Past and Present
BEAUTIFUL CREATURES was filmed on location in Louisiana with the majority of production taking place in and around New Orleans. An abandoned factory across the bridge from the city was converted to soundstages that housed most of the sets, except for Lena's room, which was constructed on a stage in Baton Rouge.
LaGravenese collaborated with director of photography Philippe Rousselot, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, and production designer Richard Sherman. The four worked together closely to create a grounded world with a supernatural presence.
From the outset, LaGravenese approached the material differently from his previous adaptations. "After reading the book, I decided to get a feel for locations before writing, which is a first," he recalls. "I flew to South Carolina, and took photographs in a small town outside of Charleston, called McClellanville. Then I started writing. Being in that place, for me, a kid from Brooklyn, was like being in a foreign country. I was fascinated by it."
Given the direction to find unique places that had not been shot before, Sherman began discovering "small areas that felt hidden from the world."
Covington, Louisiana doubled as the town of Gatlin. It also houses the church in which Mrs. Lincoln and Macon first lock horns. Although the town is picturesque, Sherman searched for something less bucolic than beautiful porches, ultimately finding buildings that had been collapsed and blown out, corrugated tin warehouses, lean-tos and rubble.
Sherman also succeeded in finding practical exteriors for the main sets, including Ravenwood Manor, where Ethan first meets Lena's formidable Uncle Macon. They discovered an antebellum rectangular exterior in Morganza, two-and-a-half hours north of New Orleans, to which they added hanging moss. The interior, however, was more complicated.
At first, Sherman and his team followed a traditional design based on a real plantation, but LaGravenese envisioned something more unusual. The director says, "I wanted more of a surprise, so I said, 'a sophisticated Caster who's been all over the world is stuck in this house and he's bored. What's he going to do?' Richard ran with that and came back with an extraordinary design that was just fantastic."
Sherman notes, "Macon lives on a whim. In whatever frame of mind he wakes up that day, then that's how the house looks. There's also no cohesiveness from room to room, they're all very different. I decided it would be awesome to come up to this angular house, which is creepy and overgrown, and into this amazing round room with a free form staircase swirling up through the middle."
The massive staircase and the mezzanine above were all cantilevered and counter-weighted. Structural engineers came in to make sure it was safe, because it not only had to look majestic, it had to support cast, crew and equipment. A light track framed the whole perimeter of the room so the walls glowed above the gray floors.
The near absence of furnishings was also part of the concept. The pieces in the mansion were designed by Sherman's friend Rick Owens, a successful fashion designer with a line of furniture in Europe. "It's basically sold as art," Sherman says. "I told him I needed some unusual pieces and he flew them over from Paris."
Just as the house is fluid, reacting to Macon's preference, it also changes color for whatever mood Lena is experiencing. "It reflects Lena's inner life, so when she's angry, it grows more menacing," LaGravenese explains.
Englert notes, "What I loved about the story was how the places were as much characters as the people were, especially Ravenwood Manor, which has this fabulously absurd contradictory interior and exterior that changes and morphs with the moods and feelings of the people inside it. "
To underscore Lena's darkening mood as she approaches the Claiming, Sherman's team removed everything and painted the entire interior black, except for the window frames and the staircase. Sherman explains, "It's very theatrical. All you see is windows, a staircase, and a fireplace. There's nothing else; it's like you've entered a void."
The challenge for the adjacent dining room was building a space that would physically move, jump and turn in a seminal scene in which Lena and Ridley engage in a showdown of Caster powers. The entire room was built on a gimbal and donuts, so it could shake and spin. The table could rotate and the floor underneath the table was on a separate donut, which made it spin in the opposite direction. "On a speed scale of one to ten, the actors are spinning at eight," LaGravenese smiles.
"I wanted as little green screen as possible," LaGravenese remarks. "We shot on film. I wanted to create as realistic an environment for the actors as possible. Richard and his team did an extraordinary job giving the cast real moving targets to play with."
Ehrenreich recalls, "It was like being stuck at an awkward family holiday dinner, except when the fighting starts, it gets way more out of hand. We had a lot of fun."
LaGravenese did not originally plan to have the entire cast on the contraption. However, he recalls, Jeremy Irons thought it would be more dynamic if the elder Casters were involved, so everyone joined in. "I had to take a Dramamine every day just watching it," he laughs.
The scene took three days to shoot and LaGravenese admits it was one of the most demanding sequences. Director of photography Rousselot captured the cosmic battle using four cameras. LaGravenese says, "Philippe creates beautiful images, and he understands storytelling. He's very creative in how he moves the camera and you are immersed in this wonderful atmosphere. He's a master."
Although the family wants them apart, Ethan and Lena scale the wall between Ravenwood and Greenbriar to meet. Sherman's crew had to actually build a wall that was used at the Ravenwood set then moved to the Greenbrier set in Fulsom, Louisiana.
The Civil War battle sequences took three weeks to shoot and were accomplished with four cameras, over 400 extras, and many munitions for battleground explosions. David Valdes found a local group to hire. "They take their re-enactment skills very seriously, they have battles scheduled for six months at a time," he relates.
But before they could shoot the Battle of Honey Hill, they had to find an actual hill.
LaGravenese says, "Louisiana, as it turns out, is flat. I was only a few weeks out from shooting and I did not have a hill. Our incredible location manager, Ed Lipscomb, finally found the perfect spot." It was actually more of a little valley with a lone tree in St. Francisville, about two hours outside of New Orleans. All of the incarnations of Honey Hill, past, present, and dream sequences were shot there.
One of the most pivotal sets that bridged past and present and Mortal and Caster worlds is the Caster library. It houses all the histories and secrets of the Caster world and its existence beneath the Gatlin library is unknown to most Mortals. This set was another large undertaking for Sherman's team to design and build.
LaGravenese allows, "The Caster library needed to represent many civilizations, all fashions of life, and all sorts of cultures because these tunnels spread out over the world."
In researching, Sherman embarked on a rigorous process with art director Lori Fleming and supervising art director Troy Sizemore. "We went through book after book, thousands of images and pictures, looking at architecture from the first century all the way through the present. The resulting look is one of rooms that move and bleed into each other," Sherman details.
The team incorporated twisted branches and designed fictional hieroglyphics for the walls, as well as faces and serpents that react to any Mortal presence.
Other New Orleans locations included houses near the Garden district, which served as Mrs. Lincoln's and Ethan's homes and the Prytania movie theatre, where Lena and Ethan's first date takes place.
The color palette was widespread, according to Sherman. "We were all over the place geographically and time-wise, so it's like stew: there are oranges and browns and okras and white and green, and it goes from one color combination to another, depending on the mood, and what time period we're in."
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