THE FRENCH DISPATCH
December 31st, 2021 by Rena DeAngelo SDSA
Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA
Production Designer Adam Stockhausen
“Ennui-Sur-Blasé, the home of THE FRENCH DISPATCH, evokes a Paris that is no more and maybe never was...” --Wes Anderson/Alex Pasternack
A perfect way to end this year that was and wasn’t and was and wasn’t again!
We asked the inimitable Rena DeAngelo SDSA to do the impossible and give us a glimpse into the making of THE FRENCH DISPATCH. She and Production Designer Adam Stockhausen have paired on several films [and have been Oscar-nominated together], so they naturally teamed again for this multi-flavored, vignette-filled totally unique production.
Enjoy from all of us at SETDECOR!
...from Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA...
It all started when Adam asked if I wanted to go to a small village in France to do a Wes Anderson film that takes place in the fictional town of Ennui-Sur-Blasé, which was to be a version of post-war and pre-war Paris. Not shiny clean Paris, but a sootier, dirtier, seedier version with beautiful architecture, just not scrubbed clean.
“...a Paris that is no more and maybe never was...” Complete with newsstand. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Adam showed me some of the story boards and gave me a rough outline of the plot, explained it was about an American magazine based in France, The French Dispatch, and that the story would be told in vignettes. I didn’t get the script until I was on the plane headed to Paris...and discovered the scope of the project!
We prepped in Paris for 6 weeks. I had a fantastic French crew who were my guides and interpreters. Helene took me to all the flea markets, the prop houses and all the out-of-the-way country shops where we found so much incredible set dressing. When we went to our location village Angoulême, which is 5 hours south of Paris, I left one of my assistants in Paris for the first few weeks so she could continue to source what we needed, since I figured resources were going to be limited in Angoulême.
But once we got there, luckily, my two local assistants were unbelievable at sourcing even the most obscure items. They were masters at finding anything I asked them for: vintage gymnasium equipment...all those incredible vintage lighting fixtures! They took me to a local estate liquidator named Denis Gargolie, who had an enormous warehouse filled with everything imaginable. He liquidated French homes of their antiques, rugs, tableware, lighting. It was a huge relief to have found such an invaluable source locally.
Once a month we went to the Chartre and Le Mans flea markets which happened on the 15th and 16th of each month. We raced through these sales that were only open from 7 am to 2 pm for the one day. Bordeaux was an hour south, and another fine resource. The greatest part of this job was shopping in France for 6 months, going to flea markets and out of the way country shops, weekend brocantes, all full of the most wonderful French things.
Black & white...
The scenes that were to be in b/w were predetermined, and Bob [Director of Photography Robert Yeoman] was going to shoot them with b/w stock. So, we did need to take which colors worked well together in black & white as well as in color into consideration. We also needed the sets to look good to the crew and Wes when they were shooting in them.
Cadazio Gallery...Stately and well-defined in black & white. Photo by Roger Do Minh © 2019 TFD Productions.
Cadazio Gallery...And, in color. For more about the gallery sets, see below. Photo by Roger Do Minh © 2019 TFD Productions.
The Cadazio Gallery, for instance, is mainly shot in black and white then turns to color. And since there is so much set dressing in the room, it was a challenge. I used the black and white filters on my phone to see how it was all working together as we were dressing it. We did some camera tests at the beginning but mostly I just shot it with my filters and made the determinations as I went.
Just outside of town was an old felt factory which became our stages, offices, carpentry mill paint shop and set dressing storage. It was a perfect location for us. It had three huge rooms that we used as stages, and then also smaller rooms throughout where we staged the police dining room, the dockside bar, the artists garret...we built all the sets here except the interior of the prison, which was another incredible ancient empty factory outside of town.
The Roebuck Wright police dolly shot was built here. Wes has every frame of the movie storyboarded ahead of time so there is no question of what he wants to shoot. And each of the pieces of this segment were meticulously described in the script. That set was the entire length of one of the stages and built in a miraculous 2 weeks and dressed in 2 days! Honestly, I have no idea how we pulled it off. We always had at least 6 giant sets going at once, and once one was finished, we would pull it down to make room for more. Thankfully, the crew in France were top notch true artisans with enthusiasm and energy to spare.
Police District Headquarters – one in this warren of ostensibly 78 rooms, many of which we visit as Roebuck Wright tries to find his way to the Commissaire’s private dining room. Photo by Roger Do Minh © 2019 TFD Productions.
Police District Headquarters – Rena reveals, “The disguises, I picked up throughout prep in all the flea markets and brocantes. Plus, we found a local costume shop and were able to rent a lot of the crazier outfits.” Photo by Roger Do Minh © 2019 TFD Productions.
