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How ‘Nope’ Found Inspiration in Everything From ‘Heaven’s Gate’ to ‘Full House’ to the Deep Sea

Keke Palmer as Emerald Haywood in
Universal Pictures

Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t seen “Nope,” now in theaters.

Jordan Peele’s latest film “Nope” is set on the outskirts of Hollywood, focusing on people working in the margins of showbiz desperate to crawl into the center. From main sibling duo OJ and Emerald Hayward (Daniel Kaaluya and Keke Palmer), horse trainers trying to capture footage of a UFO in order to sell it off for fame, or Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star hanging onto his past glory through a carnival fashioned off of his best-known role, the characters are all strivers obsessed with the spectacle of the film, no matter how dangerous said spectacle ca be. The film is, fittingly enough, a spectacle in itself, in no small part thanks to the meticulous production design of Ruth De Jong.

De Jong first worked with Peele on his 2019 horror film “Us,” an ambitious and meticulously made film but one much smaller than his big budget follow-up. According to De Jong, after their process on “Us,” the two stayed in touch about working on a different film before he began developing “Nope.” Over the course of a year and a half, Peele kept her updated on how the story was evolving, and the two went into the weeds on the influences and style of the film before beginning physical production.

“I really personally love working with writer-directors because the story is born inside of them, and it’s constantly evolving,” De Jong says. “He’s writing all the way until the very end and just nurturing the story and the characters and growing them. He is so clear and concise about his vision and what he wants. And it just allows me to dive in.”

To build the showbiz world seen in “Nope,” De Jong created many of the film’s sets from scratch and drew inspiration from numerous westerns, TV shows, and other pop culture iconography. Here are some of the influences that went into the western horror of “Nope.”

“Heaven’s Gate,” “Bonanza”

The most memorable set seen in the film is the “Jupiter’s Claim” carnival, a western-themed attraction operated by Jupe as an unofficial tie-in to his most famous movie, “Kid Sheriff.” The set for the carnival is massive, featuring a sheriff’s office, a petting zoo, a real steam train engine, a gold-panning station, candy store, general store, saloon, post office, barber shop, an assay office, blacksmith, leather company, fire station, livery, church, cemetery and a horse-shoe shaped stadium that can fit 938 people. All of the buildings have functional interiors, ad almost everything was built by scratch for “Nope.”

In designing the mini-town, De Jong took inspiration from several classic Westerns, with the 1980 movie “Heaven’s Gate” and the long-running TV series “Bonanza” acting as the biggest inspirations. De Jong also drew from her experience working on “There Will Be Blood” for the build and went on a field trip to Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in California to find inspiration.

“We put ourselves in Jupe’s shoes, and we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re Jupe, and we’ve got to build this town and it’s got to be original and it’s got to be ours,'” De Jong says.

The ranch in which Jupiter’s Claim was built was picked out by location manager Justin Duncan. Fittingly enough for a film about Hollywood, the ranch once belonged to Los Angeles icon, civil engineer William Mulholland. The overall construction of the town took 14 weeks, by De Jong’s estimates.

California Farmhouses

Aside from Jupiter’s Claim, the other intense build process of the film was for the home of Emerald and OJ, a classic turn-of-the-century farmhouse. The build for the house similarly took 14 weeks, and to construct the home and the ranch, De Jong prodded Peele on the family’s backstory, which in the film posits them as the descendants of the jockey featured in “The Horse in Motion,” the very early cabinet cards that acted as a predecessor to film. De Jong did a deep dive into the subject of animal wranglers and toured the California valley to visit cattle ranches, farming ranches and quintessential California homesteads. De Jong aimed for the house to be “iconic,” with vintage wallpaper in the kitchens, a wrap-around porch and a feeling that it melted into the landscape of the valley. Aside from the main house, the set also includes a shed that acts as a cover for OJ during various intense scenes and an arena in front of the house.

With Jupiter’s Claim location, the farmhouse was built on a ranch with connections to Hollywood history — the ranch once belonged to celebrated director Howard Hawks, famous for directing the original “Scarface.”

“Just so random that you pick these two ranches in the middle of Agua Dulce and it had such Hollywood prestige from back in the day,” De Jong says. “That was very trippy for Jordan and I.”

In a later scene, the UFO — actually a living alien organism, rather than a ship — drips a sea of blood upon the house, covering it in red for the remainder of the film. De Jong spent her 30th birthday weekend spraying the blood upon the house, using an oil mixture she used for the blood in “There Will Be Blood.” The mixture worked for the film because it soaks naturally into the Earth, and wasn’t toxic to wildlife. To make the sequence where the blood gets poured realistic, the painters went on lifts around the house and used rain bars to soak the house with the oil.

