Production designers were tasked with doing something new with some very familiar — and old — settings, where gangs, war and domestic battles raged on.
From The Irishman's epic examination of organized crime, Jojo Rabbit's irreverent depiction of Nazi Germany and the eighth film adaptation of Little Women, the films' production designers had a surreptitiously complicated task: to do something new with some very familiar — and old — settings. Here's how these stories were told through set design.
Philadelphia's Villa di Roma is the neighborhood restaurant at the heart of director Martin Scorsese's crime drama, which spans several decades. The set was built on a stage at Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn. "The Villa di Roma, which still exists in Philadelphia today, is actually rather plain and boxy. It doesn't convey a sense of the period," production designer Bob Shaw explains. "It took a while to convince Marty that we could achieve a sense of reality by building a set instead of shooting in a location. He said, 'You can smell the gravy in the floorboards in those places."
The pressure was on, because, as Shaw notes, "more of the story takes place in that restaurant than any other location." He took inspiration from various dining places in New York's Little Italy. "From the dust in the air vents to the worn tablecloths with pasta stains, we tried to keep it very lived-in," he says. Banquettes and bar stools came from Omega Prop House in Los Angeles and scenic artists created murals of Italy, and Shaw notes that ceiling tiles were crooked and floor tiles broken. During the course of the movie, the restaurant set received period updates with new tablecloths and TVs.
Nazi Germany at the end of World War II is seen through the eyes of Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old Hitler Youth member who lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), in director Taika Waititi's tender comedy. The interior of their home was built at Barrandov Studios in Prague, while the exterior is a Baroque-era stone cottage in the Czech Republic. Production designer Ra Vincent describes Rosie as a stylish woman and envisioned that most of the home's interior would be renovated in the 1930s art deco style with "sumptuous, deeply saturated colors" that give a sense of "comfort and security."
Somewhat different is the bedroom of Jojo's deceased sister Inge, which has a melancholy feel and displays artifacts from her life. "The room is very clean; it's like a memorial to the lost daughter," Vincent says, adding that it has the memory of an earlier time. "We are only talking about a few years, but it's still a device to let the audience know we were going back in time a little bit." He cites as an example that the furniture is a more Victorian style than in the rest of the house, which included antiques from dealers or private homes.
Director Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel follows the March sisters during and after the Civil War in Concord, Mass. Serving as Concord is the business district in Harvard, Mass. (the town, not the famed university), where the production design team constructed additional buildings "inside and out." "This small town of Harvard was the perfect setting," explains production designer Jess Gonchor. "There was a big, empty lot on the street [where] I could build a few facades and use a town square that was already there and period correct to tie it all together. It was the perfect marriage of location and construction."
Gonchor wanted a "small town" feel: "First, to contrast between the big city of New York [where an adult Jo March lives]. Second, to know that the girls had more than just the March home to grow up in to get the sense of community. One of the main things Greta and I wanted to do with this version of the film was to give it a wider scope and to create a world that had variety and possibilities."
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.