Though Bobby Darin’s star has faded since his death some 30 years ago, Kevin Spacey’s biopic casts the singer in bright lights and bold colors. “Beyond the Sea” uses a film-within-a-film device that allows the pic to merge reality, memory and myth in its idealization of the facts.
“From an early stage with Kevin the understanding was that it was a dream state in a way, not a traditional biopic where we were trying to be specifically historically accurate,” remembers production designer Andrew Laws. “It was a look back through rose-colored glasses of a man going through a catharsis in his life.”
Laws recalls meetings with Spacey as less about pragmatics and more about the overall sense of psychology of the film. Discussions about the story and its characters, rather than specific environments, he says, gave him a lot more freedom to exaggerate things, push and pull the design where required.
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Costume designer Ruth Myers, who’d previously worked with Kevin Spacey on “L.A. Confidential,” used artistic license of her own, heightening colors to convey a sense of 1950s-era Hollywood. “That yellow suit (Darin’s ex-wife Sandra Dee) talks about in her book. I doubt it was quite as yellow as we made it. But we really wanted that image of him blasting through,” Myers says.
Myers designed Darin’s clothes to reflect the journey of his life, starting out flashy with bright suits and his trademark red sweater, then later trying to get with the age with a not-quite successful hippie look in the late ’60 and early ’70s.
For Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), she portrayed the character locked in time, never quite able to let go of the late ’50s/early ’60s style of her heyday. “Sandra Dee never really matured, in her acting or in the marriage,” says Myers. “I tried to keep her as one of those people who hangs on to the remnants of the past, only comfortable in the period that they’d been sublime in. Even in the ’70s she’s still wearing tight trousers, not flares. She’s still wearing flat ballet shoes, not wedges. She’s still using her waist, her figure. There’s that feeling she’s clinging on.”
Myers created outfits from original fabrics from the ’50s and ’60s, and some from actual patterns from Darin’s original shirt-maker. Spacey had 65 changes of clothes in the movie, which included six identical versions of the famous yellow suit and even one of Darin’s bow ties.
Pic was shot entirely in Germany, partly on location and partly at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios.
The film’s most elaborate set was the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, which is revisited in different iterations throughout the film.
“There were a lot of places that we were essentially re-creating, such as the Copacabana, the Cocoanut Grove and the Flamingo,” says Laws. Because the film is a re-creation of Darin’s memory looking back on his life, he didn’t have to be absolutely literal. “We took iconic features of the nightclubs we were in and used them as a pivot point, heightening them, or minimalizing them to focus attention on the performance.”
For the interior of the Darins’ Schindler-esque house in Beverly Hills, Laws used the same set in all of the film’s different periods, playing with the generational shifts by focusing on different rooms.
In the early part of the film, when Darin and Dee return from their wedding, you see only the living room and the kitchen, with a ’50s color palette of soft pinks and greens. “Later in the film we started drifting into the den, moving more toward late ’60s and ’70s with rust-colored cork walls, browns and high-contrast wallpapers, and little bit more swinging furniture,” says Laws.
The movie’s modest budget of just over $20 million affected design choices in surprisingly unobtrusive ways, says Laws.
He worked closely with cinematographer Eduardo Serra on boundaries, so that no money was wasted dressing parts of sets that wouldn’t be in the shot. “We chose very specific angles where if you look an inch to your left or right you’d lose it. We knew we were trying to create a world that was bigger than we had budgeted for, and the only way to do that was not limit what you see in the film, but limit what you don’t see in the frame.”