Working with the Coen Brothers over the course of six films, production designer Jess Gonchor has received Oscar nominations for two of these collaborations— 2010’s True Grit and last year’s Old Hollywood caper comedy Hail, Caesar! A meticulously designed throwback to the Hollywood of yore, the noir-tinged film is an ambitious endeavor, emulating sets from various cinema classics, including Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, sword-and-sandal stapes and the canon of Esther Williams.
Impressively, Gonchor and set decorator Nancy Haigh were able to create these large-scale sets, while also working within the old Hollywood studio system methodology — an approach that was reflexive and rewarding for the production designer. Speaking with Deadline, this year’s Critics’ Choice, Art Directors Guild, and BAFTA nominee discusses the freedom he finds in his Coen Brothers collaboration and the set that came together latest in production.
Having now worked on six Coen Brothers films, what got you excited about working on Hail, Caesar!?
Any time you get to do something you currently do for a living, but turn it back 70 years, is exciting. I’m a production designer now, in 2017, so to get a chance to go back in time and explore and execute how they did it in 1950 — how can you beat that, really?
What kind of creative shorthand has emerged from working with the directors on so many films?
It’s a confidence that they have in me, and it allows me the freedom to explore what my wildest imagination can dream up that’s going to help move the story along. It allows me to know that they’re going to be confident in the ideas that I’m coming up with. They’re not always going to pan out, but in the back of my mind, the audition period is over. It’s just the confidence in me that I get to explore things that maybe I wouldn’t normally get to do, working with a first-time director. I would say that the shorthand allows me to be even more confident than I normally am with the work that I’m putting forward to create a vision for the movie.
Generally speaking, how does your process begin? Do you work with a sketch artist, or create sketches or models yourself?
Obviously, I certainly don’t do it alone. Some movies require a lot more visual aid than others, but I do a few things loose, myself, and there’s a couple of illustrators that I worked with on this one, in particular, that really have the knowledge of bringing them to life more so than I can. I’m not really that big on drawing on experience from other films, normally, from some of my other movies, but this thing, you couldn’t help but look at other movies that were made, especially at MGM, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, to compare these to. We had a lot to sort through, and a lot to go by with movies that have been made, because we were doing the same thing.
Given the movies-within-movies aspect of this film, what were some of the touchstone films you looked at for inspiration?
Certainly Quo Vadis and The Robe, for Hail, Caesar!. It was a lot of North by Northwest Hitchcock, in the Russian submarine scene. And quite frankly, in all of the things that took place in that Malibu house and the submarine, there’s a lot of influence with Hitchcock, North by Northwest. Naturally, all of of the synchronized swimming scenes were influenced by Esther Williams. We actually shot the film in the pool that was made for her at Sony, which was MGM—we got to use that same stage, which was amazing. And Roy Rodgers, the singing cowboy films. Obviously, a lot of Fred Astaire—nothing in particular, but some of the Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, American in Paris, some of those had a major influence on the tap dancing numbers. So I looked at all those things.
What were some of the ways you recreated the era of the film, both on screen and in your behind-the-scenes methodology?
Obviously, getting in all the period film equipment was key, because we wanted to see off of the set in a lot of these things. If you notice, a lot of the numbers, the camera was pulled way back. We wanted to see the machine behind the filmmaking.
One thing, in particular, with Channing [Tatum]’s number—the singing and dancing number—the platforms all separated apart. Before they had all sorts of fancy Steadicam and jib arms, and technocranes, you had to get the lens close to the subject, so one of the ways we tried to stay with that was with this platform in the Swingin’ Dinghy—which was that dockside bar in Channing Tatum’s number—that all sort of pulled apart to get the camera in there. In one scene, you see the camera’s pulling back, and the platforms are going back together, so by the time the camera was wide enough, it would appear that the stage was never pulled apart to allow access.
In the scene at the beginning with Hobie Doyle and he’s doing that stunt, swinging around the tree, it’s clearly not a real tree, and some of the work in the car was made to look like a Hollywood film. It was definitely heightened reality, and everything was a little bit stylized. The submarine work, we shot it in a large swimming pool where we built a piece of the ship. All of the backings were hand painted backings.
There was a lot. Eddie Mannix is walking through the stages in Hollywood, and if you walk through Warner Bros. today, it’s so visually noisy. There’s trailers, and generators, and equipment out. We had to clear all of that out so you could see the graphic shapes of a stage.
If you were working back in the ‘50s, what do you think you would have liked or disliked about the practices of the day?
Oh man, I loved it all. It was so amazing to bring back people, like sculptors. We had a lot of things that had to be sculpted by hand that you could feed into a computer now and have it laser cut, but we chose to do it sort of the old-fashioned way.
And plasterers. At the beginning of the movie, when the Roman legions are marching through the arc and there’s that mosaic, that was actually a real mosaic—we chipped up tile and painted it and set it in there. It was big, like 20 feet wide by eight feet tall, and we actually could have easily printed that and made it look so real.
For me, obviously some of the things are much easier now with computer drawing and drafting, and you can change things easier, but I come from the world of theater, so I like things that are real, and doing them practically. I don’t know that I would change that much of how it was done back then.
As much as it’s changed, it’s really stayed the same, except I think you had a lot more money back then to do things than you do now, believe it or not—because they treated all the movies the same. A B movie or an A movie, I think they got the same attention, for the most part.
What was your biggest challenge on the film?
Obviously, it was fighting budgets, but the biggest challenge? It’s really hard to pick one, because I feel like we bit off a lot. The Swingin’ Dinghy, I think I’m going to say that was the hardest, because we were in production, and that [set] was a lot of things. At one time, it was the engine room of a battle ship. Another time, it was a top deck. We really didn’t know what that was, and we got to about six, eight weeks away from shooting it before Joel and Ethan decided on what that was. [Laughs] That’s the only time in the six movies that before shooting a movie, I didn’t know what I was getting into.
That was a little bit nerve-wracking, because we couldn’t start anything because it wasn’t finished. I think they were just trying to figure out how to sew up the movie with that scene, and how to do it. We had no idea what it was, so I didn’t have that much time to plan it. Normally, you have a few months to plan a movie, and then you even have more time, because they did some of the shooting in the last week, and you’re still planning it in the first three weeks. I think that that dockside bar, that basement bar was most challenging.