As previously noted, the Oscar crafts contenders embrace a wide range of genres, periods, subjects, themes, and settings this season, with a particular emphasis on the movies, music, and political/social activism. This definitely affects the production design race, in which world building is so integral and sci-fi and superhero films figure prominently.
Matt Reeves’ noirish “The Batman” (Warner Bros.) is the early frontrunner, along with Baz Luhrmann’s delirious biopic “Elvis” (Warner Bros.), from two-time category winner Catherine Martin (“The Great Gatsby,” “Moulin Rouge!”), the director’s wife and creative partner. Martin competes with four other Oscar winners, previously recognized for their work in immersive fantasy realms and recreations of our own world: Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther”), Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Rick Carter (“Lincoln,” “Avatar”), and Rick Henrichs (“Sleepy Hollow”). This year, they join a field of hopefuls transporting moviegoers to Gotham, Valhalla, the oceanic depths of Pandora, the ancient Middle East, a dazzling Greek island, and many other destinations throughout the multiverse.
More from IndieWire
There’s no business like show business
For “Elvis,” the challenge for Martin and co-production supervisor Karen Murphy was chronicling Elvis Presley’s (Austin Butler) surreal journey to superstardom from the perspective of his dying Machiavellian manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). With the exception of a few area locations, everything was recreated on the massive sound stages and backlot at Village Roadshow Studio in Australia. The highlights included Presley’s Graceland mansion, the historic Memphis blues hub of Beale Street, the carnival where Parker approaches Presley to be his manager, and the Las Vegas hotel where Presley played his historic ‘70s residency.
Recreation is at the heart of Carter’s 11th go-around with Steven Spielberg: “The Fabelmans” (Universal), a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about aspiring filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), set in post-World War II suburbia (New Jersey, Arizona, California). Carter (whose “Time” immersive collage art exhibition runs through March at the ESMoA Museum in El Segundo) re-imagines the uprooted world of Spielberg’s youth through a palette of warm pastels. He also gets to re-construct the prodigy’s early filmmaking (particularly the acclaimed war film he made on a scouting trip). As with “Lincoln,” where Carter conveyed the interior of the White House as a personal and psychological space, look for a similar inside/out approach to the Fabelman house.
For other characters who seek solace at the movies, production designer Mark Tildesley (“No Time to Die,” “Phantom Thread”) does the honors of creating the landmark Empire movie palace set in a quaint ’80s seaside English town in “Empire of Light” (Searchlight). This interracial love story, starring Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, is Sam Mendes’ answer to “Cinema Paradiso,” where the couple becomes transfixed inside the theater and inspired to continue the rapture outside.
Production designer Florencia Martin — who did such a wonderful job evoking the San Fernando Valley of the ’70s for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza” — takes a couple of deep dives into the darker side of Hollywood glam, glitz, and decadence with Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” (Paramount) and Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde.” The former takes root in the late ’20s transition between silent film and the talkies; “Blonde” sets the inner turmoil of Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas) against a whirl of heightened color and black-and-white in the Hollywood of the ’50s and early ’60s.
Fantastical world building
For “The Batman,” production designer James Chinlund (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) re-imagined a Gotham environment that was more David Fincher than Christopher Nolan. This was in keeping with Reeves’ grunge-like detective procedural about a totally corrupt Gotham, starring Robert Pattinson as a sullen Bruce Wayne. The city was architecturally stitched together as we’ve never seen it before: part London, part New York City. It had styles running fast and loose, but the urban planning was incomplete, which is tied to the mystery and the Wayne family history. Additionally, a Goth imprint permeated the design of Wayne Tower, while situated beneath is the legendary Batcave for Wayne’s modest DIY mode of invention for making gadgets and weapons. Meanwhile, the iconic Batmobile was designed as a retro-looking muscle car, further feeding Wayne’s DIY practice.
With Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney), Beachler expands her innovative Wakanda civilization that became such a graphic expression of Black power. But in the sequel she introduces the Atlantis-inspired Talocan underwater civilization as antagonists bent on world domination. Therefore, look for Beachler to get very creative with the Aztec and Mayan influences in contrast to Wakanda’s oasis of Afrofuturism.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century), the long-awaited first of four sequels to James Cameron’s game-changing “Avatar,” returns to Pandora, the land of the Na’vi, to tell the saga of the Sully family and its environmental and tribal conflicts. Production designers Dylan Cole and Ben Procter (concept designers on “Avatar”) explore other regions and civilizations of the planet, and focus here on the Metkayina reef clan that live along the shores of the oceans. Indeed, the sweeping aquatic world takes up large portions of the film, requiring new underwater performance capture tech from Wētā FX.
In “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24), the surprise smash hit by the Daniels, production designer Jason Kisvarday was tasked with visually depicting the multiverse, where Michelle Yeoh’s laundromat owner becomes a kung-fu master. A warehouse in Simi Valley was converted into an IRS office and martial arts battleground, while an L.A. studio was transformed into 50 multiverse set pieces, including the surreal, white, palatial setting for the Everything Bagel sequence.
“The Northman” (Focus Features), despite being a box office flop, still could be a crafts contender for its bloody, scorched-earth Viking tale of vengeance. Robert Eggers’ go-to production designer, Craig Lathrop, weaved three distinct worlds (plus the Gates of Hell and Valhalla) containing different classes and cultures, wrapped around a balance between the real and supernatural. Aside from constructing an assortment of huts, wood domiciles, and murky gardens, Lathrop immersed himself in dried blood and glowing black sand along the journey.
