Creating the world of 1955 in Life

LIFE is set in Los Angeles, New York, and Indiana.  Beginning February 18, 2014, principal photography was shot in Toronto and rural Ontario.  The location later moved to Los Angeles where filming took place at the Chateau Marmont and Pantages Theater, which was transformed to look as it was at the 1954 premiere of A Star is Born. Filming wrapped on April 1, 2014.

Iain Canning talks about the design of LIFE: “One of the biggest challenges is to link up our film photography with the actual photography of Dennis Stock.”  They had to integrate the original photography with the “poetry of the film.” It was important not to compromise the film for the sake of documentary accuracy, but the iconic photography and the emotional associations with it had to be honoured, too.  Canning says, “And so to do that, we had to raise enough money to make sure the production design and the feel of the film and the look of the film made sense for people who would go back and reference the photography.”  After all, this “is not a film with a gun in it. There’s no murder.”  The emotional drama of the film comes from the personal stories behind the iconography.  Iain says, “hopefully we managed to balance those things so that when people watch the film they can step back into a world that they had never seen because it was such an intimate journey between these two people.“

Production Designer Anastasia Masaro talks about her preparation for the film:  “This movie was different for me because we were dealing with real people and real places loved by many all over the world.  I wanted to be respectful while also supporting Anton’s artistic vision.”  Anton told Anastasia from the start “that he didn’t want a stylized version of the fifties.  He wanted it to look real.  His framing and compositions would be the style.  So, I built a colour palette for Los Angeles, one for New York and another for Fairmount (which was an amalgamation of the first two).”  Her approach meant extensive research: “I read biographies on both James Dean and Pier Angeli, and watched countless movies.  I had amassed a large amount of reference, but my gut told me to keep going.  So my set decorator and I drove down to Fairmount, Indiana, Jimmy’s hometown.”  They met with Marcus Winslow, who showed them the “large and majestic” Dean family property and provided details about the house in 1955.  Based on the visit, she says, “In the end we chose two houses, both on the same property in Ontario.  We used one for the interior and the other for the exterior and barn.”

Marcus Winslow also had the Fairmount Museum opened for them.  They were able to see some of Jimmy’s things up close and in colour.  Anastasia comments, “That was huge—so much of the reference was black and white.  There’s a danger with black and white photos—many people think that everything is just a variation of beige, black or white.  We were taking photos of colours and turning them into black and white to see how they contrasted, how they worked with each other.”

On the Indiana trip, Anastasia also visited Dave Loehr at the James Dean Gallery: ”That proved a little goldmine as well—he had a binder of old photos of Fairmount’s main street which were indispensable in creating our own version in Millbrook, Ontario.  He also had a few of Dennis Stock’s contact sheets from his trip to Fairmount with James.”

Production took careful control of design, but there was no controlling the weather.  Chistina Piovesan of Toronto-based First Generation Films talks about the difficulty of shooting LIFE on location in Canada: “We were excited about having these great filmmakers here, but they happened to come during the coldest winter in Toronto’s history of the past decade, so we were shooting in minus thirty-five degree Celsius.”  With extensive exterior shots, especially the scenes set at the Dean family farm in Indiana, the weather became a huge factor for all concerned.  Anton Corbjin describes it as “an incredible challenge that was really tough at times.”

Christina comments on the amount of outdoor filming: “There’s a huge section that takes place exterior on a farm, and Rob and Dane are in period costumes that are so slight while the crew were covered from head to toe with only eyes showing. They were such troopers to be shooting with Anton in this brutal weather.  The environment was hostile, but you can’t tell when you watch it, and that’s a testament to how professional they are.”  Despite the conditions, the actors performed and the crew persevered.  Christina says, “There’s one scene in particular outside amongst the livestock, and James is playing the bongo as Dennis is taking photos.  It was such a sight because Dane’s fingers were freezing and he’s trying to play the bongo.  Cows and a hog are running by, and Rob’s chasing Dane, and it was just very, very funny, but at the same time the crew was shivering and it was super painful to be in that weather.”

Luckily not all the locations were outside.  But the production designer was challenged to accurately reproduce some specific sites.  One was an acting studio where Dennis photographed Jimmy.  Anastasia explains: “We built the Actors Studio set at a location.  Research showed that the Actors Studio was undergoing a renovation at that time and the photos that Dennis took of James were actually taken at the Malin Studio in Times Square.”

Another location was Dean’s New York apartment: “Jimmy’s apartment was a real treat to get to build.” However, Anastasia says, “The only photos I could initially find were some of Dennis Stock’s and some of Roy Schatt’s photos of the apartment.  But I couldn’t find any pictures of the other side.  Enter Russell Aaronson—the man who’s been living in the apartment for 40 years.  He very kindly let me in to measure the space, and that’s when I figured out there had also been a potbellied stove in the room.  Russell was extremely generous with me and gave me further reading material.”

Luke Davies, the screenwriter, also gave Anastasia many leads: “We pieced together that there had been a piano in the apartment (you can see a piano bench in the famous photos).  As for the rest of the details, I read and read and kept reading and tried to include as much as I could—I put some of Marcus’ drawings up on his walls.”

With the design elements and period realism developed, the cinematography was established.  Anton Corbijn talks about the look of the film: “The way I photograph or visualize things is darker than this film, and Charlotte Bruus, the Director of Photography, is lighter, so it’s interesting to let that come into my life a bit.”  Although they hadn’t collaborated previously, Charlotte Bruus remarks, “I love Anton’s previous films and the style of the projects.” She describes their common interest in “human stories and focusing on personalities and personal development.” On that topic, Anton observes, “Like all my other films, it is still about loners, except now it’s two instead of one.” He laughs, “I’m doubling up.”  Charlotte is drawn to similar material, but she notes their different backgrounds: “I’m coming from moving images, and Anton’s coming from the still images, so we kind of challenged each other in a very interesting way.”  Dane Dehaan noticed the collaboration: “Working with Anton was really interesting because he comes from a background of photography. He has this beautiful collaboration with the DP that I’ve never seen before. They’ll take a lot of time setting up the shots and discussing details, and it’s an amazing thing to watch.”

Charlotte discusses the style they were striving to achieve: “The general look is trying to stay true to real world 1955.” The lighting needed to match “the documentary kind of feel of the scene so that it became James Dean’s and Dennis Stock’s actual life and not look like James Dean in the movies.” Charlotte and Anton didn’t have a lot of preparation time together before the shoot, but they had “the essential talks about the colours and what colours to avoid and the tone of the colours.”  They had felt “passionate about shooting on film for this project” because of the era and the major role of 35 millimeter film photography used by Dennis Stock in the story.  As well, “Anton shoots on 35 mil, and it’s just very good for shooting real life.“  They felt that film would tie everything together to achieve the cinematic look they wanted; however, for financial reasons they ended up shooting digital on the Alexa camera.  Still they tried to get the look of film with the price of digital.  They used “some old lenses from 1955” and the compromise pushed them to find ways to get the desired effect and decide where it was more important to match the old style, and ultimately, Charlotte smiles, “Pulling out those old photographs has brought out a lot of great energy!”