Having worked with the prolific Woody Allen on over 30 films since 1980’s Stardust Memories, three-time Oscar-nominated production designer Santo Loquasto is well-acquainted with the writer/director’s likes and dislikes, his aesthetic preferences, and his general approach to storytelling—which has made the introduction of a new collaborator in recent years all the more exciting.
With Café Society, released last year, Allen brought three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (of Apocalypse Now) into the fold, which has only increased the theater and film designer’s desire to up his game with each new film.
With Wonder Wheel—one of Allen’s period films, which Loquasto relishes—the production designer was tasked with recreating the Coney Island of the filmmaker’s younger days, a place that, due to time and weather, no longer exists. Below, Loquasto discusses his collaboration with Allen and his new Italian DP, and a film involving more green screen than any Woody Allen film ever has.
What aspects of Wonder Wheel were attractive to you?
It’s an area we’ve delved into over the years, but never spent such a concentrated period of time in—Coney Island, specifically. That was a fascinating problem. Although I haven’t shot there since Radio Days, you’re somewhat familiar, and then of course there’s the hurricane, so you knew that much of Coney Island had been altered in the last five or six years. We knew in advance that that was going to present a problem, which it did. Many things had changed anyway, let alone simply washed away.
It was a wonderful project, and these projects in the last few years with Vittorio [Storaro, DP] have added such another dynamic to them, just his approach to filmmaking. While it varies according to the material, he invests in it in a very particular and personal way, and it’s always fascinating to observe that.
Broadly speaking, what has Storaro brought to the experience?
I think in the past, Woody has had a recognizable style and palette, an area that he is comfortable in. Those of us who have worked with him for a long stretch, while we know our way around that, we also know that we’re obliged to try to make it a little more interesting, or a little less predictable.
Vittorio is aware of Woody as a filmgoer, and had only done one film [with Allen] prior to this. Although it was a beautiful project, he had his ideas, separate from the predictable route that Woody might take. Woody was excited about it, and it wasn’t so much that we had to have his approval, but we certainly wanted him to be in agreement with all of us when we would be looking at things, and predicting how to approach it.
There was a great deal of trust that had to be made on the part of everybody, because we’ve never done anything that had so much green screen, where the backgrounds out the windows were all added in post. But I think it was Vittorio that’s made it as exciting as it has since become. It’s sort of an added bonus that suddenly you have the parachute jump a hundred yards away and functioning. We’ve seen all this over the years, but we don’t do that—we do what I call “domestic dramas.”
So, Humpty’s apartment, looking out on the carnival area, was built on a soundstage?
Yes. Whenever you have those panoramic views of the beach and the boardwalk, very little of it existed. Some of it does, like the Wonder Wheel and the roller coaster, and the relic of the parachute jump, but the big bathhouse and all of that was long gone. All those opening shots are manufactured.
That opening shot of the beach, packed with people, is really something to behold.
Yeah, they do this process where we shoot maybe five hundred people, and they replicate those people over and over again, but you don’t perceive it. I’ve looked carefully to see if I could find the pattern, but I couldn’t. I know I didn’t buy that many umbrellas, though.
How does Mr. Allen communicate his intent in the early stages of this project?
After we started going to Coney Island, and we had the section we settled on to use, he said, “It should really be as though they live in the midst of all this, so that it’s completely inescapable for the Kate Winslet character. The shooting gallery is constantly going on, and the sound of the amusement park is just unrelenting.”
I actually remembered a genuine location that we had used for a jazz club in Sweet and Lowdown—it was this old turn-of-the-century civic area in a Christian day camp, which is now a Jewish day camp, ironically. It’s a wonderful structure, and on the second level, it was an open area. I had said it would be as though they lived in this space that has been compartmentalized and made into living quarters for itinerants who work in the amusement park. Ultimately, we wound up using that for inspiration, and we created it all on a sound stage.
To clarify, you shot some exteriors in Coney Island, and the rest was created on sound stages?
What we created on the sound stage was the living quarters. You went up a flight of stairs in the park, and then you’d step into the sound stage when you get up to the landing.
It was this odd place. Like many resort spaces, it’s full of windows to let air and light into the expansive space. I broke it up into their living areas in a very skewed manner so that you would catch glimpses of more rooms than you might normally. It wasn’t a grid set-up at all. Vittorio loved all that and composed with it, with the sheer curtain that’s hung between the rooms. It’s all so diffused and layered. Then there’s his color, which is inspired by the colors of the rides and the lights on them, but really taken much further.
