Battling tight budgets and renovations, the design teams behind “Bobby” and “Dreamgirls” turned dozens of Los Angeles locations into believable ’60s and ’70s settings to help tell stories of dreams, death and redemption.
Whereas “Bobby” takes place on the eve of Sen. Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, “Dreamgirls” charts a whirlwind across two different decades in the life of a Motown girl group. But each demanded a special eye to period detail to capture the timeframe in question.
A three-year delay pushed the filming of “Bobby” back to the brink of the historical Ambassador building’s demolition. The cast and crew had to dodge demo crews, shooting exteriors at night to avoid the hard hats. With a miniscule $6 million budget, they had to replicate all but the Ambassador’s entry and coffee shop on soundstages and locations. The Park Plaza Hotel, Castle Green, Santa Anita Racetrack and an Agoura golf club doubled as the storied landmark. A rock ‘n’ roll club became the Cocoanut Grove.
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Production designer Patti Podesta chose the Park Plaza partly for its red carpet. “Everybody remembers the red carpet at the Ambassador,” she says. “But the carpet in the ’60s was actually blue and green.” She created a memory of the place rather than a literal reproduction. Red carpet signifies royalty and the spilling of blood.
Podesta studied network feeds, LAPD photos, vintage postcards and articles to capture the hotel’s essence, but her big break came when “Bobby” costume designer Julie Weiss showed up with her sister’s wedding album. She’d been married in the Embassy Ballroom, where Kennedy delivered his last speech, and her photos served as Podesta’s model.
“It’s funny how little of the 1960s is left in Los Angeles,” says “Dreamgirls” production designer John Myhre, who also scouted locations all over town for the musical. Instead of cobbling them together to re-create a single backdrop the way “Bobby” did, Myhre needed spots that could suggest Detroit, Hollywood and other touring destinations across the pic’s 10-year span, which begins in 1962. He spent three weeks driving around Los Angeles with location scout Lori Balton. “People would say, ‘Oh, I know this building,’ and we would drive over, and it would be a parking lot.”
In search of performance spaces, Myhre commandeered “almost every theater” in downtown Los Angeles’ Broadway district. The Palace Theater became the old vaudeville space where James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) first performs with the Dreamettes — also the scene of their farewell performance. Myhre squeezed shoots in just before the old “faded glory” beauty got its facelift.
Myhre found the numerous ’60s car dealerships around town too modern, so he built the Detroit Cadillac dealership-turned-recording studio on a vacant lot. He also re-created a Miami nightclub and ’60s-era Caesars Palace stage from scratch, but otherwise worked from existing Los Angeles locations. For instance, the ’70s wing of the Los Angeles Times became “a huge, soulless, glass-and-stone building” for Rainbow Records at its peak.
While “Dreamgirls” races through 10 years of story, “Bobby’s” one-day timeframe posed a different set of challenges. Designers plotted the placement of windows to reveal time passing through light, dusk and darkness. “We worked out from the center of the film where the various character storylines reveal themselves,” Podesta says, “knowing we would end up with Anthony Hopkins greeting the senator as the sun sets.”
Costume designer Weiss saw the Ambassador as a microcosm of the world: “On the night Bobby Kennedy spoke, the doors opened to all of society.” Employing vintage clothing, fabrics and patterns, she designed looks for hippies, dissidents, campaign workers, entertainers, political royalty, workers of every stripe and hotel visitors. Weiss was keenly aware that most of those gathered at the hotel for this pivotal moment “cared more about causes than clothing.” So convincing are her choices that stars Sharon Stone and Demi Moore blend in with the ensemble.
“Dreamgirls” costumes, by contrast, had to show a progression through time, reflecting the ever-evolving characters. In the ’60s, the women wear modest “loving hands at home” dresses that double as church outfits. The men are brilliant-hued and shiny.
Costume designer Sharen Davis revs up the glam as the group takes off and Deena (Beyonce Knowles) assumes center stage. For their pivotal “Dreamgirls” performance, Davis draped the girls in skintight white strapless gowns that sway as they sing. “There’s this blue field of stars, and they are clouds floating in the sky,” she says.
Music mogul Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) grows colder as he gains money and prestige. “His color palette got duller and duller,” Davis says. In the ’70s, gray suits and vests replace his flashy duds. “He becomes all about business.”
The glitzy ’70s clothes contrast with the whites and clear glasses of their environments, as success drains their souls of color. “They’ve found success,” says Myhre, “but it isn’t so much fun anymore.”
Additional stories from this special, Eye on the Oscars: The Look