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How ‘Armageddon Time’ Production Designer Used Steam and Period Pics to Revisit the ’80s

Making “Armageddon Time” proved both a gift and weirdly traumatizing for director James Gray, who revisited his old New York City stomping grounds for the Focus Features release arriving in theaters next month.

One of Gray’s most personal films yet, it loosely follows his experiences as a student at the private Kew-Forest School in Queens during the 1980s. While Gray could not shoot in his childhood home — the current owners didn’t grant filming permission — it didn’t stop neighborhood friends from coming out to see him when he toured the area. “It felt like a gift,” Gray says of those interactions.

But his warm feelings faded in the editing bay. “When I saw the footage, it was oddly disturbing and weirdly traumatizing,” he says. “I don’t know why I had a different reaction.”

The filmmaker was surprised at the little things that had changed — like the fixtures at the Guggenheim Museum — and worked closely with production designer Happy Massee on the re-creation of his family home for the movie. “Armageddon Time” centers on 11-year-old Paul (Banks Repeta), whose British-Jewish grandfather, portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, had moved to the house after WWII.

Aged wallpaper, photographs, wood paneling and classic furniture evoked the past, while a Tiffany-style chandelier brought in a ’70s feel on top of the earlier eras.

“James’ family and a lot of people in that community had homes that stretched for 20 to 30 years without any change,” Massee says.

To give the living room walls the proper flavor, he steamed them. “I didn’t want it to just feel musty, but small and tight,” Massee says.

He also wanted to show how Paul, his parents, Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), and his immigrant grandfather crowded people into their home for family gatherings and dinners.

Consulting closely with Gray, Massee decorated Paul’s bedroom with photos of key historical figures of the period. Muhammad Ali was a hero of Gray’s, and in 1980, he lost a big fight with Larry Holmes. Two months later, John Lennon was gunned down.

“You got the sense the ’70s was a hangover from the ’60s,” Gray says. “The death of Lennon and the loss by Ali felt like the end of the ’60s for good, and the door had been slammed. They were iconic figures of a period ending very rapidly.”

The recreated home featured a TV with a thick tube as opposed to the modern-day flat screen, and light switches that flipped up and down. “It gives you a window into a transition in history from the postwar period into this hypercapitalist transition before the internet explosion,” Gray says.

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