Superhero movies aren’t the only opportunities for fantastical world-building. In fact, five awards contenders ( “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Interstellar,” “Into the Woods,” and “Noah”) utilize very special environments as backdrops in the epic struggle to save the world, for redemption, or to recapture a more civilized way of life. All five movies are mythic, rites-of-passage experiences: experimental, metaphoric and very relevant in these trying times.
“Birdman” is very much a meta-movie about creativity, stardom, social media, and cultural decline, and Michael Keaton is an inspired choice playing a variation of Batman: washed-up but ambitiously attempting to resurrect his career by mounting a play based on Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” However, he’s losing his mind, which is evident in the very first scene when he’s levitating. Yet director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu never lets us know for sure if what we’re watching is real, imaginary, or a little of both. It’s like “8 1/2” or “All That Jazz,” and the illusion of the immersive continuous take is a brilliant conceit (shot by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, who one-ups his Oscar-winning “Gravity”).
Production designer Kevin Thompson melded the famous St. James Theater with a recreated backstage and dressing room at the Kaufman Astoria Studios. The onstage and backstage environments, therefore, mirror Keaton’s precarious state of mind: emerging and overlapping and threatening to imprison him. And it became very challenging to have these two worlds meet. No wonder Thompson was intrigued by the notion of filming in a real Broadway theater, designing sets for that and for the play plus the backstage dressing rooms and labyrinth of corridors.
There’s also an onstage/backstage duality behind Wes Anderson’s witty caper, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” And in keeping with the marvelous theatricality, production designer Adam Stockhausen (“12 Years a Slave”), played with his own labyrinth of beauty and wonder. He appropriately used lots of miniatures to convey a hand-made quality (including the hotel, the hillside, the funicular, the town, the Alpine observatory, and the bobsled run and ski chase).
There was no holding back the Czech Republic eye candy: a pink hotel with a dollop of yellow butter cream, and the sugary Mendl’s bakery. It’s a loving tribute to Stefan Zweig and Max Ophuls. And “The Grand Budapest Hotel” ultimately becomes a movie about craft and craftiness, with Ralph Fiennes’ charming concierge trying to sustain the Grand Illusion amid war, vulgarity, and degradation.
The Grand Budapest was modeled after many Eastern European hotels, but the closest they came was the Grand Hotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary. Stockhausen made use of several miniatures (the hotel, the hillside, the funicular, the town, the Alpine observatory, the bobsled run and ski chase). It’s jaunty, throwback fun, but very well crafted.
Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” was quite the architectural challenge for frequent production designer Nathan Crowley, who got to jump through space-time with a wormhole and a black hole, construct cool, next-gen NASA spacecraft, and design a back to basics robot, TARS, who’s literally comprised of metal blocks.
But the hardest part as well as the most fun for Crowley was building the Tesseract cube-like structure inside the back hole: a construct that allows Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper to perceive time as a physical dimension so he can get back home to Murph, his daughter. The production designer worked closely with Nolan and VFX supervisor Paul Franklin on the Tesseract. It’s inspired by modern abstract art, and the chamber that Cooper enters is one of eight cubical faces and it winds up being docked in Murph’s bedroom, allowing their complex interaction to fulfill themes of love and transcendence.
“Into the Woods,” the fairy tale mash-up based on the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical, represents a post-9/11 metaphor about loss and comfort for a new generation of children, according to director Rob Marshall. The great thing about the movie is that we can now enter the Woods, which is naturalistic as well as theatrical, given that it is predominantly a set designed by Oscar winner Dennis Gassner (“Bugsy”), who is currently prepping the 24th Bond film,.”SPECTRE.”
The Woods was mostly constructed as an elaborate set and serves as a place of wonder and enchantment for the rites of passage experienced by Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt). The first act in the Woods takes place in the warm and inviting daytime; the second act occurs at night and is foreboding; and, after everyone gets their wishes, the Woods turns dangerous and deadly in the third act.
Dion Beebe’s lighting reflects the mood of the characters, and Colleen Atwood’s costumes contain an organic quality tied to the treelike appendages. Indeed, the Woods is like life itself — a womb, really — in which everyone leaves changed and better able to navigate their precarious lives and get over their grieving for who they’ve lost.
Darren Aronofsky collaborated very closely with production designer Mark Friedberg (Emmy winner for “Mildred Pierce) on the building of the Ark for “Noah.” They went back to The Bible for inspiration and created the Ark as a rectangular box, since it just needed to float to survive the massive flood that envelops the Earth as God’s attempt to give humanity a second chance. But Russell Crowe’s Noah is full of self-doubt and survivor’s guilt, going so far as being prepared to sacrifice his family, only to realize that compassion is the key to humanity’s rebirth and redemption.
In Genesis, the dimensions of the Ark are laid out as 30 cubits high, by 50 cubits wide, by 300 cubits long, and those were the measurements that Friedberg used. Artistically, the director and production designer were inspired by the raw, apocalyptic vision of German artist Anselm Keifer, whose symbolist paintings and sculptures incorporate materials such as straw, ash, and salt. Rough, rugged, and handmade, the greatness of the Ark lies in its beauty, desperation, and brutality.