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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

About The Production
"As a kid growing up," says Jon Hamm, "we traveled almost everywhere by car. I lived in Missouri, right in the middle of the country, so it was easy to get anywhere, but air travel was very fancy and pricey, so we just piled into the car and went to Florida. We went to Utah. Down to Texas, up to Wisconsin. Chicago. I remember staying in a lot of motels just like the El Royale, and it was exciting. It was an adventure. You don't really get the seamy underside of it as a little kid. It just seems like a fun, new place to go, with hopefully a pool."

For Hamm the script brought up fond memories, but for fellow cast member Lewis Pullman, he was actually in such a resort when he got the call. "I'd done an audition," says Pullman, "but it was just a monologue at first, so I had no idea what the movie was about. Then Drew sent me the script on a crazy FBI-grade security thing. I was actually on a road trip up the California coast with my sister, and we were staying at this lodge that was surrounded by redwoods and was past its prime; it was the perfect place to absorb the script in. The script is phenomenal. I had never read anything like it. I didn't know what to compare it to. It's awesome."

"Awesome" is also how Jeff Bridges would describe the story. "Every once in a while I read a script and say, 'Wow, this is nothing I've ever seen before. This is the kind of movie I'd like to see.' And then to find out that the writer, Drew Goddard, was also directing it, that was a big plus." For Bridges, "One of the wonderful surprises-because it is rare that something like this is attempted-is that some takes go on for 10 minutes. That really gives the actor a chance to immerse themselves in the scene. It gives all the actors a chance to show their stuff. And it draws the audience in, in the most beautiful way, when the camera isn't cutting so much."

For newcomer Cailee Spaeny, who plays Rose, the fifth guest at the El Royale that night, the complexity of the script and her role was at first daunting. "This was something that I'd never done before and I didn't know if I could do. But then I met Drew, and he's just the most genuine, kindest man you'll ever meet."

Chris Hemsworth had worked with Goddard before and was already a huge fan, but even so, says Hemsworth, the script "is one of the best things I've ever read. It is fresh, unique, full of drama and sinister humor, complex and layered. The chaos just builds and builds and becomes this house of cards that all goes very pear-shaped. It's wildly unpredictable and intense."

As, of course, is his character. "I didn't think I'd have that much fun," laughs Hemsworth. "I've spent a lot of my career playing the hero, and there are certain rules that they have to stick by, and so it becomes predictable. So to be able to be unpredictable, to keep the audience guessing, was surprisingly enjoyable."

Filming El Royale also brought Cailee Spaeny a new friend and mentor in Dakota Johnson. "Cailee is a magnificent little creature," raves Johnson. "She's an amazing actress, and she's so beautifully complex and intelligent. We became close, and I love her. It's really special when something like that happens. I haven't experienced that very often on set where you truly bond with a person, and it continues off set. She's deeply talented, and I think she has the whole world ahead of her if she wants it."

Perhaps, though, the biggest surprise was reserved for Cynthia Erivo, who plays Darlene. "We couldn't have the script, we only had sides, so I didn't realize just how big the role was," says Erivo. "I just knew I had to sing, so I put myself on tape thinking it was likely a small role that would be really awesome. Then I had a wonderful workshop with Drew and Carmen [Cuba], the casting director, and I remember leaving the room thinking, whoever gets to do this is going to have a really great time. Later, when we were working through the contract, I was like, 'Well, that's very nice. It's very generous of them. Why would they do something like that for me?' And my agent didn't say anything. So I said, 'This is a bigger role than I think it is, isn't it?' 'Yes, Cynthia,' he replied. 'Yes, it is.' It was such a surprise. I wish someone had filmed it, because I was genuinely, completely oblivious to the fact that Darlene is the lead."

"I wanted to work with my dream cast," says writer-director Drew Goddard, "so I knew I had to create a document that would attract them. I had moments where I would look at Jeff and Cynthia and Chris, Jon, Dakota, just sit and look at all these heavyweights and think, how did I get here? I don't understand how I got to be so lucky. It was never lost on me how special it was."

