It’s January 1969. Seven very different but equally lost souls converge on the El Royale, a once-glorious resort that has since fallen—like its visitors—into disrepute. Situated on the border between California and Nevada, the El Royale offers warmth and sunshine to the west, hope and opportunity to the east. It also straddles the colliding worlds of past and present.
Once a hotspot where the country’s most famous celebrities and politicians comingled in and around the resort’s casino, bar, bungalows and pool, the good times have come to a close. In the lobby, where the shine has faded and the laughter fallen silent, gather Father Daniel Flynn [Jeff Bridges], soul singer Darlene Sweet [Cynthia Erivo], traveling salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan [Jon Hamm], hippie Emily Summerspring [Dakota Johnson], her sister Rose [Cailee Spaeny], manager Miles Miller [Lewis Pullman] and the enigmatic Billy Lee [Chris Hemsworth].
Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption…before everything goes to hell.
Writer/Director Drew Goddard shares his perspective and delight in filmmaking, particularly his collaboration once again with Production Designer Martin Whist & Set Decorator Hamish Purdy SDSA International...
SET DECOR: Although it’s not a musical, Martin has mentioned that this film had a different approach because you somewhat designed the scenes and the sets around the music...
Writer/Director Drew Goddard:
Music is very much entwined in my process, in general, whenever I’m writing. I like to have the soundtrack of either what I think is going to be in the movie or what evokes the spirit of the movie on all the time while I’m working, because there’s something about music that allows me to tap into an emotion much more easily than anything else.
In many ways, BAD TIMES is me trying to write about the importance of music in my life, or the role that music plays in turbulent times, and how it certainly gets me through turbulent times. As soon as I figured out that I wanted it set in the ‘60s, I started working on the playlist... before I even started working on the story. I started going through my songs and feeling what evoked the emotions I wanted to evoke in the film. A few songs became touchstones for the movie, and I almost built the script around those songs. They definitely gave me benchmarks as I plotted the movie out.
SET DECOR: The visual echoes...
As we were thinking about the hotel, the idea of duality was very much on our minds, both in character and in place. One of the things I love about working with Martin is that he approaches his design through character. We’re not going for stark realism here. We’re going for “Everything is part of the whole
.” So, with every scene, we would look at, “What are our characters going through? What can the location/set reflect of the themes and emotions we want them to be going through?”
The hotel in 1969 delineated between Nevada and California. We treated California as very seductive and Nevada is almost melancholy. There is a sort of melancholy about Nevada I’ve always responded to, where people go there when they’re down on their luck and they’re looking for something hopeful. And so, we wanted to delineate between the two places with color as well. Warmth and sunshine to the west...hope and opportunity to the east. Golds and oranges, purples and silvers.
Ten years earlier, with Nick
[in Room 5, 1958], the movie wants to start in a middle ground...and what Nick
is going through is of a middle territory. Martin was very good about trying to find a color scheme that existed between the two, because we wanted to start our movie off in the middle of those two polarities.
SET DECOR: We loved that the wallpapers, in that room particularly, reflected the exterior...that sort of broken line geometric. And then when we get into 1969, it’s the flocked wallpaper! It goes from the pinks of the Honeymoon Suite to the blues of Emily’s and the purples and greens of Father Flynn’s and Darlene’s rooms. Great that you mentioned the moods, because sometimes they’re grayer, sometimes more vivid, darker...and it doesn’t seem untrue in any way, it seems that exact thing, the atmosphere, the mood.
If you had any idea how long, how much time we spent looking at wallpaper! [Laughs] We literally spent so much time trying to find, to design the right kind of wallpaper for each scene, for each character, because really, it all started with character. And we went through an extraordinary amount of wallpaper trying to find the right hues and the right designs for each scene. To be honest, it was one of the most fun parts of the job.
SET DECOR: You’re speaking our language there! I think every set decorator has a deep-seated love of wallpaper...
Yes! And Hamish, whom I also love. He and Martin are such a team. What’s really fun is, you know, both of them did my last film, THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, so we have a real shorthand. It was such a wonderful experience to sort of get the band back together, because the thing I love about both of them is that they love what they do, and they both have intense attention to detail that mirrors my own. Between the three of us, we all care very much about the story and the characters. All three of us do.
So Hamish, when he approaches “What is the chair going to look like
?”, it’s always thought through from the point of view, “Well who bought the chair? What function does the chair need to serve in this scene and what emotion do we want the chair to help underscore?
” These are all questions that every decision...you know, the thing about BAD TIMES is that there is no arbitrary decision in the whole movie. Every decision has been hashed over and thought through, because we really felt like every piece of visual information in this movie is important.
SET DECOR: Every bit of it is storytelling, so that makes absolute sense. That’s the heart of this. You don’t want to have a lessening of any layer of your storytelling, and you’re giving so much background and history without saying it.
