If the mid-1950s Southwestern city of the same name in Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” is reminiscent of the iconic “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), it’s no coincidence. Academy Award-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) found John Sturges’ neo-western, shot in CinemaScope on the edge of Death Valley, a valuable reference for planning the landscape of this Pirandello comedy within a -Presumption of a TV show within a movie.
“Absolutely, it was an influence,” Stockhausen (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate”) told IndieWire. “We just started with rolling the credits with the train moving and then, of course, crossing with the little white sign. In general, we were looking at “Black Rock” for how the city is (located) in the landscape. But we also go in and look at small details too. How tar paper was nailed to the gas station roof, and we ended up using it for the way we wrapped tar paper around motel cabins. Or the coffee when we grabbed several small detailed pieces for the lunch counter straight from there. We also observed the rock formations as they come out of the city.
“I think it really started with how to make this city fair,” she continued. “And what it means to create a city that isn’t really a city, but rather a collection of cities. Where to do this city? Do we do it in one place? Do we do this in a real desert? Do we find an empty stretch of desert with a road through it and build the city, but take the landscape for granted? Or does that kind of give away the feeling that it’s a set and make it kind of feel too real?
After exploring various locations in the United States and Europe, they decided to build the city of Astroid City from scratch in the Spaghetti Western desert of Spain. They chose the flat, empty farmland just beyond Chinchón, the sleepy town an hour from Madrid (where Orson Welles filmed “Chimes at Midnight” and “The Immortal Story”).
The main buildings consisted of the diner, motel cabins, and single pump gas station. The boulders and mountains have all been built behind them. The location of the buildings was crucial. “How does the motel relate to the gas station?” Stockhausen said. “Is that a 180 degree turn, is it 90 degrees? So there’s all that mechanical stuff, and then there’s diving into the details of exactly what each of these things look like, and starting the process of sifting through a million interesting little bits, like tar paper.
With the city, Stockhausen and the art department created a handmade film version of the stage show, in keeping with Anderson’s colorful, symmetrical, diorama-like analog style. It was shot by the director’s key cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, in 35mm widescreen with forced perspective to enhance the illusion. (Yeoman shot Bryan Cranston’s live television narration and behind-the-scenes interaction in black-and-white and standard aspect ratio. These sets were built in the next town beyond Chinchón, in a former garlic warehouse.)
Meanwhile, the pastel aesthetic was influenced by both the Eastman Color look of “Black Rock” and period photography. The filmmakers wanted red for the earth and rocks and white for the exterior of the buildings, to bring out the scorching yellow of the midday sun. This, again, was inspired by “Black Rock”. “Then everything else started falling into place,” Stockhausen said. “The wallpaper and the tiles and the floor in the dining room. But we were doing it in the context that we already had a baseline of what this world looks like.
To aid the forced perspective of this stage-like world-building, Stockhausen cheated just a little by lifting the horizon. “And then we have the road back that eventually tapers off,” he said. “And then the surrounding mountains were a great experiment to tell what the magic spot is, where our brains believe this giant thing back there is life-size.”