The feeling, says Jeff Bridges, was mutual. "Drew Goddard, what a wonderful director and writer. My favorite directors to work with are the ones that set a real loose, loving vibe on the set. And Drew certainly did that. You very much felt the spirit of collaboration, a gentleness, a lot of kindness, that made everybody relax. And when you're relaxed, your best work comes out, you're up for exploring different ways of doing things. It was very encouraging to hear him say 'What are your ideas? How do you see this?' I loved working with him. He's now one of my favorites."

Bad Times at the El Royale, says Goddard, "was very much the definition of a passion project. I wrote it for myself. I'd been working on a lot of big-budget films, things that had a lot of pre-vis and complicated visual effects, and I was complaining to my wife one night. I said, 'I'm so tired of this. My next movie is just going to be a bunch of actors in a room talking.' At first I was joking, but limitations can be good for a writer. So I challenged myself to create a construct where you have several people in a confined space. How do you make that interesting? How do you turn the story even though most of it takes place in the same location? How do you change that location over the course of one night? All these questions make it hard but really fun to write. And also I just love hotels. I love how they are this place where people come together for a very brief period of time and have these encounters. I wanted to explore this idea that one night in one hotel can change everyone's life."

"There's that adage in screenwriting," adds Goddard, "just write what you want to see. So I locked myself in a hotel room and wrote the movie I wanted to see. It started from my love of film noir, crime fiction and classic ensemble movies where you don't quite know who the protagonist is, and you get to see a bunch of movie stars in a limited space. And then I convinced Fox to let me make that movie, and here we are."

Goddard set the film in the 1960s, the perfect era for a film that peels back the layers of both its action and characters. "In the '60s there was a spirit of sexiness, of warmth and celebration," says Goddard, "but beneath the surface there was paranoia. There was surveillance happening beneath the glitz and glamour."

"The El Royale is not a place that exists," says production designer Martin Whist. "It's not a reproduction. It's not even accurate. But it's still very rooted. You believe this place. It's comfortable. But at the same time it's now oversized, because it was built for a lot of people but now there's only a handful in here at any time. So it's got a western kind of framing. One person here, another way over there, yet another farther still, and you can see each one. There's almost an exterior geography to this interior. So there is an eerie, lonely, left-behind sense in here. It tricks you, basically."

The quirky California-Nevada border split creates a metaphor that runs throughout the film. "Warmth and sunshine to the west; hope and opportunity to the east," explains Goddard. "California is warmth and sunshine that beckons people like a siren call. It is a place you walk towards. Nevada is very much about changing your life, the idea that you can walk into a casino and walk out a different person. It's that promise of hope combined with the frontier element of Nevada, which began as an outlaw state and slowly became this beacon of capitalism."

But while Nevada promises to change you, it may not change you for the better, or its road to improvement may be a perilous one. It is to the Nevada side that California's Darlene is invited by Father Flynn. "Nevada is where the gambling happens," says Erivo. "It's seedier there. Whenever we step into Nevada that's when you know things are going to go wrong for whoever's just crossed over the line."

The seduction of California, adds production designer Whist, is deliberately insidious. "When people see the California side of the hotel they would think how optimistic, warm and welcoming it is. But in fact it represents evil. Because underneath that positive layer is the corruption and the evil and the mistrust."

This spiritual theme of redemption carries into the structure of the main building. "I wanted to create the sense of a church nave in it," says Whist. "There's an elevating quality to the architecture. The sense of walking down a cathedral with the jukebox at the end. And that's the focal point for everything when you enter."

To achieve the soundscape he wanted, Goddard hired music producer Harvey Mason. When he, Goddard and producer Jeremy Latcham first sat down, recalls Mason, "Drew had very strong opinions on what he wanted to hear. All the songs were obviously pre-written, but they were chosen because the lyrics fit the story and the mood Drew wanted to convey in a particular scene. They further the story. So there's beats in the song where you learn more about the characters. Drew did a great job in selecting the songs, and the way he weaves them into the script is so unique. It's almost like a musical, but it's not."

"My job," adds Mason, "was to make the music authentic and unique for this film. We didn't want to do karaoke versions of the songs. We wanted something that both fit this amazing environment but still stayed true to the originals. So it was about walking the tightrope between respect for the original and staying in the time period."

