Rock of Ages: Designing the Musical
Adam Shankman and his “Rock of Ages” production designer, Jon Hutman, both grew up in Los Angeles and even attended the same high school. So they shared an innate sense of time and place of the story.
“Adam and I spoke the same language,” Hutman allows. “We lived the Sunset Strip in its heyday. He wanted the world of the movie to be real, which is exactly the opposite of what you might expect for a musical.”
“Jon really understood my sensibilities and what I was going for,” Shankman says.
Gibgot agrees. “Jon is a genius. We can’t sing his praises enough for what he did for this movie. When I first walked out onto the Strip he recreated, I felt like I was in a time warp. He really brought back Los Angeles in 1987.”
Hutman began by focusing on three distinct set pieces: The Bourbon Room, the Venus Gentleman’s Club and, of course, the renowned Sunset Strip. “L.A. is a car city, and the way most of us experience the Sunset Strip is by driving from one end of it to the other, compressing the distance between the iconic elements,” Hutman observes.
“We scouted the world for this movie,” Garrett Grant notes. “The Strip was key, but we knew we couldn’t use the real thing, so we went all over the United States and even Sydney, Australia, trying to find the right layout and architecture. Then we came upon this strip in Miami which, thanks to Jon, worked perfectly.”
“The Greatest Hits of the Sunset Strip” is how Shankman describes Hutman’s interpretation of the ultimate déjà-vu experience built in six weeks in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Thanks to Hutman’s crew and the visual effects team, the location eventually featured such memorable Hollywood landmarks as Tower Records, Guitar Center, The Roxy, the Whiskey, Filthy McNasty’s (now The Viper Room), Centerfold Newsstand, The Comedy Store, Gazzarri’s (now the Key Club), The Body Shop, Ben Frank’s, Duke’s, The Sunset Grill, SunBee Liquors and Frederick’s of Hollywood, all jam packed into a couple of city blocks. They even created a Shell Station, with the advertised price for gas: a mere $1.31 per gallon.
Hutman peppered the “Rock of Ages” Sunset Strip with additional details to add to the authenticity, including a Liberace billboard; a sign for Canter’s Deli; a bus bench with an ad for a Sportster 883 motorcycle; a 90-foot banner of diva Angelyne, which graced the side of a building; a 20-foot inflatable doll placed atop Tower Records, inspired by a similar inflatable rocker-girl used to promote the Rolling Stones’ ’80s tour; and a Carney’s-style train dining car found in a railroad museum, transported to the set by a Florida moving company. Hutman credits L.A. photographer Robert Landau with helping him find many of the visual references he needed to recreate the era.
The finishing touch to the boulevard was the addition of more than 70 period cars, including such classics as a VW Rabbit convertible, a Pontiac Fiero, a Chevy Corvette and Camaro, a Cadillac Seville, an Alpha Romeo Spider, a Chrysler LeBaron, Broncos, Jeeps, Harleys, and even vintage public buses. In one scene, Stacee Jaxx steps out of a 1985 white Cadillac Fleetwood stretch limo.
In the midst of it all, Hutman fashioned the exterior of The Bourbon Room, complete with a grand marquee. Sherrie and Drew’s worlds first collide outside the ultimate rock club, designed to evoke the atmosphere of The Roxy, The Rainbow Room and the Whiskey all rolled into one. The interior set was, in reality, the renowned venue Revolution Live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
To prepare for the month they would spend shooting there, Hutman and his team made several alterations in order to take the club back in time. They built Dennis Dupree’s office in the balcony of the club, with a huge window overlooking the stage. And, because the distance from the club floor to the stage floor was too high, Hutman raised the club floor so that crazed fans could jump on stage to touch their favorite idol, Stacee Jaxx.
A stage performance no one had expected, however, resulted from a surprise visit from real rock legends Def Leppard, who arrived at The Bourbon Room set one day after opening their national tour in West Palm Beach. Pulling up, rock star style, in their two tour buses, they performed a live rendition of their hit song “Pour Some Sugar On Me” with the film’s fictional rocker Stacee Jaxx. The band gave Cruise and the club their seal of approval.
The walls of The Bourbon Room, including Dennis’s office, were littered with memorabilia: coasters, photographs, ticket stubs, posters. “We even hung 500 bras and 300 ties from the ceiling above the bar,” Hutman says, “which was a great touch. Our set decorator, K.C. Fox, had a lot of fun with this set. We wanted it to feel like the place where rock ‘n’ roll was born.”
Inside the club and throughout the film, director of photography Bojan Bazelli utilized ARRI Alexa digital cameras because, he says, “The story of ‘Rock of Ages’ is about living in the night. We didn’t need as much lighting equipment; the digital camera package allowed us to capture a lot in low light.”
One particularly interesting aspect for Hutman in reviving the ’80s was color. “That was something that Adam and I talked about very specifically. My research uncovered a lot of color, used rather indiscriminately. Let’s just say he was concerned… The decade was not exactly a time that we look back on as a high point of style,” he laughs.
Hutman’s challenge was to “capture that sense of vibrancy in a way that a contemporary eye can appreciate.” He pulled album covers from every band featured in the film and watched documentaries about heavy metal before he was able to determine his course. “Drew’s world came out of a faded blue jeans color scheme,” he recalls, “and a backstage green room from a scene in ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ inspired the muted blue-green, red-and-black palette of The Bourbon.”
The production designer’s color scheme for the Venus Gentlemen’s Club was something he wasn’t quite sure would work until he saw it fully realized on the set. “The Venus Club is purple. I mean, Barney the Dinosaur purple,” he illustrates. “Of course, before we had the entire nightclub painted, I was skeptical. I thought, ‘We’ve got to put this on the wall and see.’ And we did, and alongside the gold trim we’d chosen, it was just fantastic.”
The Venus, Hutman says, “Isn’t your average strip club, but a high-end, classed-up version of one.” It was created in an old art deco supper club space at The Castle Resort in Miami. Though it is a condo/hotel high rise at present, in the 1960s it was home to one of the original Playboy Clubs in the U.S.
Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to choreographer Mia Michaels until just a year prior to filming, her mother had been a bunny at the club, dancing and waitressing. “It was weird, but also kind of cool, to have a connection to the room, even though we found it in shambles, with only the original chandelier left.”
To complete the look, the production brought in, among other things, beautiful sconces, a mirrored bar counter, elegant curved staircases, serpentine couches made from vintage round sofas, and eight gold stripper poles. By the time it was finished, Hutman jokes, “It was the nicest strip club I’ve ever been in. A little Vegas, a little burlesque, but just seedy enough for the Sunset Strip.”
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