When Nelson Coates was commissioned by Jon M. Chu to work on Crazy Rich Asians, the production designer who has worked on creating environments for The Proposal, Fifty Shades Darker, and On The Basis of Sex was tasked with bringing the culture, style, wealth and tastes of Singapore to the big screen. Location scouts traveled to Singapore and Thailand before settling on Malaysia where they found the perfect locations to represent the Young Family’s opulent home.
Coates would also need to create the most lavish of weddings — a water-themed ceremony steeped in cultural richness.
I caught up with Coates who is still riding a high from the Crazy Rich experience, as are the rest of the cast and crew, after winning their award for Best Comedy at the Critics Choice awards. We discussed in depth how he worked closely with his designers and Jon M. Chu to get all the details right. Coates even provided his own before and after photos for this piece.
Finding and building the Young Mansion
I met Jon and Nina and that was right before Thanksgiving in 2016 and didn’t hear anything for a few weeks. I knew that meeting on a Tuesday before Thanksgiving, that it would be a few days, but then it was just quiet. I didn’t think anything about it.
A few weeks later, I got a phone call from a line producer at around 11 in the morning asking if I could be on a plane that night to Singapore. I packed like crazy and got to the airport and flew straight there. Jon was already there in Hong Kong. Some of the producers were dealing with investors, and others were there already scouting in Singapore. By the time I arrived, I had lost a day in travel and we finished scouting, looking at houses. A lot of houses in Singapore are in the famous black and white styling. They’re mainly government owned now to protect them, and they have a colonial bungalow look, painted in black and white, hence the name.
We looked at a lot of homes that were in the Tyersall Road area which is where the mansion supposedly is located. We were looking at stylistic things such as the carvings such as the British Ambassador’s house which had these beautiful plaster plaques which were part of the exterior, soaking in the louvers and the elements and the architecture trying to figure out what can we do where.
We knew we had only two weeks of filming in Singapore that we could afford because of housing and transport and everything, as well as permits, are just as expensive so we knew we had to build the movie someplace else and use key scenes and beauty shots in Singapore.
We planned a scout to Bangkok and surrounding areas and we found several go-house possibilities. While we were there, we got some inspiration for things, but we still couldn’t find Tyersall Park.
When we were there, the King had just died and you have the obligatory year of mourning with all the government buildings draped in black and a lot of road displays and fencing with black and white bunting. You can’t take that down because then the mourning period has to be started over again after you’ve taken it down. We realized that was going to be a challenge for anything that we wanted to film in Thailand. It felt a different flora and fauna to what you’d find in Singapore.
We went on to Kuala Lumpur and the scouts took us to the botanical gardens there. There are two houses there built in the 1880s as the residences for the British Governor of the Malaysian peninsula. After Malaysia became its own country and gained independence from the UK, the residences were ceded to the Government and they leased them to a boutique hotel that tried to fix them up and did some quick fixes. They couldn’t do all the electrification they wanted so they built out walls in front of walls and ran electrical in, and that operated for years. Ironically, I found out that one of our screenwriters, Adele Lim got married on the property of one of the houses.
By the time we found them, the boutique hotels were long gone and had been sitting vacant while the government figured out what they wanted to do with the properties. The jungle had taken over. The houses were filled with bats and had rotting sections because they hadn’t been taken care of. The interiors of one had collapsed floors. There was monkey poo everywhere. As things do in the jungle and tropics, paint and everything was peeling off.
We looked at it and finished our scouting and I came back to LA. After Christmas, we went to Jon’s house and started looking at all the houses and possibilities. They turned to me and asked what I thought. I said, “The only way to do this is to use to two houses as one house.”
We would use the exterior of one with the lawn in front of it and built a vestibule in front of that so it can connect to the interior and use the other house with the staircase, strip that and use that as the main interior.
The other aspect of it was the Tan Hua party. I talked to Jon and said, “Every great estate has conservatories or other buildings, if the party spills out there, you have an excuse to look back at the grandeur of the place and you’re not stuck inside and we get to go someplace else.” He loved it. So we designed that conservatory and it’s this Chinese Shophouse/British Colonial mashup which you see a lot in that peninsula. We added some buttresses to it and some other architectural details that were from an old mansion in Singapore that had been demolished in the ’20s and served as kind of an inspiration for Kevin’s house in the book.
We added some of those details to the exterior house. We also totally relandscaped and added the terraces and fountains to the front of the house. The inside of the house is a total redo.
The problem is that since it had been a hotel, the residential kitchens had long gone and it was just boxes of tiles and industrial equipment and there was no way to do a kitchen.
With the interior portion of the house, I added doors on either side of the staircase with Singaporean glass and the greens and the golds. I added other doors so we could come through the house from the dining room. There’s the National Museum in Downtown Kuala Lumpur where I found the vernacular Malay architecture and I took the living room of that space and totally built a kitchen into it because it had shape and architecture that would work. I built the Peranakan cooking bench at the back and the Peranakan floor tiles with seven different layers of stenciling to make it look like real glazed tiles.
