When Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu come karate-kicking across the screen next month in the movie version of the ‘70s TV series “Charlie’s Angels,” it’s the sets, not the hairdos, that should steal the show. In creating the look of the film, which is set in contemporary Los Angeles, production designer J. Michael Riva (“A Few Good Men,” “Lethal Weapon” and “The Color Purple”) and director McG (whose music videos include Smashmouth’s “Walking on the Sun” and Sugar Ray’s “Fly”), sought to update the original ‘70s series, not duplicate it. “There is a romance about architecture and furnishings of the ‘50s and ‘60s,” says Riva, who, working with set decorator Lauri Gaffin, mixed vintage furnishings with au courant accouterments. “The trick was not to make it look like a period piece.”
Although he designed 185 sets for the movie, Riva’s biggest challenge was to create a visual narrative for the main character, Eric Knox, played by Sam Rockwell, a computer ace who is kidnapped for his top-secret voice-ID software. In searching for just the right bachelor pad for the character, Riva and McG, both admirers of Modernist architect John Lautner, explored a number of the architect’s innovative homes for inspiration. “I had fantasies of shooting in Silvertop in Silver Lake,” says McG of the sprawling home with walls of glass that silently disappear at the touch of a button, “Or even the Segel residence on the beach in Malibu.” But it was Lautner’s 1960 Chemosphere house in the Hollywood Hills, which Encyclopaedia Britannica named in 1961 as “the most modern house in the world,” that caught their eyes. The polygonal glass-and-wood platform in the sky, set atop a 30-foot pole, resembles a flying saucer--so much so, according to a Lautner interview, that someone once reported it as a UFO. “We visited the house several times,” says McG, “but the physical constraints of the space just didn’t work for filming there.”
So in seven weeks they built their own Modernist house on a hill inside a sound production studio in downtown Los Angeles. The interior features a large, open plan similar to the Chemosphere house--with a kitchen, dining and living rooms. To fit production needs, the space was expanded from the original home’s 2,200 square feet to 4,000 square feet. Wrap-around windows that pitch inward in Lautner’s futuristic home here pitch outward and extend from floor to ceiling. The original strutted ceiling that ends in an octagonal skylight has been recast with fewer struts and is lighter, sprayed with a glittery acoustical ceiling--"like the cottage cheese ones in a 1950s Howard Johnson hotel,” says Riva--and ends in a circular skylight. “We took the Lautner house and turned it upside down.” In the kitchen, a cork floor, Formica counter and hanging ceramic chandelier typical of the era share space with a state-of-the-art Thermidor stove top and Viking stainless-steel oven warming drawers. Atop a ‘50s Danish modern desk sits a sleek Mass touch-screen monitor and a Sony Picturebook and laptop.
Vintage Charles Eames and Hans Wegner chairs and ottomans, a George Nelson clock and a Danish modern dining set commingle with furnishings that, like the house, were reinterpreted and custom-made for the film. An undulating wall, cut from Styrofoam and painted to look like plywood, covers the living room’s fireplace wall--a takeoff on Charles Eames’ iconic plywood folding screen. A pair of George Nelson-esque benches were given a curve to accommodate the set’s crescent-shaped wall. Living room sofas and ottomans in the vein of designer Florence Knoll were enlarged in scale to suit the space and the film’s demands. “When the script called for a bullet hole in the fabric,” says Gaffin, “we bypassed the idea of buying a vintage sofa in leather. It was cheaper to make our own.” The mid-century modern fantasy was short-lived. Once filming was complete, the set was dismantled within 2 1/2 weeks. It cost $180,000, $40,000 more than the 1960 building price of the Chemosphere house. And even the view was a mirage. While the original Chemosphere above Mulholland Drive showcases a panorama of the eastern San Fernando Valley, Riva’s 160-foot-long back-lit diorama is a concoction of landmark L.A., Hollywood and Valley views. “We combined them for a more dramatic effect,” says Riva. “This is, after all, Hollywood.”
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J. Michael Riva and Lauri Gaffin’s Mid-Century Modern Shopping List:
Glass: Retro, Los Angeles.
Vintage furniture: Futurama and L.A. Modern Auctions, Los Angeles.
Fabrics: Diamond Foam & Fabric, Los Angeles.
Lighting: Ten10, Silver Lake; Modern One, Los Angeles.
Kitsch: Pasadena City College Swap Meet; John’s Resale Furnishing Mid-century Modern, Palm Springs.
Wallpaper: Astek Wallcovering, Van Nuys.
Appliances: Square Deal Plumbing, Huntington Park.
Muscle cars: Recycler Classifieds.