Savages Production

Savages Production


Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Emile Hirsch
Director: Oliver Stone
Genre: Thriller, Crime, Drama

Synopsis: Three-time Oscar®-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with an all-star ensemble for the scorching thriller Savages, based on the best-selling crime novel by Don Winslow, which was named one of The New York Times' Top 10 Books of 2010. Blake Lively stars as Ophelia, the girlfriend to two Laguna Beach entrepreneurs, one an ex-mercenary (Taylor Kitsch) and the other a principled environmentalist (Aaron Johnson), who've built a thriving homegrown industry on the best marijuana ever developed. When they refuse to sell their business to a brutal Mexican drug cartel, Ophelia is kidnapped, and so begins an escalating series of ploys with savage consequences. Filling out the stellar cast are Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Emile Hirsch.

Release Date: September 27th, 2012

"We Can't Shoot There": Design and Locations
"It started here in paradise, Laguna Beach, where they say God parked himself on the seventh day, but they towed him on the eighth." -O

Savages begins in an idyllic California dream, and as it progresses, that reverie becomes a nightmare. "There wasn't one wild idea that Oliver Stone didn't get excited about," says production designer Tomás Voth. "Because it's Savages, it's a slightly different view of reality. Early on, we agreed that there's a subtext of hypocrisy: who calls who a savage and the notion that anybody can become one. Plus, there is a complex weave of Americans and Mexicans in California. There's a border, but they are so much a part of each other that you almost don't notice it. The idea was to translate that into visuals, so we had potent, vibrant colors. We wanted a hard edge and didn't want the film to be monochromatic. That freed me to do wilder things than usual."

The peripatetic production began at a Malibu beach house but travelled 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. Tomas Voth had to rapidly refashion each site into a Savage set.

"I've done a lot of stage work, but that didn't feel right for this film," he says. "The locations became so much a part of the design. Oliver and I were inspired by the locations when we saw them. He would start seeing the scene in a slightly different way because of the layout of the house or the geography of the landscape. The distribution of each space affected the dynamic of every scene."

Kopeloff adds: "If we have to build, we try it on real locations. We did one day on a stage because we wanted to incorporate four different locations and that was the only way to do it. But 95 percent of our sets were practical locations, as close to what the script described as possible. So when you look out the window, there's the actual ocean and the sun going down. You're fighting the elements, but when you shoot that shot and the birds are flying by, it's real…and helpful for the actors."

While the company lensed for a week in Laguna Beach and Dana Point, aspects unique to production impacted the time spent there. "Our plan was to shoot a third of the movie in Orange County, two-thirds in L.A.," says the producer. "We needed to make the movie in the spring and summertime because of the weather and light we wanted. We hit a lot of roadblocks-places that weren't excited about us shooting there because of the content. And then we got into simple logistics. Laguna makes its money during the summer through tourism, so our footprint there had to be mitigated to after Labor Day. We came down for a week to establish the look and then came back after Labor Day to access the beach shots that required our actors."

Playgrounds of the Wealthy
The production began filming in Malibu, which doubled for Laguna. Producer Borman explains the logic: "Oliver Stone likes to stay as chronological as possible so that the actors can grow. It's a good way of doing it, if you can logistically afford it."

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. Of course, he added the requisite paraphernalia a weed grower-and smoker-might need.

Tomas 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 may accommodate up to 5,000 people, yet Elena and her security were the sole guests. It was, in fact, an exquisite jail.

Despite all of her wealth and power, Elena's alone, and that's what the team wanted to convey in her villa. "For her to be 'queen of the Cartel,' to survive, persevere and succeed says a lot about her ambition," Tomas Voth says. "We wanted her home to reveal that, as well as what she had to give up attaining it. So we designed the villa from the character out. I wanted it to be elegant and massive and also offer a glimpse of what it is like to make it to the top and be completely alone. Fortunately, we found this fantastic place in Simi Valley that looks like Tijuana, and it fulfilled everything we needed."

