As if approaching a blank canvas, “Bad Times at the El Royale” writer/director Drew Goddard and production designer Martin Whist traveled up to Vancouver to an sound stage where Whist was going to build a 10,000 square foot hotel from scratch. The two had embarked on a similar adventure before, first working together on Goddard’s directorial debut “The Cabin in the Woods,” in which the titular architecture was far more intricate than one might expect and “Bad Times at the El Royale” was no different, a place as full of secrets as the seven strangers who show up there one rainy evening in the potboiler. Bringing together a priest (Jeff Bridges), a vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an aspiring singer (Cynthia Erivo), a runaway from a cult (Cailee Spaeny) and the sister (Dakota Johnson) who pulled her away – eventually luring the cult’s leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) to the California/Nevada border where the El Royale resides – and a harried hotel manager (Lewis Pullman) under one roof, the thriller slips into one room after another as each figure out how they’ll survive the night, all on the run from something and distrustful of their fellow guests, often with good reason.
While Goddard’s fiendishly clever script and brilliant performances across the board require you to keep your eyes on what’s directly in front of you in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” what’s going on in the background is just as fascinating with a vibrant color palette to offset the dark dealings festering inside the hotel and an extraordinary attention to geography that is constantly allowing for new angles on the action. Tasked with creating something classic with a 1968 setting for contemporary tastes, Whist makes every inch of the set dynamic with detail, going so far as to source era-appropriate wallpaper from one of the few still operating a block printer in Idaho and traveling to Thailand to get the feel of one of the film’s flashbacks to Southeast Asia just right (eventually shot in Acton, California), and if Goddard’s film is as sturdy dramatically as the great noirs of the 1950s, Whist’s work recalls the craftsmanship of Golden Age studio productions where the handmade recreations of reality result in real movie magic. Recently, the production designer who was also responsible for creating the worlds of “Cloverfield” and “Super 8” spoke about physically mapping out the story beat by beat by the set with Goddard when the two had nothing but an empty room in front of them, having fun designing a hotel that sat in between two states, and turning around one particular set for the film within a weekend.
You’ve worked with Drew before, but what comes to mind when he hands you this script?
Even before I open one of Drew’s scripts, I’m already excited because I don’t know which way it’s going to go, but hat it’s going to be engaging and push the envelope, no matter what the subject matter is. When I received this, I had no idea what it was about and as a designer, my criteria for scripts is that I’m creatively engaged for one reason or another. I don’t really base my decisions on genres, but more that I’m going to be challenged. Certainly with this off the bat, it’s a period piece [which is] big for a designer because it means that we have that whole world of a different era to pull from. The era in [“Bad Times at the El Royale”] in particular and then that geographical setting to layer on top of the era gave it a whole extra patina, so it was complete excitement initially and then Drew and I just get together, roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s a long process.
Is it true you and Drew worked out all the blocking of all the scenes even before you start building the set? [Spoilers ahead are blurred]
Certainly, [because] when you’re building the physical set, the last thing you want to do is realize that it’s wrong spatially in one way or another and have to change things. Because the script was so meticulous in terms of its themes and the mechanics of how everything linked together, it was a pretty well-tuned by the time Drew had finished the script, and there were two phases to design this film – one was [figuring out] the physical layout and spatial requirements and two was the look and the emotional impact that the aesthetics needed to achieve.
We spent a long time early on just walking in open spaces [on the soundstage where we shot], spacing off scenes together and then use models to lay over and walk through each scene to make sure that we had the right [angles] between all the tangents the actors were going on, particularly because we had scenes that were playing out numerous times from different camera points of view and then character points of view. For instance, [when Dakota Johnson’s] Emily shoots Laramie, the distances of where everybody was coming from to converge on that scene for their different respective scenes needed to all work together, so that had to be completely mapped out, and of course as soon as you start mapping out how [Cynthia Erivo’s] Darlene gets out of the interior to the exterior and how [Lewis Pullman’s] Miles gets down the hallway and how far it is from how far [Jeff Bridges’ Father Flynn] is down the hallway to tell him to get away from the window and how Darlene can see from her car into the room as Emily moves across and shoots Laramie and subsequently can see [Cailee Spaeny’s] Rose on the telephone – all those tangents have to work out perfectly.
