Casablanca… “I was so impressed when I first came onto the Casablanca sets,” says Marion Cotillard, here with costar Brad Pitt. “All the details were so strong and felt so real, it was easy to believe we really were back in that place during World War II. It’s so important as an actor to have that kind of feeling, especially on a soundstage and they did an amazing job of giving us that.”
Casablanca, apartment rooftop… Set Decorator Raffaella Giovannetti SDSA, having been to Morocco several times, shopped in Marrakech and Paris for the Casablanca sets, knowing the exact look Director Robert Zemeckis wanted to convey in recapturing some of the magic of the film CASABLANCA...
Giovannetti reveals, “In Paris, I found a beautiful period bar counter and dressed it with period glass and crystal...also perfect chandeliers that I mixed with Moroccan sconces made by scratch...and a filigreed cash register that was not only right for period and place but also reflected the intricacy of the Moroccan tea glasses...”
“This was a working pub built entirely on stage,” imparts Giovannetti. “The walls were filled with more than 300 photos and small paintings, all of them chosen to give the ambiance and cozy atmosphere typical of a pub at the time...”
“Marianne was a modern woman in touch with painters, writers and other creative people, so there were elements that reflected that throughout the home, including her choices of colors,” the set decorator conveys...
“I went with the opposite for the old lady down the street who is actually a German spy!” says Giovannetti. “Very Victorian, full of smalls and quite dark, lots of brown colors, which reflect her personality as well.”
A huge empty factory was utilized to house the SOE labyrinth of sets, which attempted to re-create the actual spaces as authentically as possible. As these were underground, both for safety and secrecy, corridors often became “offices”...
“I went to London’s Imperial War Museum, where I could see the reconstruction of some of the secret service offices. We did extensive research about the kind of graphics and posters used at that time in order to have the right wording of the English propaganda, and the correct maps and placements,” explains Giovannetti...
Ready room: “The walls of the offices were full of maps re-created with details of what was happening in Europe at that time. Notes of bombing areas were designated with different color pins, as they did at the time,” explains Giovannetti...
In a sumptuous, visually evocative production that roams from 1940s Casablanca to London’s Blitz days to German-occupied France, Director Robert Zemeckis creates the kind of grand tale that flourished in Golden Hollywood – full of mystery, thrills and romantic heat – yet told with all the richly immersive power of 21st Century cinema.
The story: On an urgent assignment for the British Special Operations Executive, Canadian airman Max Vatan [Brad Pitt] parachutes into occupied Casablanca to take out Germany’s ambassador. There he encounters ravishing French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour [Marion Cotillard], chosen to pose as his spouse. But their growing passion for each other soon becomes more than an act, even as they face devastating odds. Daring to reunite in London, their love only deepens and they start a family. But then comes the day Max is informed his idyllic new family life may be a monumental deception – sparking a desperate chase after the truth through a potentially lethal maze of borders and alliances both international and personal. At once a mesmerizing espionage thriller, sweeping war drama and passionate romance between two assassins who may be fated soul mates or deadly enemies...or both...
Director Robert Zemeckis says, “I like to make audiences really feel, and I use all the tools at my disposal to do that. I think of production design as its own character that should bring its own emotions. I felt the design and décor on this film had to be about surrounding the audience with romance and tension.”
To bring this about, he relied on Production Designer Gary Freeman, Set Decorator Raffaella Giovannetti SDSA and their teams, who worked with Cinematographer Don Burgess, Costume Designer Joanna Johnston, Special Effects Supervisor Kevin Baillie and their teams to viscerally re-create this distinctive mix of gritty and glamorous WWII realms, capturing not just the devastation of WWII but equally the exuberant, fervent life of people intoxicated by the sheer wonder of survival.
After extensive and deep research, intricate soundstage sets were built to give Zemeckis the fast-moving, cinematic versatility he thrives upon. “We did use some practical locations as well, but Bob really likes to have as much control as he can to make each shot as beautiful and pure as possible, so that means a lot of soundstage work,” the designer explains. Over the course of the shoot, Freeman and his team built nearly 80 different sets from the ground up.
