Hulu’s “Pam & Tommy” takes audiences back to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll in 1990s Los Angeles. It was a pre-9/11 world, when “the internet hasn’t robbed us of our privacy,” points out production designer Ethan Tobman. “The rest of the world adores us and wants to be us. This was also a time where being famous meant you were famous, and a billion people watched ‘Baywatch’ every week.”
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That fame belonged to Pamela Anderson Lee (Lily James), whose star ascends as husband Tommy Lee’s (Sebastian Stan) wanes post-sex tape. “This all plays out in their house,” says Tobman, who was tasked with building their world and their home.
That home, a sprawling mansion, serves as a character within itself. “There’s not a strong sense of feminine identity and family” inside it, Tobman says of the house — and the duo’s relationship — when audiences are introduced to them. But when she moves in, there’s a shift that represents where these two stars are in their careers.
Tobman paid attention to the femininity taking over, starting with Pam’s clothes, as she slowly pushes Tommy out. The masculinity of the rockstar is slowly being erased as the couple make room for the nursery. “He’s feeling invisible, and you see it happening in his career, where he’s feeling emasculated,” says Tobman.
Director Craig Gillespie did not want to create caricatures of the two icons. Furthermore, as with Gillespie’s other projects including “I, Tonya,” the story and design idea was not about being 100% authentic to the facts. Tobman did not build a replica of the former couple’s real-life home at the time.
“We’re saying this is an exploration of a time in our culture that’s really interesting,” he says, noting that the key was to make it seem believable. With that, he found relics from 2003, rather than items from the ‘70s or ‘80s; the couple, indeed, was “wealthy and attracted to the newest things.”
Since they also lived in a larger-than-life moment in celebrity culture, the sofas, TVs, rugs and chandeliers were twice the size of what would normally be found in homes. Tobman says, “People who came into money quickly and don’t really have the education or nuance on how to spend it were influential to us.”
The homes the couple lived in after their divorce were also integral to how Tobman worked. He says, “Her world is creams, transparent pastels, soft edges, and a lot of plush fabrics. She is also obsessed with candles and crystals.”
In contrast, Tommy is obsessed with the color red, tiger-skin fabrics and cast-iron candelabras. “He’s super into Buddhist relics and memorabilia,” says Tobman. “Where she’s soft, he’s hard, and where she’s neutral, he’s really high contrast and vampy. That’s what we were really playing with.”
In addition to building the Lee mansion, he also recreated many iconic L.A. landmarks, including Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. The outside was decked in album covers by artists such as Madonna, Nirvana, Tupac, the Smashing Pumpkins and the Spice Girls.
“It was really important for me to explore how music was shifting in that moment,” Tobman says of the album art decor.
The intersection of music was that rock ’n’ roll was dying as hiphop was climbing. There was a window in which grunge looked like it, too, would win, but in the end, hip-hop pulled ahead, something Tobman considered.
“It was so important to me to put up billboards and posters of people who would probably have a harder time finding their audience today and don’t necessarily have a market for anymore.”
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