In the ethereal depths of an ancient monastery, the younger and older Charles Xavier [James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart] confer across time, as Kitty Pryde [Ellen Page] guides Logan/Wolverine [Hugh Jackman] through sub-conscious time travel…
In X-MEN: Days of Future Past, the ultimate X-Men ensemble fights a war for the survival of the species across two time periods simultaneously! The characters from the original X-Men film trilogy join forces with their younger selves in an epic battle that must change the past to save the future.
Oscar-winning duo Production Designer John Myhre and Set Decorator Gordon Sim SDSA actually tackled 3 time periods for the blazing action film that brings philosophical questions to fore as well.
Myhre had designed the original X-MEN film, creating what are now iconic sets, so it was fitting that he would be brought on to handle the largest and most ambitious of the franchise’s big screen productions, and that he would partner again with Sim, with whom he’s collaborated on several films.
Sim points out, “The look of the X-Men has to do with John Myhre’s original vision, particularly the X-Mansion’sBlue Corridor where we visit the Cerebro, and the CerebroSphere itself.” For these sets, Myhre went back to his old blueprints and made a replica of the originals from the first X-Men film, this time built on stage in Montreal instead of a location.
In a telling moment during filming, Hugh Jackman, who plays Logan/Wolverine for the 7th time, was walking down the now classic Blue Corridor set with Nicholas Hoult [Hank McCoy/Beast], who looked around in amazement and said, “I remember I was about eight years old when I first saw X-MEN.” Jackman says that moment made him realize how iconic the X-Men universe has become, “For me, and for Halle and Patrick,* walking down those hallways was déjà vu – like we’d gone back fourteen years in time.”
*[Halle Berry as Ororo Munroe/Storm, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier/Professor X]
In the current film, when we first see the X-Mansion it is 1973, the place is neglected, the school no longer extant. Xavier is lost in a drug-fueled depression, his spirit broken. The drugs have enabled him to gain the use of his legs but at the cost of diminishing his powers.
Sim describes this version of the mansion, “There’s a sense of it being abandoned. That’s why it is so sparse in the beginning. We were trying to give this feeling…not that he got rid of anything, but that nobody cares any more.” There is a visual echo throughout the mansion, with the not quite empty spaces and dust motes floating in shafts of light through unwashed windows that still reflect the stained glass crest. Sim adds, “And I thought it was wonderful that they put a slight echo in the sound track. It gives an almost hollow sound to the whole place, like there’s really nobody there.”
The choices for this setting were about maintaining the essence of the original English country manor, but carefully selecting which facets to present of both the period and the neglect. Sim says, “It was great because we didn’t have to visually club people over the head with it being in the 1970s. There’s time to absorb. Every time you go back, you can observe more things and that period can kind of creep up on you a bit.”
Xavier’s office suite upstairs offers some of those details. “It actually went through a really quick redress on the morning of the shoot,” Sim reveals, “because James McAvoy [the young Charles Xavier] came in with the idea that it’s quite apparent that Charles is taking much more of the serum than was normal, thus James wanted to have this feeling of utter dissoluteness in his office. So all the liquor bottles came in, along with paraphernalia that might suggest that he had been smoking pot. Everything was put in disarray; the room became a complete mess. All the normal set dressing was there, but we laid this layer of depression over it all.”
There were distinctive shapes: sofa, wing-backed chairs, a tall blue lamp. Sim points out “With so much in silhouette, we needed those contours, particularly when Charles sits down on the sofa and Wolverine is talking to him…he’s in shadow and it’s all backlit. We were very conscious of that aspect with the choices we made.”
Visual effects and pre-vis…
Speaking of these very conscious choices, with films having more and more intricate visual and special effects, and the use of pre-vis [computerized pre-visualization of a set/scene], it is essential that the production designer and the set decorator set the visual imprint for the effects teams to work from early on in the film-making process, for accuracy of the period, place and character as well as the aesthetics of each set.