Yeah, you’ve hit upon what I love most about Hamish and Martin. They’re both storytellers. They’re not...you know, they understand that this is part of a whole. And they sort put their own souls and passion into the story, and it’s really satisfying as a director to see artist like the two of them and their entire team sort of throw themselves into the movie and put themselves up on the screen. It’s really gratifying.
SET DECOR: That’s wonderful. And you mentioned a chair...those kind of Z-backed chairs in the lounge, for example. They’re just chairs at dining tables, but they distinctively spoke of that time and that place.
Yeah, we’d have a lot of conversations about time and place and how the two sides of the room could be delineated. Because that was very important, to give each side of the room character. It was very fun to play with.
SET DECOR: The California side, in warm, golds, oranges...with the bar and the refreshments area, and that great ceiling of wonderful hanging lamps that were like abstract petals....
Oh, I’m so excited that I get to be the one to tell you this. I love that you focused on those lamps, because this is one of my favorite parts about the entire process, one of my favorite parts about moviemaking.
So, one of the things Martin does that I love, he’s very big on research, very big on pulling reference. For both of us, we love to surround ourselves with photographs and art pieces from the times and just have them around. There’s really no substitute for just steeping yourself into it...
We would spend weeks, if not months, just doing that. And then when Hamish came on, the three of us! Look, like most directors, I’m obsessed with light. I’m also obsessed with what the lighting fixtures are going to look like. I love ceilings. When you get to make your own set, I love thinking about what the ceiling is going to look like, because I love shooting upwards into the ceilings. And so we talked a lot about what are we going to put up there? How are we going to differentiate the ceiling in this area? And we couldn’t quite crack it, to be honest. Everything felt rote, like what we’ve seen before in ‘60s movies...the globes, the cans, that you see everywhere. Then one day, we were looking at this picture of a bunch of chairs on the ground of a very graphic hotel, a stark hotel with these weird flower-backed chairs all over the ground. We’re sitting there staring at it, and Martin just grabbed the paper and turned it upside down so that the chairs on the ground became the ceiling. And we all looked at it and went, OMG, that’s it! That’s what we want to do. So, it was just taking a picture and flipping it. Martin had the vision to turn the world upside down and make the chairs into ceiling fixtures. That’s why Martin is so great, because he sees the world differently. He turns the world upside down and finds beauty.
SET DECOR: How fabulous! BTW, the ceiling on the Nevada side, the kind of silver grid, that was really cool, too.
Yeah. We really took our ceilings seriously on this movie. I really love ceilings. I love low angles pointing up at the ceiling. I just find myself wanting to do it time and time again, so we work really hard on what our ceilings are going to look like.
SET DECOR: And that, in a way, points to the fact that this was shot wide. That sort of classic...
The movie had such a classic look and yet was so fresh.
Your eye is drawn into the depth even though it’s a wide shot. In those climatic scenes, it’s enveloped in the dark.
So the hotel is surrounded in the dark, just as the audience is in the theater. And that’s such a wonderful pairing.
Oh good! That means the world to hear, because that was certainly my intent. I feel so grateful I get to make movies. Any time I get to make anything, I’m so happy. And I feel like, well, if we’re going to do this, let’s go for it. Let’s evoke the thing about cinema that I love, and also try to break new ground at the same time, which is not always easy, but it’s certainly what we’re going for when we do this. And at the end of the day, I just love film. I just love the wide screen, I really do.
SET DECOR: Yes. The richness, the experience.
Yeah, you need the color. You need the grain. You know, on a movie like this which is very much about an ensemble...it’s about 7 people...I need a wide frame. I need a big set. I need a big lobby, so I can put all of the characters in one frame, without it feeling crowded.
We looked at a lot of Sergio Leone films when we were figuring out the beginning, because he’s so good with the wide frame and spreading characters out. And we often compared the opening lobby scenes to the gunfighters arriving at the train station, and we sort of used that approach.
It’s like, we’re going to be wide, so lets make these sets wide. I don’t want to feel like we’re all crammed into a small space. Especially, as the movie goes forward, it becomes more claustrophobic. We start very bright and very wide, and as we progress, the movie gets more and more intimate. And one of the challenges of the movie, from a design point of view, is that it takes place over 12 hours. 60 pages of the movie take place in the same location, the lobby. So, if you don’t think it through, that can get really tedious. We definitely wanted to let the space transform. Just as the characters are transforming over the course of the movie, we wanted the space to transform, so it never feels like you’re stuck in the same place, it feels like the space is changing as well. And it’s a real credit to Martin and Hamish that they were able to figure that out.
SET DECOR: There were so many distinctive areas that all blended into the whole. For instance, the reception desk that looks like a big piece of stone, with the granite mountains pictured behind it...
