Susan Cooper [Melissa McCarthy] is an unassuming, deskbound CIA analyst, and the unsung hero behind the Agency’s most dangerous missions. But when her partner Bradley Fine [Jude Law] falls off the grid and another top agent [Jason Statham] is compromised, she volunteers to go deep undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent a global disaster.
Teaming with McCarthy for the third time, following their smash hits BRIDESMAIDS and THE HEAT, writer-director Paul Feig adds a planeload of action to their trademark comedy, setting the story in gorgeous European locales. The bustling, unfamiliar environments of such famed capitals as Rome, Paris and Budapest add to Susan’s disorienting transition into the cloak-and-dagger fieldwork of international espionage.
Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Production Designer Jefferson Sage and Set Decorator Kelly Berry SDSA teamed up to bring a sophisticated depth to the look of this comedy/action film.
SPY shot primarily in Budapest, Hungary, which also doubles for Rome and Paris. The city’s striking and varied architecture allowed Sage and Berry to utilize interesting landmarks and unique neighborhood characteristics to distinguish between the three capitals. Buda, located on the west side of the Danube, is hilly, with winding cobblestone streets that provide an effective cheat for Rome. Meanwhile, abundant natural trees and vegetation effectively serve to soften the location backdrops for Paris, which filmmakers wanted keep lighter and wider in tonality. But Budapest, itself, became another star of the film.
“Budapest has grandeur and a nice mix of architectural styles, along with an Eastern European exoticism that lends a wonderful mystique to the story,” says Sage. Berry agrees, “Budapest and its people are absolutely mesmerizing. There exists a true history of filmmaking, as well as all other forms of visuals and performance arts appreciation. From its proud architecture, wonderful sculptures, to the opera and other types of theater, art appreciation is integral to the city’s sense of self.” Sage adds, “Budapest is usually only used as cheats for other places, but when Paul scouted the city he was so impressed he changed most of the story to take place here.”
Boyanov villa, on the Black Sea, Bulgaria…
The film opens with a spy-caper, elegant party scene at a Bulgarian seaside villa, filmed at Lake Balaton, Hungary. Ironically and conveniently, Berry had just finished filming THE EXPENDABLES 3 in Bulgaria, and thus knew exactly the look required. “I had spent a couple weeks on the Black Sea in the port city of Varna, and in our script, the villa was supposed to be located there!”
“The actual location we used in Hungary was one-story. The second story in the long shot was added by visual effects,” she reveals. “Both the interior and exterior areas were in abandoned disrepair. It was necessary to hire a dedicated practical electrician to install and get power to all of the fixtures we added for the posh party scene and the subterranean hideaway. The exterior stairs were added for necessary action and access to the lower fountain level and the boat dock.”
“We ordered Versace gold and black wallpaper from Germany. Versace design style and stature seems to be omnipresent in photo research we found for Eastern block oligarchs! I also added for the party room a green and gold striped wallpaper shipped from Astek Wallcovering in California. Owner Aaron Scott Kirsch came through from across the world for several of our grand sets!”
“For this indoor/outdoor summer gala, we created 2 bars and full back-bars, rented gazebos and fringed gold and white striped umbrellas. We built all the drapery and pillows, many with a gold Greek key motif, ochre tablecloths, party food and drink. We also rented the marble sculptures, planters and stands. All the florals and greenery were brought in and dressed. The furniture and practical lighting fixtures were rented from Schmiedl in Vienna, Austria and from Artcore Antik & Design, a Budapest Art Deco vendor who rents original furniture and lighting pieces and also designs and fabricates Art Deco Style furnishings. The entire outdoor entertainment area was a build. We rented the fountain and urns, but the boat dock was a total build. It self-destructed during a windstorm prior to our shoot days and had to be quickly rebuilt.”
The hidden cellar art gallery and office, weapons stash and bunkeresque tunnels were filmed at The Brewery Tunnels, a labyrinth of limestone caves that stretches some 23 miles underneath a brewery in Buda, Hungary…25 feet below ground! “Everything was brought in to support the nefarious doings of our Boyanov character, a high-ranking Bulgarian mobster,” says Berry. And yes, EVERY thing had to be brought in and subsequently removed and hauled back out. Most European locations have a deep history. These subterranean caves were originally excavated as quarries in the 1700s, and later repurposed for beer storage. At various times they have been used as emergency shelters and even hidden hangers for Nazi aircraft.
CIA Communications Center…
Cutting back and forth to this Bond-like spy action setting, we are with Melissa’ McCarthy’s headsetted character Susan in the bowels of the CIA Communications Center manning 3 computers, as she follows and directs Jude Law’s debonair spy character Bradley Fine, as well as SatNav air armed support.