The process began with the film’s immersive opening in Casablanca, the multi-cultural port city in North Africa that was Vichy-controlled during WWII and host to both war refugees of all kinds and the pervasive Nazis.
Zemeckis says, “We wanted our film to evoke the Casablanca that we already know from the classic film, and that’s really how it was at that time. It was a very elegant, stylish, sophisticated city at the crossroads of the war...”
The chance to re-create one of the most elegant and exotic cities of the war was a special thrill for Freeman and Giovannetti, especially given its rich cinematic history. “What’s interesting is that in the 1940s, Casablanca was this bustling, cosmopolitan city full of French art deco influences and a truly glamorous feeling, whereas London was falling apart and all about raw survival,” observes Freeman. “So we really turboed-up the scale and sophistication of Casablanca and played on the saturated colors of the Moroccan souks and the circular architecture, which echoes the intensity and danger Max and Marianne find themselves in when they arrive.”
Casablanca, Rivoli nightclub...
The Rivoli nightclub, where Max and Marianne first meet, immediately sets the tone of cosmopolitan, exotic glamour. An enormous 14-foot high Venetian glass chandelier was created to hang amid the avant-garde walls and plush furnishings.
“The chandelier was manufactured as a product placement by a Italian company from Venice, The Dogi, in Murano glass and crystal,” notes Giovannetti. “Inspired by the 1930s, we had all the dressing, tables, sofas, banquettes and chairs, wall lights, lady-lights, table lights, big urns and mirrors custom-made. The colors were the reds, golds and blue-green of the time, with strong deco metallics and black.”
Casablanca, Marianne’s apartment...
“This was my first important set for the film,” Giovannetti reveals. “I had to find a way to create a perfect apartment for her, elegant but not too much, sophisticated, but at the same time not being pretentious. I went to Paris to shop and I found some very good pieces at the antique fairs, including some amazing embroidered organza vintage drapes, which I used to separate the bedroom from the living room. I incorporated some beautiful Lalique lights and Berber white rugs, and placed a French cabinet close by a very simple kitchen area. All worked very well together and the director and the actors were enthusiastic. In a way, that set was the most difficult one because there were such big expectations from everybody.”
“I was so impressed when I first came onto the Casablanca sets,” Marion Cotillard remembers. “All the details were so strong and felt so real, it was easy to believe we really were back in that place during World War II. It’s so important as an actor to have that kind of feeling, especially on a soundstage and they did an amazing job of giving us that.”
“Thank you to Marion!” Raffaella replies. “The rooftop was easy due the fact that I've been to Morocco several times, and Gary and I wanted to show a popular area of the town. Seeing references from the time, we can say that nothing has really changed. I went to Marrakech to purchase furniture and props for the souk and for other Moroccan sets, some we filmed on stage, the exteriors we shot in the Canary Islands.”
Casablanca, Anfa café...
The Anfa café is one of the haunts where expats went to be seen. Close by the souk, it afforded casual elegance, with a view of the street and plenty of meeting places within.
Giovannetti reveals, “I tried to keep the elegance of the French look mixed with Moroccan furniture. In Paris, I had found a beautiful period bar counter and then dressed it with period glass and crystals. I also found the exact crystal chandeliers I needed and mixed those with Moroccan sconces made from scratch.”
“The sand colors of the set and the colors that Gary used for the floor worked very well with the costumes. Working with Costume Designer Joanna Johnston was great. We would have a chat about all the sets, and play with colors and the look of the sets, the feeling and the suggestions that we wanted to re-create. She is an amazing talent and it was an honor for me to work with her.”
Casablanca, German Embassy and Nazi headquarters in the Vichy-controlled city...
The Nazi headquarters emphasized the sophistication found in Casablanca. “Commandant Hobar’s office was quite elegant and ornate with important pieces. I did research about the details in the offices of the most important dictators in the world and I followed that feeling in dressing this office,” says Giovannetti. “Thinking also of the character as portrayed, I added a female aspect to the dressing, a collection of ceramic figurines and flowers.”
The embassy ballroom became a major action scene where Max and Marianne assassinate the German Ambassador and several other key Nazi figures. “That ballroom was a revamp of the Nazi office,” relays the set decorator. “I played with heavy German dressing all around: tapestries, animal heads on shields, sculptures and heavy ornate furniture. I decided to have big floral decorations with a mix of colors because I wanted to have something impressive but not very elegant, playing with the German taste.”
