Bad Times at the El Royale – an interview with Drew Goddard and some of the cast and crew

In the suspense thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, the director and Oscar-nominated writer Drew Goddard transports the audience into an extraordinary world of his own creation. Starring Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth, the film revolves around the guests of a hotel past its prime bang on the border of Nevada and California, where no one is who he or she appears to be. Compelling and thrilling, the story is set in the late 60s and has a unique style. Goddard joined production designer, Martin Whist and costume designer Danny Glicker, along with leading cast members to discuss the powerful visual impact of the film.

Drew Goddard’s suspense thriller is a darkly engrossing film noir about a group of strangers who cross paths at the El Royale. Each of the enigmatic individuals checking into the hotel has something to hide and a secret they are intent on burying. As their lives become entangled, everything descends into chaos. Goddard has assembled a colourful group of characters in its hotel lobby. There’s Father Daniel Flynn, played superbly by Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges; we meet vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan, portrayed by Jon Hamm, and Chris Hemsworth, as narcissistic cult leader, Billy Lee. Rising star Cynthia Erivo gives a powerful performance as Darlene Sweet, a lounge singer and, in a complete departure, Dakota Johnson plays Emily Summerspring, a fiercely determined woman on a mission, who is highly protective of her sister Rose (Cailee Spaeny). Lewis Pullman joins the cast as Miles, the hotel concierge.

With strong performances across the board, Bad Times at the El Royale also stands out because it is so visually arresting. As soon as we encounter the guests who gather in the lobby of the El Royale, we enter a different world, one that took shape in the filmmaker’s vivid imagination. The hotel effectively becomes a character in Goddard’s wildly stylish movie. Situated on the border of California and Nevada, it celebrates the best and worst of both states. But it has seen better days. Once a hotspot, it is now faded and nearly vacant.

“I liked the idea of a hotel that had a shadier side to it. I found that exciting,” explains Goddard. “The movie is about these characters who all have dark secrets; there are questions about who they are and who they were. And I felt that this hotel would be a perfect petri dish in which to explore them,” says the filmmaker about his decision to set most of the action at the El Royale. “There is something about hotels I find very romantic. They transport you somewhere – it’s about trying on a new life,” says Goddard.

Even though it was constructed entirely on a large soundstage in Vancouver, there is a sense of solid history to the hotel, a tribute to production designer Martin Whist, a frequent collaborator of Goddard’s. “The interior and exterior of the hotel, as well as the parking lot, are all connected on one stage in Vancouver,” says Whist. “There’s no cheat; there is a full lobby with connected hotel rooms. It’s all one piece.” Conjuring up the atmosphere of the El Royale was key for Goddard’s story. “The hotel lures you in only to reveal its past – and the longer you’re there, you might not actually want to know what it’s revealing,” warns Whist, alluding to the unease that permeates the hotel – and, in turn, Goddard’s film noir.  

The hotel serves as the narrative and visual foundation for the film. “It began with Martin and I asking: ‘If we could design our dream hotel, what would it be?’ It’s perfectly symmetrical, half in California, half in Nevada. Each side is inspired by the characteristics of its corresponding state,” explains Goddard. “It’s very much a love letter to those two states and the fun of having a hotel that straddles the border. California is about hope and opportunity in my mind, so it’s a much more vibrant and warm side. We also have fun with the idea that there are different laws in terms of liquor licenses in Nevada, so you can only drink alcohol on the California side of the hotel. There’s gambling on the Nevada side too. We play with location as much as we can.”

It felt exactly like a genuine old hotel, says Jon Hamm. “It is very 60s, very mid-century. It actually has functional rooms. It is cool.” To Hamm, “the El Royale is a leftover vestige of the old Rat Pack era of Las Vegas glamour and that world has fallen out of favor by the time this takes place. Both sides of the hotel have a unique personality. The sharp-eyed viewer will see that the California side is very different from the Nevada side. It very much plays with the dichotomy, the two sides of things, the positive and the negative.”

Martin Whist distinguished the two sides with a contrasting colour palette. “There are cool tones in Nevada – a purple spectrum – and warm tones in California. California is alluring, while Nevada is a bit of a purgatory.” The script, says Whist, dictated the design and choreography. “Drew’s story defined where the check-in counter would be in the lobby, where the bar would go, where the jukebox would be placed. Everything got mapped out carefully to make sure all the scenes flowed together correctly.”

Whist’s production design is subtle and believable, without being predictable, the result of his intrinsic flair, coupled with painstaking research. “It was a long, luxurious process,” recalls Whist. “We looked at popular magazines from the era and some ‘Architectural Digest’ magazines, but we didn’t copy anything. We made sure the mood for each scene was enhanced by things like the pattern on the floor, the wallpaper and the different characters.” Steering clear of 60s clichés and well-known designers of the period was imperative. “There are no Eames chairs [popular in the era] and no obvious reference to John Lautner or any other iconic architects of the time,” he notes. “You are in the 60s, but you are not constantly thinking, ‘Oh, look at that 60s lamp.’ We didn’t want it to look as though it is a period film. Instead we want the audience to be immersed in the story.”  