One way they achieved that freshness was to record Erivo live on set. "This isn't lip-syncing. This is live performance," says Mason. "Where Cynthia is singing we used prerecorded music, but we recorded the vocals live. Usually to record on set is not something that people are brave enough to do. But we had a great director and production team, and Cynthia who can really, really sing. She's very strong from her days on Broadway. She's got a very strong instrument, and she's very accurate. She can do the same thing over and over again and still do so with emotion. A lot of people can do it once, maybe twice, but she can do it again and again and again. She's that good. It only made sense to take advantage of that. It really paid off."

Erivo, too, loved the approach, and is rightfully proud of her accomplishment. "Every time you see me sing in the movie," says Erivo, "I'm singing for real. So of course there were challenges. One scene we did 20 times straight through, which is like a four-minute piece over and over again. You do get tired, but then you figure out a way to not let go of the quality of the sound. I was really adamant that I would do that. Everyone was so helpful, making sure I was okay. and I was provided with the things I needed to stay in what we call 'good voice.' I had enough water, I had tea, there was a humidifier on, and the heat was at the right temperature, so I could keep going."

And when Erivo sang, the atmosphere was electric. "When you've got a singer like Cynthia," says Jeff Bridges, "oh man, you're in for a real treat. The rest of the cast and crew and I were lucky enough to be around her working. All day long we'd hear these beautiful tunes coming out of her. It just put you in another zone. So, so beautiful. What a wonderful actress."

When Bridges' comments are relayed to Erivo, she smiles and returns the compliment. "Jeff is just a good, good person," says Erivo. "I always looked forward to getting on set with him and giving him a big hug. He's so generous and he creates this wonderful energy in the room when you do a scene with him. You can do it a million different ways, and it always still feels real and true, which is wonderful."

Costume designer Danny Glicker also helped the actors keep their performances true. "El Royale was a unique opportunity for me to really lavish each character with a level of detail and attention that the story required, and which kept them as individuals for the whole movie," says Glicker. "And for a designer, character is everything. It was an intoxicating experience to spend that much time with each character with Drew, focusing on each actor and their specific roles. And what I really loved about the project was the opportunity for me both to tell the truth about who the characters are and also tell their lie, how they present themselves at the beginning of the movie."

Glicker also credits the nuances of Goddard's script with providing keen insights into the characters. "One of the lines in the script that I loved," says the designer, "is 'We see Miles's sneakers run up.' In that moment I knew who Miles was. He hasn't thought past the front desk. He hasn't thought past the top half. This is a kid who's still a kid, and he's just barely holding it together to present himself as well as he can. Without that line I don't know if I would have understood Miles as quickly as I did. And so we have him in the most perfect Mr. Rogers pair of destroyed sneakers ever. It's details like that in Drew's script that really helped unlock these characters."

WELCOME TO THE EL ROYALE

Perhaps, though, the largest role went to the El Royale itself. Except for flashbacks to our characters' backstories, all the action takes place in this single location. To tackle this challenge, the producers turned to production designer Martin Whist. Whist had previously worked on Cloverfield, which Goddard wrote, and then on Goddard's directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods. Whist hired set decorator Hamish Purdy, with whom Whist had gone to high school back in British Columbia (both had pursued industry careers, though initially down separate paths), and supervising art director Michael Diner.

Normally a movie such as this would have exteriors shot on location married with interiors built on a stage. But it quickly became apparent to Whist that this wouldn't work with El Royale, due to the complex interaction between interiors and exteriors, and between the interior locations, of the resort. "It was very clear," says Whist, "that we had to build the whole exterior on stage, as well as all the interiors of the rooms and the lobby. Budget-wise it was more difficult, but we had to be able to walk in and out and not have a cut. It had to be one whole environment. We did end up building exterior faƧades on location for the wide-open drive-ups and some of the scenes out there during the day, just to get the natural daylight, but that was all." The result was a 10,000-square-foot set built on a 60,000-square-foot stage at Mammoth Studios in Burnaby, just outside Vancouver, British Columbia.