After the action in Casablanca builds to the explosive moment of Max and Marianne’s mission, the story moves fatefully to London during the Blitz, where the couple starts out a blissful married life, in spite of the war.
Zemeckis says. “London was being bombed nightly but despite that, the people carried on with the life of the city. That was something I wanted to capture in this: a world where the machinery of war is always there in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, yet people are living with a kind of total abandon because they realize that life could end at any moment. “
Wedding pub... Max and Marianne’s wedding was filled with the warmth and convivial closeness of the wartime need for normalcy, as their friends gathered in a classic pub.
Giovannetti reveals, “That was a working pub built entirely on stage. The walls were filled with more than 300 photos and small paintings, all of them chosen to give the ambiance and cozy atmosphere typical of a pub at the time. Despite the restrictions of the war, the counter and the back bar with all the bottles of alcohol were fully operational. The focus of our decor was on wood and warm colors, which offered not only atmosphere but also an ideal background to offset the blue of their costumes.”
The look of London was designed to be much more claustrophobic as the world closes in on Max and Marianne. “Unlike the vastness of Morocco, in London our characters are in these terraced cottages and very small rooms, and you can feel the pressure building,” says Freeman.
Max and Marianne’s house...
Max and Marianne’s London house, Rose Cottage, is in Hampstead Heath, notably a community that drew young intellectuals, avant-garde artists and other free thinkers. “I tried to have a look that was quite far away from the classical Victorian houses,” Giovannetti describes. “Light colors, flowers and a few modern pieces for the time. Marianne was a modern woman in touch with painters, writers and other creative people, so there were elements that reflected that throughout the home, while it still remained quintessentially an English house, complete with a Victory garden in the back.”
“I went with the opposite for the old lady down the street who is actually a German spy. We thought to have her house very Victorian, full of smalls and quite dark, lots of brown colors, which reflect her personality as well.”
SOE: British Special Operations Executive, a.k.a. the Baker Street Irregulars, a.k.a. Churchill’s Secret Army...
The famed SOE offices on Baker Street, where 10,000 people secretly worked on covert sabotage and espionage campaigns being plotted by Allied forces unbeknownst to the world, were re-created in an old, hollowed-out factory full of chilly ambiance.
“This is one of my favorite sets,” Giovannetti reveals. “It was huge, but very full of details. I went to London’s Imperial War Museum, where I could see the reconstruction of some offices of the secret service. We did extensive research about the kind of graphics and posters used at that time in order to have the right wording of the English propaganda, and the correct maps and placements. I tried to re-create as closely as possible the original offices of the English secret service—all dark wood furniture with linoleum floor.”
“We fully dressed a main office belonging to the commandant, Colonel Frank Heslop, Max’s boss and closest confidante...also Max’s office, big corridors where the secretaries were working and a main room, an operation room with radios and telephones switch boards, plus other side rooms.”
“The walls of the offices were full of maps re-created with details of what was happening in Europe at that time. Notes of bombing areas were designated with different color pins, as they did at the time, and notes of shelters that were assigned in all the districts. We tried to be accurate as much as possible throughout.”
As they were with the hospitals depicted. “During the war, a lot of mansions were used as hospitals, so I dressed the convalescent set with the remains of an antique mansion mixed with hospital furniture: antique tables mixed with card tables, various chairs and windows with remnant’s of the opulent drapes, a small chapel dressed in a corner.”
The chapel provided a luminous setting for a crucial scene in the film.
And the hospital was re-created for an intense action scene where Marianne gives birth to daughter Anna during an air raid, her husband at her side as buildings are blown up around them.
Freeman and Giovannetti also created the idyllic Canadian ranch where Max raises Anna. “Set in the 1960s, the ranch has a more masculine personality, very clean and simple, as he has raised Anna here alone since the war,” says Giovannetti. “There are personal mementos of his beloved wife, including a painting belonging to her.”
Unfortunately filmgoers will only see the exteriors, but in the gallery above, we’ve included a photo of the interior as a gift to our readers!