Hail, Caesar! production designer Jess Gonchor on recreating 1950s Hollywood

Set in Hollywood in the 1950s, the Coen brothers’ new film Hail, Caesar! is a visual treat, with lavish sets and handcrafted designs throughout. We spoke to production designer Jess Gonchor about recreating cinema’s golden age, embracing old-school techniques and collaborating with the Coens

Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a fixer at fictional film studio Capitol Pictures, as he tries to track down missing A List actor Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney. (Brolin’s character is based on the life of fixer Josh “Eddie” Mannix, who worked for MGM). A film about film-making, it both sends up and celebrates the industry, and pays homage to a time when major studios churned out blockbuster productions week after week from their Hollywood lots.

As Mannix deals with ransom requests, casting trouble and journalists fishing for scandal, he travels to a series of extravagant movie sets: there’s a Western, a nautical dance musical starring Channing Tatum, an aquamusical with Scarlett Johansson dressed as a mermaid (modelled on the kind starring Esther Williams from the 40s and 50s), and a period drama set in a palatial drawing room.

Each set has a distinct look and feel, referencing classic productions from the era, and has been brilliantly imagined by the film’s art department. There’s plenty to please graphics enthusiasts too, from the fictional film posters lining the walls of Capitol’s offices, to hand painted lettering on vehicles, doors and shop fronts.

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Capitol Pictures graphics are shown on letterheads, telephones and even a floorplan of the lot behind lead character Eddie Manix (Josh Brolin)’s desk. Image: Universal Pictures. Lead image (top): visualisation of scene set in Capitol Pictures Studios, courtesy of Jess Gonchor
Handcrafted lettering appears throughout the film, on shop fronts, doors, walls, vehicles and movie posters. (Still from official trailer)
Signage and hand painted type at the fictional Capitol Pictures Studios. (Still from official trailer)

While some scenes in the film feature CGI (you can read an interview with VFX supervisor Dan Schrecker over on The Verge), Gonchor says visual effects were kept to a minimum. Most sets were built by hand, using the same techniques that would have been used at the time.

“We adopted a lot of those methods that were used in the 50s. A lot of things in the film were hand sculpted with plaster, using some of those old techniques and hand painted, you know – real scenic artists paintings, signs and backdrops and things like that – rather than using CG,” he says. “The whole design team really stepped back into the old studio system, where there’s lots of people drawing with pencils, and sketching and painting by hand.”

A mosaic path on the set of Hail, Caesar! shown in the film’s opening scenes, for example, was put together “100% percent by hand” says Gonchor. “It’s not something that was printed out from a machine – it was a real thing … we tried to avoid visual effects as much as we could, just trying to get everything we possibly could in camera, as they would have done in the 40s and 50s,” he adds.

A lot of the filming of the fictional productions shown in Hail, Caesar! was also done in the same locations and movie lots as the real films they were modelled on. The aquamusical, for example, was shot in the same tank as one created for Esther Williams – “We were the first people [to use it] since she made her last movie, and they recreated that tank on Stage 30,” says Gonchor – while a Western scene with Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich) was shot at the famous Vasquez Rocks Natural Park, also used to shoot the Texas Ranger and The Lone Ranger TV series. “It was very much about being inspired by the surroundings that we were in,” he explains.

Before starting work on the design, Gonchor and his team studied hundreds of films, sets and studios from the era. “Being in Los Angeles, we had access to lots of great things: the Academy library, the MGM library which was very influential in a lot of the things that I did,” he says. “There was a lot of Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, older things like that, and a three-part series of movies called That’s Entertainment, which told the story of [MGM’s] whole studio system from the beginning, to how it evolved in the 1950s where an actor would go from one movie where played a cowboy one week, to a serious role the next. I drew mostly from that, especially part two, as it had a lot of information from the era we were working in.”

