The most important set was the Embrey house located on the back lot of Universal Studios. Sitting at the very end of the cul-de-sac on Elm Street, just around the bend from the Desperate Housewives' Wisteria Lane, the mid-century modern house was designed by production designer Neil Spisak in conjunction with art director William Hawkins and lead set designer Jeff Markwith.
Built from scratch by construction coordinator John Hoskins and his crew, the house is based on a mélange of styles but most closely resembles a streamlined modern California home that has been updated through the years, with its fieldstone and wood exterior, sleek lines, and open spaces. Spisak took the same tremendous care with the planting around the exterior, selecting split-leaf philodendron, iceberg roses and additional greenery with softer, rounded edges effectively nestling the house into the surrounding sun-dappled landscape. The house is a permanent structure with running water and electricity that will remain on the Universal lot and eventually be used for other projects. Together, the art, construction and set decorating departments assembled a home that everyone on the cast and crew were willing to purchase despite its not having a bathroom or a completed second floor.
"I thought it was a real house," laughs Jason Bateman. "In fact, I called my wife and said, 'I found our dream house!' The bad news is that it's on the Universal lot so even though the security will be great, I don't think we'll be able to get a clicker for the gate."
According to Spisak and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg, the symbolism heavily sprinkled throughout the house was Peter Berg's idea. He requested the duo research mythology and incorporate their findings into the design.
"Pete wanted a deep back-story for his characters," says Brandenburg, "so I went through the many cultures of female goddess figures from Rome, Greece, all of Europe, Asia, Africa, and even Native America. We wanted to get the whole pantheon going but we didn't want to hit people over the head with it so we had to be selective and make sure the objects would make sense in a home."
Not only did Brandenburg tell a story with the art she selected, from paintings to sculpture and busts, even the books, musical instruments and furniture hold clues to the plot's back-story. Creating a balance between Mary, Ray and Aaron, Brandenburg took each character into consideration as she built a composite of the Embrey family home. She also secured multiples of each piece of furniture and each accessory given the extensive stunt and effects work taking place in the house.
"We needed the rooms to flow given the open nature of the space," she says, "from Mary's kitchen and living room, you can see that she's definitely in charge in a gentle way, to Ray's domain where he works as an advertising executive, to Aaron's things spread all over the house as well as in his fort in the backyard."
Hancock's dilapidated trailer features a magnificent ocean view from atop a vacant, brush strewn bluff in the Deer Creek area of Malibu. At times a refuge from a public he doesn't like very much, Hancock's home sadly resembles a deserted wasteland from which he cannot easily escape. His "lawn" is strewn with heaps of drained bourbon bottles, empty Dinty Moore stew cans, and aluminum Jiffy Pop containers.
Art director Dawn Swiderski worked with Brandenburg to develop Hancock's home -- two vintage Boles Aero Airstream trailers married together by a makeshift awning and the odds and ends Hancock finds that remind him of a richer past he cannot remember. A $5 bill portrait of Abraham Lincoln taped to his refrigerator, the pile of broken sunglasses he wears in homage to his musical hero Miles Davis, various animal tchotchkes he's drawn to collect all help define the character.
When Brandenburg finishes dressing a set, just before the cast and crew descend, she adds the final exclamation point to her department's creation by burning incense or candles she hopes are motivational. For example, in the Embrey home she burned essential lavender oils, at the hospital she used ammonia, and in Hancock's trailer, it smelled of whisky. She calls the process "smell-o-rama" and believes it sets a tone for the actors who frequently walk cold onto a finished set, having never seen the room prior to their first rehearsal on camera.
Spisak established two definite color palates for the film, assigning environments as those belonging to Hancock in hues of blue (including cooler blues bordering on white) and purple with splashes of red, or to Mary whose sets were more warm-toned, done in greens and wheat or cream colors with a pop of orange here and there. The orange and red acted as a visual bridge between the environments as well as the characters.
The production spent six weekends shooting a pivotal bank robbery sequence at the corner of Figueroa and 5th Streets. Even the bank, built in a completely raw space on the main corridor of Figueroa, was created by the art department from scratch. From the teller windows to the crystal chandeliers, every facet of the modern, efficient-looking lobby had to be seen from every angle and was put together knowing it would be dismantled in stages as the action unfolds. Similarly to the finale in the hospital, the art department had to reset and redress the sets every day with stunts and physical and visual effects in mind.
"We had to make transitions overnight," explains Brandenburg. "A wall that was solid one day had to become a wall with a gaping hole the next. And during the course of a shootout, bullets go through walls, glass breaks, charges go off, each of which takes specific planning. Continuity is complicated and scenery is scenery, it's not real, so if you want the inside of a wall to look real, you have to art-direct even that kind of detail."
Executive producer Ian Bryce is a proponent of shooting in Los Angeles and surrounding areas whenever possible. "One of the ways we help to keep movies in Los Angeles is to communicate properly with all the various authorities in town, whether it be the Mayor's office, CalTrans, other official permitting offices or with the local residents to make sure they all know what we're doing. We set a proper plan and then we try to live with it because it's really about community.
Shutting down freeways, shutting down Hollywood Boulevard, shutting down a railroad line, all for multiple days, takes a great deal of care and precision and a lot of coordination with a lot of different agencies. Those were big challenges for Ilt Jones and his location department and he pulled it off as beautifully as he always does. This movie is a virtual postcard of Los Angeles."
The film's centerpiece, of course, was the highlight. Closing down Hollywood Boulevard between Orange and Highland Avenues for a week is an uncommon feat normally reserved for such auspicious events as the Academy Awards® or the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade.
"When we closed down those intersections, it made me realize the size of our production," says Berg enthusiastically. "It was crazy. Half of Hollywood came to visit us. Even Jimmy Kimmel -- we were shooting right outside his studio -- he's seen it all, and his jaw just dropped. Seeing crowds of Will Smith fans gather every day makes you remember why tourists come to this city. For them, watching a movie filming is a dream come true; it was fun being part of the Hollywood Boulevard spectacle."