A production designer known for his work in the commercial world, and on high-end music videos for the likes of Beyoncé and P!nk, Jc Molina had his work cut out for him on Honey Boy, helping to define a visual approach to a film where incredibly raw memory and gorgeous fantasy would collide.
Written by actor Shia LaBeouf as part of court-mandated therapy, Honey Boy examines the turbulent childhood and early adult years of an actor’s life, as he struggles to reconcile with his father, an alcoholic ex-rodeo clown whose abuse and neglect were both intensely felt from a young age.
Approaching the first narrative feature of Alma Har’el with a cinematic eye and avant-garde flare, prepared to be unprepared for what would transpire everyday on set—with LaBeouf playing his own father, shortly after being diagnosed with severe PSTD—Molina says that the Honey Boy shoot was “a beautiful process”, but also “an intense one.”
For every person on set, the emotional experience being manifested between father and son was as relatable as it was potent. “It’s almost like every head of department on set had daddy problems, me included. My dad left when I was eight years old to start his own family. Alma, of course, has spoken about her daddy issues, and Natasha [Braier, cinematographer], as well. So, I think [one] part that was a little difficult was dealing with everybody’s emotions,” Molina recalls. “Because we were all very emotional about this piece, and we were all very excited to make it—and it was a therapy for all of us, I think, not just Shia.”
DEADLINE: You first collaborated with Alma Har’el two years ago. What was that initial experience like? And how did you get involved with Honey Boy?
JC MOLINA: Alma and I worked on a short film together to start our relationship, and it was this really amazing piece, where we just had a lot of fun and did whatever we wanted. Then, we went into the commercial world a little bit, and worked on some pieces that were fun and very moving. Everything Alma does is moving, by the way. Everything she does is beautiful, but it also has a lot of emotion to it.
Then, we were shooting in Canada for an Olympic commercial. I remember we were in the car scouting, and Alma was like, “Hold on, everybody. Shia just sent me this script that we’ve been talking about for a while. I have to stop everything and read it.” I remember her talking to me about it—she was like, “God, it would be so cool if we all did this. It’d be a real interesting experience”—and this is super early on.
I think Shia was still in treatment at the time, and I remember thinking, Yeah, okay. That’d be cool. But come on, you know? Sure. I’m sure we’ll make this. Then, a little bit more than a year later, it started to become this bigger reality, and I finally got to read the script, which [had] a different name before, and it totally hit me, because it was just this really raw and beautiful piece. Then, when Alma told me that he’d be playing his dad, I was just like, “Holy sh*t.” It’s a total mindf*ck, you know?
So, it happened very organically. I put together my pitch and my boards, because it was hopeful that I was going to do it, but I didn’t know for a fact. I was very much invested in trying to lock it down, and really impress Alma and Shia with my visuals. It’s a period piece from the ’90s, and me having been a kid who grew up watching Even Stevens, and later on Holes, it was kind of a trip, because this was something I grew up with.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Alma early on, in terms of the visual approach you would take with the film?
MOLINA: My greatest question was, “Okay, we’ve got this piece that Shia LaBeouf wrote, kind of about his life. How real do we want to keep that?” She basically said, “Let’s experiment. Let’s not let reality bar us,” and that’s something that Alma, even in her documentaries, is very good at, blurring the lines between reality and hyperreality. So, we really made it our film. We took the script, and took from it what we wanted. We modified some stuff, and kind of made it into our own little world.
We drew a lot of inspiration, obviously, from the story. Shia LaBeouf’s dad was a rodeo clown before, so for the color palette, we thought it was organic to do studies on traditional colors of rodeo clowns, and clowns in general, and even just old clown posters. I mean, he wasn’t exactly part of the circus, but we did feel inspiration from that. I remember one day, Alma and I were at her house, and we were pulling references of this beautiful, old circus book. Alma had just discovered this color app on her phone, where she could take a picture and get a color code, so we spent like a whole day, just snapping pictures and getting color codes.
So, I don’t think we let reality bar us in any way, but I think we allowed it to inform our story in the sets. And I did spend a couple of days at Shayna, Shia’s mom’s house, going through old photos and talking to her about what [Shia’s childhood] was like. I had free rein to ask any questions I wanted, which made the whole process really interesting.
DEADLINE: How did you approach scouting locations, like the motel complex where Otis and his father live, or the treatment center where an older Otis winds up? How did you work with spaces like that to capture the essence of LaBeouf’s real experiences?
