REPRESENTING - JOHN DECUIR, JR.
2529 Foothill Boulevard – Suite 210 – LaCrescenta, CA 91214 - Phone 323-455-4540 - Fax 323-337-8208 -
THE ARCH WITH CLEOPATRA
A SET DESIGN METAPHOR
I was very anxious to see just how close my sphinx came to knocking over the Roman arch I had built, or the arch to knocking off the head of my sphinx or Elizabeth Taylor falling some 30 feet to her death and or all of the above.. I was amazed to discover that the sphinx had cleared the underside of the arch as planned by some 18”. So much for 3 months of calculations and record keeping which resulted in the mathematical drawing board conclusion that there simply wasn't enough room for the sphinx to get through the arch, which if proven correct would have been the end of, what some said looked to be, a very promising career?"
story begins as I assumed my first “paying summer job”, which took
place in Rome working on the film CLEOPATRA. Originally
heads…wanted an "economically made $2 million spectacle with `pre-sold
names' such as contractees Joan Collins, Suzy Parker, or Joanne Woodward"
(Matthew Bernstein, Walter
Wanger: Hollywood Independent). However, the film's producer, Walter
Wanger, saw a big-budget epic in the making….. He set out to sell (the studio)
….on the film he wanted by first
demonstrating the visual possibilities for the epic. (E
Lacy Rice – TCM)
for a moment it should be noted that we will tell another story about how
started when Walter Wanger asked my father to start developing design
concepts for the film. John asked Walter for a copy of the script and Walter
replied…or we don’t have a finished script yet John, but here is a book
about CLEOPATRA. Just make your first design sketches from the highpoints in the
book especially Cleopatra’s love garden! Well this was the beginning of
developing a script for the film that was never complete until the last day of
shooting and 327
pages of script later.
getting back to our story Wanger hired
John DeCuir, who had worked on such grandiose films as The
King and I (1956), to be
the film's art director. One afternoon in February of 1959, Wanger set DeCuir's
sketches and set models on display for the studio heads to see. Wanger later
explained, "They all flipped because it was the God-damndest thing they had
ever seen" (Bernstein. (E
Lacy Rice – TCM)
in fact one of the most expensive
picture sever made (adjusted for inflation it cost about 335 million
dollars). While it received mixed reviews from critics, some critics and
audiences alike generally praised Taylor and Burton's performances. Despite the
pess that it was a huge box office failure this over the long hall was not true.
In factt It was the highest grossing film in 1963 and eventually it earned $57.7
million total, so it squeaked out a small profit given its cost of $44 million.
If you subtract the reported 9 million spent in London, al
the film there was scrapped which was clearly the studios doing and
nothing t do with Joe Mankiewicz's version. (the films director). It turns out
that the film made a profit of 21 million (159 million adjusted) and Rome
production and worldwide distribution costs of 35 million (266 million
adjusted). A respectable 60% ROI. The film later won four Academy
Awards (including Art direction – design) was nominated
for five more, including Best Picture (ultimately losing to Tom
summary the film in all took five years to complete. Sets for it were built in
Hollywood (never photographed) London (photographed but never used) and Rome.
Five years was about the time it took me to graduate from a USC five year
architectural degree. Hollywood's
nepotism was in full bloom and so I was able to take full advantage of my
father’s role as Production Designer to secure 5 summer art department
on the sets of CLEOPATRA both in London and Rome.
one of those summers I was placed in charge of the design and construction of
the sphinx and the arch that it passed through, as Cleopatra entered Rome. The
re-creation of Cleopatra’s ceremonial entrance into Rome had more
to do with my father’s creative imagination than with any historical account
of events in 46 BC. (According to the film’s publicist, the replica Roman
forum constructed was “bigger than the original forum and about a
hundred times as expensive....presumably not inflated to 2013 dollars” However
the cost for the forum set, if inflated into today’s dollars, would have been
approximately 4,000,000 dollars. It was rumored that the construction of the set
taxed to the breaking point the available building material supplies in and for
miles around Rome.)
