Four of this year’s most visually striking dramas — “I Am Love,” “Somewhere,” “Cairo Time” and “Eat Pray Love” — are set in places that are so integral to the narrative that the stories could not have taken place anywhere else.
In one of those instances, though, the iconic setting didn’t materialize until the writing was well under way, dramatically redefining the entire look and feel of the film.
That’s what happened with “I Am Love,” which writer and director Luca Guadagnino originally imagined taking place in “a little seaside town.” But as he began developing what he describes as an “epic drama about the haute bourgeoisie,” the more he realized that it could only be set in Milan.
He calls the large, northern Italian city — home to a vanishing ruling class of industrialists and entrepreneurs — a “discreet, almost invisible town” where the grayness of the buildings is in direct contrast to the boldness and beauty of their interiors. For Guadagnino, Milan became “a character itself, the way Berlin is a character in ‘Cabaret.'”
Once he settled on Milan as his location, things fell into place, including his discovery of the Villa Necchi Campiglio, built in the 1930s by Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi, and which is the Recchi family home in the film. “As soon as I saw this marble box” with its grand, paneled rooms, recalls Guadagnino, “I felt something in my heart. It was exactly how I described the house without knowing the house.”
Tilda Swinton’s character, Emma, is in a way emblematic of the city, with a rich inner life (and a Russian heritage) concealed by her marriage into the Recchi family. “In the beginning she is hiding herself in the color palette of the town; she is dressed in different shades of gray,” notes Guadagnino. As she starts to come alive through an illicit affair, her wardrobe becomes “brighter against the grayness of this town.”
Milan actually makes a brief appearance in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” and ironically, in that film, it reads as more glitzy and “Hollywood” than Hollywood itself. Inspired by classic L.A. films like “Shampoo” and “Play It as It Lays,” Coppola and her production designer Anne Ross chose to take a “naturalistic” approach to the city, as opposed to a romantic one. Ross notes that when one drives around L.A., oftentimes “it doesn’t look particularly pretty; it’s not blue skies, it’s kind of a white … burnt out from the heat and the light.”
Mining that vein, her team came up with what they would call “Somewhere yellow,” an acid-y electric hue that’s woven, almost imperceptibly, into the design. It’s a decorative band of color at the ice skating rink where Elle Fanning’s character is taking lessons, and then later, Stephen Dorff’s character is floating on a pool lounger of the same shade. “There was something about it that felt very L.A.,” says Ross, “sort of a little too hot and painful, in a way.”
This stands in contrast to the warm, soothing amber tones of the iconic Chateau Marmont, where Dorff’s character is living. Although much of the furniture was changed and walls were painted, “we really wanted to stay true to the feeling you get there,” says Ross of the private celeb hideaway that gave the production unprecedented access. “It would have been foolish to mess with it.”
“Cairo Time” director Ruba Nadda credits her Egyptian production designer Hamed Hemdan (who passed away six months ago) with helping her gain access to the picture’s rare locations — including the 24-hour coffee shop El Fishawi, and the wondrous White Desert, neither of which had ever been seen onscreen — that gave her film its authentic flavor. Although the Canadian-born filmmaker lived in Damascus and speaks fluent Arabic, she says she needed someone who could “massage the bureacracy, which is a big deal because it’s really hard to get anything out of Cairo.”
Once you get past this, however, the city’s magic is undeniable.
“There’s something in the air; it’s gold. It’s very odd,” says Nadda, who sees her simple love story as an ode to Cairo as well. “It’s seething with humanity,” and the place operates on a completely different schedule than westerners are used to — hence the film’s title.
“As soon as you enter that time zone something happens to you and there’s no going back,” she says. “We became so attuned to the rhythm of the city and the rhythm of the Nile, we were like, ‘Deadline, what’s that?'”
For “Eat Pray Love” production designer Bill Groom, the character of each of the film’s four locations — New York, Italy, India and Indonesia — wasn’t something he set out to create, but something that revealed itself. Even New York, where Groom lives, was a different place than the city he knows. “In Liz’s eyes it was a cold world,” he says of Julia Roberts’ lead character. “We chose to go with those kind of grays and stone.”
Bali, the last location of the story, was the first exotic location Groom scouted, and he was immediately struck by the water imagery; “it’s just everywhere.” With these two elemental bookends, earth in New York and water in Bali, “it occurred to me that if I were lucky I might find the other elements in the other two,” says Groom.
Sure enough, Rome yielded an ochre-and-cream palette that evoked candlelight and “lace blowing in the windows,” making it a perfect fit for air. And after scouting all over India, Groom and director Ryan Murphy finally came upon an ashram outside Delhi that was willing to host the production.
Groom recalls flying into Delhi with its brick ovens and smokestacks. “Here (the Liz Gilbert character) is at this ashram to be tested, tempered, and of course it’s hot as hell, so fire seemed to be the right image there. And you can’t get away from the reds and the oranges and the hot pink. … It all just kind of fit. Bingo!”
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