For instance, the film opens on a somewhat dystopian not too distant future, with desolate and ruined cities. Sim recalls, “John and I were looking at various ways to depict these places other than the usual apocalyptic scorched and fallen ruins. We talked about all kinds of scenarios and were looking at all sorts of references, including the artist Cristo. His art installations inspired John to envision that the authorities had simply wrapped up derelict buildings, enclosing them in fabric. The structures weren’t necessarily destroyed, but they were captured, uninhabitable. So you’ll see in the opening that buildings are wrapped in fabric, some of which is tearing off and fluttering.”
“Nowadays,” he explains, “particularly on films like these, where we’re working with such a large scale and a good part of our story is done in conjunction with visual effects, we’re in constant contact with the visual and special effects departments, and with the DP in regards to lighting. In addition, so much is now done in pre-vis.”
It is important to establish for the pre-vis, which Director Bryan Singer used extensively, the hallmark look for each set, including significant elements. Sim imparts, “John knew how important it was to lead visual effects and to lead pre-vis, to ensure that that our choices for both the foundation and the components of the set actually get out there very early on.”
He continues, “For example, we had to design the conference table for the Paris hotel suite in the 1973 Paris Accords sequence many weeks in advance, because they wanted to do the pre-vis that early. We’ve learned that you can’t just supply a placeholder image because what happens is that when people see a pre-visualization, that image sticks in their mind, so they hold on to the idea that’s what the actual set should be! Thus, everything that went into any pre-vis, we needed to supply. For that conference suite, I needed to know the specific 1970’s Plexiglas chairs we were going to use, the sofa, the table, the brass side chairs…all of the furnishings…so they could be pre-vised and then given to Bryan. Consequently, you’re making set decisions quite quickly, so those particulars can be entered into the pre-visualization.”
And then the actual sets have to be created. There were 40 built sets and 36 locations to be dressed. Like most directors, Singer felt that with such an impressive cast, creating a real environment for them to get excited about was paramount. “Bryan told me that whenever possible we should build a practical set,” recalls Myhre. “So, in the case of the Monastery, you could even smell the burning incense.”
One of the film’s largest stage builds was the Monastery in the future, a monolithic ancient cloister built into a mountainside. Inspired by many forms of Asian architecture, including Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Laotian and Indonesian, Myhre designed the set as if the entire structure had been carved out of rock, and Sim dressed it with a blend of elements from each of these cultures and other antiquities.
The Monastery has four sections:
· The crenelated Great Wall for protection…
· The Courtyard, composed of a series of pagoda-like structures used for prayers and gatherings…
· The Colonnade, a pillared portico which serves as the last line of defense against attack as well as the doorway to the Monastery’s inner sanctum…
· The Inner Sanctum
To Myhre, this Inner Sanctum is the heart of the film. He wanted the set to feel distinctive, reminiscent of a sacred place. He added unique mirrored rotating columns, swiveling panel walls and gem-colored glass blocks in the stone walls. Sim acknowledges, “There you see the brilliance of John Myhre, there were all kinds of reflections going on, all kinds of light.” Which Sim quietly augmented with candlelight. He notes, “We spend a lot of time in that room. Most of the set dressing in there came from England. We brought a lot of really early pieces over, including a beautiful little candlestick on a table behind Kitty Pryde [Ellen Page] when she connects with Logan as he lies on the altar table.”
“The Monastery set…the whole Courtyard with the pagodas, the Great Wall that Storm is on to do battle and the entry way Colonnade where Charles walks in and tells them the story of the past…all of that was built and carved about 30 feet up. From there on, it’s extended with CG, but even without the extension, it was a very large set. Everything had to be made for that, so all those big dragon burners were built, sculpted, the altar and all the columns were hand-carved.”
“And there are unexpected, cool changes that happen to it, like when Magneto goes out into the battle and pulls in all the metal. He explodes the X-Jet, so everything metal from it comes to where he designates and forms a big steel metal door, which he time-travels through. And that was not all CG! In reality, we made that huge door piece so that it could be the actual finish of all the visual effects work. We bought jet parts and airplane parts from all over the place and it became kind of an art collage. It took about a month to make that, and it weighed a ton! But it was a great, fun challenge.”
An amusing and intriguing escape sequence was set in the Pentagon, the most involved segment in one of the kitchens. Director of Photography Newton Thomas Sigel used high-speed phantom cameras and photo-sonic technology to film this technically intricate scene, which was shot at 3000 frames per second, thus allowing the character Quicksilver [Evan Peters] to be moving 150 times faster than normal.
