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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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 faĆ§ades 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
"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
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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