Such a set is not only rare-it was the first such singular set in Michael Diner's 20-year career-but exceedingly challenging. Foremost was the timing. On most movies, sets continue to be built and dressed after shooting has commenced, with the earlier sets struck down as their scenes are shot and the production moves onwards. But the entire set for El Royale had to be ready for day one, for both interior and exterior shots, and for dry days or rain. What this meant for the designers was a heavily compressed production schedule where everything had to be previsualized down to the minutiae. This was not a case where a piece of furniture could be built then modified after it was found lacking, where a paint color or carpet design could be swapped out later if the director hated it or it didn't light as expected. "Everything was custom," says Hamish Purdy. "That in itself is not difficult, but everything takes time. You have to pick materials and then get tests sent back, and then tweak those materials and then get tests sent back, and then calculate how much you need, taking into account things like stunts or multiples or shotgun takes and any other destruction that's going to happen to the set. And there's a cutoff date for a mill to print 10,000 square feet of custom carpet, for example, so if we didn't get the order in on time, we would have held up production."

Adding to the complexity was that the movie is a period piece, so one couldn't just stroll down to the local shops for materials. For example, some of the wallpaper was made using a 1950s technique of screen printing and flocking. Another was created by a vendor in Idaho who makes antique papers using a block printing technique. For other items, such as the neon sign, there are few fabricators still in existence, and many of the necessary mechanical and electrical components are scarce and difficult to source. And roulette wheels-so essential to the film's final scenes-are expensive and hard to come by, especially when you need two matching ones. Yet even those didn't compare to gathering together 24 period slot machines.

It wasn't all tough going, though, admits set decorator Hamish Purdy. "Research showed there was a lot of holiday making as well as gambling. Tahoe had water ski teams and boat races and all that sort of frolicking in the California sunshine. I managed to find some promotional leaflets from other casinos that were in the Tahoe area back then. There was one promotion they called 'grub steak,' which was a coupon that gave you $15 just to start gambling when you entered into a partner casino. Another leaflet advertised can-can girls. But the best, and Drew's favorite, was the 'buffet with bottomless ham.' They're hilarious to us now, but they were very common at that time."

Yet even before the production team could get to the point of testing materials and scrounging up roulette wheels, slot machines, and period ephemera, the entire set had to be mapped out to fit the "spatial choreography" of the script, right down to the square foot. "The space had to function flawlessly for the script," says Whist, "like a very elegant dance within it. Drew and I, we choreographed the scenes out, like how do you see from the front door to Emily arriving, and how does that relate to the reception desk, and how does the reception desk relate to the coffee maker, and the coffee maker over to the refreshment area to the banquette, and then down below to the vending machine. And because it's such an open set, each section had to work for its own scenes but also as background for the other scenes, so everything had to be unified and interesting whether foreground or background. Then the blocking and timing of the shots determined, for example, the length of the wing and the distance between the windows. Which in turn determined the size of the rooms, which at one point were too wide. We had to play a bit of back and forth to get what Drew needed both in the timing of it and the look. I didn't create a space, and then Drew figured out how to use it. It was the other way around, which in my experience was unusual. It was remarkable."

While Whist tackled the size and structure of the rooms, director of photography Seamus McGarvey had to figure out how to shoot through the one-way windows that are revealed in the story. "The challenge," says McGarvey, "was Drew really wanted the reflection of the actor looking into the room but also wanted to see inside the room itself. So we had to figure out a way of doing that. I used these half-silvered mirrors, which are quite expensive to have built, but they're really worth it because in low light you can still maintain a reflection on the dark side while seeing into the room. So they're actually mirrors that we're looking into." To cover all the filming needs, there were actually four different types of mirror-windows used: pure glass, pure mirror and then beam-splitter mirrors, which are partially reflective, both in a 60/40 ratio and a 70/30 ratio, depending on how much reflection and light was used on one side or the other."

Then there was the added obstacle of the need for both fire and rain on a set built indoors. To this end the production team used an elevated set atop asphalt board to allow for drainage, and pipes with about 9000 pounds of water available on demand were built in. To meet fire considerations-and Goddard wanted as much practical fire as possible-the team used concrete and cement where plaster would otherwise have been preferred and with the help of special effects, discovered fire cloth could be printed on using an inkjet printer to match the pattern of the carpet or drapes. The team even made metal plants that looked authentic.

The final challenge for the production team-as if they didn't have enough already-was Goddard's decision to shoot anamorphic. "Because we were shooting anamorphic, which is very low and wide," explains Whist, "this set became a lot about the floor and the ceiling more than any set I've ever been involved with. I designed the set to be low and wide for the framing, the lensing, and also because there's a distance to it. I wanted to see that distance and crop it. If you have a very high ceiling and you have a big space, you lose the compression of that space, the density dissipates, and visually it becomes uninteresting. I wanted to have every surface in frame visible and visually interesting." One way the team pulled this off was to suspend the entire 10,000-square-foot ceiling of the set from the ceiling of the soundstage, so there was no need for support beams that might otherwise have impeded the camera's sightlines.

