A movie about a reclusive star architect rather obviously needs both a star and some pretty striking architecture.
For his adaptation of Maria Semple’s 2012 novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” filmmaker Richard Linklater turned to actress Cate Blanchett, who crafted a playfully inscrutable seriocomic performance as the title character. For the architecture, Linklater turned to his longtime collaborator, production designer Bruce Curtis.
In the movie, Blanchett plays Bernadette Fox, a onetime star of the architecture community who, after a series of professional and personal setbacks, retreats from her career to live in Seattle with her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), who has a high-level job at Microsoft, and raise her teenage daughter, Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson). Having become increasingly eccentric and antisocial, picking needless battles with her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig), Bernadette begins to break out of her shell while planning a family trip to Antarctica at Bee’s insistence. Then Bernadette goes missing, and Elgie and Bee must trace her steps and track her down.
Curtis and Linklater first worked together on 2005’s “Bad News Bears” and have steadily collaborated since, including such recent films as “Bernie,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Last Flag Flying.” With its focus on architecture and design, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” which opens nationwide on Friday, provided a rare opportunity for Curtis.
“To date it was possibly the most creative that I’ve been able to be with Linklater,” Curtis said via phone from Austin, Texas. “Every designer, you wait for projects like this where you can create an entire world and that was a true thrill. The energy of the project was just so amazing.
“It was incredibly satisfying to see things come through the thought process to paper to real life,” he added. “I do that every week, but it was extra special on this because everyone was so thoughtful and mindful of Bernadette’s style, what would be in her world and what was on her mind.”
“With this one, I said, ‘OK Bruce, we’re off to the races,’” said Linklater, also calling from Austin. “I mean, Bruce tends to be flamboyant and big. I’m more real. We balance each other kind of perfectly. So Bruce went to some other level here. I mean, the film required it.”
Curtis looked to female architects such as Eileen Gray, Zaha Hadid and Denise Brown for inspiration. Semple’s book and its descriptions of Bernadette’s work also provided plenty of guidance.
“The book was so descriptive and had so many leads that we followed,” said Curtis. “As a designer, when you’re working off a book and a script at the same time, you don’t want to disappoint the audience. You want to be mindful for the original form of the art, which was the book. So much really came from the Bible, the book, and out of Maria’s head.”
As revealed in the story, Bernadette’s work as an architect featured creative reuse, such as her Beeber Bifocal House constructed from an old eyeglasses factory, or the Twenty Mile House, in which all materials were sourced from within 20 miles of the site.
This aspect of Bernadette’s work particularly appealed to Linklater, who is himself an amateur architect.
“I’m an amateur in a lot of things,” Linklater said, noting that his own personal works include a four-year project to build a guesthouse out of recycled bottles and another utilizing material reclaimed from his property after a fire. Linklater also introduced Curtis to architect Pliny Fisk III, founder of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems and an innovator in landscape architecture and environmentally sustainable work.
The interiors for Beeber Bifocal were among Curtis’ favorite spaces in the film. The Twenty Mile House was not actually built but seen onscreen through plans and computerized renderings.
To bring to life the house known as Straight Gate, the Seattle turn-of-the-century Catholic home for wayward girls stuck in zoning limbo, which Bernadette takes on as her family home, Curtis utilized an amalgam of three locations in Pittsburgh. One was an industrialist’s mansion from the late 1800s, another a school with similar architecture and the third was a soundstage where the house’s kitchen was built.
Oddball details pop up throughout the house, such as a door frame surrounded by a pattern made from countless pencils; the pages of books attached to a wall so that they seem to flutter and move; and knitting made into organic forms and shapes.
Along with set decorator Beauchamp Fontaine, Curtis assembled what they called the “special projects team,” a group of local artisans and fabricators in Pittsburgh who created curios and art pieces throughout the space.
“We were careful never to really truly finish anything, because [Bernadette] was that way in her mind,” Curtis said. “So there were these bursts of creative energy throughout the set, but very much unfocused. The common threads were her knitting, keeping it feminine, and then nods to her architectural mind and to the sort of folk-art area of her brain.”
The adventures of Bernadette and her family take them far from Seattle, and while Linklater did have a crew go to Antarctica to capture footage, the main production went to Greenland. (Where there are, incidentally, no penguins — they were added digitally.) The Antarctica outposts were actually built in Pittsburgh, one in an old Westinghouse factory.
The movie ends with footage and animated renderings of the Halley VI Antarctic Research Station, designed by British firm Hugh Broughton Architects, which Curtis lauded for its “‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ gorgeousness.”
For all the work that went into creating the world of the movie, Linklater doesn’t linger or belabor it on screen; viewers often catch only glimpses of Bernadette’s years of tinkering around the Straight Gate house.
“I want the tone to be, ‘Oh that’s just how they live.’ They’re not making too big a deal of it. So the film shouldn’t make a big deal of it,” said Linklater. “But you see her touches everywhere. Even though you could look at the house two different ways, you could say, ‘Hey, this is a crumbling place.’ Or you could say, ‘Ah, it’s just pretty funky.’”
When asked if he would have preferred for the design’s delightful details, from Straight Gate to Beeber Bifocal to the Antarctica outposts, to be given more time to shine, Curtis said with a laugh, “Well of course I did.”
Curtis added, “But as a production designer, I’m used to it. I get it. I think the special projects and the things that you’re yearning to see more of are actually a good thing. It’s the backdrop and it helps depict the cloudiness around her vision and now it’s clouding your vision. You want to see more, and she wanted to see more as well. She wanted to complete her mind. And so I was very happy with hints of stuff. There was just so much of it in every set that we went to, they flowed very nicely.”
“It’s very hard these days for a film like this to get any traction. It really is. This is a dinosaur in our industry,” Linklater said. “This isn’t the kind of films that are just getting made. I was almost conscious as I was making it and to this day I’m like, ‘God, this could be the last of a certain kind, you know?’ I hope not.
“If they were dumping the film, they would have just released it and not cared about it because people were like, ‘Why is it being delayed? Is that bad?’ I’m like, it means they care,” Linklater said. “So bless ‘em, I’ve been dumped plenty and I know how that feels. And this wasn’t that.”
Linklater noted that he spent longer on post-production with this film than usual and at one point had a two-hour, 45-minute cut that he liked before he kept honing it down to its current run time of 104 minutes.
“The metaphor for the movie is very much like what she says several times, ‘What problems am I solving?’ She’s like, ‘I’ve got to know what I’m doing,’” said Linklater. “And it was the same thing with this film. It was like, what does this film want to be? It’s just a little different. I’m just like that coach who wants the team to be what it wants to be rather than you impose your absolute will on it.
“I think that speaks to the complexity of what Maria laid down in her book,” he added, regarding the character of Bernadette. “But that’s what attracted me. Just the utter complexity of her.”