Go backBack to selection

Behind Closed Doors: Production Designer Kevin Thompson on Maestro

Two women sing as a man conducts a full orchestra behind them in a church.Isabel Leonard, Rosa Feola and Bradley Cooper in Maestro (Photo by Jason McDonald, courtesy of Netflix)

In making Maestro, his magisterial portrait of Leonard Bernstein, Bradley Cooper set out to explore the life of the legendary American conductor and composer through the lens of his complicated relationship with wife Felicia Montealegre, which lasted from the 1940s until her death in 1978. Depicting their love story across four decades, two engagements and three children, Cooper—who directed, co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the biopic—often approached Maestro “as if he was conducting a musical symphony,” according to production designer Kevin Thompson. 

Envisioning its story in movements, Cooper opted for period shifts in color and black-and-white (both in a 1.33 aspect ratio, though the film’s prelude is in 1.85), denoting time’s passage through textures, silhouettes and color palettes rather than more conventional signifiers. “We discussed the idea of lyrically moving through the decades and stopping at key points in their relationship,” says Thompson, who knew that historical accuracy would prove essential to this emotionally intimate approach, which encompassed the couple’s 27-year marriage as well as the affairs with both men and women Bernstein had throughout. Bringing audience members inside the couple’s romance, he says, required the art department to fully capture “the educated artistry of their lives,” recreating Bernstein’s rarefied milieu in meticulous detail while tracing its intersection with his art and identity.

Maestro shot scenes of Bernstein conducting in the performance spaces he was most associated with, including Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood and London’s Ely Cathedral, where the production recreated a famous recording of Bernstein exuberantly conducting Mahler’s second symphony, “Resurrection,” at an especially critical time in his marriage. Notably, the film’s opening in a Manhattan studio apartment finds a 25-year-old Bernstein roused from his slumber by the call that would change his life—asking him to conduct the New York Philharmonic, with a few hours’ notice and without rehearsal, to fill in for an ailing Bruno Walter. He bounds out of bed, through the door and down a corridor, magically finding himself on the proscenium. To move from one location to the other in one continuous shot, the production built a hallway and linked it to the actual Carnegie Hall, filming the sequence with a large crane that appears to send the camera soaring through the ceiling before it swings out over Carnegie Hall’s balcony. 

For Thompson, nothing compared to filming inside the Bernsteins’ actual Fairfield, Connecticut estate, which has remained in the family since the couple purchased it in 1962. With the cooperation of their three adult children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, who inherited the house after Bernstein’s death in 1990, Cooper and Thompson visited the residence and found, to their delight, that it looked “remarkably close” to how it had when the couple lived there. “The children had kept it like a museum,” Thompson recalls. Needlepoint pillows made by Montealegre, an artist and actress, still adorned the sofa where she’d left them, and her paintings, hand-restored lamps and wicker chairs were prominently displayed throughout the house. Family photos still covered the refrigerator, and personal scrapbooks were close at hand, while the Steinway baby grand piano in the living room was Bernstein’s own, a gift from the childhood piano teacher who later became his secretary. Maestro opens with an aged Bernstein playing this baby grand, cigarette in hand. 

“They had a public life that was really well-documented, and a private life we were let in on by being close to the children,” Thompson explains. “Being able to explore the Connecticut house, which had so many intimate details in it, could inform everything else in the movie.” Before filming, they reupholstered the living room couch and brought in new rugs, bedding and curtains for the Bernsteins’ bedroom, but other decor, like the bedroom’s print wallpaper, was left intact. To recreate Bernstein’s main composing studio, since remodeled as an apartment with a galley kitchen and modern furniture, Thompson turned to Indiana University, where Bernstein’s children donated many of its original contents, from a stand-up composing table and an ashtray to a piece of the Berlin Wall which Bernstein had chiseled off and sent back to New York while in Germany to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. 

Of the music studio where Maestro at one point shows Bernstein composing Mass, Thompson says, “He had around him pictures of his favorite composers and people that brought him inspiration. I think he loved to sit there, with the doors open next to the piano, and look out at nature. And he had a very comfortable couch he laid down on when he would think about what he was writing.” 

One revelation Thompson had in Fairfield was that, though the Bernsteins mixed and mingled with New York’s cultural and intellectual elite, “they lived comfortably and without pretension,” especially at home with their children. As Bernstein’s star rose, the Fairfield country retreat was where they could escape their lives as public figures; if the couple chose to showcase any of the awards either had garnered, they would always be tucked into bookcases, not on display. “Even when they had fame and wealth, there was a simplicity and a roughness to their style,” says Thompson. “Though they lived grand lives and had fancy friends, their homes were expressive of their lives together.”

