Oscars: How Ancient Egypt's Royal Palace Was Created for 'Exodus' and 6 More Film Set Secrets

It's all in the details: 'Exodus' required the grandeur of ancient Egypt, 'Interstellar' called for a convincing voyage to space and 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' demanded whimsy
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Arthur Max, production designer
Before creating ancient Egypt's Royal Palace of Memphis, Max took a research trip up the Nile to visit the Luxor Temple and the Temple of Amun. He also made stops at the British Museum, the Petrie Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Egyptian Museum of Turin. The $150 million production spent 16 weeks building large sets at Pinewood Studios, and CG was used to extend their monumental scale. "Each column is 10 feet in diameter and about 70 feet high," says Max. "All the furniture is hand-built — there's not a lot of ancient Egyptian furniture around. All the murals are hand-painted in traditional pigments." They even re-created period sculptures like a 42-foot high head of Ramses the Great.

INTERSTELLAR (Paramount/Warner Bros.)
Nathan Crowley, production designer
The exterior of the film's spaceship, the Ranger, was 52 feet long and 21 feet wide and took eight weeks to build. "It evolved out of a futuristic shape and familiar NASA influences so that it doesn't feel out of place in the NASA world [of the story]," explains Crowley. "It had to look fast and sleek, but we knew if we came up with a fantastical, slick shape, then we had to ground it in reality. So we went down to the California Science Center to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The design of the Ranger is very much based on textures we know: the shuttle's white exterior and black tiles." Created in Los Angeles, the craft was then transported to Iceland for use in the $165 million production.

Adam Stockhausen, production designer
For Wes Anderson's movie about a hotel concierge suspected of murder, a 1930 lobby was built inside a defunct art nouveau department store in Gorlitz, Germany, over a two-month period. "It has a magnificent five-story atrium and stained-glass canopy roof," says Stockhausen, adding that he and Anderson brought together inspiration and design elements from books, postcards, archival photographs and visits to actual hotels, including Grandhotel Pupp in the Czech Republic.

John Paul Kelly, production designer
In a key scene, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) visits the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, where the atom was split for the first time in 1932. But, says Kelly: "It's all offices now, and there's incredibly little documentation [of what the lab looked like]. Eventually we found a newsreel that included a sequence in it, and we used that as the basis for the design." Kelly re-created the lab at an abandoned school in Chelsea with help from a consultant team of scientists and mathematicians — who also contributed the equations that appear on the room's blackboards, further upping the setting's authenticity.

Dennis Gassner, production designer
For the fairy-tale fantasia opening Christmas Day, Gassner blended locations in England's Windsor Great Park and Queen's Park with a set at Shepperton Studios. The designer wanted unusual-looking trees and was delighted the two parks "have extremely old trees. The woods had to have character, and it was beautiful and scary at the same time." That's because the woods were not just a set but also part of the movie's theme, he explains: "The characters go into the wood to find their dreams — the forest is the transformation device. This movie is basically about learning about yourself."

MR. TURNER (Sony Pictures Classics)
Suzie Davies, production designer
The 1832 summer exhibition at London's Royal Academy of Arts, the setting for a crucial scene in the career of painter J.M.W. Turner, was staged on a set built in Yorkshire, England, at Wentworth Woodhouse, which bills itself as the largest privately-owned home in Europe. Says Davies, "Through research, we even found invoices the carpenters had used in 1832, so we knew the type of wood they used, the fabric they used." Her team also re-created about 250 paintings — in only three months — after receiving permission from Britain's Tate museums.

BIRDMAN (Fox Searchlight)
Kevin Thompson, production designer
Three-quarters of the $18 million movie, which centers on a faded Hollywood star who attemps a comeback on the New York stage, was filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City, N.Y.; the rest was filmed at Broadway's historic St. James Theatre. Thompson says he wanted to create a "realistic, naturalistic Broadway in terms of its textures and the no-glam setting. Even the nicest Broadway houses have very modest, quite dingy, unrenovated spaces." The set, he adds, was a "maze with connecting points and shortcuts and reentry points for flexibility on the day of shooting."