Like Josh Brolin’s problem-solving studio head in “Hail, Caesar!,” the Coen brothers’ love letter to ’50s Hollywood, production designer Jess Gonchor was also a Fixer of sorts. And he did it the old-school way with hand-crafted plastering, sculpting, molding, and scenic painting.
“Hail, Caesar!” was shot mostly on the stages of the old Goldwyn Studios/Warner Hollywood (now called The Lot), but they also built outdoor sets on such famous locations as the Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Valley and Vasquez Rocks Natural Park.
However, the highlight was using the old tank on Stage 30 that was originally built for Esther Williams at MGM (now Sony) for all of the synchronized swimming work starring Scarlett Johansson. They opened up the pit and filled it with water but also used it for the submarine sequence.
“To be able to go back in time as a production designer and do the same job that you currently do never really happens in any other profession,” Gonchor told IndieWire. “Nobody wants to tell a story like they did in the 1950s, and I really tried to get the story across with as much visual aids as I could.”
Gonchor took over six of the seven stages at The Lot and he said it was like a ’50s throwback, walking from stage to stage and witnessing the old Hollywood factory at work.
And there were several productions going on simultaneously that the production designer oversaw: the “Quo Vadis”-like Roman epic with George Clooney (at Big Sky), the aqua-musical with Johansson, the Gene Kelly sailor musical send-up with Channing Tatum, the reliable western with Alden Ehrenreich (at Vasquez Rocks), and the drawing room comedy with Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes.
With only four months to gear up and fabricate props and moving parts, not a moment was wasted. “You’d cut a piece of plywood and use it half on Stage 4 and half on Stage 5,” Gonchor said.
But some of the greatest craftsmanship occurred in recreating the Roman movie, with the vast arch and monument to resemble the Appian Way.
“Building that arch and the mausoleums and the chariots, and that big ramrod, we got to import the crafts that were used back then,” the production designer added. “If you needed something sculpted, like a Roman statue or the giant set of Roman legs that we had in one scene, they were all done by hand, they weren’t typed into a computer and laser cut.
“It was all about creating that old style look, and once you went inside those studio walls, you were part of this club and you knew everybody. Today, it’s more segregated with people on cell phones.
“Thank god, there are people like that still around.”