For sections of Maestro set at the Bernsteins’ apartment at the Dakota, a German Renaissance–style apartment building full of terracotta panels and balconies, Thompson took on the challenge of interpreting what it might have been like for the family to reside in one of the Upper West Side’s most exclusive buildings.
In the second half of the film, the apartment plays host to one of the Bernsteins’ lavish parties and is the site of a Thanksgiving day fight between Leonard and Felicia that culminates in a stinging recrimination—and the punchline of a large Snoopy head that was part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving’s Day Parade floating by the window. (The period balloon was a CGI element, though Thompson ensured it was accurate to the height of the apartment and the street. He calls the shadow cast over the room as the float went by “a beautiful and successful moment for visual effects.”)

“As you can probably guess, you can’t shoot in the Dakota,” notes Thompson. Instead, the production recreated the Bernsteins’ second-floor apartment on a soundstage. Fortunately, Cooper had already met the building’s new owner and even had lunch there one Thanksgiving weekend to watch the parade. That connection allowed Thompson to organize a site visit with the art directors. “Not only was I able to measure key scale items, like the unbelievable woodworking of the fireplaces, the moldings around the doors, the windows and the radiators, but I could also measure ceiling heights and scales of rooms to get the scale of the space correct,” he recalls. 

Even more crucial was a day Thompson and Cooper spent walking through the apartment discussing the sequences set there. “We made subtle, nuanced adjustments to the layout,” he says, widening openings and altering the position of certain archways to provide more access for the camera. “It was in that moment, when we were walking and discussing what would work best for the film, and he was describing to me what he needed—how far away the bedroom should be, and how it should have two windows with a wall between them—that I also gained the ability to think about it in terms of filmmaking and not just getting the design right.”

Thompson sourced specific pieces for the Dakota apartment, such as a Dowd double manual harpsichord and a hanging lamp in the study that were duplicated from reference photos, and was able to incorporate other recognizable family possessions, such as Bernstein’s 7-foot, 4-inch Bösendorfer grand piano (his “B-52”), around which the couple often performed piano duets for guests. “Not everything is from one year; it’s from that year and the past,” Thompson notes. “I was careful to try to carry through details from each apartment into the next one, so that it became additive and each place would feel as though it had its own history but that the history was always with them.”

Across two years of preparation before filming, a protracted period made possible by the pandemic delaying production, Cooper and Thompson traded research material back and forth, poring over videos and stills of Bernstein at home, including a 1955 Edward R. Murrow Person to Person interview conducted in the Bernsteins’ Osborne apartment (which the film partially restages). Both men leapt at the chance to immerse themselves in the various periods the film was to depict, hoping to intuitively understand how the Bernsteins’ world evolved over the course of their lives. “I was able to create that foundation and get to know the different eras from 1943 to 1989,” Thompson says. “Then, at a certain point, I was able to take that and store it in myself, trusting myself to make correct decisions about what each year was going to look like. I owe a lot of the success of the shoot to that prep period.”

It helped that Thompson had a personal connection to Maestro as well, having been introduced to Bernstein through the Young People’s Concerts he conducted with the New York Philharmonic, which were televised starting in 1962. “He is responsible for me having an appreciation for classical music, because I was enthralled with how he could explain it and how he could talk about the emotion of the music,” says Thompson. “It was really fulfilling to be digging into his life and world and to have that as motivation every day.”

Thompson and others in Maestro’s art department worked closely with Cooper, costume designer Mark Bridges and director of photography Matthew Libatique, photographing various props and set elements to see how they would translate to black-and-white. “We noticed that certain midtones would all look the same, and certain colors would turn to black that we wouldn’t have guessed,” Thompson says. “We had very specific color charts that we divided between all the departments, so we could know what was going to react to what and what was going to look like what.” With the black-and-white sequences, Thompson emphasized texture and contrast, “ensuring the audience could feel the fabrics happening in the moment,” before focusing on color palettes he knew would stand out once the film reached the ’70s and shifted into color. 

Pursuing such authenticity of detail was an expressive exercise for Thompson, who knew how much of the Bernsteins’ lives could be conveyed through their surroundings. “They both had an appreciation of art and politics, of all the things that a New York cultured person would bring into their individual lives but also into their marriage: the people they hung out with and socialized with, and were excited by,” he says. “Because they were creative and passionate, and because they were both curious, I think they explored a lot of things together.”

Thompson says that passion and curiosity most connected Maestro’s director, co-writer, and star to his subject. “Bradley was very much like Bernstein,” he explains. “He was incredibly energetic, knew a lot about everybody and was the conductor of our movie, in all its different sections. He understood my department really well. To have a director who understood that closely and was able to put the time in to work things out with you made [the experience] completely stress-free. He made everybody better.”

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham