Known for his distinctive style, whimsical stories, and eccentric characters, director Wes Anderson is a master at transporting viewers to highly stylized locales. From the old-world charm of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka to the quaint coastal New England village of Moonrise Kingdom to the stunning Indian scenery of the Darjeeling Limited, his settings never disappoint.
His latest film, Asteroid City, is filled with all the quirk, whimsy, eye candy, and star-studded cast list (Scarlett Johanssen, Tom Hanks, Margot Robbie) that audiences have come to expect. Set in the 1950s and centering around recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), who travels with his eldest son and scene-stealing triplet daughters to a Junior Stargazer convention in the titular desert town, the look is pure Western Americana—think retro ‘50s kitsch with a heavy dash of futurism—with cinematic influences that range from the diner windows in the Marilyn Monroe film Niagara to the motor court in Billy Wilder’s It Happened One Night.
Tasked with bringing Anderson’s aesthetic vision to life were production designer Adam Stockhausen (who won an Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel) and BAFTA-winning set decorator Kris Moran, both longtime collaborators of the filmmaker. After scouting potential shooting locations across the U.S. and Europe, the team chose the town of Chinchón, Spain (just an hour outside of Madrid) to double as Asteroid City. There, they built a functioning town with a miniaturized model freight train, white wooden motor court, single-pump gas station, diner-style luncheonette, and, of course, a lovable roadrunner.
A team of sculptors constructed mountains, boulders, and rocks to create the desert backdrop; the Sonoran cacti were made of foam painted green with toothpicks for needles. Stockhausen used forced perspective to create the feeling of a far-off horizon hundreds of miles away—even though the set was the size of a football field. “When you look off in the distance and see the ramp off the highway and the mountains, some of those pieces of scenery are only five or six stories tall,” Stockhausen says.
The pastel color palette was influenced by John Sturges’s 1955 neo-western Bad Day at Black Rock and period photography of the Southwest. “From the start, Wes was very clear about the color of the ground and rocks,” explains Stockhausen. “He was drawn to the red earth you see in old photos, such as the shots of Monument Valley taken at the magic hour when the light is very warm and the redness is magnified by the setting sun. We started adding that color to the [production] sketches and seeing how the white of the luncheonette and the motel bounced off it.”
Getting the look of the luncheonette just right was crucial. “That luncheonette was the heart of Asteroid City,” says Moran, who notes that finding authentic midcentury diner furnishings was especially challenging given that many of those pieces are now highly sought-after collector’s items. “Wes designed everything from the wallpaper to the floor pattern to the striped blinds. If bread wasn’t already sliced, he would have figured that out too!”
The search for period-perfect decor took Moran (who is also an artist, hospitality, and event designer) on a journey to antique stores from North Carolina to New Jersey, not to mention hours of scrolling through eBay and Etsy. “We bought everything from small bedside tables to vintage potato chip packages—the key was to find ones without a date that were also graphically pleasing, simple, and worked with the color palette,” she recalls. Another favorite find was the oak dressers from A. Brandt Company, which were used in the motor court lobby and cabins. “It was perfect cowboy furniture!” Moran says.