When considering comic/dramatic arenas for athletic women in action, professional wrestling doesn’t exactly leap to the fore. One of the few precursors is Robert Aldrich’s All the Marbles (1981), a film whose premise can only work if viewers buy into the notion that wrestling is not a rigged game. But showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who became intrigued by a 2012 documentary about the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, have managed to deliver a compelling ensemble effort with GLOW. The Netflix series, about to debut its third season, focuses on floundering actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and ex-soap star (and ex-BFF to Ruth) Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) and the others in a group of eccentrics populating the fledgling lady-wrestling circuit, which is shakily overseen by washed-up filmmaker Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). The SoCal-based GLOW offers a sometimes-pointed look at the state of female empowerment in the decade after women’s liberation first took hold.
Production designer Todd Fjelsted, who shared Emmy honors for the show’s first season with art director Harry E. Otto and set decorator Ryan Watson, has been abetted by set designers Cate Bangs, Jean Harter, Glenn Williams and Morgan Lindsey Price. “Starting off, we found our best and most accurate period reference was the actual GLOW operation founded in 1986 by David McLane,” Fjelsted says. “We wanted to keep walking this strange, narrow line between kids/family entertainment and sexual exploitation of women, which the original kept circling. The show would be airing after cartoons! And, of course, today there are many resonances, since women are facing a lot of these same problems, so the situations they face can be both funny and relevant.”
Fjelsted cites the work done by other departments on the series as another inspiration. “When I see what each actor is going to be wearing, and the hair and makeup choices made, I start thinking more about how to dial in the setting for that scene. Costume designer Beth Morgan and I collaborate pretty closely, while hair and makeup do their jobs like magicians, producing these amazing creations. When the work is that good, you kind of let it come to the fore, and so I don’t choose to allow the set palette to compete with those bold character choices.”
It has been a struggle to find workable locations for a credible 1980s Southern California. “Working with location manager Ralph Coleman, I strive very hard to find period-specific shooting spots when possible,” he explains. “Very often, we wind up adding plug walls, painting things and changing wallpaper. Fixtures are the other issue. Anytime we’re in a kitchen or bathroom, we have to start practically from scratch. It’s hard to justify the time to switch everything out for a one-day shoot, but … well, that’s the show, and it requires authenticity.
“I love Stranger Things, but their treatment of the 80s is kind of playing in a ‘motif’ world that trades in familiarity,” he continues. “We do something that is very nearly opposite that, placing the girls in this place we hadn’t seen this way before. The Valley in L.A. in the 80s was not a luxurious place to be, and the grittiness of that really embellishes things. I like the way Boogie Nights looked. It had a believable quality despite some over-the-top aspects, giving the underbelly-of-city feel, so that was a consideration I kept in mind.”
The ladies’ base of operations is the Dusty Spur Motel, exteriors for which were handled at Sun Valley’s Pink Motel. “That location has been seen many times in TV shows, and I’ve used it before myself,” allows Fjelsted, “so I was initially a bit shy about going back there again. But they let us completely remodel it, adding neon, new landscaping and new paint, and we were able to flesh that out with what we created on stage, building various hotel rooms, hallways and the bar. We also had our own custom translights made, so when looking out through a door or window, you’d see across the courtyard. If you’re doing a religious allegory like The Handmaid’s Tale, then it makes perfect sense to blow out the windows with white light, but on GLOW, we like seeing what is outside, since it helps keep things from feeling too claustrophobic.”
Another key recurring setting is the arena where the ladies train. Exteriors for Chavo’s Boxing Gym were shot at the San Fernando Masonic Lodge, while its stagebound interior underwent upgrading for the series second season, which takes place shortly after the show has been picked up. “It made sense for me to begin [season two] by remodeling their gym space,” states Fjelsted, “since one of this season’s main challenges was revealing the show within the show, as the matches are also shot there. The idea is that they were having to make the best of what they had, essentially trying to dress up this rundown space to look like their ballroom. After masking some aspects of the original set, we brought in a lighting rig, chandeliers and created seating.”