RENDERING - ROMAN FORUM (Possibly rendered by Ed Graves TBD)
design plan was for Cleopatra’s sphinx to enter the forum through a
“cinematic arch” patterned after a position in the forum
where both the Arch of Octavian once stood.
The position of the was based on the Arch of Augustus.
in 29 BC, to commemorate the Battle
of Actium (31
BC) against Mark
Antony and Cleopatra.
So in any event we had Cleopatra entering Rome through an arch which
would not be constructed some years later and in fact commemorated her defeat.
In any event the arch would eventually take up its position in a place
cinematically correct for our purposes. Such does cinematic license smudge
around with history a bit, from time to time. Also, in that there were no good
records of what it looked like, except a rough sketch on the back of a coin,
like we patterned the design or our arch after the Arch of Constantine which
stands some distance to the east adjacent to the coliseum.
sphinx itself was about 35 feet tall, 45 feet if one took into account the
supporting carriage, (about a four and a half story building). The sculpture was
then placed on a large flatbed carriage which hosted the staircase Elizabeth
Taylor was carried down. This stair extension protruded out some additional 20
feet. This made the entire ensemble about 90 feet in length, a little over 25
feet in width and, as stated, 45 feet in height. This massive lump of
fiberglass, plaster, steel and wood had to be designed to “just” squeeze
through the arch . The critical part being that we wanted the top of the
sphinx’s head to barely “miss’ scraping the underside of the arch.
We decided that about an 18” clearance between the top of the sphinx’s head and the underside of the arch was to be the goal. Having just completed a course on tolerances in my architectural studies, I was keen on applying what I had learned to be sure the sphinx and arch (both built from scratch) met this "closure" challenge. The objective was to maintain separation at about 3% of the total height of the sculpture. This seemed daring enough, considering all the things that could go wrong. Of course they did go wrong. The following is a list of just a few of the mishaps we encountered along the way and how they slowly but surely reduced the available free space between the sphinx's head and the underside of the arch. These "unexpected occurrences" may help demonstrate how not attending to tolerances can ruin your day.
The day of the shoot a "one take only" was scheduled. this was reenactment of the famous Cecile B De mille story, “Any time your ready CB” (that being such a well trodden movie story we will only present it for our new students.) Somehow I managed not to head for the airport. Bravely, I forced myself to show up for the shoot.
was not a matter of small import in the design of the film. (Not to mention
that my father and I spent several beautiful days on a beach near Encinitas,
Mexico story boarding the sequence in full color – but that is yet another
story). Point in fact no expense was spared in the filming of this scene,
which is replete with racing chariots, archers, magicians, dancing girls,
African dancers, and exotic animals, each performance more lavish than the last.
Three hundred slaves rhythmically pull the massive sphinx as crowds of
senators, senators’ wives, and Roman citizens watch in awe. Cleopatra, along
with her son, Caesarian, make their entrance perched grandly atop this float,
clad in garments woven with gold. Cinematically, most of scene is shot straight
on with the arch in full view. As Cleopatra’s float draws through the arch,
the camera angle gets lower and the Pharaoh’s head almost overtakes the arch
in the frame. This moment foreshadows Cleopatra’s intention to overtake the
world by seducing Rome’s greatest leaders. (1)
conclusion, I was very anxious to see the dailies to see just how close my
sphinx came to knocking over the arch. While it was close I was
amazed that the sphinx had cleared the underside of the arch as planned by some
18”. I remember thinking, so much for all my mathematical calculations and
record keeping. I remember leaving the screening room and Boris patting me on
the back and congratulating me on a job well done. It was only several nights
later, at a rather ribald party and after several liters of wine had been passed
around, that the truth came out. It seemed that my Italian counterparts were
about to take no chances. So, late one night, they re-measured and removed the
paving stones under the arch, graded the road bed down some 18 inches and
replaced the paving stones. This in effect lowered the roadbed so that the
sphinx and its carriage cleared the arch by the originally intended amount.
