Production Designer Martin Whist on Building the Crumbling Era of ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

We chat with the artist responsible for encasing the impossible beauty of Chris Hemsworth within the walls of a shabby hotel gone to rot.

Bad Times At The El Royale Chris Hemsworth
20th Century Fox

There are not a lot of opportunities for a production designer to construct an entire film from scratch. Martin Whist was ecstatic when the script for Bad Times at the El Royale came across his desk. Not only did the film offer him primarily one set to build, but the task of recapturing a specific time and place in transition fell on his shoulders. No pressure.

You know the cliché, that place is another character in the movie? Yeah, yeah, well it is one hundred percent true when talking Drew Goddard’s latest. Given the opportunity to press pause on Bad Times at the El Royale and you’ll see the walls, floors, ceilings, chairs, lamps, screaming story at your eyes. Built into every frame of the film are character and narrative.

I spoke to Martin Whist over the phone. Our conversation begins with the experience of reuniting with Drew Goddard and the frustrations over their aborted Sinister Six production at Sony. We quickly dig into his process for constructing Bad Times at the El Royale, and his dream that every movie required a total build rather than a repurposing of a found set. We also discuss a few hidden secrets within the design and the joys of surprising your director with an added personal touch.

Here is our conversation in full:

What was it like returning to work with Drew Goddard after seven or so years past The Cabin in the Woods?

Well, actually, Drew and I, we were working together on a movie called Sinister Six over at Sony for a while in that time. So it didn’t get made. It was right around the time of the Sony hack, and so we had a working experience in between the two movies. But, as far going on a real project in production was like comin’ home. Drew’s my favorite, and I love working with him and we have a fantastic working relationship, so it was really good to get back after we both had more experience, and more experience apart and together, and be able to apply everything we that had learned and grown into as filmmakers and apply it to this film. So it was a real treat to get back on with Drew.

Yeah, gosh, I can’t even imagine going through the pre-production process of Sinister Six and then having that scrapped and having to ramp up again.

Yeah, well, you know what, honestly it’s kinda just par for the course nowadays. But then on many, many projects that go into development or into early production and for one reason or another don’t actually end up getting made. So, it wasn’t entirely a foreign experience for me. Although Drew would have loved to pushed it through. But it wasn’t the time.

When you get the script for Bad Times at the El Royale what’s your process in breaking that down. Where do you begin to work on that movie?

Well, what I do is very standard for all movies, for myself, which is read the script first, just as a read, just as an impression. And then I’ll read it a second time and extract a set list and do my notes on it in terms of just, sort of, bullet points on what each scene requires. The most essential elements from those scenes. And sort of just peel it down, first and foremost, to requirements of the scene, if there are any. Whether it’s action, or movement, or time, or walking, spatial concerns that might come into play based on the scene. And then, of course, after that there comes the mood or the emotional component, the dramatic elements that the scene requires that I design. And so it’s a process of wading further and further into the actual design. So design for a film is not just picking color swatches. That’s one very small element of it, actually.

And so, for Bad Times I did my process, and then very quickly on because Drew and I have such a strong relationship, we got into it together. Drew gave me the time to sorta get my head into it and, you know, he had lived with it for so long and knew it so intimately, he gave me the time to get my bearings. And then as soon as I had my bearings and sort of my vision of what I think the movie is, where it’s going, and what it needs to look like, and also what, like I said, the set requirements are in some of the scenes. Then we got into it; we rolled our sleeves up and just systematically went through each line of the script.

And, you know, it’s a pretty intricate script, with things happening. And then, for some people then coming back to that same scene later from a different point of view. So you can imagine the, sort of, complexity of every scene. Every scene might have a point of view or approach or a way of accessing that particular scene from many different points of view, whether it be inside a room or out in the parking lot. Drew and I literally just paced it out in big empty spaces. And we put tape on the floor and tape on walls and sort of imagined the spatial requirements of things. For instance, the distance from the car over to the reception area, or Jon Hamm’s scene when he makes coffee and everybody comes in, the opening scene, essentially.

And, so Drew and I, we got into that and then I made models, and I would do overlays for each scene just on the model. I would draw in, sort of schematic blocking plans of where everybody would be for each scene, and how those would overlap. And then once we sorta had a feel for it, all kinda meshed together, the whole movie made sense. It was choreographed out in a way that the set itself was laid out and it could accommodate everything. And of course comes, “Well what’s it really gonna look like?”

In the script, Drew had designated the color theory of the warm in California and the cool in Nevada, but, beyond that, it took us, really figuring out what that meant and what frames of cool, whether it ended up being more purples than actually blues or teals. And then the warms were these beautiful crushed oranges, and ochers, and golds.

And so, just going back to after we finished the layout, essentially. I then started to design the look of the space and, you know, feeling was ultimately important. I mean, every square inch of that place was critical, because the whole movie took place inside one set, essentially, you know.

That’s an aspect that people, even film fans, don’t really think about too often with production design. The layout and the space, the physical-ness of it; the math required to make it all work.