But then what’s left over has to hold true for all the rest of the scenes, which might not be specifically about room seven, but [the hotel setting] as a whole. It’s the whole movie. Darlene coming out, bashing Father Flynn in the head, the distance from the jukebox to the bar was critical in terms of how we staged the “Bernadette” scene, as I call it, and of course, where that bar is for Laramie’s opening scene with the coffee and the distance across the reception, the distance of the refreshment area had to work out for the pie date [between Darlene and Father Flynn], all of what happened in the previous acts for all the blocking of these previous scenes had to work for the entirety of the movie. That was pretty intense work for Drew and I to make sure that all works fundamentally first, so I can start designing the look of it. Then of course, that came is its own set of rules or challenges that went on and on -and there’s always a timeframe and budget issues – until we’re finished building it. Those decisions, like the color or texture of plaster or a particular type of carpet or wallpaper, can happen after I get the main skeleton of the set decided.
Was it interesting to create the mood for each of those rooms? These characters are guests at a hotel, so obviously there’s not much personal history there, but you still seem to have the environment reflect who they are.
Yeah, we made a decision to make each room different. Once that was the case, I then wanted to look at each character and what was happening in those rooms and put in graphic elements that might support that. Going back to the opening scene, you might notice the earth tones and tans and the pattern on the wall paper was very vintage. The drapes were short, and it was a very different room for 1958 [than it would be a decade later when the majority of the film is set]. We thought the hotel decided that Nevada was going to be all cools, so we leaned on purple, and California was going to be all warms, and after ’58, the rooms got a bit of a remodel for the ‘60s.
So when we came back [to the El Royale after the prologue], it was wide open to redesign and update, that’s why it had a poppier look. They were very of the era, even more than the lobby [where] I strung a lot of indigenous looks from the Tahoe area of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s into it. Then I grabbed onto anywhere in the movie where there was a poppier ‘60s look, particularly for Darlene’s room – I wanted hers to be the most alive, the most vibrant, the most of the era, and give it a real strong graphic cadence because of what was going to happen with the song [she sings in the room] and the tempo. I wanted the wallpaper to reflect that and then of course the color to work well with her wardrobe and also have a bit of a caged quality to the design in [the idea] she is somewhat trapped. Then for the girls in room seven, it was a little more moodier purples, a little more Lynchian, due to the dark nature of what was going on with them and their pasts. The wallpaper links up more, like a chain [pattern] as if they’re all embroiled into each other’s lives and then Billy Lee is in their life or they’re in his life, so it was thematically making design decisions for those rooms because of those particular characters.
Drew has said the flashback scene that takes place away from the hotel was a challenge because the schedule was tight – Chris Hemsworth actually might have had to pass on the movie because he had a hard start date on another film – so you had to construct the outdoor set for this gathering of Billy Lee’s cult in a very short amount of time in the parking lot. What was creating that set like?
It wasn’t in the parking lot [of the soundstage, but the hotel set]. It was in the exact same warehouse space that the hotel was in, so the challenge was that the whole hotel parking lot and rooms occupied the whole stage and because we were in Vancouver, we needed to do any [this outdoors scene] indoors and of course, that set was all rigged up for rain, so we needed to turn it over really quickly, pull out the parking lot [set], and use some of the asphalt and the earth that made the parking lot [for the ground of this other set].
It’d be hard for you to picture this, because it’s hard to imagine [laughs] – but imagine this massive stage that has a built-in hotel wing and a parking lot and halfway through the shooting half of it needs to be dug out after we got done all the parking lot [scenes] done and [the cast and other crew] went into the interior for the third act, and we then dug out half of the parking lot [for another set]. I created this more natural environment, brought in all the trees, surrounded by black, built a gas set for a [real] bonfire and did the scene in the same space as the parking lot of the hotel. Everybody [else on the crew and the actors left on Friday and it’s this big parking lot that’s all in place and then they come back Monday and it’s now an exterior California oak grove with an active bonfire in the middle. That was a challenge for sure. It was a quickie, but I think it worked pretty well.