When Melanie Jones works on horror films, she doesn’t get scared, because she’s in the film. She’s building the sets, she’s helping to tell the story. Jones is production designer and her work can be seen in this weekend’s Warner Bros release The Curse of La Llorona. Jones created a haunting, supernatural world where a family tries to survive the wrath of La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who drowned her children.
Switch to Netflix and she’s created the rock n’ roll world of 1980’s LA for the Motley Crue biopic, The Dirt. Jones rebuilt iconic LA venues and places for the film in New Orleans.
We caught up to talk about creating these two very different worlds.
What was the conversation you had with Michael for The Curse of La Llorona?
I was alive in 1973 and I’m not sure he was. One of the things I suggested for this was to actually keep it architecturally prior to that era.
LA is pretty easy to shoot in and this lends itself to that too. We could shoot in East LA which has a lot of really beautiful period architecture. It was fairly easy to do because there’s a lot here that lends itself to anything earlier than say turn of the century too.
In terms of creating that world, what was the biggest challenge?
The Curandero’s shop, particularly the back half of the shop. We built that into an existing building. We actually did multiple sets. We had found this one location and did either full builds or partial build using the architecture. His cabinet – you see it briefly where he opens it, gets something out of it. We pay particular attention to that when we were dressing the set. I paid particular attention to it. We got in fairly deep with that.
A lot of times – having been a set decorator myself – I really allow them to do their job. We talk about director, character and color palette, but I don’t necessarily get into the tchotchkes too deep because that’s their job. In this instance, it was super important that all the little bits and pieces from the vials, to the feathers and talisman, we had to make sure they were proper and that they told a story and gave you a sense that there was some real power in magic that he could bring to this situation and help the family.
What research did you do into the story?
We sent someone to meet a curandero and to go to their shop, to ask questions about what they use and how they work with the community. We asked about how they were servicing the community. When I do movies, I pull hundreds, if not thousands of images so that I have a visual library. Thank god for the internet because back in the day you had to go to Warner Research Library and pay someone to do it, and it’s a big part of my job.
You can’t get a lot of images from inside a curandero shop. There’s a protective quality to that service because there’s an element of mystery. They are artists and magicians and healers. They are spiritual people with all these layers. They are well regarded and important.
It was good to have someone go in, but they couldn’t take photos. They could ask questions and relay what they saw and share the information they got.
I was reading there were strange happenings during the production.
[laughs] I didn’t personally experience any of that.
Let’s move on to The Dirt. Rock n roll. Motley Crue. Talk about creating Los Angeles 1980’s. Did you shoot at The Whiskey?
No, we shot that in New Orleans.
Wow! How did you create that world?
It was so much fun. For the exterior of The Whiskey, we found a building in New Orleans that was on the corner. It had an apartment up the street that could look like an apartment in LA in the early 80s. I completely skinned that building.
We put a new facade on it which was The Whiskey A Go Go facade 1981 as opposed to now.
One of my art directors went to measure every inch of that exterior here in LA and we recreated it structurally and painted it to match their 81 punk, black and white. That first shot was one shot with kids coming out of the club and moving to the apartment.
The interior of the apartment was built on stage. I wasn’t in LA that early in the 80s, but I did come down here later in the decade and I remember what those apartments looked like with the carpet. I remember it’s pretty well described in the book.
The Whiskey, The Starwood, the hotels and the hotel they set on fire, we built a lot of that stuff. We’d find shells of locations that felt right. It was a blast doing the bus, the plane and everything was just so amazing.
We did 86 sets in a 35-day shoot.
That’s a lot.
It really is.
They wouldn’t allow you to shoot the exterior?
We’re in New Orleans so it was probably cheaper to rebuild it that to shoot in LA which is why so many people go out of town.
What was the most fun set to create?
I really liked doing the apartment. Same thing. It tells a story. We made sure it was filthy enough and had the correct elements. That LA apartment is a box and just a set of rectangles, but the right detail of burn marks on the wall, the carpet and appliances, we built up the filth. I don’t think you see it all in the film.
Doing the exterior of the Whiskey was a blast too.
When Nikki OD’s, I spoke to him about that moment. It’s not what that hotel looked like. So we designed something that was an homage to the Chateau Marmont. When I read the script that’s where I saw it. It’s known for being a place where celebrities go to do things privately. It’s infamous for that. When I talked to him about it, I couldn’t find pictures of the Franklin Plaza hotel, he said it was horrible. He said, “I don’t even know what we were doing there. We were at the height of our success.” I suggested the Chateau and he said it was great and liked the idea.
We really made an effort to make everything as true to the way it was, but that is a place where we pushed the story a little bit.
Was it easy to get your resources down there in New Orleans?
We got it. I don’t remember it being an issue. We were in Louisiana and that might have helped a bit. It might have helped my set decorator locate special things. They have prop houses, but she bought a lot of stuff. Selina van den Brink did an exceptional job on set decorating.