re so lucky to work in a town where people take genuine pride in their craft and in being a part of something we all love.
I have absolutely no idea what I would have done without Robert Greenfield, Director of Property at Warner Brothers, Andy Smith at Warner Brothers Drapery, and Allan Songer at Omega Cinema Props. They are simply the best of the best. Also utterly invaluable were History for Hire, Modernica, Advanced Liquidators, Sandy Rose Floral, U-Frame It and Chairish.
Our SDSA Business Members were an immense resource, not just for all they have to offer in the way of getting your set created, but for their wisdom. I was able to ask all kinds of questions and, more than once, I found the honest answer to be one that helped me more than them. SDSA Business Members are definitely my go-to.
SD: Anything you’d like to say as an SDSA Set Decorator member?
JB: I’m very grateful to be a part of the SDSA community. I’m always learning, and as a relatively new set decorator, being able to reach out to people like Rosemary Brandenburg, Jan Pascale and Halina Siwolop, all of whom have been so generous in their support and in sharing their wisdom, is a true gift.