How a Deadly Pier and 600 Extras Brought 'Dunkirk's' WWII to Life

10:30 AM 11/24/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

Production designers also share the "brutal” approach to 'Blade Runner 2049's' futuristic setting and how 'Beauty and the Beast's' neglected castle was created.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • 'Dunkirk' (Warner Bros.)

    Nathan Crowley

    Courtesy of Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

    Christopher Nolan's World War II drama largely was filmed at Dunkirk beach, including the "mole" portion where soldiers were evacuated. But roughly two-thirds of the original mole is now gone, so production designer Crowley faced a huge logistical challenge in building at the site a 900-foot extension (the white portion, built from wood, one of the original materials and also something the production team could safely blow up), which held as many as 600 extras. "It had to withstand the sea," says Crowley. "We had Dunkirk engineers put new foundations on the old foundation. It was quite a feat — there's a 21-foot tide. And with any bad weather, we couldn't take the barge out [to transport the materials]. It was nail-biting because we had a shoot day, but the English Channel is quite rough, and it was very cold. A lot of people were working in dry suits."

  • 'Wonderstruck' (Amazon)

    Mark Friedberg

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    In Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, two children from different eras are both drawn to New York's Museum of National History, where they find a Cabinet of Wonders. While some photography was allowed in the museum, production designer Friedberg also created sets because of limits to the modifications they could make in the museum. "We built a gallery with old shelving and filled it with some of the most incredible relics [some were made and some came from private collections], including an actual dinosaur skeleton," he says. The Cabinet of Wonders was built to appear several hundred years old. "It borders on the feel of an altar," he adds. "A lot of what the movie is about, the Cabinet of Wonders, is the emotional power of tactile objects. That is what museums are; that's what art can be."

  • 'Downsizing' (Paramount)

    Stefania Cella

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    In Alexander Payne's Downsizing, Norwegian scientists have discovered how to shrink humans to 5 inches tall — which is proposed as a solution to overcrowding with the promise of a better life in a mini world. The shrinking machine itself, inspired by a low-tech microwave, strongly contributes to the comedy in the scene in which Matt Damon's character Paul is miniaturized. "We didn't want it to be like a science-fiction movie about technology. We wanted it to be low-tech, retro," explains production designer Cella. "We wanted a microwave lookalike." Outside, it has basic knobs and levers. Inside, "it's a replica of a microwave, though you feel the scale," she adds. Production design went for a white environment to convey that it's hygienic, like a hospital. "The choice of the color was important," says Cello. "Blue or green would have taken away from the moment."

  • 'Beauty and the Beast' (Disney)

    Sarah Greenwood

    Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

    Built at Shepperton Studios in London, the ballroom for Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast had to have five looks, from the most opulent (the opening scene at a ball) to the neglected and frozen look (left) after the castle is cursed. "The whole atmosphere is that of being frozen in time. I didn't want it to be dank and derelict and dark," explains production designer Greenwood, who worked with set decorator Katie Spencer. "Ice is part of the floor, windows and columns." Greenwood adds that the castle's architecture was inspired by French rococo, a style found at the Palace of Versailles. The team made 10 giant glass chandeliers, based on those from the Hall of Mirrors in the palace. Notes Greenwood, "They were the size of a London bus."

  • 'Blade Runner 2049' (Warner Bros.)

    Dennis Gassner

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Gassner says that at the start of shooting Denis Villeneuve's futuristic film, he asked the helmer to use one word to describe what he was looking for in its production design. The word was "brutal." Shot in and around Budapest, the project used large stages to give scale to the offices of Wallace Corp. The minimalist office of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is surrounded by an interior moat of water and accessible by an automated stone path. Because Wallace is blind, sound also was a consideration. Gassner says, for instance, that the floorboards were set loose. Cinematographer Roger Deakins used bounced and reflected light off the pool and onto the walls and ceiling. Notes Gassner, "It's the practical lighting that makes it feel real."

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