Megan McLachlan chats with production designer Marcus Rowland about the set no one wanted to leave on Rocketman.
At the end of the “Honky Cat” sequence in Rocketman, the camera zooms in on a dollhouse, and Elton John (Taron Egerton) and John Reid (Richard Madden) open it up from both sides like parlor doors.
This is a bit how the entire movie feels, with director Dexter Fletcher exploring Elton John’s journey through the interiors of his life. The film jumps around, starting with the bare, central room where he confronts his addiction and recalls his dowdy childhood in Middlesex, England. These humble beginnings are juxtaposed against fantastic sequences showcasing glitzy super-stardom and extravagance, culminating in John attempting to take his own life by drowning himself in a pool.
I talked to Rocketman production designer Marcus Rowland about what it was like diving into Elton John’s psyche via the interiors and recreating Los Angeles landmarks like the Troubadour.
Awards Daily: You’ve worked on action flicks, horror flicks (I love Attack the Block). Was this your first musical?
Marcus Rowland: Well, yes and no. In reality, with Edgar Wright, I’ve done some various bits, including music videos. In terms of film, Baby Driver was set to a tempo—not a musical, but it has that element involved in it. [Rocketman] wasn’t stepping out of my comfort zone.
AD: Much of the film’s central story takes place in an empty room, with Elton John confronting his addiction and demons. What did you do to make this almost like an additional character in the story?
MR: It was probably one of the harder ones to design in the film, because of the nature of what it was trying to achieve. Obviously, he’s the center of attention within that space, so it’s all graphically focused on him. It’s not the real world, but we wanted it to reflect a believable world, so it’s still a therapy room as such, so it’s slightly institutional, but I didn’t want it just to be a square box, hence the addition of all the pillars and columns and the corridors attached to it. It’s a hexagonal room, which was Dexter’s original idea. It took a while to find the right place. We were looking for exteriors at the same time, which was proving tricky. But for us it was always going to be a tricky one set outside New York, and we’re in England, so coming up with a style that works in America and having something grand enough—it was really tricky. In the final cut, [shots in the therapy room] are reduced down. It was a pivotal place that you always came back to. In the original script, it was even more.
AD: There are so many scenes worth talking about with you. The first one that comes to mind for me is the “Honky Cat” sequence, with so many moving sets and pieces. What was it like working on that?
MR: It was great. I liked the process and that period of set design that we could run with. Obviously we had a lot of material we could refer back to with previous films. We’re trying to do a ’70s version of it, and it’s fun doing those big, larger-than-life set pieces. I suppose the tricky thing about it was the time and how much you were in each individual set is laid down by the music and the track, so we’re shooting based around a song which was being recorded by Taron like a week before. We were working flat-out to get Taron’s performance and get the track down to a length, which was dictated by the dancing. So it’s all a very complicated bunch of pieces that comes together. It was trying to keep it flowing with the music, and you went from one piece of set to the next. There are obviously cuts between some of them, but some of the sets were joined together and some weren’t.
AD: Did you want to compare the drabness of his home life as a child to the fabulousness of his life that he’d built for himself?
MR: Very much so. It was a conscious decision, but it was also a natural one. The UK in that particular time was post-war, not particularly affluent, expectations are limited. It’s trying to reflect what was happening in the country at the time. And then when the ’60s came along, the scope of kids of his age suddenly opened up. Everything became a bigger, more exciting world. Obviously a more American influence came into the UK, and it became more colorful. In terms of story arc, he’s in this much more mundane and less-colorful world, and he’s contained in it and breaks out of it and creates his own world.
AD: Were you able to look at real-life photos of his house as a kid? Even his home now? How much research did you do?
MR: I did as much as I physically could. I really searched and scoured images. In many ways, in the Pinner house where he grew up, our interpretation is a more joyous one than the real one. They did live in a very humble house. It was pretty small, and there are pictures of that online. The bedroom is very uncharacterful, and by American standards would be like a cupboard basically.
AD: How did you recreate Elton’s Troubadour introduction?
MR: It’s all filmed in the UK, so we built the exterior and the interior of the Troubadour. It’s based around the real place, but only loosely. We took the elements that were recognizable and more graphic and interesting to us to help with the performance, like the second balcony and the shape of the windows and everything on the exterior. We do a paired-down version, more striking and more evocative. Never at any stage did I try to do a complete replica. Hopefully people look at it and think it’s the Troubadour, but it’s a stylized version. Once again, it’s that whole thing that it’s Elton’s recollection of his life. When we all look back at our lives, it’s all a paired-down version, isn’t it? This gave us the latitude to control it a little bit more.
AD: I love that idea, that you’re painting these scenes through memories, and our memories are always different from what’s actually going on.
MR: Especially in the therapy room. He’s confronting his own memories as well. It’s a bit of a journey.
AD: During the “Tiny Dancer” sequence, the house he walks through feels so warm and inviting, juxtaposed against him meeting someone who would go on to try to ruin his life. Was that purposeful?
MR: It’s after the Troubadour, and it’s all going pretty well for them [at this point]. They’ve arrived in LA, and they love it and they’re swept along by the tide of what’s happening at that particular time for music and California. You could see how he’d be tempted by the excess of it. Certainly looking at it as a European, we do look at things slightly different. That whole charmingness of those particular houses and the fact that they’re a bit more ram-shackled and people built their own style of houses. Even if you go around LA now, it always strikes me that there’s a sort of theme to houses, but it’s a bit more of an expression of individual taste, whereas in the UK you get streets of the same house. What was nice about the Laurel Canyon houses is that they’re more organic and ideally fit into the location. It’s just a really nice thing to build, a big wooden cabin. The style of it is dictated by the performance. Dexter always wanted that sequence to flow, led by a great track. They’re moving through the house for a large portion of it. The great thing is that you get to see a lot of the dressing and what’s going on there. The design is slightly dictated by that. I think the hardest thing for us with that was just finding the right setting that we could control and build a house from scratch over a decent amount of period without paying too much to rent it, but also having something with a little digital help, [where] we could strip in the background of LA in the distance, and hopefully that’s convincing. It’s not quite on enough of a hill for me.
AD: I thought it looked great. It was a great vibe and somewhere you wanted to be.
MR: It was filmed quite late in the year. The weather wasn’t quite as good as we would have liked it to be. But generally because it was a very warm and inviting place, you’d get that vibe and everyone enjoyed being there. They were very reluctant to let us take it down, which we eventually did. It was a fun space.
Rocketman is now available for viewing on Blu-Ray, 4K Ultra HD, and Digital.