For a film as singularly American as Asteroid City, Wes Anderson chose to base his latest film in Spain, writes Adrian Pennington.
Wes Anderson’s previous movie The French Dispatch was filmed on location in the small French town of Angouleme. For Asteroid City, he set up another bubble for cast, crew and production design to film for 35 days during 2021 at Chinchón, 50km south east of Madrid.
Other locations including Death Valley were scouted but the desert environs of Chinchón, provided unobstructed views, hundreds of yards in all directions, and the natural light required to build large sets on an area the size of a football field.
“With the opening pan, you see in every direction,” explained producer Jeremy Dawson. “The car chase went right down the road, almost a kilometre long. Experientially, we wanted that feeling that you’re actually in Asteroid City. You saw the set everywhere.”
Longtime Anderson collaborator Adam Stockhausen (production designing Oscar winner for The Grand Budapest Hotel) created the buildings and interiors including the luncheonette, garage and motel. The mountains, boulders, and rocks were all constructed, too, to such a scale that barely any green screen was used.
“We naturally made use of forced perspective,” Stockhausen explained.
“The town becomes desert and heads endlessly to the horizon, and it is imperceptible to tell where it begins and ends, and achieves a hyper-reality. When you look off in the distance and see the ramp of the highway and the mountains off in the distance, they’re pieces of scenery, and well over 1000 feet away. Some are five, six stories tall.”
Even the sections of the film taking place in New York - essentially anything that appears in black and white in the film - was also shot in Spain.
“In each town near Chinchón, there is a tiny, little theatre,” Stockhausen reported. “We took those as locations, and all of the backstage shots (the scene introducing the actors) were all set up there. The opening broadcast stage is one of those theatres with everything ripped out. The control booth that the camera pushes through is bolted onto the balcony as a little constructed item.”
Behind the Scenes: Asteroid City - References
The film is a paean to 1950s Americana set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Hollywood era of Marilyn Monroe and of futurism. The film could make an interesting counterpoint to Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming dramatisation of the atomic bomb tests in New Mexico in Oppenheimer.
Read more Behind the Scenes: The French Dispatch
Perhaps Asteroid City’s most obvious cinematic reference is to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in which an alien landing becomes a mass viewing spectacle. There’s even a rock formation that resembles The Devil’s Tower from Spielberg’s classic.
Jordan Peele used Close Encounters as the jumping off point for his myth-busting satire Nope released last year.
For Anderson and Stockhausen, a major inspiration for the look of the landscape (as well as the town) was Bad Day at Black Rock, the 1955 film directed by John Sturges, and starring Spencer Tracy. Shot around Death Valley and Mojave Desert, the film provided real topography that Stockhausen then worked to duplicate with sculptors and painters.
Other key design inspirations included Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) in which a small carnival and caravan of people spring up in a desert outpost, much like in Asteroid City, after the alien has landed. Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) in which the action is focused around a very real gas station, surrounded by studio backlot artificiality, was another influence.
The alien spaceship was fabricated as miniatures not CGI and the alien is a three-foot high stop-motion puppet, animated by Kim Keukelerie, and based on a performance by Geoff Goldblum acting in alien costume.
Behind the Scenes: Asteroid City – Film choice
As befits the 1950s period look, Asteroid City is shot on 35mm, the eleventh film that cinematographer Robert Yeoman ASC has shot for Anderson on negative.
He loaded ARRICAM cameras with the same combination of films stocks he had deployed on The French Dispatch – Kodak Vision 3 200T colour and Double-X Black 5222 for the B&W scenes – and lensed with Cooke S4s and ARRI Master Anamorphics.
Film grain was an important element for this production, particularly for the B&W scenes, Yeoman explained in an article for Kodak. “Wes and I fell in love with the look of the Double X B&W stock on The French Dispatch, as it has a superb scale of tonal contrast and grain. Also, on this film we were essentially shooting in a desert with the sun overhead and a lot of contrast. I was concerned about the highlights burning, but I knew that both film stocks would hold detail in the image.”
Rushes were processed at the Hiventy lab in Paris, which then delivered 4K scans of dailies to colourist Doychin Margoevski at Company 3 in London. The final grade was done at CO3 by colourist Gareth Spensley.
Behind the Scenes: Asteroid City - Lighting
For the lighting, Yeoman took cues from Bad Day at Black Rock and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas photographed by Robby Müller.
“They were not afraid to shoot in the harsh midday sun in the desert and actively used that as an expressive element in their stories,” Yeoman remarked. “We visited every location [in Spain] during prep when we talked extensively about the shots. Wes pushed me to embrace frontal and overhead sunlight, and the town exteriors were all shot in natural light.”
Skylights were built into the sets of buildings so they could continue to use daylight for interiors, with no traditional movie lights. Frank Capra’s classic It Happened One Night was used as a reference for the motor court, even down to the shadows cast through the overhead lattice work during the film’s outdoor picnic scene.
They covered the skylights of set buildings with a full grid to give a soft, even light, which allowed the actors to move around with no lighting adjustments. It also meant that the interior and exterior shots were balanced. Yeoman added practical lights in the background to scenes set at dusk to give a ‘pop’ to the image.
“There is nothing like hearing the purr of film running through the gate,” the DoP added. “Everyone on set pays more attention to what they need to do when shooting film compared to digital. Wes does not have a video village, and with a very small crew on set, that means we can move quickly between set-ups. Ultimately, shooting on film creates a more intimate atmosphere for the actors and there are a lot fewer distractions for them.”
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