Can you elaborate on the approach to color?
That’s all his doing. He and I often scouted together, or with locations people, to Coney Island, and he took his pictures and put them together. In a way, it’s like storyboarding, but for him, it’s in even greater depth, in terms of his notation.
It not only gave him the composition of a set-up, but he would capture moments. We would go there at dusk into nightfall, and he would take photos to see the intensity of light on people and on architecture. He also referenced paintings, because he always does. Whether it’s American artists like Edward Hopper, of course, or Reginald Marsh, or Renaissance paintings that he loves. It’s fascinating to hear him cross-reference how he feels the lighting texture of a film will be developed.
Is red used to connote danger specifically?
I think it’s not so much threatening as emotional. It’s not sexual heat, it’s really just clearly unnatural and rather dramatic. It’s a very bold stroke on his part. But it’s so beautiful.
This project seems very challenging, given the amount of exterior shots on a film that is about historical recreation. Were a lot of façades and signage designed for the film?
We did some of that. Of course now, things are taken out digitally, so that’s a blessing. Some of our wider shots, even when there was a side of a building with a contemporary real estate sign on it, we could take it out and you still had the elevated train, and a park beyond, and our period cars and an old bakery. We added in the façade of a funeral parlor, and a real estate office—very shallow façades—and some signs that you’ve set to camera, and really obliterate things in the distance.
There’s an amazing sleight of hand in that it’s so low tech, right? I carry a bunch of things with me so I can place them to camera in order to hide things. Mostly, it works. There were some theatrical cutouts that I put together where, because of a scramble in the mid-range, you could not tell the lack of depth. They annihilate elements, especially in Queens where we shot the elevated train and the Italian restaurant. We got a lot of bang for our buck out of some of locations.
Then, you do often do a big foreground façade, really spend your money there, and then you’d know that when they pull the car around the corner, you have that to be the featured element. Vittorio, and I agree with him, really likes as much depth as possible, so he tries to shoot way into the distance.
Did you play a major role in conjuring up the carnival atmosphere at the film’s center?
It’s a matter of trying to keep the really plastic elements at bay, but the section we used had a lot of period elements. Once we changed prices and put up some signage, you would have quite a bit of seemingly accurate elements, and we did an awful lot with fabric over things. The shooting gallery and all those façades, we built. All that was like a parking area within our section—we made that our stage, and it didn’t interfere with them while we were setting it up. They were marvelous.
You didn’t see as much as you could of where you enter into the Wonder Wheel. It’s just fantastic looking, and it’s been largely like that for 50 years.
Beyond Storaro’s involvement, was there anything that stood out as unique about Wonder Wheel in particular?
Woody’s period films are always fun because he’s very clever in the music department. He brings his own personal flavor to it all. But there’s a sort of underbelly aspect to it. It wasn’t as grimy as I thought it was going to be, but it still delved into that area of people—Jim Belushi’s cronies, fishing out on the wharf. It was fun to have that, as opposed to cocktail parties on the Upper East Side.
It was quite an undertaking, and as you pointed out, because so much of it was exterior, it was very ambitious for us. Because we didn’t even have enough cars, often, to really allow it to be lush, in terms of movement in the background. Cars would be running around the block and coming back, which is not usual, but keeps us hopping.
Can you elaborate on your collaborative relationship with Mr. Allen, and what it’s meant to have that relationship for all these years?
What’s amazing to me is that even with the familiarity often of the storyline, there’s such a commitment and passion to the work that you always feel he wants it to have its own kind of interest. He doesn’t want it to be just routine, and because he doesn’t give into that, we all have to try to match it. It’s fantastic, and quite honestly, to have been a part of someone like his imagination all these years…and they’re not all hits, in terms of my effort.
There were moments on Wonder Wheel where he felt I had gone too far, and we had to scramble to pull back a bit. He wasn’t necessarily right, but nonetheless. But that has been an extraordinary gift that I never dreamt of when the phone rang many years ago, so I stand outside it occasionally and just am amazed, only because it’s been 31 movies I’ve done with him. What amazes me especially are his comedies, where he maintains the abandon of a young filmmaker. Even if it’s maybe too silly or too arbitrary, he is not pressured by being logical—he relies on his own instincts of humor and storytelling. He kind of pats me on the head, that I keep him honest in many ways, but the fact that he keeps it percolating for me in an exciting way is amazing.
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