How ‘Rocketman’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ uniquely re-create a lost Los Angeles
Last October, the production of “Rocketman” erected Mama Cass’ iconic Laurel Canyon home on a private farm in Amersham, just north of London. The only visual giveaway that the chic bohemian house, complete with a backyard teepee tent, wasn’t nestled in the Hollywood canyons was the endless mud, which coated the feet of the crew.
But if you didn’t look down, somehow this muddy British farm was a dead ringer for Laurel Canyon in 1970, the year that Elton John first played the Troubadour.
In the scene being shot, John, played by Taron Egerton, rolled up to the house in a car filled with partygoers and joined the festivities. As he immersed himself in the L.A. music scene, moving through the set, John sang “Tiny Dancer.” It was immediately clear that the film, directed by Dexter Fletcher — who took over for Bryan Singer on “Bohemian Rhapsody” — wasn’t going for realism. Instead, “Rocketman” — which opens May 31 after a Cannes Film Festival world premiere May 16 — is a fantasy musical, and the sets reflect that.
“It’s based on that Laurel Canyon improvised cabin look,” production designer Marcus Rowland explains of the set. “But we went for our own feel on it. We looked at a few other houses of that period and time and then rationalized it to what we could afford to build and how we could build it. And then we’ll digitally put in L.A. down the road, so when you see the car arrives with Elton, the twinkling lights will be visible in the distance.”
He adds, “Overall, we’re giving the film more of a heightened reality. It’s not slavishly following complete accuracy. The whole film is driven by Elton’s perception of what’s happening. It’s his imagination, so we’ve used that as a trigger to allow us to be a bit more creative and deviate from the reality. That was very much part of the conversations I had with Dexter in the beginning. And obviously it’s driven by the music.”
Although much of the story takes place in L.A., the entirety of “Rocketman” was filmed in the U.K., both on location and on the stages of Bray Studios in Windsor. Rowland re-created the Troubadour, as well as Dodger Stadium, which John played in 1975.
A mansion in Potters Bar, also north of London, doubles as John’s Los Angeles villa, complete with an outdoor swimming pool. “That was early enough and we were fortunate with the weather,” Rowland notes. “We’ve had quite a good summer here. It looked pretty convincing.”
The costumes, designed by Julian Day, were similarly interpretations intended to serve the fantasy element of the story. Only the Dodger Stadium costume, a flamboyantly shining Dodgers uniform, is a near replica, using crystals instead of the original sequins. Day, who had a trailer filled with nearly 80 costumes (and 50 pairs of glasses) for the Elton character alone, looked at John’s personal archives for research and then put his own spin on everything.
“This is a fantasy,” Day says. “It’s very different than other films in that sense, so in talking with Dexter we thought that instead of re-creating everything exactly I would restyle some of the outfits. Bob Mackie was one of his big designers, and I looked at all the stuff Bob Mackie’s done for other people and just thought, ‘Where did he get his inspiration from?’ It reminded me of Venetian Carnival costumes and early circus costumes, so I looked at those and worked the new outfits around that idea.”
These reinterpretations stand in contrast to “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s film about Hollywood in the summer of 1969. (Set to open July 26, the film has also been rumored for a Cannes Film Festival premiere, though that remained unconfirmed at press time.)
Tarantino, who grew up in Los Angeles, wanted precise replicas of the streets, the houses and even the billboards from that time.
“We did an enormous amount of research,” says production designer Barbara Ling. “The main thing was to keep ourselves captured in a specific time frame in terms of graphics and ads and what, specifically, the buildings looked like. We wanted to be very close to what it was like in that summer in that year. The advertising was unique — what was on the billboards in that summer, at that time.
“That’s where Quentin is unbelievable. He’s a massive encyclopedia himself. He knew exactly what was playing in the theaters for many of the marquees we created.”
The production took over parts of Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard with the permission of the building owners and businesses, and built the storefronts as they looked in 1969. Ling replaced the famous mural that used to appear on the side of the Aquarius Theater on Sunset, and a few existing businesses, including the Cinerama Dome and Musso & Frank Grill, got a nostalgic makeover.
Almost everything was physically rebuilt to avoid using CGI. Even the vehicles match the time period (eagle-eyed viewers will notice a Helms Bakery truck making the rounds).
“It was hard, but the excitement of seeing people’s reactions, like ‘I remember this entire block. Can’t you please keep it this way?’ was amazing,” Ling recounts. “The excitement was physically rebuilding and putting back sections of L.A. that had long been torn away. It’s Quentin’s love letter to the city he grew up in.
“We went beyond the iconic borders to Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard to re-create whole areas of the Valley that have long been torn away, like Panorama City. Going to the rest of L.A. — Westwood, the Valleys — gives this movie a much more epic feeling of Los Angeles in the time period.”
The clothes required similar research and attention to detail for costume designer Arianne Phillips, who was able to use Tarantino’s scripted costume notes as a starting point. One of the most iconic characters is actress Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, and it was important to ensure that Tate’s look felt authentic and respected her memory.
“I had the privilege and the honor of working with Sharon’s family, with [her sister] Debra,” Phillips says. “They were organizing an auction of Sharon’s clothes coincidentally during the time we were preparing the film. I was able to see her clothes up close and personal, and touch them. That really informed me. [Sharon] was also incredibly well documented; she was very photographed. I had a lot to go on. It really is a responsibility to represent her in the most authentic way of who she was.”
The film, which threads together several storylines and dozens of characters, also required Ling and Phillips to re-create the Hollywood westerns of the 1960s, the signature genre of protagonist Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Because places like Paramount Ranch are no longer useable, Ling built new western towns from scratch.
Where the aesthetic world of “Rocketman” mirrors a fantastical story about John as an artist, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” matches its expansive story with visual scope. But, in its own way, each film reveals nostalgic details from a time past.
“It will be a very shocking amount of history all in this one two-week time period where this movie takes place,” Ling says of Tarantino’s film. “It’s all-encompassing. It was an insanely complicated and difficult production but well worth it. People don’t build things back anymore because of CGI; they usually just replace it. But this is a physically built movie of an era that was epic. That makes it stand out, I think.”
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