The setting is a large-yet-contained situation room, a bullpen of desks and technical equipment, plus a raised break area. This was a total build on stage in Hungary. Berry describes, “All of the desktops were contoured to fit the footprint of the set. It was therefore necessary to design and manufacture all of the desks except for a few at the very back. Several different bulletin boards were installed and dressed, each board coinciding to its adjacent areas. A light-box map table was designed and built. Computer servers were rented and we applied LED lights to the fronts of the drives inside the server cabinets.”
“It was difficult to find elements in Hungary for the CIA interiors, especially the American set details like light switches and switch plates, desk light fixtures and dress flags,” she says. “When we first see Susan in her office space, she is cloistered within the safety of her computer world. We hear from background dialogue that she’s made a cake for someone. Susan is a giver. She even has gifts at the ready on her desk.”
McCarthy points out, “Susan’s always had ability, and is great technically and tactically, but she lacked confidence. Now her field experiences and loyalty to [agent] Bradley Fine, begin to bring out her full potential. She discovers talents she didn’t know she had.”
Sage notes, “As Susan’s world and life opens up in Europe, so do the visuals.” Indeed, the beauty and color of Paris is a startling transition.
Arriving at night for her foray into active spydom, the lights of Paris heighten the sense of exotic adventure…until she arrives at the funky hotel she’s been assigned. The shabby, print on print wallpaper and bedding, worn carpet and dowdy headboard are not the sanctuary she had hoped to find. “The room is overly bright and the colors intentionally clash in order to reflect Susan’s uncertain state of mind and paranoia when she first arrives,” says Sage. To create this unwelcoming setting, Berry incorporated wallpaper from Astek, carpet from a local vendor, and draperies and bedspread made by the production’s drapery person. Artwork was rented from one of the small local prop houses. A fun note: Director Paul Feig has an uncredited cameo as a drunken guest in the hallway of this Parisian hotel.
Iconic Paris comes alive for Susan the next day when she follows someone into a classic courtyard complete with sidewalk cafes and beautiful people. Berry reveals, “This was shot inside an historic covered-mall area in Budapest, which was over one hundred years old…the tiles on the floor and walls were custom made by Villory & Boch. Each of the 15 shop fronts in this space were defined by the art department and dressed by my team to fit the necessary action of the scene.” This was followed by an outdoor concert staged on the banks of the Seine.
The action moves to an elegant section of Rome, where Susan tries to crash a luxurious private casino, after shopping for the appropriate dress. For the upscale shopping street, Berry says, “We dressed rented mannequins with a local fashion designer’s clothing and added our own fabric backing drapery for the store fronts.”
The location used for the plush casino is the historic Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library, in the former Wenckheim-Palace. Berry recalls, “Once I saw the location, I realized I wouldn’t have to have a lot of artwork, because there are so many large windows…but of course, that meant a lot of drapery, particularly since these windows were about 20 feet high! And it had to be a certain quality. It had to look rich and be very beautiful. Fabric in the quantity I needed was very limited, so we had to order all the drapery fabric.”
“The drapery person, Krisztina Szucsy, and her shop of sewers were a great support, since we ended up creating most, if not all, the drapery seen in the various grand sets.” She adds, “When I discovered that Krisztina had done all the drapery and tapestries for THE BORGIAS television series, I was inspired to design two large-scale velvet appliqué and embroidered peacock panels for the Casino Restaurant scene. These panels were fitted into the gilt borders of two large bookcases.”
“I also had wonderful support from Assistant Set Decorator Adam Polgar. His family has been dealing in antiques for many years, so he was a font of local resources and crew suggestions. And my shopper, Nimrod Hajdu, whom I shared with the art department, dealt with finding samples, ordering materials and monitoring progress made by each independent shop. I had my own draftsperson to specify drawings for the reception desk, oak bar and back-bars, and all the gaming tables in the casino. I used independent wood workers, metal workers, drapery people and upholsterers, as well as painters for elements in each set.”
To accommodate the time-length of the takes Feig requires, Director of Photography Robert Yeoman [GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM] agreed to shoot digitally for the first time, appreciative of the format’s inherent flexibility. That usually translates into practicals as the lighting source, which means a lot of extra responsibility for the set decorator. Berry says, “Shooting digitally does mean that the demand for practical lighting be increased. This proved to be a somewhat troublesome situation for set dressing as well as the lighting department! For example, light fixtures found locally were designed for 220volts…and light fixtures and Dell computers brought in from the states for the CIA communications center were all designed for 110volts. The power coming in through the wires was actually cycling at a rate that could be picked up in-camera, so we were directed to a local electrician who had designed a transformer system that could regulate the strobing coming from all the different light sources!”
