WOODY WEDNESDAY ‘Café Society’: Designing 1930s Hollywood for Woody Allen The new film, with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, is full of lavish set designs By DON STEINBERG Updated July 6, 2016

CAFE SOCIETY – Red Carpet – EV – Cannes 2016

‘Café Society’: Designing 1930s Hollywood for Woody Allen

The new film, with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, is full of lavish set designs


By DON STEINBERG
Updated July 6, 2016 7:11 p.m. ET
3 COMMENTS
Re-creating opulent 1930s Hollywood and post-Prohibition New York for Woody Allen’s new film, “Cafe Society,” Santo Loquasto found himself in comfortable territory. He’s been helping Mr. Allen depict bygone days on screen for more than three decades.

The movie, which opens on July 15, received mixed reviews when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. But critics raved about the scenery; Variety praised the “lusciously visualized period-Tinseltown backdrop,” calling it an “art deco daydream.”

Corey Stoll and Saul Stein in Woody Allen’s ‘Café Society’
Corey Stoll and Saul Stein in Woody Allen’s ‘Café Society’ PHOTO: \LIONS GATE/EVERETT COLLECTION
With 29 Allen films in his portfolio, the 71-year-old Mr. Loquasto started out doing costumes; he began to act as production designer in the late 1980s for such voyages to yesteryear as “Radio Days” and “Bullets Over Broadway,” which earned Mr. Loquasto Oscar nominations. He has done plenty of contemporary films for Mr. Allen and other directors, including Penny Marshall’s “Big.” He also worked on Broadway shows, including “Glengarry Glen Ross” and the current musical “Shuffle Along.”

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The big difference here is Mr. Allen’s return to celebrate Los Angeles, a town he’s had a reputation for putting down ever since his character in 1977 “Annie Hall” griped: “I don’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.” And: “I don’t respond well to mellow. If I get too mellow, I ripen and then rot.”

In truth, Mr. Allen doesn’t hate L.A. so much as he prefers to sleep at home in New York. Though the vintage Hollywood scenes look lavish, the production didn’t linger on the West Coast and used some New York set-ups to pose as L.A.
“We really shot less than a week in Los Angeles—over a weekend,” Mr. Loquasto says. That was largely a budget issue. “Comparable to period movies other people make, there’s no budget.”

Santo Loquasto, the production designer of Woody Allen’s ‘Cafe Society.’ ‘He never has savored the shots,’ Mr. Loquasto says of Mr. Allen. ‘He doesn’t really luxuriate if the joke doesn’t work.’
Santo Loquasto, the production designer of Woody Allen’s ‘Cafe Society.’ ‘He never has savored the shots,’ Mr. Loquasto says of Mr. Allen. ‘He doesn’t really luxuriate if the joke doesn’t work.’ PHOTO: LIONSGATE
The movie is about a polite and only slightly neurotic young man, Bobby Dorfman ( Jesse Eisenberg), who leaves his Bronx parents for Hollywood, where he works for his uncle, a wealthy agent ( Steve Carell), and falls in love with the agent’s assistant ( Kristen Stewart), causing some awkwardness. He retreats to New York to open a nightclub with his gangster brother ( Corey Stoll), and complications arise. The plot shares its basics with “A Second Hand Memory,” a melancholic 2004 play by Mr. Allen. Mr. Loquasto designed those sets.

There are dozens of showy shots of sunbathed L.A. exteriors and art-deco interiors—mansions, nightclubs, other hangouts. Mr. Allen doesn’t include a lot of scenery description in his screenplays, Mr. Loquasto says. “You have to draw out the information often. It’s far more conversational than you’d ever imagine. I’ll show him photos. We’ve built models. But he doesn’t really trust drawings so much.”

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in ‘Cafe Society’
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in ‘Cafe Society’ PHOTO: LIONSGATE
The opening scene originally was going to take place inside a re-creation of the extinct Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles, to be rebuilt in a dilapidated 1930s dance hall in the Bronx. “Really in a horrible place, but quite marvelous,” Mr. Loquasto says. It would have cost too much to restore the hall, so they switched to shoot it as a poolside party at a modernist white mansion in Santa Monica once owned by Dolores Del Rio.
“The people were so accommodating,” Mr. Loquasto says of the home’s occupants. “We just didn’t go into the house. That was the deal.”

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For the agent-uncle’s extravagant home, they shot inside a 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival-style villa in Los Feliz. Its owners already had restored it impeccably. “Even the light switches were 1920s buttons,” Mr. Loquasto recalls. The home was sold while they were shooting, for a reported $11 million, to Patty Hearst’s daughter Lydia and comedy/podcast impresario Chris Hardwick.
The agent’s Hollywood office actually is the ornate office of the president of the Brooklyn Library. The exterior of the hotel where Bobby stays in California was in Los Feliz, but the inside was in Forest Hills, Queens, where Mr. Loquasto correctly surmised he would find homes in a style he calls “hacienda deco—plastered walls with arches and tile floors.”

In one scene, the two young lovebirds ogle Hollywood movie-star homes from the sidewalk. They’re real mansions, and Mr. Loquasto didn’t have to alter much to get a 1930s look.

“I hid security systems mostly,” he says.

Mr. Allen and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (whose work includes Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and several Bernardo Bertolucci classics) wanted to contrast the L.A. scenes visually with those set back in Depression-era New York. Much is achieved with color. Some L.A. scenes are drenched in amber light.

“Well, there’s always that with Woody,” Mr. Loquasto says. “Honey-dipped is what I call it.”

In New York, they shot in a rundown apartment on Riverside Drive and built a small jazz club inside Reverend Ike’s United Palace theater in Harlem. The ritzy “Les Tropiques” nightclub that Bobby and his brother run was built from scratch on a Brooklyn soundstage.

Over the years, Mr. Loquasto has come to accept that Mr. Allen likes to nail the visual details, but it’s to achieve something romantic and quirky, not art for art’s sake. In the editing room after filming is done, substance tends to beat style. Mr. Allen is always most focused on telling his story.

“He never has savored the shots,” Mr. Loquasto says. “We have our long pans, but there are scenes—we have a little jazz club where I fought to get a flashing light outside the window, for the effect in the room. And he cuts just before you get to the window! He doesn’t really luxuriate if the joke doesn’t work.”

 

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