Right, exactly. It’s critical. It’s critical. I mean, we rehearse and rehearse. We would start from drawings, go to models, then to full-sized sort of layouts, to mock-up sets, to, while I’m building the set, double and triple checking distances and heights. You know, I’ve been to the movie with friends, and they’re like, “Well why didn’t you just get a location?” Number one, it would never look like how I wanted it to look. And number two; it wasn’t as though this was a film where we had a location in mind that Drew then decided what to do within that location. It was very much the other way around. The script drove the layout. So, I built exactly to that.

And then, of course, like I say, once you have that sort of skeleton frame of the requirements, then comes the fun part of embellishing and making one space, squeezing as much out of one space as possible in order to give more and more and more. More layers; more textures; more colors; more reflections. So that, on every frame in the whole movie, in each frame, there was an interesting, vibrant, alive composition that also didn’t leave us flat; you always felt as though you were somewhere slightly different. And giving [cinematographer] Seamus McGarvey the opportunity to use his lighting and his lens choice to play within this, sort of, an array of layers, and textures, and colors, and reflections of light that I sort of offered him. And, of course, when Seamus came on board, the collaboration gets even better and more wonderful because now we have all of us coming up with ideas; how to make it look as good as possible.

I spoke to Seamus the other day, and we were talking about your collaboration together, and how, thematically, you’re putting in crucifixes and religious iconography through the sets and then he tries to find it in the lighting. I think that one of the joys of the movie is just, you know the script is great, but you can pause or you can mute the volume, and there’s just so much to take in. The frame is so incredibly full.

Yeah, thank you. That’s a great compliment. That’s the goal. I knew we were in one space for all this time, you know, it’s a little daunting. And you don’t want it to become boring. You don’t want it to become repetitive. But also, on a wide shot, you don’t want it to be a carnival of things. You know, it needs to, on the whole, work as one singular piece, but within that one singular composition and piece of the whole lobby, all the elements have to be alive so that you can go in tighter and tighter and tighter and still have interesting complex visuals. So, it was a balance of creating this sort of beautiful wide shot that everything was elegant and sang together. But when you’re coming in close you could find interesting moods as well.

You know, the look was playing off the era which, if you don’t try to mimic or copy the era, then if you look at the era, there’s so many unexpected surprises that happen design-wise in that era. If you walk away from the most difficult, iconic look, and sort of dig a little deeper and let the decades before the fifties inform some of the design as well.

Things didn’t move as fast back then, so you have your overall look, but it’s such a wonderful combination of opportunities, design-wise, the furniture and pattern color that I could pull from. Particularly, since we were in Tahoe, this Reno/Tahoe sort of tacky-sheik look to it with the wood and the rocks of the more outdoorsy exterior. And it’s just super fun to be able to play with all that given elements.

Well, to your point about building the El Royale set, do you prefer to work in a situation where you get to birth it from whole cloth, or does it just depend on the gig?

Absolutely. All in. All in would always be my desire, but it’s not always possible, because if it’s budget or time constraints. I mean, if the El Royale had only been one element amongst many, many sets, which is difficult in a movie, we probably wouldn’t have been able to build it. But because it was so primary, we were able to allocate enough money to do it properly.

You know, on other movies you just can’t. Every set can’t be a build. You usually pick out a handful of primary sets that can become builds from the one or two or three, maybe. After it gets down to an array of maybe ten other smaller, varying builds, that might be better for the production; to build a little set here rather than go on a location. And then the costs are better; it’s more efficient, more controllable, et cetera, all those kinda concerns, down to maybe an additional twenty-five to thirty locations. You know, people don’t really realize the numbers of things when, in making a movie, how many sets. You know, often our set lists are over a hundred long. That’s when you pick up every single little scene that needs attention from a designer and the art department.

In contrast, this film, because we had so few, we were able to allocate all our resources and energy to building it and designing it from scratch. And I mean from scratch. Every wallpaper and carpet surface, was all custom. If it wasn’t a hundred percent custom, as in I made the graphic design, the color, the texture for a wallpaper, for example. The primary rooms were a hundred percent original. Made from scratch. We found this great old wallpaper maker who did, by hand, blocking and all the initial techniques. And then, some of the secondary stuff, it would be the type of, where I would get a pattern I would get to choose all the colors within the pattern; so I could still control the color of the wallpaper. Nothing was really off the shelf in any carpet, anything. Very, very little off the shelf.

So, yeah, to be able to control this was really honestly just a dream for me. It was such a pleasure, as a designer, to be able to just have the time to focus wholeheartedly on a handful of sets with a director who was side-by-side with you every day looking over decisions and understanding the timelines of things and making decisions at the right time so you could keep moving and making sure, double triple checking everything. And through my processes, we will question it right to the last minute. And sometimes it happens fast; sometimes the process is bing bong bang. Wow! That’s it! We’re done! That’s great, I love it, move one. Others are like, I don’t know. I don’t know, let’s try this. Let’s try that. And, you know, sometimes it can be agonizing for people around us who just need to get it done, but if it doesn’t feel right, you know, we work a lot off instinct, we’ll keep trying. And it’s a great process.