Lighting was a huge part of the set for Club Nomad, a hip dance venue for the city’s young and beautiful, with an appearance by Curtis ’50 Cent’ Jackson. This was filmed at the Budapest Ethnographic Museum, across the street from the Parliament. The scenes here included 500 club-goers. A key set piece was the private viewing stand, with silver & black baroque settees and furnishings. Berry says, “We rented that furniture group and the 2 bars and back-bars. We also brought in numerous potted plants and standing light columns…and set up seating areas flanking the stage. I bought area rugs and had them stitched together for the dais, and we fabricated the silver backdrop curtain and stage skirting.” The scene was originally supposed to be one of the famous ruins bars, but as Berry points out, “I would have loved working in a ruins bar setting. However, the Museum was on the large scale that better fit the scope of our movie.”
Kitchen fight scene…
The action moves from there to a fight scene in a nearby restaurant kitchen, filled with “weapons”: knives, pans…produce!
Stunt coordinator JJ Perry says the scene took two days to complete. “Paul’s an enthusiast of 1980s Jackie Chan movies, as am I, so I had a good idea what he wanted: low, wide-angle impact shots coming into the lens. It’s funny, kinetic and violent.”
Berry shares, “I have worked with JJ Perry on four films SERENITY, BE COOL, EXPENDABLES 3, and now SPY. It is a pleasure to speak with him about what kind of equipment he wants to use and to figure out how to hide it. He had this fight scene well choreographed and was able to let me know what kind of action he was planning. I try to take the ideas the stunt people have and build into the set dressing as many options as possible.”
“For example, we positioned a purchased stainless steel refrigerator next to the entry door in a way that Susan could open to deflect an attack. We purchased large kitchen-style rubber work mats to hide fall pads. The wooden shelves were built by the art department and scored by special effects to be able to collapse during the fight. Of course, all the goods on the shelves were made up to fall without hurting our actors, but also to not make too big of a mess…all the large tin cans were drained of their contents, and spices and some dried goods were placed into see-through lightweight containers. We brought in the baguettes and other baked goods, fruits, veggies, even a big ham.”
“The art department built two wild walls to define our set built into the existing kitchen area of the building. And then, of course, we had to figure out a way to move the heavy and gigantic stove into the center of the room! My draftsperson designed the height-adjustable overhead pot rack on which we hung the butcher knives and some pots and pans.”
De Lucca seaside villa…
The opposite look was the De Lucca manor, a magnificent 19th century villa, of which we see a hint of the interiors…a sweeping grand staircase and the foyer, the rooms flanking it…and the exterior entry, all the more impressive for the statuary and florals.
“All furnishings, drapery, artwork, flowers, and marble sculptures were brought to the location, which was in derelict and unused condition,” Berry discloses. “Wallpaper, also from Astek, was applied to the great rooms flanking the Entry Hall and stairway. The location’s neglect was such that we even had to replace the carpeting on the stairs…and all the marble and wood flooring was cleaned and buffed. The exterior staircase cascading out to the helipad and the boat dock area were builds, to which we then added more sculptures, florals and plants.” The villa sits majestically atop a multi-acre beautiful lawn that slopes to the shoreline, incorporating the final action scene of the film.
Rayna Boyanov’s house…
Another distinctive set was Rayna Boyanov’s contemporary house, a minimalist art piece. “I loved having this set among all the film’s traditional style locations,” Berry smiles. “For the interior, we rented the black lacquer and glass square table, all of the chairs and the tall rosewood speakers from the aforementioned Artcore Antik & Design showroom. All pillows and throws were custom-made for this location and our beloved villainess, Rayna. The exterior lighting and furniture was a combination of purchases and a few of the homeowner’s elements. We also added our own greens and succulent arrangements.
For the kitchen lighting and dressing details, we incorporated rounded reflective chrome elements to distort details of what Susan was able to see revealed through Bradley’s contact lens camera.”
Replete with her unmistakable style—snakeskin upholstery and Versace red and gold wallpaper—Rayna’s private jet was a gimbaled set. Berry points out, “This set was a total build. We designed and built the snakeskin swivel chairs and all of the cabinetry. Under-cabinet directional lighting was shipped in from the United States. We bought a few pieces of leather furniture and had them dyed to our color choice. The entire cockpit dashboard control panel was a build, as well. The pieces were ordered and assembled based on photo research. A local father and son team put the dashboard together using practical airplane elements combined with flight simulator parts. The monitors were made by integrating promo tablets from Dell!”
The film looks richer, visually more sophisticated than most of today’s comedies. Feig mentions that he wanted to give the feel of the Bond films, particularly CASINO ROYALE. Berry responds, “It was indeed our touchstone, especially for the environmental richness achieved by shooting in a wide scale.”
Film Editor Brent White points out that Feig is always careful to ensure that the comedy doesn’t get so broad or absurd that it undermines the character’s emotional moments. “He looks for the humanity that connects you with the characters within the framework of comedy.”
Melissa McCarthy simply surmises, “This is Paul’s vision, start to finish. It’s very hard to achieve, and he does it amazingly well.”
With a little help from his friends…or, as he would note, with a lot of help from his friends!