How to design movies for the Coen brothers

Does a production designer get sentimental when it comes time to dismantle his sets? We put this and other questions to six-time Coen brothers collaborator Jess Gonchor.

3 March 2016

By Sam Wigley

Joel and Ethan Coen with Josh Brolin and George Clooney in production on Hail, Caesar! (2016)

There are jobs, and then there’s being the Coen brothers’ regular production designer. And there are production designing gigs, and then there’s Hail, Caesar! Because this latest from brothers Joel and Ethan is not just a movie, and a movie about movies, but a movie about movies containing glimpses of lots of other fictional movies.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Set in 1950s Hollywood, it thrusts the viewer into the pell-mell industriousness of the studio era, when an epic of ancient Rome, a B-western, a synchronised swimming musical and a drawing room comedy are all going before the cameras in the same week, on different stages on the same backlot. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, the problem-solving head of production at Capitol Pictures, the same made-up studio where Barton Fink once arrived to write two-bit boxing movies in the Coens’ earlier classic. Top of Mannix’s headaches as the story unfolds is the fate of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is mid-shoot on said Roman epic when the guileless star is kidnapped by a circle of communist screenwriters.

It fell to Jess Gonchor, who has designed all six Coens films from No Country for Old Men (2007) on, to bring to life both a bygone Los Angeles and scenes of each of Capitol’s many make-believe productions. It was a job for which he might reasonably have asked to be paid five or six times, for each of these discrete worlds is created with an attention to colourful detail that will delight fans of that era when Hollywood was upping the spectacle to combat the arrival of TV.

When I spoke to Gonchor on the phone, it was a little past dawn in Los Angeles on the morning after the Oscars. No doubt some parties were still going strong and the city remained abuzz with the news of how modern Hollywood had crowned its latest royalty.

Jess Gonchor’s design for the exterior of the Capitol Pictures movie studio
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor

How was your Oscar night?

I was pleased to see Mad Max winning a lot of things, as I was a fan of it. It was so different and so bizarre – so refreshing. I was rooting for it in all the craft categories.

Hail, Caesar! feels like a real love letter not just to old movies but specifically to the old art of production design, when everything was done for real rather than with computers.

Yes, it’s paying respect to what’s led to filmmaking today, with our visual aids and visual effects and the director having a monitor in front of their face. Back then, the director was sitting in a chair with a hundred people around him waiting to find out what they needed to do and how they needed to do it. I come from a theatrical background so for me it was treat because on this film things were done much more theatrically, almost like stage plays, with everything done by hand and painted or sculpted. It’s a love letter to scenery-making in the 1950s.

Design for a film set of a western landscape
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor

We see so many different movies being shot within the movie: westerns, musicals, the Roman epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and the synchronised swimming movie. It must have been a real challenge for you as designer.

It was like making seven or eight different movies, trying to get across this idea of a 50s studio cranking out a movie a week and maybe 50 movies in a year. Back then, they came up with an idea and just made it; it really was the age of releasing film after film. Budgets weren’t really a problem because things cost what they cost whether it was a B-movie or a major production like ‘Hail, Caesar!’ So it was difficult creating all these different film environments, but also very, very inspiring. Everyone was really up for the task and enjoyed seeing these things come to life.

George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, in production on film-within-a-film ‘Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ’

What’s the very first thing you’ll do when coming to work on a project like this?

I read the script two or three times, I make notes and I come up with ideas. I’ve worked with the Coen brothers on six movies so we kinda know each other by now. I’ll take a couple of weeks to go about my business before I even talk to them, then we’ll get together and have a discussion on what they’re thinking and about what I’m thinking. Then I’ll talk to Roger Deakins, the DP.

But I usually won’t have a conversation with Joel and Ethan until I’m prepared to weigh in with my own ideas – they usually give me the freedom to come up with things myself and then we get together and collaborate. Those guys are like having two other production designers [on the project] as they’re super visual and obviously very intelligent and bring a lot to the game.

Quo Vadis (1951)

Once I think I’m on the right track I’ll dive into a lot of research, in this case watching a lot of old movies. Working in Los Angeles, where these old movies were created, there are obviously a lot of archives available to us, even from universities like USC and UCLA and the American Film Institute. It was quite a treat for us to be able to go in and unearth some of the actual designs from Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959) – really legit stuff done 60 or 70 years ago that showed the kinds of methods they used. So different from today’s filmmaking when it’s all computer-generated.

The design feels very larger than life. Was it always the intention not to use computers but to make up the sets for real?

Sure, it was a tribute to old methods. A lot of the stuff was very theatrical and fakish – creating a heightened reality. Even the stuff that wasn’t in the movies within the movie, like the Malibu house [where actor Baird Whitlock is held hostage] which drew from the house in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

Throughout the whole thing, I was trying to [muddy] what’s real and what’s in a movie. Even the Capitol studio itself is large and animated, creating the sense of a busy factory with all these stages shaped like bread loaves.