“You really feel like you are in the 60s, which is one of the most visually, aesthetically and interesting eras to me. It was a time when everything was being challenged and pushed to the limits,” comments Chris Hemsworth, “I love the visual style of the film. Drew shot on film, with such creativity behind the camera. I noticed the incredible detail in the rooms, the colors and the fixtures, and so on. Every single thing was there for a reason, to give an insight into what this world is all about. For example, there is a cross in the background at a particular angle, which you may or may not even notice, but it had a story behind it.”

Another example of the attention to detail is Jon Hamm’s gaudy hotel room. The vacuum cleaner salesman he plays is checking into the El Royale alone, but ends up in the honeymoon suite. “It is over-the-top, showing that he is out of place in the room, which is a bizarre, pink suite with a Zen garden and a jacuzzi,” says Whist. “Cynthia Erivo’s Darlene is a singer and her room has a very strong, graphic, visual cadence, which supports the beat of the song she is singing to.”

As the plot unravels, things at the El Royale go from bad to worse. “Building the atmosphere was number one,” says Whist. “The hotel has a faded glory; it’s like a faded rose in that it appears to be alluring and pleasurable to begin with, but the more you learn about it the more sinister it becomes.” He adds: “As the story progresses, the hotel exposes all its sinister aspects and it starts to break down, revealing its history, at the same time as the characters do. The hotel is pretty metaphorical in the light of the whole story of redemption and the characters. Like the people, the hotel’s history isn’t what it appears to be.”

Metaphors pertinent to the upheavals of the 60s abound in the film. At the time when Goddard’s film is set, Americans were reeling from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy (1963) and Martin Luther King Jr (1968). Richard Nixon had just become President and there was an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, along with all the excitement of the Women’s Movement and revolution in music, themes which are subtly reflected in Goddard’s unsettling and nuanced film. But the movie resonates in the current political and social climate too. Sinister and secretive, there is spying, wiretaps, lies and deception at the El Royale. Everyone’s being watched, but by whom? It’s impossible to know who to trust.

Amplifying the twisty plot visually, Goddard, Whist and their team constructed a dark basement passage, which leads to a hallway with two-way mirrors. “The people inside the rooms see themselves in the reflection in the mirror but, of course, on the other side, in the hallway, it’s glass and you can see through into the rooms and what the guests are doing,” explains Martin Whist. “The person on the other side doesn’t know there’s someone watching them. The rooms are all connected. Drew and I spent months choreographing and mapping out distances. And the charm of it all is that it’s ‘real’. It is old school; there is very little reliance on visual effects.”

Most of the action takes place in the hotel over the course of one fateful, rainy night, but there are also flashbacks. “These are needed for the stories of the characters and they snap you into another reality,” says Whist. “They give the movie some contrast or beats or tempo. You feel as though you have been transported somewhere else and then you get sucked back into the present day of the hotel.”

Listening to Whist discuss the film, it’s clear that the collaboration with Goddard was fulfilling. Do they have a short hand? “We actually have a long hand,” laughs the designer, who previously worked with Goddard on The Cabin in the Woods and Cloverfield. “We are both very methodical and we both like to work on an idea until we are absolutely sure we have made the right decision. We appreciate and trust each other. I think that’s at the heart of our creative relationship.”

Equally significant in terms of the look of the movie are the clothes worn by the characters. It’s the first time Goddard has worked with acclaimed costume designer, Danny Glicker, whose credits include Milk and Up in the Air. “I love working with Drew because, as well as being a brilliant writer, he’s brilliant visually,” says Glicker. “His visual vocabulary is playful and sharp, and he takes such pleasure in it. Every time I work with a director of that calibre, it’s a joy.”

What fascinated Glicker specifically about Goddard’s script were the distinctive characters. “You don’t have two of anybody in the movie.” Also interesting is that some of the characters represent archetypes – at least at the outset: “We see the priest and the salesman but, as the movie unfolds, we begin to understand that our first impressions of them might not have been entirely accurate. The characters come in as archetypes, but they also have heartfelt needs and agendas, and things they need to accomplish for life or death reasons. My job was about giving those characters real tension between their outward appearance and who they really are.”