Ennui? Yes, even so...One of the several kitchens depicted. Photo by Roger Do Minh © 2019 TFD Productions.
Angoulême was the perfect back drop for Wes’s version of a postwar Paris. The buildings were there, we just added to them. The streets were mostly empty during the day, so it became a backlot of sorts. And since it was all in the same town and a 15-minute drive to the felt factory, I was able to tour the 11 million sets we had going at once in a day!
A quick look at a few of those millions of sets:
The Cadazio Gallery...
All the artwork, tapestries and armor were sourced from Paris prop houses. Wes had 5 specific categories of art he wanted to represent, and I was lucky to be able to find enough of each to fill every inch of the walls. The furnishings and other objects and rugs were either from the prop houses or the flea markets. The tête-à-tête was found on 1st Dibs in England and my drapers reupholstered it to look like one that Wes had asked me to source.
Cadazio Gallery...Looks equally stunning in black and white, and in color. Photo by Roger Do Minh © 2019 TFD Productions.
I loved everything in this set.
Le Sans Blague café...
This set was inspired by so many French films of the ‘60s, but BANDE Á PART specifically because it didn’t want to be an Art Nouveau cliché Paris café. It was post war and things were being modernized and not always in the most beautiful ways. They used a lot of Formica and mirrors and plastic.The yellow came from a photo in our vast reference library of a yellow awning on a corner in a rather bleak neighborhood. So, we made the awning for the exterior, then Adam made the bold color choice for the interior.
Le Sans Blague café...The beginning of the Chessboard Revolution. Zeffirelli B [Timothée Chalamet], student revolutionary movement leader and Juliette [Lyna Khoudri], opposing student revolutionary movement leader, state their causes. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Le Sans Blague café...1960s palette! Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
We liked the idea of red with this yellow, so I used red Formica on the tabletops, painted some of the chairs, and kept finding a particular style of sconce chandelier and other lights in a red and black plastic at every flea market I went to, so I bought them all. The bar and a lot of the furniture came from a restaurant liquidator outside of Paris called Bravo.
The barricade set was on a residential street at the foot of that fantastic church. We built the 2 cafés and cobblestoned the street, and the sculptors made a zillion rubber cobblestones for piles and throwing. Those Dr Seuss-style trees exist all over Angoulême. We built a few so we could move them to camera.
The Chessboard Revolution...Those trees actually grow in the area. Expand this photo and note the myriad details everywhere. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
The barricades are works of art. The car one was built by the art dept from actual scrapped car parts. The other was scripted as a barricade built from school desks and chairs, globes and typewriters. We bought every globe, typewriter, and school chair and desk we could find, and my set dressers built that magnificent structure in 2 pieces on wheels so it could be easily moved.
Student barricade...A work of art. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
The Dispatch offices...
The dispatch offices were supposed to shoot first but ended up at the end of the schedule which was good because we got to know the characters better. Each office was meant to depict the personality of each writer, in one frame. Each writer/character was based on actual writers from the NEW YORKER magazine, as was the editor Arthur Howitzer Jr [Bill Murray] inspired by iconic figures in that magazine’s history.
The offices of The French Dispatch...Wally Wolodarsky as a writer who never finishes an article; Bill Murray as Arthur Howitzer Jr, founder & editor of TFD, his character inspired by THE NEW YORKER editors Harold Ross and William Shawn; and Owen Wilson as Herbsaint Sazerac, travel writer and cyclite-fläneur, inspired by Joseph Mitchell, Luc Sante and street photographer Bill Cunningham. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures ©2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Sazerac’s cycling tour of the underbelly of Ennui-Sur-Blasé...
Sazerac’s sequence, although short and exteriors only, was as massive an undertaking as the rest. As he rides through town, a lot of what you see on the narrow roads was Angoulême in its perfection. But everything else was super involved. Always garbage and workmen and their accoutrement, graphics sign painters and faux cobblestone street, sets built and set dressing added. There was actually so much, we were worried about finishing the other sets for the rest of the movie.
And in the end...
Working in France was fantastic, challenging, infuriating, and I would do it all over again but with a better mastery of the language. They had a different way of working than I am used to in NY or the US, in general. I had set dressers who were also carpenters, welders and furniture builders. I had my own painting crew, so we were able to be self-sufficient, which was wonderfully efficient. There is no way we could have had this many sets ready to shoot if not!
My crew and the entire art dept were just incredible. They all spoke better English by the time we were done. I can’t say that about my French.