“That was an enormous thing to film,” says Sim. “It was quite difficult because nobody knew exactly how to do it, since it had never before been done. We first dressed the set completely. Then, props and special effects took all of our elements…plates, pots, pans, kitchenware…and those were all cast in breakaway materials. Each piece was then suspended or put on green rods, and all manipulated to play. It was very, very complicated to film, and then we had the visual effects work on top of that."
"Richard Stammers is a brilliant visual effects designer, with a great team," Sim remarks. "I thought the visual effects were fantastic on our film. Sometimes they’re not complete enough, but ours were both dazzling and believable.”
The Pentagon, or rather its netherworld far below ground, was also the setting for the visually arresting cell holding the young Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto [Michael Fassbender]. “We needed a fresh and interesting way to portray his imprisonment,” says Sim. “There can’t be any metal, so in previous films, he’s been held in a glass room or bunkers. John got this idea that he was actually buried in the ground, which I thought was fantastic. We look down on him from this pentagonal glass floor/ceiling into the white subterranean cell. The door to the prison is a big Egyptian block that pushes back.” There is a feeling of being entombed in the Pyramids. “We had this notion that in his cell he has nothing. He didn’t even have a bed. There was a roll of toilet paper, a pillow and a bedroll, and that was it. It’s very simple, somewhat Zen-like.”
Fassbender says that like most actors, he appreciates working on a real set versus a green screen environment. He was impressed with the detail of the design and the craftsmanship of the sets. His favorite was the Pentagon prison cell, which helped the actor define his character. “The prison cell gave me an idea of a past life and how Erik managed to get through those ten years of being imprisoned, around which I came up with the lotus idea. The lotus is Erik’s state of Zen, where he spends hours in his cell elevated, sitting cross-legged in a meditative state, gathering his strength.”
Trask Industries, office and lab…
Another character-defining set belongs to the villain Dr. Bolivar Trask [Peter Dinklage]. Sim explains, “We used Brutalist ‘70s massive furnishings for him because he’s such a small man, that Napoleonic quirk where small people have big things. He was a big powerful, small man. We built all the furniture…the sofas, chairs, desk, conference table. It was all purple and brass and chrome. The sofas were deep-purple silk crushed-velvet, even the rug was purple. Everything was very dark, which is part of why you don’t see a lot of the detail. But in a way that’s good, too, there’s a bit of mystery in it.”
“And there’s a crazy portrait of him on the wall, with him giving a one-legged girl an artificial leg. It’s his own egotistical view of himself as someone out to help the world, a savior of sorts. The painting actually has a halo encircling him.”
“The Trask Laboratory was done on location, but it was just an empty room, we did everything for that,” says Sim. “It’s an interesting lab, but it’s a lab. High tech labs then didn’t look like what we think of as high tech now and they were dealing with microbiology, so we opted to be truthful. We put in what was cutting edge in the ‘70s. It was more about microscopes than it was about computer screens and equipment.”
Some of great the ‘70s sets in this film were bedrooms and hotel rooms...and the White House bomb shelter!
Sim chuckles, “This is why I love John Myhre, he had the amazing idea that the bomb shelter entrance should be under the carpet medallion in the center of the Oval Office! So in a key scene, rushing President Nixon and Cabinet members to shelter, the Secret Service come in and rip off the medallion, and they all go down a spiral staircase. That leads to a really fun set, the little interior bomb shelter, which we based on the idea of a discotheque. John built it on two levels, and the lower sunken level is like a VIP area, a lounge pit. We put in square, mustard leather club chairs and a ‘70s table that had a cutout ice area for booze. We gave it a really funky red, white and blue tiled floor and ‘70s hanging lamp. It was really meant to have this feeling that the president was down there, and all these men were surrounding him above."