Design showing the Capitol Pictures studio backlot
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor

Which of the various sets did you have most fun with?

They were all so much fun to figure out and bring to life. We did it all in one movie studio that had seven stages that had never been renovated or remodelled; they looked old. Our art department was on the same lot and it was in the middle of Hollywood, so in term of life imitating art it couldn’t have been better.

I think the submarine sequence was my favourite: it was all done indoors in a swimming pool. The stage was built for Esther Williams in the 1940s at MGM, which is now Sony. We opened up the pool, which hadn’t been used for I don’t know how many years, to do the Scarlett Johansson/Esther Williams synchronised swimming scene and also the submarine work. We built a large portion of a submarine and put a boat out there and turbulence through the water, and surrounded the whole stage with these hand-painted night backings, which Roger lit beautifully. I don’t think I’ll ever get the chance to do something like that again.

Designs for the set for an Esther Williams-style swimming musical starring DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson)
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor
Hail, Caesar! (2016) production design
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor

How long did it take for you to dream up all these settings and then create them?

The whole process of the movie was probably six and a half months, from when I got hired until the last day of shooting. I got maybe three months to prep it and get it going into production, then it’s timed out so you know you’re going to shoot this scene on this day and that scene on that day and so on. Probably 14 weeks of prep and 12 weeks of shooting.

Josh Brolin as studio head Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Being a production designer on this was like being Eddie Mannix. Five o’clock in the morning you’re there, and you’re there in the middle of the night, and you’re coming up with an idea and waking up and writing it down and you’re going in early and figuring it out. It was done on quite a tight schedule and a tight budget, but we were all happy to be doing it.

What’s your role once cameras begin to roll?

I’m moving on to the next scene, delivering the next set – a crucifixion scene or whatever it is. I’ll be there to get it going and explain to everyone what I think can be done with it. But then I have to move on to the next thing. I have great people who will stay there, but I have to move on to where the cameras will show up the next day, or two days later or even later that afternoon. I’m constantly trying to stay ahead of the lenses.

Do you get sentimental about the sets when it becomes time to dismantle them?

There’s definitely a bittersweet feeling at the end of every job, especially this one. When I saw those giant pair of legs that were 35-feet tall. It was heartbreaking that they had to be destroyed, as no one had room to keep them in their house!

I wish I could keep everything, especially on something as nostalgic as Hail, Caesar! I grabbed a few pieces for my house. But, yes, you go 100 miles per hour for six or seven months and all of a sudden your body slows down and it’s a bizarre feeling – but then the next interesting project comes along. Unlike in architecture, where it takes forever to get something approved and built, movies happen so quickly. And they last forever on DVD. Buildings go up and are torn down, but these things are around forever for people to enjoy. Or not to enjoy, but hopefully they do!

Design showing the studio backlot, including giant Roman statue legs
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor

You mentioned you grabbed a couple of souvenirs from the Hail, Ceasar! sets. What did you nab?

I have those elaborate black-and-white doors that Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) goes through in the drawing room in that Laurence Laurentz scene. I have no ceiling tall enough to accommodate them, but I plan on doing something with them. I have a couple of the seashells from the Scarlett Johansson scene where she throws the crown at the conductor. I have the map at the back of Eddie Mannix’s desk, which is a schematic of the stage; the idea was he was like a general with a field map behind him.

3D model and sketch for the drawing-room set for the latest production by English director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and starring Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich)
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor
Hail, Caesar! (2016) production design
© Universal Pictures / Jess Gonchor

Do you plan to keep collaborating with the Coens?

I hope so, as long as they want me! I love working with them.

Are there other filmmakers you’re keen to work with?

I’ve also worked a lot with Bennett Miller: on Capote (2005) and Foxcatcher (2014). I’ve just finished with Ben Affleck on a 1920s Prohibition film – we wrapped two weeks ago. But there are lot of other people I’d like to work with, just as long as the work is interesting. I decided a while ago that I didn’t want to work on a film just to work on it; I had to be interested in what the subject was.

How did you get to be a production designer?

I was in theatre in high school and I studied the technical aspects of it in college. I got a job PA’ing on a movie set and I looked around and it was on such a bigger scale, and I thought maybe I could make a living at this. The theatre is so hard to get into. It was a BBC production called The Catherine Wheel, in New York City in the 80s. They just hired me off the street to help carry some things inside the theatre I worked at, where they were shooting a scene. And I looked around and thought wow! What are all these trucks and people and giant lights? They’re giving us lunch?! So I explored it a bit more and fell into it.

But I attribute a lot to what I learned in the theatre: like being able to do things on smaller budgets. I get called for a lot of movies that are like biographical movies, where people want to get details exactly right and recreate history, but that’s not my thing. I’m definitely an embellisher.

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