That was the very first part of the house that we filmed — the kitchen, way before the rest of it was even finished. That was the first day I met Michelle Yeoh — and talk about intimidating. I thought, “Oh my gosh, she’ll know if anything is wrong.” She walked in and was inspecting and then Jon introduced us and the first thing she said was, “How did you know?” I almost started crying. I told her that I’d been hitting the night markets, taking pictures of the foods and figuring out what would be at what party. And she said, “No, no. Every Peranakan detail which is a specific grouping in the straits, we see all this. The cooking bench is exactly right. The floor tiles. The particular dishes.” We took great pains to get it right because I’m obviously not from that region and they were thrilled with that and it helped the actors realize that this is the level of what this movie was going to be. This level of detail, color, and opulence. If the back of the house looked like this, they couldn’t wait until we got to the main house.
We worked like crazy on the main house, wanting to play off of the ring idea and the jade, bringing in these greens. I wanted to show the difference in an ancestral home and newer money of Eleanor Young’s age and then the reckless abandon of the youth with theirs. I felt the ancestral home needed to feel multi-generational and steep it with history. Every surface was rebuilt. We covered windows, we added details to other windows. The few wood floors that we found when we were ripping up carpets were just thick black. We tried sanding them and we got down to a beautiful walnut-honey herringbone, so we refinished the floors where we could and carpeted what we couldn’t.
Both houses had zero electricity when we got them, so it was not an easy task in 100+ degree weather and 98% humidity trying to get things to stick. It was pretty wacky.
It had been since the tech scout that Jon and the DP had seen the houses. It was massively different. I’d sent a few progress pictures, but I didn’t want to send very much. So, I brought in the piano and I told one of the PAs to let me know when Jon would arrive. I got my alert and started playing. Jon walked in the house, his jaw dropped and he looked over at me and started laughing. He said, “You planned this didn’t you, and now you have to play the minute any of the other actors enter the set?”
When you look at the house, you think that’s what it is, but really there are fake walls. We ripped apart things and added porches. The inside and outside are two different things.
Some reviews say we shot in Kevin Kwan’s ancestral home, but we didn’t. It’s not one house, it’s five houses. A publication mentioned the helicopter shot over the estate and that’s a visual effects shot. It’s not even one bit real. We built the shot in post when Warner agreed to let us have that shot. We added the lake and the fountain digitally. There’s no such lake and there’s no such fountain.
The conservatory had only been built on one side and the interior. We finished the back side. That whole thing is an effects shot.
The gates to the house are on an access road to a golf course located outside of Singapore because we couldn’t find anything in KL. So, it’s really six different things to make it look like we didn’t do anything.
We had to put steel beams under the floors in the kitchen and the living room areas because the floors had collapsed and you couldn’t hold the people. Also, it’s not a big budget. I had a modest crew from 12 different countries. We added louvers to all the verandas and the light fixtures so it would have all of those Singapore touches. I’m just proud that people think we found the house but in reality, it’s a big construct.
Creating the $40 million dollar wedding.
We wanted to have the wedding in an iconic venue for anyone who knows Singapore. There maybe around 5 or 6 iconic churches. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim. Singapore has a large Christian community. The book mentions that the Youngs happen to be Methodist. So, we wanted something that was a bit more traditional in that regard. One of the famous venues that used to be an orphanage and is a non-consecrated church is called Chijmes. That’s an acronym for Christ Holy Infant Jesus Middle Education School. Chijmes over the years was bombed during WWII and has turned into a retail development. The old orphanage space in the center became a mutli-use venue where they do fashion shows, screenings. It felt like the right size. We wanted to make sure the wedding felt exclusive. When Jon and I were scouting in Thailand, we found a hotel with an atrium area with a raised bed of water with travellers palms. He looked at me and asked, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I don’t know how we were going to use water in the wedding, but we knew we were going to use it. We didn’t know how, but it was so different. We also loved the travellers palms and we wanted to use those.
Everywhere we went, we thought of what was different and unique. Jon said, “I really want to have non-traditional seating.” He had an idea of a hillside or a meadow where people could sit. We had to figure out something that felt nature like. We chose to build benches and had them sitting amidst grass. We had to find someone who could manufacture grass that wouldn’t wilt. If we used real grass, it would be gone in a day because of the light. We didn’t want the grass to look artificial. Singapore is shockingly beautiful. Even the highways have guardrails that are encased in boxed clipped hedges. It’s remarkable. There’s the UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Gardens by the Bay, and everywhere was the slogan, “Let’s Make Singapore Our Garden.” I thought, wouldn’t it be crazy to do a church wedding and these people are so rich, they bring the botanical gardens indoors.
