In pictures: How the west was done – Wes Anderson on Asteroid City’s production design

Anderson and his production designer Adam Stockhausen explain how they recreated 1950s south-western America outside Madrid.

5 July 2023

By Isabel Stevens

Asteroid-city-gas-station-concept-artThe concept art for the gas station in Wes Anderson's Asteroid City (2023)
Sight and Sound

“I don’t know if we could put any genre on this,” says Wes Anderson of Asteroid City, “but we talked about westerns.” Anderson is talking to me over lunch on the balcony of his hotel during the Cannes film festival (see our latest issue for the full dispatch and Anderson’s deep cuts from the S&S archive).

Behind us the Mediterranean sea stretches out to the horizon and we both worry about our lack of suncream, although we’re a long way from a typical water-parched Hollywood western setting like the craggy ochre desert that dominates his film.

Asteroid City’s fake studio backlot-styled desert, diner and motel – with vending machines selling everything from martinis to real estate – are typically detail-laden and have all the charming fetishised fuss we’ve come to expect from Anderson’s films.

The director admits to me that this film is “much more about the script and the cast than it is about building sets”. Anderson’s previous films have roamed cities, mountains and islands. The expanse of the desert posed a new challenge and frontier for him. (Isle of Dog’s Trash Island might be Asteroid City’s closest ancestor, if it was painted in Fantastic Mr Fox persimmon).

The desert is a more sparse world than we’re used to but it has a sense of grandeur, an immensity matched by its creation story. Along with his regular production designer Adam Stockhausen and an army of designers and builders, Anderson built his own desert for this romantic comedy sci-fi western not in the American outback but in the middle of the Spanish wilderness: “Usually when you go on location, you go on location for the location. We went on location to build it, but it’s because we are trying to make a play in the desert. A giant theatre-set big enough to be cinematic, whatever that means, but to be a movie version of it.”

Asteroid City cafe design

Property development

“Each of the buildings in the film – the diner, motel, petrol station – went through a long process of development with Wes,” says Stockhausen. “ The early stages were colour sketches and rough modelling with illustrator Alexios Chrysikos. Then graphic designer Erica Dorn worked over the top of the sketches to develop the graphic treatment on the front of each.

Asteroid City vending machine design

The pencil drawings were then done by the Italian team. They are technical drawings breaking down the illustration for construction purposes. After these and many more layers of drawings we started making sample pieces to test the layout, sizes and finishes.”

Asteroid City car pile design

The middle of the Spanish wilderness was actually a 60-hectare patch of land bought from 140 farmers who owned different parts of it, 15 miles outside Madrid, which the crew covered with red soil. Here, Adam Stockhausen details how they built the ‘city ’ and its surrounding landscape, which was largely constructed – six-storey-high mountains included – with very little use of green screen.

Local colour

David Meikle's desert train painting for Asteroid City

As is often the case in Anderson’s films, paintings are prominent in Asteroid City. “We researched a large number of painters of the south-western landscape trying to find just the right spirit,” Stockhausen says of the process by which they found Utah-based landscape artist David Meikle, who did seven paintings for the film, including the billboard art and the poster; and Michael Bergt – a New Mexico-based figurative painter whose eggtempera homoerotic cowboys adorn playwright Conrad Earp’s walls in the film.

Michael Bergt's watering hole painting for Asteroid City

Bergt is head of the very Andersonian sounding ‘Society of Painters in Tempera’. According to Stockhausen, both Bergt and Meikle interpreted Anderson’s descriptions of the paintings in their individual styles.

Michael Bergt's lonely road painting for Asteroid City

Canyon fodder

Turlo Griffin's rock formation concept art

The rock formations were “enormous miniatures that were the real landscape of Asteroid City,” Stockhausen explains. Their design and construction was quite a process, starting with a digital model using rough shapes as placeholders for the rocks – “in much the same way that we’d use quick paper cut-outs to try a shape in a card model”. Concept artist and matte painter Turlo Griff in produced a detailed pencil sketch, from which production designer Stefano Ortolani and his team of sculptors at Cinecittà in Rome made clay maquettes of the rocks.

Turlo Griffin's rock formation concept art

A team in Spain, led by Stéphane Cressend and construction manager José Altit, figured out how to mill the shapes from foam, and then the Italian model team and French sculptor François Roux refined and carved the finish. “We even had a few rocks built on to large carts that could be rolled around to adjust position for specific shots.”

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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