Tomas Voth's designs helped Salma Hayek understand her character long before cameras rolled, even if initially they gave the actress' husband pause. Salma Hayek recalls: "Tomás Voth kindly made me huge boards of every single one of Elena's properties, that I kept in my bedroom, which helped me understand her. My husband saw them and said, 'Wait, are we buying another house?' I said, 'No, don't worry, they're already mine.'"

An Unusual Nursery
During their research to create Ben and Chon's business, Oliver Stone and Tomas Voth visited existing grow houses in the L.A. area. "They were everywhere, from the Valley to downtown," the designer says, "but they are basically just plants with lights on them. If you didn't know it was marijuana, there's almost nothing to it. I started to wonder how we would make a grow house cinematic. I went back to an idea I had about using a regular house with a swimming pool. So, in Pacific Palisades, we found this wonderful house from the 1960s that had a covered courtyard with a pool that was perfect."

This residence is perched at the peak of a winding, narrow hill in the Palisades, its sprawling backyard overlooking the Topanga Mountains and the ocean. Although that setting proved to be challenging in terms of staging support vehicles and gear, it offered the perfect venue for a high-end marijuana nursery. The props and set decorations required for this scene were quite specific to master growers Ben and Chon: jars of dope, centrifuges, a gas spectrum meter, drip system, grow lamps and, of course, the pièce de résistance, an indoor swimming pool filled with a prodigious amount of fake pot plants.

Filling the area with fecund cannabis was another unique challenge for Tomas Voth and his crew. It wasn't as if they could rent a cache of marijuana. Tomas Voth explains: "For legal reasons, we couldn't have a single real pot plant. For months, we developed a way of making the fake ones look ok for the wide shots. When you're dealing with plastic and silks, it's sometimes hard to make it resemble a living plant. For the tighter shots, we used a combination of several materials, after a lot of trial and error." He adds, slyly, "none of which I would recommend smoking."

The effect was so realistic that it fooled the cast and crew for a split second. Says art director Lisa Vasconcellos: "It was the coolest thing to watch people come to the set and say, 'Wow, this is amazing.' People would walk up to the plants and smell them, knowing they were fake. That's the fun of this film. We saw how far past the edge we could go. We could always come back, but if we didn't try, what's the point?"

Prayers to La Santa Muerte
Besides Elena, Lado answers to another sinister mistress: La Santa Muerte, the goddess of death. Lado's vocation is to further the Baja Cartel's business in North America and to solidify La Reina's powerbase, instilling terror and mayhem as he goes. His cover is an ordinary landscaping company. But when his crew pulls up in its lumbering, battered truck packed with lethal objects, they mean to prune more than the palm trees. He has named his company La Guadaña ("scythe" in Spanish), and an oversize sickle of death-along with chainsaws and axes-looms behind the truck's cab. On the dashboard sits a figurine of his ominous patron saint, La Santa Muerte.

The beautiful, yet disturbing, Santa Muerte phenomenon has been described as a cult of holy death in Mexico. As Tomas Voth explains, it's also a darker reinterpretation of Mexico's veneration for one of the country's most revered religious icons. He says, "They've taken La Virgen de Guadalupe and replaced her with a skeleton, and that's who they pray to and ask favors of. It's a mix of Mexican traditions of Día de los Muertos, Catholicism and Caribbean occultism. Believers ask for basic things: protection from death and from fire, but also that they prosper and that bullets hit their mark. I thought it was an incredible representation of Lado and all he stands for. That truck became the physical manifestation of Santa Muerte. I filled it with anything that had a sharp shape. Instead of putting the chainsaws inside, I placed them at an angle on the outside so that they cut a silhouette. I wanted the immediate feeling that if that truck is in your driveway, you'd better start praying because it's all over."

There is an aspect of the Grand Guignol to Lado, and nowhere was the theatrical macabre more evident than in a downtown warehouse that served as Lado's den of torture. All manner of torment and agony were on display in the bowels of a rank basement. Elena's henchman served as ghoulish ringmaster.