We started playing with that and how to execute it. I told Jon that every Chinese garden had a focal point. Whether it’s a moon gate or mystical rocks. Anyone wealthy can buy flowers, but what you can’t buy is the uniqueness of your event and creativity. We had hand-painted lanterns that were a nod to the history of their family. Those hand-painted lanterns took one guy three weeks to hand-craft and hand-paint. They’re all specific in their blessings of fertility, prosperity, double-happiness, and they’re blessings from both families with family scenes and names. They were meticulously done. We had the double dragons. We created oversized bamboo wedding fans. We built planters and platforming and had to figure out how to make it look great.
In our schedule, we knew we’d shoot Singapore at the end and had two weeks max to film that we could afford. It meant that every single Singapore location had to be available to use in that two-week period. We also had a four-day window where Chijmes was available and it was shocking to us, but we booked it. We had to load that wedding in in 30 hours. They rehearsed the second half of the second day, we shot for two and a half days and we got out of there. We got out of there and shot the exterior scene.
To make it work, we designed a test for the grass and how close it needed to be. We painted those green. We had also decided the bride needed to walk on water in the wedding. We would shoot the water at the end. We designed the water tray in pieces. The jets were installed in situ and hid the rigs. We had about $16,000 worth of heliconias and orchids and bromeliads. We hid our water jets, so we had flower girls string orchid petals so by the time the water moves, we register it’s going.
When we got to that sequence, I ran over to Jon, we grabbed hands, crossed fingers and hoped it worked. We only had time to do two takes with the water starting and the girls walking through it because we had to wrap for the night. Thank goodness it did. We did the two takes and we were out.
We had to have something interactive for the audience in the wedding. We hand built the LED fireflies and butterflies so that the guests could bring those out of the grass and turn those on to add to the extra bit.
The wacky thing is that Jon was saying was that the wedding isn’t our main characters so how do you make it incredibly romantic when it’s not Nick and Rachel? You don’t have time to do the whole wedding either. We had to get the beats, the specialness, and still make it romantic. We also had to be able to go away and have the audience not feel a short shrift. You don’t feel like you’ve missed it. Myron, our editor, and Jon worked on that and that’s their brilliance because after the wedding we jump right into the party.
The party was old Hollywood meets Singapore.
The challenge we faced at every corner of this movie. The very spot where we wanted to do the wedding reception was in that two-week period, it was the same time they were doing Gardens by the Bay with the Prime Minister. So, it took months to get them to say yes, and they were talking about the events going through the times and saying we couldn’t have anything there. I said, “Okay, what if I design the set so that it rolls away?” We’re talking about tables that would seat 14 and were on risers and the bandstand. So, each night, we’d film at 9.30 and when we wrapped, we’d strike so that they could do their event. And at 9.30, it would re-assemble so they could be happy and so we could do this.
Everything had meaning, those fans behind the bandstand were a tip to the Hollywood bowl. The parable of the little magpies is there too. Everything is there on purpose and carefully crafted.
The Bachelor Party
In the book, the bachelor party is on a huge yacht. I had just wrapped the two Fifty Shades sequels and we had shot big scenes in Monaco on ridiculously huge yachts and the challenge is once you’re off a deck and the decks aren’t that huge, you’re in a smaller space and you’re in a hallway and you don’t get the scale that looks amazing. You can’t tell the story in the same way.
Each time we flew into Singapore, I was struck by the number of container ships in the harbor. Jon looked at me again and said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
If we were filming in a yacht it’s very complicated with support boats and safety. If we put it in a cargo ship, we could build the environment on a cargo ship and make it look like it was on a cargo ship, so that’s what we did. In looking at any parties, it was people flying out and having a concert on a regular stage. But, we wanted to make it the ultimate man cave.
There’s a helicopter landing pad on top of the set. We had the helicopter landing. Later there was a different ending where they get on a medical helicopter so the whole thing was built to support a real helicopter.
We built a set outside in the middle of monsoon season with set pieces that were all metal, so we had to earth every bit of the set and had lightning rods everywhere. We took all sorts of containers, creating a basketball court and everything. We asked ourselves what was the one thing you can’t do in Singapore? And that was that you can’t high-speed ride a motorcycle through town so there’s actually a set of Ducati bikes on a rig so that they can be running like you’re in a video game speeding through the streets of Singapore. That’s one element.
There’s an arcade, a gambling area, and a climbing wall.
There’s a high shot past the DJ, the DJ is at the front end of a Rolls Royce. The pool tables are inset into the top of cars that had been cut. It was just crazy. There were goats on a spit roast. You can see the stuff in the DVD.
The ultimate thing was the day before we filmed, we were racing to finish this set that we had built in three weeks. It rained every day we were prepping that set. The last day before we started filming, it rained for 8 hours straight. It stopped around 6 at night, so we worked like crazy to get it all dry and finish dressing it. The next day it rained until 8 p.m. right before call time and then it stopped. We had four days without rain. It was brilliant, otherwise, we would not have been able to accomplish that scene. It was hot and crazy, but I’m so gratified that it turned out. I’m glad no one fell off all those different levels and everyone was safe. It was the size of a football field.