MOLINA: What I love about Alma so much is that when we go director scouting, it’s an all-day thing, and we see all of the locations. So, we really got to obsess over what kind of architecture… For the motel, we were really torn between a ’70s, ’80s motel that has the pool in the middle, and double-decker—or is it a single tier? With the therapy center, we were trying to dive into showing the contrast between him being this child actor who’s living in a motel, and him being an adult actor, who’s basically in this very high-end space. So, we really dove into the architecture, and we had a lot of opinions. Natasha [Braier, cinematographer], Alma and I were very head-on about what we thought was right, and we all threw in our two cents. Then, by the end of it, we all agreed that the locations we picked were great.
The motel itself, I think we visited twice. The first time we went there, we were really not interested. Then, after a week, two weeks, we were all like, “Okay, we’ve got to pick something now,” and it was like, “No, maybe this is right. Maybe this is the right vibe, the right space.”
Then, it was a discussion of what color, so we went back to our color studies that we had done in the beginning, and started rendering them out on the computer to see what was going to be best. I remember we painted two foot by two foot pieces of wood, and put them in front of the camera with some lighting, and just kind of played. And it was crazy. Some colors didn’t even look different, but they looked different in front of the camera, and that’s how microscopic we got.
In the beginning, in the first script we read, a good portion of the film was all in that motel room. So for us, it was really a big thing about, “Okay, well how do we make this interesting? We’re not all here, just to shoot in this tiny, little motel room. We want this to look great.” So, Natasha and I really obsessed over the lighting that was inside, and being able to change the lighting, because a lot of the lighting was practical.
The creative team was very collaborative, and we all just obsessed over trying to make sure that everything was as perfect as possible, because the thing about actors like Shia, and directors like Alma, is you can’t just dress the set by what the camera’s going to see. You have to dress the set completely. If there’s no coffee in the fake coffee pot, you’d better have a real coffee pot and some real coffee. Because at some point, even though it’s not written in the script, he’s going to be pouring himself a cup of coffee. In the drawer, I put the Holy Bible, because most motels at the time had a Holy Bible there—and though we were never supposed to open the drawer, at some point it got opened, and the Holy Bible was there.
DEADLINE: How did you craft the sets LaBeouf’s stand-in Otis is seen working on in the film? Quite memorably, Honey Boy opens on Lucas Hedges being thrown back on wires, towards an airplane split in two.
MOLINA: That was very loosely inspired by Transformers. We knew that we had to make a big blockbuster feel, so I used every favor I could to get as many explosions on screen as possible, and we really just had a lot of fun with it. I used my pyro team from commercials and music videos [to make] crazy explosions, and we really just tried to give our all to making it seem as high profile and big screen as possible.
DEADLINE: Where did you find that plane?
MOLINA: We basically found this really amazing location that had this old Pan Am airplane, just out in the desert area. It was Lancaster or something like that. So, we were like, “F*ck, this is a massive piece of scenery that we’re going to get. We’ll just bring everything else.” Weirdly enough around there, it’s kind of the vibe where people have Pick-n-Pull cars and stuff, so we made deals to get as many pieces of big scenery as we could—cars and stuff like that—and had a lot of fun just throwing them around, and playing with it. But then we also brought in a lot of science fiction set pieces, to make it feel a little less Mad Max and more like high-end film.
But it was just this totally weird airplane. I’d actually shot at that location before, and I’d always driven by the airplane before shooting Honey Boy, so it was kind of amazing to be able to shoot the actual airplane this time.
DEADLINE: Tell us about the sitcom sets you created for the younger Otis.
MOLINA: That was fun because the PM [Production Manager] was actually one of the producers on Even Stevens, which is kind of trippy. So, we created sets based around Even Stevens-type shows, and perfect American, Waspy families. That’s kind of how we got that. But I think, for me, what was important was to show, we have this kid Otis, who’s [in] a difficult situation, yet he’s playing this character who’s got a perfect life, and a perfect family, and a butler. So, it’s this kind of crazy world of, one second, he’s in a fake mansion on a studio, and in the next one, he’s in a motel in his reality.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
MOLINA: I did a pilot for Showtime called Hombre, with Gael García Bernal and Jonás Cuaròn, that I’m very excited about. It’s a really, really nice piece; I’m Mexican American, and so for me, it was very personal. I think after doing Honey Boy, I’ve realized that I just want to do a couple of years of films that are stories related to mine—like, Daddy issues, being Mexican American, being a queer filmmaker. [laughs]
And I’m currently in talks—I mean, it’s basically green-lit, as of two days ago—for a film called Cassandro, with Gael García Bernal, again. It’s following the life of a gay luchador—a Lucha libre luchador—that lives between Mexico and the U.S. It talks about machismo, and it talks about Catholicism while being queer and Mexican. So, it’s got a lot of pieces that are me, and I’m really excited to dive into it.