Even though you spent the majority of your time to build the El Royale and all the sets around that, there are several flashbacks. You go to Darlene Sweet’s studio, you go to Vietnam at one point. I imagine you have less time on those sets.

Yeah, Absolutely. All the flashbacks were location-based, sort of traditional location-based sets. Or most of them, I should say. For instance, the little jail cell, the little doctor’s office for Doc were little builds at a location where we were shooting the FBI office that I designed into an existing space; it was an armory with the Canadian Army up in Canada. But yeah, the other ones you get much less time. Usually, you could come in, you might have a day, maybe two days to kind of form the place. For instance, the recording studio, we had very little time and the type of thing where grip, and eclectic, and rigging and, art department, and construction, and set deck, and everybody’s in there at once, trying to get it done. And, you know, it’s a challenge, but we had great team players and great crews who have worked together before inter-departmentally really, really shine.

All those little locations and the bank robbery, or the, I should say, the armored vehicle, that was a location up outside of Vancouver. And Vietnam was actually here in Acton. We did it at the end of the schedule when we came down to do the California beach and, you know, the flowers and the oak tree walk. But everything else was done in Vancouver. It was either, like you say, the majority on the stage, and then got it in and around all the flashback scenes.

And inspiration-wise, you know obviously history and fashion of the day feeds into that, but how do you balance mimicry of the past with giving it your own specific look, to give it that El Royale feel?

That’s a good question. I guess, to start with, I stayed away from the most typical, iconic things; the furniture or lighting or design elements. I did things of the era and chose a direction to go that was of the era but not necessarily lifted off out of a magazine. It was more of a feel just to sort of get involved in the vernacular of that time. It got easier and easier to make decisions as I just, sort of, it’s the snowball effect that started happening where I just instinctually knew what would work and what wouldn’t work. And once the overall design was really starting to gel, it predetermined a lot of decisions.

And then, of course, pulling back from anything that was too sinister or gothy. You know, I wanted it to have kind of a rugged “rode hard and put away wet” type of look. And, so it did. It had its time and it’s not Vegas, right? So it wasn’t. It wanted to have that slightly rustic overtone to it. So that helped give the El Royale patina on it, as well.

And like I say, looking at the environment of Tahoe area that we were in, the sort of Sierras, I wanted to bring a lot of the outside in with the use of sort of indigenous materials; the wood and the rock, mainly. Bring them into the lobby interior and then contrasting that with that sort of backpack glitz. So, I don’t know. At a certain point, it’s not really specific how. Like I say, once the design and the overall feel get legs, it starts to really take on its own identity. And I kept it, I sort of leaned into that a lot once we got up and rolling.

What exactly are your conversations with Drew before you really get started? Are they focused on the El Royale as a place that was once hot and now –

Oh yeah, absolutely. We wanted that. And on the photo wall, it didn’t get filmed too much, but on that photo wall, Darlene goes and looks up there near the end of the movie, there’s all sorts of vintage photographs of sort of the players back in the day photoshopped into our set. So it’s really fun. People love looking at that wall.

The butterfly lights up in the California side are so iconic in terms of our movie. They don’t exist; they were custom made. They were basically, I saw a picture of the butterfly chair and, at one point, I flipped it up to give this strange image with these dots on the walls and the floor and the butterfly chairs. And so then I flipped it upside-down and photoshopped the people who were on the floor in the original and put them on the ceiling upside-right. And I showed Drew. I said, “Hey, look at this reference!” He’s like, “Holy cow! That’s amazing! What is that? That’s the coolest thing ever!” And then I flipped it upside-right and covered the people who were now hanging upside-down on the ceiling. And he was like, “Oh my God!” And it was just a sea of the normal butterfly chairs. So I miniaturized them and put them on the ceiling. And that just worked fantastic! That obviously became a real strong visual element in the movie; you see those behind people all the time. So we have Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra and Kennedy in the El Royale sort of havin’ their drinks with the butterfly lights, now, above them. It immediately sets you in the El Royale.

Oh man! That’s rad. So, it sounds to me like you are the type of production designer that is more about getting his art from the script than pulling visual reference from cinematic history. You’re more history-history. Correct?

Yes, I would say I pull from history-history and the script as it’s written. But it’s hard to deny being influenced by anything. You know, I’m influenced by walkin’ down the road. Of course, watching old films and just sort of the space that was used sometimes. Like Klute for example, was a good reference for us. They might not be overt references, but I pull from anything that kinda works. But it’s very seldom a specific grab, like wholehearted grab and plop it into there. It’s usually this kinda idea that happened or texturally and then I bake my own skin on that and hopefully, it’s a nice douse of El Royale.


Bad Times at the El Royale is now playing in theaters everywhere.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.