'Hail, Caesar!': How the Coens Remade 1950s Hollywood

Gonchor found drawings in the UCLA Film & Television Archive from 1951’s 'Quo Vadis,' which influenced his Appian Way designs.

The auteur brothers revisit the golden age in their new movie with George Clooney as a matinee idol (natch) and Channing Tatum channeling Gene Kelly.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The glitz, glam and behind-the-scenes foibles of Hollywood's golden age get the Coen brothers treatment in Hail, Caesar!, which pre­mieres Feb. 3 in Berlin ahead of its Feb. 5 opening. Chronicling a day in the life of 1950s studio "head of physical production" (aka "fixer") Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, in a role inspired by and named for a real MGM exec and fixer, see p. 69), the modest Universal release ($22 million net budget) features a dream team of A-listers: George Clooney as a kidnapped matinee idol, Channing Tatum as a tap-dan­cing sailor, Ralph Fiennes as a thwarted director and Tilda Swinton in a quirky turn as twin gossip columnists.

Designing the surreal comedy fell to six-time Coen collaborator Jess Gonchor. As part of the brothers' "family" of filmmakers, the Academy Award-nominated production designer (True Grit) found inspiration for Hail in the work of legendary art director Cedric Gibbons, who churned out some thousand-plus films during his 32-year tenure at MGM. Together with another Coen regular, set decorator Nancy Haigh, Gonchor and the design team created "movies within a movie," referenc­ing such iconic genre scenes as a Gene Kelly musical sailor number in a bar, a singing Roy Rogers cowboy against a Western landscape and a bit of Frankenstein-style horror. Inspired by '50s classics Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur, Gonchor cre­ated classic images of Roman arches on the Appian Way and Corinthian-columned temples for the film's namesake sword-­and-sandals epic.

Artist's illustration of a synchronized swimming scene. (SCOTT LUKOWSKI/UNIVERSAL PICTURES/COURTESY OF JESS GONCHOR)

For the aquatic scenes with Scarlett Johansson's swimmer/actress, Gonchor was allowed to use the pool at Sony — built for Esther Williams in her MGM heyday.

While much of the three-month L.A. shoot took place on studio backlots (primarily Warner Bros.'), Union Station doubles as the fictitious Capitol Pictures. "We wanted to make it look like the MGM machine where they were churning out films one by one," says Gonchor. "We went to great lengths to make it look like the 1930s to 1950s and built everything on site. There were so many different crafts, it was like working in the '50s with our mold-makers and crafts building everything the old-fashioned way."

Tatum, center, channels Gene Kelly in a classic movie-musical moment.

Setting the scene also involved the use of vin­tage camera and lighting equipment. "We busted out the old technology," the designer notes, "and approached the film in an organic way, which is how the Coen brothers like to do it." The film's colors are highly saturated, from bright contrast for the Hail, Caesar! segments to monochromatic for the soundstage sets. "We tried to make this film with a heightened reality," says Gonchor. "[The Coens] like to push the audience in a way to make them comfortable and uncomfortable."

With Coen brothers films such as No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading under his belt, the Hollywood send-up is a departure for Gonchor. "One of the great things about working with the Coens is they give you free rein and are not watching over you. It is a true collaboration," says the off-Broadway theater-trained designer. "And frankly, they come up with ideas that make it better."

A rendering of the train station, built in 1939, reimagined as a film studio. (BRADLEY RUBIN.)

Brolin and Swinton in the courtyard of the main ad building at Warner Bros Studios. (ALISON ROSA/UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

Clooney as Caesar from the film within the film. (COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

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