For “Nope” (Universal), Jordan Peele’s IMAX-sized UFO tale about spectacle, production designer Ruth De Jong (“Us”) most notably created Jupiter’s Claim, a California Gold Rush theme park (which has already staked its claim as part of Universal Studios’ backlot tour). Located in the Santa Clarita Valley, the hyper-stylized attraction was built from the ground up, containing a general store, bank, and saloon. As Jong told IndieWire’s Jim Hemphill, it was “a Western town on acid.”
Setting the stage
In Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Netflix), Daniel Craig returns as Benoit Blanc, the Southern gentleman sleuth, who has a more elaborate murder to solve this time around. Production designer Rick Heinrichs has a field day with the setting and symbolism of this latest whodunit: the private Greek island of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton), with its baroque architecture and decor, including the dining room’s ornate chandelier, which looks like a giant glass onion, in reference to the film’s title and the Beatles song that inspired it.
“Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” from Netflix, marks Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s return to his native Mexico City. It’s a personal film about a renowned Mexican documentarian (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who returns home after 20 years to resolve an identity crisis. He’s overwhelmed by the past and present with the constant blurring of reality and memory. Fittingly, production designer Caballero (“Roma”) visually explores Mexico City as his wildly imaginative mindscape, including the presence of one of the last iconic dance halls, Salon Los Angeles, for a surreal state of limbo.
“Amsterdam” (2oth Century), from David O. Russell, offers a black comedy: Three friends from World War I — a doctor (Christian Bale), a nurse (Margot Robbie), and an attorney (John David Washington) — become prime suspects in a ’30s murder tied to “one of the most shocking secret plots in American history.” Production designer Judy Becker (the Oscar-nominated “American Hustle”) takes a deep dive into colorful Art Deco set designs and other more bohemian interiors.
Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” (Netflix) presents a nightmarish allegory set in the ’80s, starring Adam Driver as a pioneering academic in the field of “Hitler studies,” whose life gets turned upside down after a chemical waste mishap. Production designer Jess Gonchor (Oscar-nominated for “Hail Caesar!” and “True Grit”) — obviously no stranger to quirkiness with the Coen brothers — gets to unleash a twisted, dystopian Middle American vibe.
In “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA), George Miller has fun with an adult genie-in-a-bottle story, starring scholar Tilda Swinton and djinn Idris Elba. Production designer Roger Ford (Oscar-nominated for “Babe”) tackles the time-hopping Middle Eastern sojourn — filled with opulence and grandeur — from a Sultan’s palace to the attic apartment of a genius inventor.
Three gems to keep in mind
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” and Edward Berger’s reworking of “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany’s Oscar international submission) are both worth keeping an eye on from Netflix, along with the eye candy of Olivia Wilde’s mind-bending “Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.).
It’s long overdue for the production design branch to honor stop-motion (unlike the ADG, which now recognizes animation). It’s total set building, requiring as much detailing as any live-action film. Del Toro’s passion project sets Carlo Collodi’s famed Italian folktale in ’30s fascist Italy to explore blind allegiance to authority. The stop-motion was done at the Portland, Oregon outpost of ShadowMachine, under the production design of Guy Davis (“The Shape of Water”) and Curt Enderle (“Isle of Dogs”). They enveloped the aged-down Italian world in carved wood, which provides a veneer of artifice containing both beauty and ugliness.
For Berger’s new take on Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I drama (previously the source material for the first Best Picture winner adapted from a novel) production designer Christian Goldbeck (“The Reader”) recreates the battlefield and maze of trenches (shot in the Czech Republic), as well as pre-war Germany and the train carriage where the 1918 Armistice was signed.
In “Don’t Worry Darling,” production designer Katie Byron (“Booksmart”) recreates a dazzling Palm Springs-style ’50s oasis for married couple Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, who live in a dreamy master planned community and indulge in the good life with his co-workers. Byron luxuriates in bright, shiny colors and lots of glass in her California architecture and interior design, drawing on glam photographer Slim Aarons (“Poolside Gossip”) as her main influence. They even secured several period Palm Springs landmarks, such as the Canyon View Estates cul-de-sac and Volcano House, the space ship-like structure perched atop a hill, which serves as the shadowy corporate headquarters where Styles works.
“Elvis” (Warner Bros.)
“The Batman” (Warner Bros.)
Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time
“Amsterdam” (20th Century)
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney)
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney)
“Empire of Light” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Fabelmans” (Universal)
“White Noise” (Netflix)
“All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix)
“Armageddon Time” (Focus Features)
“Bones & All” (UA)
“Chevalier” (Searchlight Pictures)
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Marvel/Disney)
“Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.)
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Warner Bros.)
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Netflix)
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (Netflix)
“TÁR” (Focus Features)
“The Banshees of Inisherin” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Menu” (Searchlight Pictures)
“The Northman” (Focus Features)
“The Pale Blue Eye” (Netflix)
“The Woman King” (Sony)
“The Wonder” (Netflix)
“Thirteen Lives” (Amazon)
“Thor: Love and Thunder” (Marvel/Disney)
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA)
“Women Talking” (UA)
Best of IndieWire