Savages: Creating the Landscape, Crafting the Look
Based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel, Oliver Stone’s “Savages” explores the world of independent marijuana growers and the Baja Cartel players who want to take over their homegrown business. The film is narrated by O, played by Blake Lively, who is as unique a spirit as her housemates—Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch)—an extraordinary trio who share a one-of-a-kind love. Ben, a peaceful, charitable botanist aspires to save the world. His closest friend, Chon, a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, isn’t sure the world is worth saving.
Ben, Chon and O keep to themselves and share a special bond as a postmodern family. They enjoy a quiet, well-appointed, free and easy lifestyle, made possible by Ben and Chon’s lucrative business: raising some of the best marijuana ever developed. Independent, fair-minded impresarios with a mind-blowing product, they are local heroes providing a product that people want.
Ben and Chon’s company does not remain off the grid for long. Their legendary weed and innovative business model attract the keen interest of the Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by the merciless Elena “La Reina” (Salma Hayek), her brutal enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and her unscrupulous head attorney, Alex (Demián Bichir). Elena demands a partnership with Ben and Chon, and nobody refuses La Reina without sacrificing something they hold dear.
Chon and, in her own way, O, wage a seemingly unwinnable war against the drug empire with the reluctant assistance of a dirty DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta) and a crafty accountant called Spin (Emile Hirsch). And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and high-stakes brinksmanship in a savage battle of wills.
Joining Stone behind the scenes are an arsenal of top filmmakers, led by director of photography Dan Mindel, production designer Tomás Voth, two-time Oscar-winning editor Joe Hutshing and fellow editors Stuart Levy and Alex Marquez, costume designer Cindy Evans and composer Adam Peters.
“Savages” is produced by longtime Stone collaborators Moritz Borman and Eric Kopeloff. The film features multiple themes that recur in Stone’s movies: layered power struggles, shifting loyalties, examinations of the best and worst of human nature, explorations of complex family relationships and a compelling look at damaged people, some of whom find their own kind of heroism.
“Savages” begins in an idyllic California dream. As it progresses, that reverie becomes a nightmare. The production began at a Malibu beach house but traveled to such locales as Pyramid Dam in the mountains north of L.A., Dana Point and Laguna Beach to the south, the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and Pacific Palisades, and downtown L.A. Voth had to rapidly refashion each site into a “Savages” set.
The production began filming in Malibu, which doubled for Laguna. For about two weeks, the cast and crew decamped to a former baseball player’s 3,500-square-foot house that boasts a breathtaking view of the Pacific. The area that became O, Chon and Ben’s residence features vaulted ceilings, sliding glass doors and an outdoor dining area with a fire pit and a spa. Voth lent it a Zen/rock ’n’ roll vibe: Layers of colorful Indian tapestries and small shrines to various Hindu gods were folded into pops of primary color from vibrant, raucous paintings. Voth also added the requisite paraphernalia a weed grower—and smoker—might need.
Voth also had to create a version of Mexico in California, specifically Elena’s villa. One of her many domiciles, this residence had to reflect her power, wealth and isolation. The production found an extraordinary property called the Hummingbird Nest Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains. With its Spanish-style architecture and décor, it looks exactly like a grand Mexican hacienda— replete with stables, fountains, a swimming pool, an endless façade of windows and a mammoth, regal bedroom. The Hummingbird Nest Ranch can accommodate up to 5,000 people, and yet Elena and her security were the sole guests. It was, in fact, an exquisite jail.
To capture the intoxicating look of the California coast and the epic battle between the Cartel and Ben, Chon and O, Stone and cinematographer Dan Mindel shot “Savages” in wide-screen format, using anamorphic lenses. Stone relied upon the “Star Trek” director of photography—with whom he’d partnered on commercials almost a decade ago—and came to love anamorphic as much as his cameraman does. Mindel also contributed to the mood in subtler and more specialized ways. For instance, he employed the use of a hand-crank camera.
Cindy Evans’ costumes also reflected a collaboration with the director. For instance, the taciturn Chon, whose wardrobe is mostly functional, has a fondness for Hawaiian shirts, which arose from Evans’ dialogue with Stone. Whereas many of Chon’s clothes had structure to them, Ben’s were more free-form: loose, worn green trousers, batik shirts and scarves, souvenirs from the many countries he had visited on his path to enlightenment. O is a bit of a clotheshorse, though her fashion—a unique layering of pattern and fabric—is all her own. Evans used O’s style to deliberate effect with a purple chiffon dress and underlying slip that became her wardrobe for much of the film.
When Lado kidnaps O, soon all that is left is the ethereal white underlay that, like O, becomes battered and vulnerable. It is modeled on a painting of O’s Shakespearean namesake and the Pre-Raphaelite work “Ophelia” by Sir John Everett Millais. O’s captor, Lado, and his colleague Alex were a sartorial study of opposites. Lado, with his oversized cowboy boots and black leather jacket, is a hulking contrast to the elegant Alex, with his bespoke suits and ties. Their boss “La Reina” Elena has a glamorous style reminiscent of 1940s actresses: plunging necklines and shoulder pads and an affinity for silks, bold colors and towering heels.
Oliver Stone’s “Savages” is in theaters July 6, 2012.
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