Actual gym equipment also featured in the set. “We always buy the bones of the real thing, so for the wrestling ring, we went to the people who actually assemble these things to put them together for us,” he relates. “Period details like the pink ropes on the ring are fabricated. We have to keep the ring intact for safety. It is totally to spec for real wrestling. We do have wild elements surrounding the ring to accommodate camera, but instead of cutting holes in the mat, our DP, Adrian Peng Correia, tends to shoot handheld. When we need to do more effects-y shots, they bring in a jib arm. Our stunt team is amazing [Shauna Duggins earned an Emmy for the show’s first season], but one of our goals is to see our actresses doing falls in every shot.”
Fjelsted was called upon to construct several new sets during the second season. “In episode 9 we go to a television conference,” he notes. “For that we had to mine a lot of resources from that period to show the kinds of programming that were on the air in 1985. We knew about that about a month in advance, which certainly helped. There are series where the scripts arrive so late that you don’t get that lead time, which results in searing panic [laughs], but our producers and writers are really great about letting us know about the big things that will be coming at us.”
After Debby injures Ruth during a match, most of one episode takes place in a hospital. “We found a deserted hospital near Santa Clarita to use for hallway shots and the entrance, then built the hospital room on stage,” Fjelsted says, “matching the location styling while incorporating what the director [Sian Heder] wanted to do with staging. It’s fortunate for us on this series that directors almost always come in early, which lets our builds amplify their intentions, rather than forcing or limiting their shots.
“Even when you think being super-prepared has paid off, there are times when things do come up on the day,” he continues. “The director may be walking the set or final lighting adjustments are being made, and at that point somebody makes a good suggestion to improve things that sets us to scrambling. There’s a gay bar called Shenanigans that Bash [Chris Lowell] goes to with Carmen [Britney Young] and Rhonda [Kate Nash], which hadn’t been described in detail in the script. But we wound up adding some blue neon at the last minute, along with faux marble textures, all of which helped with the overly machismo, almost absurdly masculine feel, which really conveyed the feel of a number of actual 80s gay bars.”
The season two opener featured a very ambitious location. “Episode one caused us PTSD afterward,” Fjelsted recalls ruefully. “We had given our all first season, and when we come back … we’re in a mall! There is no such thing as a mall that looks remotely period-correct at this point, so that was a gigantic undertaking, with many storefronts and period advertisements to address. Everywhere you look, you see period fashion posters. We spent two days just shooting period advertisements, which was again a big hair/makeup/wardrobe deal, since we brought in all these models from central casting to feature in the posters. Most of the time you just imitate the style of the actual ads because they can’t be exact copies, but one nice benefit we have by being on Netflix is their unique ability to secure clearances. We were allowed to recreate Benetton, Pizza Hut and Orange Julius ads and a few dozen others very precisely.”
One of Fjelsted’s secret weapons for facilitating these recreations was graphic designer Vanessa Riegel, who went right on to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “Vanessa was tasked with a tremendous amount of work on the mall and elsewhere,” he acknowledges. “We do have the option to try and find actual period stuff on eBay, but that material is now brown and torn on the corners. You have to keep in mind that these ads are supposed to look new, so starting from scratch is often the best way to go. In season one, when Ruth went into a drugstore, every single object on the shelves had to be made.”
Episode 8 was a showcase for all things period, as viewers were treated to a faux episode of GLOW as viewers would have seen it on their old 19-inch sets. One element that recurred here was the return of the GLOWbot from first season — a clunky blinking-light robot that would not have looked out of place on NBC’s old Buck Rogers series. “The writers returned to that again because it is just so fun,” Fjelsted enthuses. “A local group of guys [headed by Evan Ross Murphy] who do props and robotics created that for us, keeping in mind that while it had some styling of an old IBM computer, that it had to also have a playful feel.”
Fjelsted notes that even after two seasons on the show, “Just passing through the stage, I can still get caught up watching rehearsal. It’s just so compelling to be inside of a world that has been completely created. When they’ve got 200 background characters in full hair, makeup and costume, it’s an incredible seeing that mass transformation — like entering a time warp.”
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