The production team behind “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” faced two daunting yet exhilarating challenges: to create a new world from nothing — and to find somewhere to film that fantasy. “It’s a story that starts at Briny Beach and ends up at Lake Lachrymose — I’m not sure that refers to places in the real world,” Brad Silberling told producer Walter Parkes in the early days of pre-production.
An early decision was made to design the film on soundstages at Paramount and at a former Boeing facility in Downey, Calif. That freed the crew from the unpredictable variables of location shooting and from location costs, production designer Rick Heinrichs says. “We were able to achieve the look because of the choice to put the money up on the screen,” he adds.
That also freed the director to shoot night shots during the day, a boon when working with two children and two toddlers — all on limited shooting schedules.
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The crew then had to create everything from scratch. A tank was built at the Downey location and several sets were built around the water’s edge. Aunt Josephine’s collapsing house was built on hydraulic lifts and the Baudelaire’s mansion had to be designed to look as if it had burned down.
The crew had no grounding in reality in which to design the world the characters inhabit. Heinrichs pointed out that in the books, horses and buggies co-exist alongside cell phones and computers. “We felt it was important to have our own sense of continuity and decided that we were going to put things together that looked good together from various periods,” says Heinrichs.
Silberling harkened back to earlier days of filmmaking in his quest to create as much of the visuals on set as possible, rather than on computers.
“When you go back to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ‘Night of the Hunter’ and ‘Mary Poppins,’ somehow your mind gets to take off and that’s because there’s already been a certain degree of really good tactile imaginative work on camera,” says the helmer.
Heinrichs notes that while he used 3-D pre-visualization to plan the sets, “the struggle is to use all the modern technologies without removing the soul of what you’re doing.”
Set decorator Cheryl Carasik attuned each character’s home to their personality down to the smallest detail.
Count Olaf’s house was filled with dramatic yet shabby pieces to reflect his status as a starving actor, and the kitchen was filled with used dishes that his character could have stolen from restaurants.
The walls of phobic Aunt Josephine’s house were hung with photos of her late husband and a spoon collection. “She collects spoons because if spoons ever fall they won’t hurt her — they’re rounded,” Carasik reasons.
Of all the sets, everyone on the film marveled about the 360-degree panoramic train tracks. “You’d stand in the middle of the set and you’d look down this road, and in the distance were barns and street signs and cows,” says Parkes.”Then you’d start walking down the road and within about 30 seconds, you’d feel yourself growing to giant size. You’d realize that what you were seeing were miniatures that were scaled to give a sense of distance. It was extraordinary.”