would have been furious at the deceit but who can be too angry when rescued from
the jaws of defeat by good friends. A little more wine flowed and we all went
home to rest up for the next design challenge that faced us as we headed out for
the Island of Malta and the reenactment of the Battle of Actium and
driven, left brain sets, are the bread and butter of most set designers. As such
they need to assemble research books on the architecture of the period, put
together appropriate color swatches and in general build a volume of evidence
that their design choices are good ones. But, I am going to suggest that
moving up from set design to Production Design you must be vigilant and on
the lookout for narrative driven narrative set. These "right brain
opportunities will move your work to the dramatically unexpected. This
discussion rests on the axiom that"
SET DESIGNERS DESIGN SETS, PRODUCTION DESIGNERS CREATE NARRATIVE DRIVEN
in the story we have been discussing on the design and construction of the Roman
Forum and Cleopatra’s Sphinx is a design lesson I would like to probe into a
little further. This story is a good set to use as we examine film set functions
in the area of what I refer to as left brain right brain set issues. In this
respect there are two important design fundamentals in use in the design of this
is the issue of the designers role in creating back story that may not
Cleopatra's entrance into Rome was always scripted the methodology and
circumstances of that entrance were 100% a the designers invention. Presentation
boards were created, the idea sold to the director and the changes were entered
into the script. The importance of this is to emphasize that much of the
“biosphere” that surrounds the narrative set is unwritten and can lead to
design elements in the film that were purely created out of back story invented
by the designer.
is the issue of designing with metaphors.
are an incredibly strong design tool. The metaphoric circumstances surrounding
the sphinx, one of the greatest symbols of Egyptian power, penetrating the
greatest symbol of Roman power, the arch is both symbolic and sexual. The
reversal of roles making the female queen the penetrate-or is a serious
challenge to Rome’s masculinity.
two areas are two significant design processes demonstrate the separation in
roles between the work of the set designer-art director and that of the
production designer. The later bringing both back story and metaphor to the
design story telling process. This right brain, "production design"
challenge shows how the more ontological pieces and parts of set building can be
driven by creative intuition to make a discernable move from art direction into
the realm of production design.
my internet class DESIGN4FILM we also establish three types of
THE PLACE HOLDER SET
THE THEMATIC REINFORCEMENT SET
THE NARRATIVE METAPHOR SET.
entrance into Rome is a solid example of the second set type, THE THEMATIC
REINFORCEMENT SET and a classic example of the third type of set or THE
NARRATIVE METAPHOR SET. In
class I spend time on what I refer to as RIGHT
These are sets that do a great deal more than create a passive background or act
as a PLACE HOLDER for the dialogue to play out in. Rather, RIGHT
BRAIN SETS create
a metaphoric narrative environment that drives the story forward. In
contrast a LEFT
(either THE PLACE HOLDER SET or THE THEMATIC REINFORCEMENT SET) are sets that
does little more than supply the logical demands of what is called for in the
script, be that a kitchen to play out a family scene or a gas station where a
pit stop is required.
the other hand the RIGHT
BRAIN SET contributes
to the narrative by telling story using visual elements as a substitute to
good example are Hitchcock’s
fight sequences in his films, Saboteur and North by Northwest. Here the
protagonists are struggling over the great sculptures of the Statue of Liberty
and Mount Rushmore. In Saboteur what better place to play out the finale
of a spy story than atop the greatest symbol of American Liberty and freedom
than the Statue of Liberty.
side note my father was the matte artists for Saboteur and responsible for
painting the statue of Liberty sequence as demonstrated in the images below.)
MATTE SHOT RENDERINGS FOR HITCHCOCK'S SABOTEUR BY JOHN DECUIR SR.
conclusion, moving from art direction and set design into the world of
production design we need to look at the tasks of; creating unwritten back story,
brining that back story to the screen through visual either thematic or
metaphoric sets. I would assert the Roman Forum and Cleopatra’s entry into
Rome merits RIGHT
BRAIN SET status.
It is a powerful symbol of Egypt’s intercourse with the Roman Empire, making a
statement of Egyptian power, while penetrating the Roman Empire. Were there
sexual overtones in this design? They seem hard to ignore. In any event the
challenge was to make the sphinx as large as possible, challenging the size of
the arch thereby reinforcing the majesty and imposing power of Cleopatra
(1) THE ARCH IN FILM
( ronakarinrebecca )