“Buck and the Preacher”

Throughout the film, viewers can catch a glimpse of a modified version of the poster for 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher,” Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut and one of the first Westerns focused on Black characters. Once the crew got clearance to use the image, De Jong had the graphic designer Hilary Ament mock up the poster and photoshop in the head of Otis Hayward Sr. (Keith David), the father of OJ and Emerald and a famous film horse trainer in the story of the film. The poster served as a way to convey the importance of Hayward in “Nope’s” vision of Hollywood history, and a nod to the Western roots that inspired the style of the film.

“It was kind of just a throwback,” De Jong says. “Him being this epic, huge, classic Hollywood horse wrangler working with all the best.”

“Full House”

One of the most memorable scenes in “Nope” is a flashback to Jupe’s time on “Gordy’s Home,” the sitcom that traumatized him and ended his career after the star — chimpanzee Gordy — went on a vicious rampage after being startled by a balloon popping. The scene’s brutality is contrasted by the set of the sitcom, which De Jong built after researching many classic sitcoms, from “Friends” to “Seinfeld.” Classic family-friendly ABC hit “Full House” provided particular inspiration for the set, but based the chunky, stucco ’90s decor on the architecture of Florida, where “Gordy’s Home” is ostensibly set. For the cut from the footage of the sitcom to the on-set chimp attack, De Jong researches sitcom production in order to accurately represent the filming equipment and behind-the-scenes areas viewed.

“I’ve never done television in that way, so I had to really study how they shoot sitcoms,” De Jong says.

Mad Magazine

During an early scene where Emerald and OJ visit Jupe’s office, the two stumble upon a shrine of sorts for the former child star’s long-gone career, with memorabilia and posters from his various projects. One of the most memorable of these artifacts is a mocked-up issue of famous satire magazine Mad Magazine with a cover parodying the Gordy’s home rampage. After De Jong and Peele got clearance from Mad to use a cover, they recruited one of the original cover artists of the magazine to design the issue, which features Gordy standing on a coffee table ruining a birthday, in a nod to the fictional sitcom episode in which the attack took place. The team also did research into hot topics of 1998, when the sitcom supposedly aired, to come up with the headlines seen on the cover, such as one referencing the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton scandal.

“It was fun to go meta on that with with the team, with the art department and the original cover artist. It was wonderful,” De Jong says.

The sequence also contains a blink and you’ll miss it easter egg for Peele’s fans, in the form of scissors on Jupe’s desk that are identical to the ones wielded by Lupita Nyong’o as the villainous double in “Us.”

Sky Dancers

The climax of the film features a breathtaking sequence featuring some of the goofiest-looking props imaginable. In order to track the movements of the UFO, which shuts down the electronics it comes in contact with, the Hayward siblings and their ally Angel (Brandon Perea) set up multi-colored inflatable sky dancers — the kind seen outside car dealerships — around the valley and turn them on, mapping the trajectory of the UFO in the process.

De Jong used over 70 sky dancers for the sequence and had her team map out the spacing of the dancers around the valley with a computer. Gaffer Adam Chambers and lighting console producer Noah Shain set them up on set, and used miles of cable to connect them electronically. To turn them on and off, the team used an iPad to turn the power on and off. In spite of some technical issues — which included field mice that chewed on the cables — De Jong appreciated creating the dancers practically for the screen. Most of the effects in the film were practical from the wind that gets blown when the UFO arrives — according to De Jong, the majority of wind was stirred up by flying a helicopter in place of the alien.

“That was nice to have total control,” De Jong says. “That, to me, grounded it.”

Deep Sea Creatures

While the majority of the film is completely practical effects, the UFO that kickstarts the plot was by necessity a CGI creation. Peele and Guillaume Rocheron, the production visual effects supervisor, lead the charge on developing the design of “Jean Jacket,” as the UFO comes to be referred to by the main heroes. To help them kickstart the process and find the inspiration, De Jong developed a mood-board of deep sea creatures, from giant squids to obscure worms, which informed the final design of the UFO’s true, unfurled form.

“A lot of them do these crazy showy things,” De Jong says. “We were like, ‘this thing exists?’ No one would believe this was real.”

Once De Jong developed the mood board, Rocheron and Peele worked with the visual design team to develop the final form of Jean Jacket — a parachute-like mass of white tentacles with a single square-green eye. According to De Jong, the visual effects process was long, with the character only being finalized in the weeks before the film’s premiere.

“There was a lot of noodling to get to that point,” De Jong says.

Correction: A previous version of this article identified the director of “Scarface” as Howard Hughes. The piece has been amended.