The downside of the low ceiling and wide shots, however, was that there was no place to hang film lights. "There was nowhere to put conventional film lighting," says McGarvey. "On a set of this magnitude one would conventionally have lights rigged above it for the backlight and fill. When I first became involved and saw the plans, I was like, well, how the hell am I going to light this? It's low ceilings. But with Martin we worked out a way to bring in light to every area so that we could effectively shoot wide without any film lights on the set."

"Another one of the challenges that occurred to me," continues McGarvey, "is that a lot of the action takes place in the one space. But when I saw Martin's illustrations and heard how Drew imagined the space, all my fears about it being somehow deoxygenated just went completely out the window because this place is a kaleidoscope of pictures. It isn't one space. It's a myriad of spaces that change. And it turned out that building the whole set on one stage was genius from the outset. First, we were shooting in Vancouver, so the exteriors would otherwise have been nigh impossible to shoot through the winter in a rainy exterior in minus whatever temperatures we had. But shooting indoors also lent the film a particular look. I was able to control the backlight of the rain. We had a lot of flexibility with time, and we could change directional shots relatively simply. And we could switch off the rain, which was a great boon to the actors. We could let them recover after a number of takes because the rain was properly biblical."

El Royale was also shot on film instead of digital. "When I was writing this movie, I realized it needed to be shot on film," recalls writer-director Drew Goddard. "There is a legitimate financial reason to shoot digital, and I understand that, and yet I also felt this movie was about film as much as about anything-the idea of how we remember things, how we capture things, and how images have meaning even long after the image has been taken-and so there was an emotional reason for me to shoot on film. I wanted to see the grain. I wanted to see the happy surprises that can happen on film that just don't happen when you're shooting digitally." Luckily for Goddard, his choice for cinematographer, the "fearless" Seamus McGarvey, was of the same mind. "We were very much on the same page about how this one should be done."

But why anamorphic? "Bad Times at the El Royale was designed to play in theaters," Goddard explains. "We shot it anamorphic and on film for that reason. I love movie theaters. I love the communal experience. When you hear a stranger sitting next to you laugh at the same thing that you're laughing at, there's a connection that is made that you can't replicate in your living room. I wanted to shoot anamorphic to really take advantage of the frame size. When you have this many actors, you need a wide frame to capture them all. I looked at a lot of Sergio Leone films, the way he expanded the size of the frame so that he could get all his actors in frame and still do them justice. It's not an easy task, quite frankly, when you have one space and seven actors all on screen at the same time, so anamorphic was very important to me."

In keeping with the era of the story, DOP Seamus McGarvey used older anamorphic lenses from the '60s and early '70s, which, he says, "have peculiarities. Each one of them is like an errant child. They're full of personality and flaws, which we embraced. These are not Zeiss-perfect lenses with sharpness edge to edge. They've got aberrations that I am really drawn to. They've got drop off and fall off and foggy edges, and focus is incredibly difficult with them. But on a set like this what they do is smudge the edges a little bit. They allow you to focus with an incredibly shallow depth of field when you want to. That allows you to focus on the characters so that the background, once it's been revealed in wide defining shots at the top of the scene, fades away and you're moving metaphorically into peoples' heads. There's a psychological aspect that you can create photographically."

The wide open set, attention to detail, and choices of how to film had a dramatic effect on the actors. Dakota Johnson best sums up the experience for everyone when she says, "I had never seen a set like this one. It is truly a character in the film. It was ominous and mysterious and inviting and terrifying. It held an eerie, weird energy that at first felt confusing, and then everyone got really comfortable and attached to it." And the more attention she paid to the details crafted around her, the more she watched her fellow actors interact with the space, the greater the scope of their achievement became apparent. "Even on the last day there were things I was still learning. I kept discovering more in the characters, in the script, in the set design, in the architecture of the building and even the shadows it cast. It was so intricate. I think it'll be more rewarding the more times you see the film. It's truly a work of art."

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