Logan Hotel Room…
We first meet the earth tone colors and signature graphics of the era in the hotel room Logan/Wolverine drops into when he travels back in time to 1973. “He wakes up in a waterbed with a tangerine headboard and a pretty woman whom we did not supply,” smiles Sim. “We did have chocolate shag carpeting, a ‘70s hanging lamp and the classic white stereo. Early on, John and I were looking for metallic wallpaper, going through pages and pages of the typical geometrics. At the very last page, there was this totally different, dark, intense pattern of revolvers and we knew we had to have it! It was not what we were looking for, but a very happy happenstance. It allowed us to use a little bit of humor.”
“We were also lucky to discover the draperies, a huge amount all in the same pattern, so we were able to make the bedspread and drapes out of them. 1970s yardage in quantity was almost impossible to find, so when we came across these in a thrift store, we just about jumped for joy! We were searching Montreal, Toronto, New York, LA, London…I had people everywhere looking for period fabric in quantity.”
Hotel Royale, Paris Accords 1973…
“Thankfully, we found a wonderful Missoni wave pattern and used it for the Paris hotel interiors, just changing the color-way. It was as though it had been refurbished in the ‘70s and that was the line of fabrics that went throughout the hotel."
"There’s the sort of candy-colored conference room, so operatic, with the gigantic mural, a reproduction of Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People, with the door hidden within.” The film has a notable moment when the door is flung open and the very small figure of Trask strides imperiously through. This is also where we come across the huge brass-trimmed marble table and Plexiglas chairs mentioned earlier, the Missoni fabrics are deep coral, the perimeter holds gilded mirrors, side tables and candelabrum.
Sim points out, “The conference room was in the same hotel as the suite that Mystique [Jennifer Lawrence] goes to with the Vietnamese general. We did that entire suite in green, incorporating the Missoni pattern and a 1970s round bed. We found fantastic paintings in Montreal that are quite prominent in the room. I really enjoyed doing that set! It was a little over-the-top, but you can let yourself go in rooms like that because they don’t really belong to a character.
Quicksilver’s basement digs…
Just the opposite, Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver’s basement hangout is a totally character-driven set filled with items the speedy kleptomaniac has collected. Sim laughs, “I can’t even tell you the number of truckloads of set dressing that went into that basement set. You don’t actually see a lot of it on screen. You do see enough to understand what it is, but it was a large set that went quite far back, piled with televisions, radios, hubcaps, motorcycles, bicycles, stereos, records…and there were multiple multiples of these!” There are also myriad references to racing: ultra-bright yellow and racing checks, Stop and Go, Walk/Don’t Walk signs and posters. “We had all kinds of crazy things from that period, but they relate to him and his mutant powers. Even all the stashes of sugar candy reference his being hyped up with the speed he moves. It was a wild, fun set to do.”
X-Mansion media room…
“As was Hank McCoy’s media room in the depths of the X-Mansion,” Sim adds. “We had 360 degrees of wall-to-wall mismatched period equipment cobbled together with patch-cables, splicers and wire. We had to source from everywhere a huge variety of late ‘60s, early ‘70s electronic components, which were pretty low tech, but high-tech for the time. It wasn’t easy, but again, was so fun! My gosh, those kind of sets don’t come around very often, you know.”
“This was an amazing film to do, especially with the combination of period and future. We bought, I would say, 95% of the period furniture online, because the brick and mortars don’t carry much any more. I shopped in Montreal and Toronto and did have some things sent from LA prop houses, History for Hire and 1stDibs. Thankfully, so much is accessible online these days, whether through prop houses, websites or EBay. Then, of course, we also had a lot of pieces made.”
As always, details give weight and credibility to the sets. Sim and Myhre have a keenness for these and a penchant for multi-level visual cues and clues. There is often a bit of whimsy, but always with a direct thread to the character or place, and sometimes rather subtle, a gift to those ardent fans who will watch the film over and over. Sim discloses that the gardens outside the Hotel Royale in Paris [the exterior was actually filmed at Montreal’s City Hall] were planted in the same pattern as the carpet in the Green Suite upstairs! He is quick to point out, though, that his first and last thought is always given to character and story. “No matter how much we love a piece or concept, it has to meet that criteria fully to make it into the film.”
That combination of aesthetics and verisimilitude is key for this dynamic design & décor duo, who are extremely pleased and honored to be working next in China with the legendary director Yimou Zhang!