Yes! With the mural in the background. In blocking it out early on, before we actually made the set, we realized that no matter how I changed the blocking on the day, I was always going to have Miles
behind the front desk. No matter what I did, the desk clerk needed to be behind the front desk, and I’m going to be pointing the camera towards that desk for a solid 12 pages. Twelve pages! So we had better make sure that whatever is behind that desk is very interesting visually, otherwise, like I said before, this movie is gonna get real tedious. So it put even more pressure on creating that space, and we were racking our brains...
I had recently started meditating, and in the middle of a meditation, it just popped into my head, “What if we did a diorama like in a natural history museum, and we put in the states’ official animals?”
[Editor's note: Nevada’s Desert Big Horn Sheep and the California Grizzly Bear]
When I mentioned it to Martin, he just lit up. And Hamish, God bless him, actually found...I don’t know where he found them...but he found those animals and just rushed them out there. It really transformed the space and gave it this sort of haunting depth.
None of that would have happened if we had just waited to figure out the blocking on the day. It was a real eye-opening part of the process. It illustrated for me that you cannot over-prepare enough. It really helps to go through it, and go through it, and go through it, because that’s what leads to inspiration.*
SET DECOR: Speaking of dioramas and inspiration, the shot of the hotel rooms from the corridor, tracking from one to the next to the next...
That shot that you’re talking about took us about 8 months to figure out how to do, because, if you look at it, if you step way back...
I wanted the hotel to be symmetrical, and I knew I wanted to do that shot.
So we had to design the entire hotel based on it.
In order to do that shot, we had to first figure out the dimensions of the rooms for the shot, because it has a lot of requirements:
...You need to be able to see the floor of the room, because a certain character is digging up the floor, and we needed to be able to see that.
...We need to be able to see the walls in the next room because a certain character is hanging things on the wall.
...And we needed to be able to see out into the parking lot from the next room.
And so when you take basic parameters like that, and realize that we’re not going to cut, we have to have a camera moving through there, the function dictates the form, to some extent. It was a very complicated architectural math problem that Martin had to figure out that determined the size of the entire set. And the whole thing started with just Martin and me in a warehouse pacing it out, as we’d act out the parts to try and figure out the logistics for that one particular shot.
SET DECOR: And then from the set decorator, from Hamish’s point of view, you have to put in the details in the right perspective.
Yeah, one of the challenges I gave Hamish was that I wanted every room to feel different, and yet every room had to feel of a piece. They’re all of the same hotel, and yet I wanted each room to evoke a very nuanced emotion, depending on who was staying in that room. It’s not an easy task, especially in those small rooms. You know, most hotel rooms have the same function. They have one or two beds, a nightstand, a chair and they have a curtain. There’s not a lot, when you think about what I’m giving you to work with, and he managed to make every one of them feel different, both in color and in texture and in character, without ever feeling like we were in a gimmick hotel. The real challenge of this movie was that we edge right up against gimmick, but I never wanted us to feel like a full-on gimmick hotel. It needed to also feel lived-in and threadbare and real.
SET DECOR: It had that very feeling. Even the mirrors looked a little bit older...everything had a touch, but not heavy aging, slightly worn, weary.
That’s a real credit to Hamish and his team. It’s deceptively difficult to age things without feeling that you’re processing them. It takes a lot of work and a lot of handcrafting to get it to feel that way.
You know, we have things like beaded curtains that hang in the lobby—they are there because Hamish and his team hand-beaded them. Thousands and thousands of glass beads. Over the course of every weekend, Hamish and his team would be hand-beading. Those curtains didn’t exist. We’re creating something out of our imaginations, and when that happens, sometimes you even have to make them by hand. And I appreciate all the man-hours that went into that.
SET DECOR: Those were wonderful, that echoing of the rain that is happening outside. It was just fabulous, and so of its time.
Again, this is my favorite part of filmmaking. Sometimes your challenges and your problems lead you into places you’d never go. In that particular case we were trying to figure out where we could have fire pits that we could conceivably have burn in a way that met the story needs...so it was just trying to solve a problem. It was Martin who finally said, “What if we just hang them from the ceiling? If we hang them from the ceiling then they can swing and spill and spread.” And I said, “That’s insane, what would that even look like?” And he just started sketching and said, “Well, what if we did little beaded curtains, the fire would be lighted in there and carry the light up.” And then, Hamish and his team created them! And they became some of the most striking and gorgeous parts of the film.
To me, those 4 pillars transformed the entire room, and it was just us trying to solve a problem.
Just trying to solve a basic story problem.
And that’s what makes filmmaking so fun, that problems can lead to real beauty.
*Editor’s note: See the photo gallery above for comments by the writer/director, production designer and set decorator – a truly collaborative team!