Set for a nautical musical starring Channing Tatum. Image: Universal Pictures
Another of the film’s sets, where George Clooney’s character Baird Whitlock is held hostage. Image: Universal Pictures

“Our office was filled with concept art, research models, colour inspiration, fabrics, swatches,” he continues. “It leaked out into the hallways and we took over two floors of a building, there was almost not enough room to house it all. Usually, I’ll take over a large space on the very first day and start taping up a piece of research of a sketch, and as the weeks and weeks and months go along that wall will develop into what hopefully the movie looks like, so by the time we get ready to start shooting there’s quite a good collection of research…. This was in a giant hallway we had, so from one end of the hall to the other, we had from start to finish, the opening of the movie to the end, and I was able to walk people through who came on after me,” says Gonchor.

Surprisingly, given the number of sets created and the many props and moving parts involved in each, the film’s art department was made up of less than 50 people. “A lot of the Coen brothers movies are certainly not the biggest productions, and the budgets aren’t the biggest, so we were a little bit limited, but we had a lot of great people, great designers and set designers,” explains Gonchor. “Everyone was so enthused by the work they went above and beyond the call [of duty].”

Rendering for aquamusical set, modelled on films starring the swimmer and actress Esther Williams, courtesy of Jess Gonchor

Gonchor says the team had just four months to devise and craft sets before shooting began, with the whole department working under one roof at famous studio The Lot to construct and assemble sets. “You have probably four months from the day you’re hired to go through the script and and break it down, and start to realise these designs, and gear up and start to build it and fabricate the props and all the moving parts,” he says.

One of the most challenging elements to create was a nighttime scene set at sea (pictured below). While it appears to be shot outdoors, it was filmed inside in the same tank as the aquamusical at Stage 30, with backdrops painted to resemble the night sky. For another scene where Clooney arrives on a chariot in Hail, Caesar! (also pictured below), the studio built a vast arch and monument to resemble the Appian Way, “but the grass was brown, so we needed to paint it like they would a football field,” says Gonchor. “Everybody thinks LA is lush but it’s a desert out here!” he adds.

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A set created for the film’s opening scenes resembling the Appian Way in Ancient Rome (Still from official trailer)
Some scenes which appear to be shot outdoors were filmed inside, such as this one, set at sea at nighttime. The scene was filmed in a tank, with backdrops painted to resemble the night sky

Gonchor started out designing commercials and first worked with the Coen brothers on No Country for Old Men (the directors contacted him after seeing his work on Truman Capote biopic Capote). He has since worked with the directors on Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit and Burn After Reading, and with other film-makers on the Oscar-winning Foxcatcher and Moneyball, designing both contemporary sets and period Westerns. He describes Hail, Caesar! as a “dream job” and the most fun he’s had on a film set.

“This one was definitely a challenge, you have to do everything on a budget … but I was just super inspired by the work. It’s like an actor getting to play a great character from a movie in the past who’s working today. I got to design the sets that made movies what they are today, so that was a lot of inspiration for me, and it’s a nice break from working on the things that are very popular now,” he says. “It’s completely different from working on, say, a Marvel movie or a futuristic one, and it’s nice to make something so real that you can go up and touch and be a part of and get up close with. We’re all into film history because we fell in love with movies years ago, we fell in love with the design of those films,” he says.

Concept sketch for drawing room scenes in Hail, Caesar! courtesy of Jess Gonchor
Drawing room rendering. Image: Jess Gonchor
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The final set. Image: Universal Pictures

Gonchor describes the Coens as “two of the most visual people I know” and says while they are heavily involved in the production process, they are also happy to give the art department a lot of freedom to create sets, props and graphics.

“They’ll be writing something for a year, could be more before I even get on the project, so they see it a certain way, and then when I read it, I see it a certain way. Most of the time, we’ll then sit down with each other and it’s a little bit of a process of each of us saying, ‘this is what I think’ we should do, and then together, turning it into something great,” he says.

“They’re probably the most involved directors that I’ve worked with, but they’re also probably the most trusting – they trust what I think is right, and that’s why we’re a good mix. They’re open to ideas, even if it’s not what they had in mind while writing the script, they have wild imaginations, as I do, and when you’re in a room with them the ideas seem to rise far above [what they would on] other films. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, and that makes for quality decisions, I think.”

Hail, Caesar! is out in UK cinemas today. 

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