Glicker describes Jon Hamm’s vacuum cleaner salesman, Laramie Seymour Sullivan, as “loud and vulgar.” He wears a loud, plaid jacket. “Jon Hamm, of course, has had an enormous amount of experience in a 60s silhouette,” says Glicker, referring to the actor’s role as Don Draper in Mad Men. “We spent a lot of time researching images of real vacuum cleaner salesmen, and we referenced the 1969 documentary Salesman. It’s not an accident that Jon’s jacket is red, white and blue,” he adds, “because there’s something very American about his character. Eventually, he changes as the temperature changes and, without giving away too much, in a simple switch of the clothes his entire look transforms.”

Another exciting character to dress was Cynthia Erivo’s lounge singer, Darlene. “Cynthia is such an exciting performer,” he says about the British, Tony Award-winner (for The Color Purple). “It was all about finding the look of this woman who had a promising career and then, all of a sudden, the plug was pulled on it. There is a sense of properness and occasion to her,” he says, going on to discuss how, during the 60s, women like Darlene were subjected to prejudice and discrimination. “She is traveling the country alone and she really cares about presenting herself in a refined way, because she has to demand respect,” says Glicker. “So you will see Darlene wearing a skirt and blazer to check into the hotel. But, as you look at the outfit, you realise it’s a little frayed; things don’t match perfectly. You can tell she’s making do with the nicest things she owns, but her clothing budget has dried up a couple of years ago.”

Looking stunning as Emily Summerspring, Dakota Johnson is dressed in a crocheted vest, flared jeans and “spectacular boots which are a reproduction of Hungarian go-go boots. They’re sequined and embroidered linen and they lace all the way up her legs,” says Glicker. “The great topper to her outfit is her floor-length, fringed coat.” When we first meet this woman there’s so much that’s unsaid about her and she says almost nothing. So the visual information we provide in her outfit is saying something more about her.”

One of the many interesting design challenges for Glicker was to create Chris Hemsworth’s wardrobe for the egotistical cult leader he plays with such relish. “Billy Lee’s whole life is about the privilege of his beauty,” says Glicker, who had “great fun finding an outfit that expresses the kind of effortless sensuality he projects to get what he wants. Everything comes to him because of his beauty,” says Glicker. It’s clear that Billy Lee has attracted dedicated followers by misleading or brainwashing them. “We wanted to show how people got seduced into his cult. His hand-embroidered shirt represents the sacrifice of his followers, because he is not doing the work! They are doing all the embroidery. You will see the sun rising on his back, which is how Billy Lee sees himself. He’s like the sun to his followers. You realise that, for Billy Lee, the world is about other people doing things for him.”

Memorably, Hemsworth is seen with his decorative shirt undone and, in one notable scene, he is shirtless. “It was really a reflection of the fact that Billy Lee has a sensual experience at all times. It’s like he’s making love to the world,” says Glicker.

A highlight for Glicker was working with Jeff Bridges. “Jeff is a legend and he exceeds your expectations in his warmth and humour and generosity, but also in his incredible professionalism. I loved working on his priest outfit,” says Glicker. “As the movie goes on, we learn what brought Father Flynn to the hotel and we begin to realise that he might be struggling quite a bit. You may or may not notice that his jacket and pants don’t match and yet the clerical collar is new, which is interesting given that he is a priest who has been doing this for quite a long time. What I loved about Jeff is that he is a master of understanding each nuanced detail. If we put a little hole somewhere, he gets it. Jeff is a visual artist himself, a brilliant photographer and we had wonderful conversations about all the costumes.”

As Glicker explains, the value of great costumes in any good film can’t be underestimated. “A costume is a physical truth in a world of make believe,” he points out. While the actors are bringing fiction to life on screen, the clothes they are wearing are real and tangible, helping them to inhabit their characters. “It’s about the way the costume feels, the way it helps you move. If you put your hand in your pocket and feel a hole, you’re going to be reminded that things aren’t going so well for your character. Costumes can be transformative and I have great pleasure in providing these actors with the one piece of their life in the film that is physically truthful. I think that when an actor is in a costume that is infused with truthful information, it liberates them to experience that character’s life without inhibition.”

Bad Times at the El Royale transports the audience back to the 60s through the style and colour giving the film context and ambiance. “It’s an extraordinary world that Drew and the designers have created,” says Chris Hemsworth, “which is reflected in everything from the costumes to the hair and the way the characters move, to the incredible set. The film is a smorgasbord of colour and sound and sights and expression. It’s amazing.”

“I think that audiences are going to be visually dazzled from the get-go,” says Danny Glicker. “They are going to meet a bunch of characters who they think they know and, as the movie goes on, it will be a wild experience with a lot of surprises. Audiences are going to have a fun, thrilling time.”

Article written by Elaine Lipworth:

Read our review of Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale in cinemas today!

Colin Polonowski

Updated: Oct 12, 2018

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Bad Times at the El Royale – an interview with Drew Goddard and some of the cast and crew | The Digital Fix