"I had to go to a very dark place to create that set," Tomas Voth reflects. "In the script, it is just described as a warehouse, but we thought it had to be more than that: It's a place where they torture and kill people in extraordinarily ghastly and brutal ways. That's why I wanted it to be a pit-type construction; there's no possibility of escape. It felt like a Roman colosseum: People could watch from above and the sides, like an audience watching Christians go to the lions.

Stone suggested that Lado's men might have a small moonshine tequila distillery there. Voth explains: "Lado and his team outnumber anyone unfortunate enough to be their prisoner, and they are drunk and celebratory. We thought this might be their hangout-a place where they cook, watch TV and bring women of ill repute-even though the walls and floors are bloodstained from all the killing. It became like something out of Dante's Inferno. After three days, two days of prepping it and the first day of filming there, I had to get out. My head was going to explode."

Final Shoot-Out
Perhaps the most challenging location for the crew was Pyramid Dam, the west branch of California aqueduct in northern Los Angeles County. The craggy hills and valleys adjacent to the dam served as the three-day setting for an incendiary ambush between Ben and Chon's men and the Cartel. The production was the first to be allowed to film that close to the dam and to conduct extensive stunts and perform pyrotechnics, all during high fire season. These sequences played out in August, and by the second day, temperatures soared to the mid-90s. Recounts Stone: "There were some incredible vistas there, but we had to work at a crushing pace in very inhospitable conditions. It was tough, but everyone pulled together."

Instead of layering in many visual effects during postproduction or splitting the scene between several locations, Oliver Stone used the geography of the roads and hills to film much of the crucial heist scene in-camera, in one place. Armed with exploding vehicles and serious firepower, from RPGs to IEDs, the filmmaker captured what he needed. As it turned out, the production team found this particular location by accident.

After they were given the wrong directions, the team convinced the caretakers to show them the location. But at the time, they were told they wouldn't be allowed to shoot there. Kopeloff says that they broke a cardinal rule of filmmaking: "You do not take a director to a location that you can't shoot at because that's the location the director will want. Oliver Stone couldn't get it out of his head. We'd show him other places and he'd say, 'No, it has to look like that place.' With Oliver Stone, there is no 'We can't shoot there'; there is 'Go figure out a way.' So we brought a bunch of government agencies together to entertain the idea of filming there. U.S. forestry, state forestry, fire, land management, Homeland Security, California Highway Patrol-they came together, and we went through our ideas. We wanted to do this at the height of fire season, and if we were responsible for a fire there would've been hell to pay."

The intense heat, rugged terrain and number of scenes needed to lens in a small period of time proved to be daunting and exhausting for everyone except Taylor Kitsch. Kopeloff says: "Taylor Kitsch couldn't get enough of it. This was like him just waking up on a Saturday morning. He was in his element."

Multiple Exposure: Lensing in Anamorphic
"Let me remind you that if I had to, I wouldn't have a problem cutting both their throats." -Elena

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. Initially skeptical of returning to a format, Stone relied upon the Star Trek DP-with whom he'd partnered on commercials almost a decade ago-and came to love anamorphic as much as his cameraman does.

While Oliver Stone shot three of his earlier films in this format, including Born on the Fourth of July and The Doors, he admits that he abandoned it and went for what he thought was the quicker way. "But Danny kept insisting that anamorphic could be done fast and at a price, and certainly he did it at the speed that we required," Oliver Stone commends. "The movie looks hot, sexy and you don't have to go with Super 35. We had complete freedom of camera, and the anamorphic lens gives you a lot more information and resolution if it's well done. He's a great lighter, has a great eye and is one of the hardest workers I know. He hardly ever left the set. So when you light it well, you don't need a lot of angles. You can get a lot of information in with one angle, which is good for the actors too because it stays fresh. There is nothing more deadening than to overshoot a scene."

Mindel believes that anamorphic was crucial in their depiction of the state. His purpose was both artistic and practical. The DP explains: "Savages being shot in California felt as if it should be shot with the high-resolution look and feel of anamorphic. I wanted to capture that feeling in order to show people in our industry the value of shooting in our home state and what it can bring to the movie, in terms of a textured palette and glorious backdrops. The look and feel of the format in this instance brought the movie a sensuality and a mood that is hard to capture any other way."

