How 'The Two Popes' Production Designer Re-created the Sistine Chapel

8:00 AM 11/14/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

When the official residence of the pope isn't available for filming — or a story requires reconstructing an iconic spot for films like 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' or 'Motherless Brooklyn' — the pros get creative on how to paint that picture.

(From left) 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' 'The Two Popes,' 'Motherless Brooklyn'
(From left) 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' 'The Two Popes,' 'Motherless Brooklyn'
Andrew Cooper; Netflix; Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Ent.

  • 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

    Sony

    Westwood Village set for 'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood'
    Westwood Village set for 'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood'
    Courtesy of Sony Pictures

    "Quentin loves to immerse everyone into the time frame of the picture," says production designer Barbara Ling, who helped create Tarantino’s 1969-set Hollywood story with as much authenticity as possible. For the scenes in Westwood Village, "a key area in 1969 for anyone living from Hollywood to the beach," the team replaced the Fox Theatre marquee and used period poster boxes. They also paid close attention to surrounding establishments such as Stan’s Donuts, which is still run by Stan Berman’s family. Researcher Lance Malbon, who pulled images and footage used for reference, "found a small original shot in a newspaper article and we re-created the original Corner Shop," says Ling. "The day we filmed, Stan’s kids brought him to the set. Stan is 90 now, and he just cried out, 'This looks like the day I opened it.'"

  • 'The Two Popes'

    Netflix

    The Two Popes'
    The Two Popes'
    Courtesy of Netflix

    One of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, was a key setting in this film about Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis. But it posed a big problem for production designer Mark Tildesley: "It is not possible to film a dramatic feature [only documentaries] within the Vatican walls," he explains. So they built their own, at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. "We had to rebuild the chapel using photos that a company hired to clean the Sistine had taken about 10 years ago," he says. "A team of Italian painters skilled in re-creating classical paintings then painted copies that were one-third of the actual size, which served as the base for our paintings on the walls." For the paintings, Tildesley says the process was "not dissimilar to a stick-on tattoo — printing on a thin clear plastic sheet and applying it to a textured plastered surface."

  • 'Motherless Brooklyn'

    Warner Bros.

    'Motherless Brooklyn'
    'Motherless Brooklyn'
    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Re-creating New York's original Penn Station for Edward Norton's period drama, which is set in 1957, started with careful research. "We dove into every archival image that we could find," says production designer Beth Mickle of the look of the station, which opened in 1910. The team also used the 1955 rom-com The Seven Year Itch (in which the original station is featured) and early floor plans to determine the layout and dimensions.

    The 100-foot-by-75-foot set built at Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, New York, included the station's front doorway and vestibule hallway as well as the area around the rows of lockers, which were key to the story. Says Mickle, "We had reference photos of the original Penn Station floor that we had our graphic designer Donna Kim turn into a digital file so that we could actually print on the vinyl flooring the glass block pattern that existed in the original Penn Station."

    This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.