A lot of tiny details went into creating the fictional town in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Among them: the bumper stickers of the local high school basketball team, rental VHS tapes from the local video store and a traditional town seal that appears on official documents.
Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s latest psycho-dramedy was shot mostly in Sylva, N.C., but thanks to the work of production designer Inbal Weinberg (“Beasts of No Nation,” “Frozen River”) and cinematographer Ben Davis (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths”), it has none of the trappings of a fictional place.
“The bones of the town were already evident in the locations we found,” says Weinberg, “but it was our challenge to unify those disparate elements and make them feel cohesive.”
As McDonagh leans heavily on his meaty characters, so he did with Ebbing, morphing it into a character of its own — “a place that’s a little stuck in the past, with architecture dating back decades and a feeling of a classic Main Street, USA,” as Weinberg describes it.
Davis — who has experience both with major action blockbusters and quiet, dialogue-driven films — helped create what he calls the “rhythm” of the movie. “Do people actually talk like that in real life?” he posits. “I don’t know if they do. Are characters as extraordinary as that? Are the things that happen in people’s lives as extraordinary as what happens in a McDonagh script? [Probably] not. So what was very important to me was that people felt like they were [in Ebbing].”
That meant everything had to be grounded by the photography and the design. In the town of Sylva, the police station is really located across the street from a small advertising agency, which worked perfectly for the story. And they found a house overlooking the town that was an ideal home for racist cop Dixon, the character played by Sam Rockwell.
“Because all the action occurs between [those two places],” says Weinberg, “Martin, Ben and I spent time in both of them during pre-production, planning shots and angles. For a few complicated scenes we created storyboards, which were very helpful in keeping everyone on the same page.”
Weinberg says she collaborated with the storyboard artist by sending him all of the set drawings. This enabled the storyboards to be more detailed and accurate. “It helped us locate and fix design issues,” he explains.
Davis — a big believer in extensive prep — had worked with McDonagh for months, going over how and where each scene might be shot. “An hour spent in prep is equivalent to two spent on the actual shoot,” he says. “What I can tell you about my job is that for things to feel natural and real, it takes an effort to get there. You don’t just show up and turn on the camera and get something perfect.”