The cinematographer also contributed to the mood in subtler and more specialised ways. For instance, he employed the use of a hand-crank camera. He shares: "The hand-crank camera is a tool with which I can give the editors some cool, esoteric footage to cut sequences that require an impressionistic look. In the context of Savages, the weed-addled brains of our characters had a point of view that I wanted to convey, using the effect of cross-processed reversal film and multiple exposure."

Unlikely Inspiration: Wardrobe and Props
"That was Mexico. This is Laguna. The cops wear shorts and ride bicycles."-Ben

Cindy Evans, the production's costume designer, worked closely with Oliver Stone and the actors to give each character a signature style that would complement the look of the film. Stone notes: "Cindy's costumes really stand out. She got that sexy beach vibe. She comes from Lords of Dogtown, Thirteen, Laurel Canyon, and she understood that Southern California/Laguna mentality."

With multiple characters and story lines, it was important to establish a detailed costume bible. Evans offers: "In my research, I looked into everything from Orange County to Mexico, even classic movie references. I compiled all of it onto boards that I created. They were an important visual tool to define the characters and tone. It is also a necessity to help gain a visual dialogue with the collaborators." As did Tomas Voth, Cindy Evans tested the limits of design. "We tried to keep it naturalistic with a heightened sense of realism, but all the while pushing the boundaries with colour and stylistic choices."

Her costumes also reflected a collaboration with her director. For instance, the taciturn Chon, whose wardrobe is mostly functional, has a fondness for Hawaiian shirts, which arose from Evans' dialogue with Oliver Stone. "There was a simple brutality to Chon's costume choice. I wanted it to feel basic and a touch utilitarian," she says. "A lot of that had to do with Taylor Kitsch's attitude, posture and physique. I wanted it to feel like he could start a fight at any moment. Oliver Stone wanted to push him in a more playful direction, to reflect the lighter and happier times with our three leads. So in came the Hawaiian shirts and a bit of color."

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. The designer shares: "The intention was to give him a unique worldly flair, all the while keeping him grounded to his California beach roots."

O is a bit of a clothes horse, 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 her, 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.

For her part, Blake Lively brought artist Sage Vaughn onto the production to design O's nature-based tattoos. "O's a free spirit," Blake Lively says. "Maybe that's why she's in love with two men, because she wants to be free and open and not close-minded. She's experienced a lot of privilege, but she's also experienced a lot of pain. I wanted to see that in her tattoos because she needs a reminder to smile every day. Sage designed O's tattoos, and he actually hand-painted them on me. Then Bill Corso took molds of them, and we had tattoos made."

Her 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. Evans explains: "The character definition between Lado and Alex was based on hierarchy and privilege within the Cartel world. Lado was meant to feel like he was working his way up the ladder and will never get there. And Demián wore those suits so well; he looked amazing in them."

Their boss had a glamorous style reminiscent of 1940s actresses: plunging necklines and shoulder pads, as well as an affinity for silks, bold colors and towering heels. Elena sports substantial bling and propmaster Kirk Corwin notes that Salma Hayek had definite ideas about it. "Her wedding ring was a big thing for us," Kirk Corwin says. "Salma Hayek knows fine jewelry and I'm a prop man, so I know costume jewelry. She told me in the nicest possible way, 'There's some costume jewelry that's very nice…and there's some that's not.' So we stepped it up a notch and I learned new sources from her."

Kirk Corwin also inadvertently served as the inspiration for Dennis' wardrobe. He explains: "I met John right after he had his first costume meeting with Cindy Evans. They were planning a more Western look with him, like a bolo tie and snakeskin boots. I walked in to talk to him about his props: watches, rings, that sort of thing. He said, 'Would you mind having Cindy Evans take a look at your clothes? And your shoes, what kind of shoes are those? I like those.' So his wardrobe ended up looking very much like what I wear to set. I'm not a fashion plate but I guess for John and that character, I was."


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