Spoiler alert: Don’t read if you haven’t seen “No”, now in theaters.
Jordan Peele’s latest film, “Nope,” is set on the outskirts of Hollywood and focuses on people working on the fringes of showbiz who are desperate to sneak into the center. From the main sibling duo OJ and Emerald Hayward (Daniel Kaaluya and Keke Palmer), horse trainers trying to capture footage of a UFO to sell it for fame, or Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) , a former child star hanging on his past glory through a carnival fashioned from his best-known role, the characters are all diehards obsessed with the film’s spectacle, however dangerous said spectacle may be. The film is, deservedly, a spectacle in itself, thanks in large part to Ruth De Jong’s meticulous production design.
De Jong first worked with Peele on his 2019 horror film “Us,” an ambitious and meticulously directed film but much smaller than its big-budget follow-up. According to De Jong, after their process on “Us,” the two stayed in touch to work on a different film before starting to develop “No.” For a year and a half, Peele kept her updated on the development of the story, and the two pored over the film’s influences and style before beginning physical production.
“Personally, I really like working with writer-directors because the story is born in them and it’s constantly evolving,” says De Jong. “He writes until the very end and just nurtures the story and the characters and makes them grow. He’s so clear and concise about his vision and what he wants. And that just lets me dive in.
To build the showbiz world seen in “No,” De Jong created many of the film’s sets from scratch and drew inspiration from numerous westerns, TV shows, and other pop culture iconography. Here are some of the influences that went into “No” western horror.
“Gate of Heaven”, “Bonanza”
The most memorable set seen in the film is the “Jupiter’s Claim” carnival, a western-themed attraction that Jupe operates as an unofficial tie-in to her most famous film, “Kid Sheriff.” The carnival set is huge, featuring a sheriff’s office, petting zoo, real steam locomotive, gold panning station, candy store, general store, saloon, post office, hair salon, an analysis office, a blacksmith, a leather goods company, fire station, livery, church, cemetery and a horseshoe-shaped stadium that can accommodate 938 people. All buildings have functional interiors, and almost everything was built from scratch for “No”.
When designing the mini-city, De Jong drew inspiration from several classic westerns, with the 1980 film “Heaven’s Gate” and the long-running TV series “Bonanza” acting as the biggest inspirations. De Jong also drew on her experience working on “There Will Be Blood” for the build, and took a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in California for inspiration.
“We put ourselves in the shoes of Jupe, and we were like, ‘Okay, we are Jupe, and we have to build this city and it has to be original and it has to be ours,'” says De Jong.
The ranch on which Jupiter’s Claim was built was chosen by steward Justin Duncan. Fittingly for a Hollywood movie, the ranch was once owned by Los Angeles icon, civil engineer William Mulholland. The overall construction of the city took 14 weeks, according to De Jong’s estimate.
Aside from Jupiter’s Claim, the film’s other intense building process involved Emerald and OJ’s house, a classic turn-of-the-century farmhouse. The construction of the house also took 14 weeks, and to build the house and the ranch, De Jong pushed Peele on the family’s backstory, which in the film features them as descendants of the jockey featured in “The Horse in Motion”, the very early cabinet cards that acted as a predecessor to the film. De Jong dove deep into the subject of animal wrestlers and toured the California Valley to visit cattle ranches, crop ranches, and quintessential California farmhouses. De Jong aimed for the house to be “iconic”, with vintage wallpaper in the kitchens, a wraparound porch, and a sense of blending into the valley landscape. Along with the main house, the set also includes a shed that serves as OJ’s cover during various intense scenes and an arena in front of the house.
Along with the location of Jupiter’s Claim, the farmhouse was built on a ranch tied to Hollywood history – the ranch once belonged to famed director Howard Hughes, famous for directing the original “Scarface.”
“Just so random that you picked these two ranches in the middle of Agua Dulce and they had such Hollywood prestige at the time,” De Jong says. “It was very trippy for Jordan and me.”
In a later scene, the UFO – actually a living alien organism, rather than a ship – drips a sea of blood over the house, covering it in red for the remainder of the film. De Jong spent her 30th birthday weekend spraying blood on the house, using an oil mixture she used for blood in ‘There Will Be Blood’. The mixture worked for the film because it naturally penetrates the Earth and was not toxic to wildlife. To make the sequence where blood is spilled realistic, the painters rode elevators around the house and used rain bars to soak the house in oil.
“Buck and the Preacher”
Throughout the film, viewers can catch a glimpse of an altered version of the poster for 1972’s “Buck and the Preacher,” Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut and one of the first Westerns to focus on black characters. Once the team got permission to use the image, De Jong asked graphic designer Hilary Ament to model the poster and photoshop the head of Otis Hayward Sr. (Keith David), the father of OJ and Emerald and a famous movie horse trainer in film history. The poster served as a way to convey Hayward’s importance in “Nope’s” vision of Hollywood history, and a nod to the Western roots that inspired the film’s style.
“It was kind of a throwback,” De Jong said. “Him being this epic, huge, classic Hollywood cowboy working with all the best.”
One of the most memorable scenes from “Nope” is a throwback to Jupe’s time on “Gordy’s Home,” the sitcom that traumatized him and ended his career after the star – the chimpanzee Gordy – went on a rampage after being startled by a bursting balloon. . The brutality of the scene is contrasted by the sitcom’s setting, which De Jong constructed after researching many classic sitcoms, from “Friends” to “Seinfeld.” The classic family-friendly ABC hit “Full House” provided particular inspiration for the set, but based the thick, stuccoed ’90s decor on Florida architecture, where “Gordy’s Home” is ostensibly located. For the chimpanzee attack sitcom footage cut on set, De Jong researches sitcom production to accurately portray the filming equipment and behind-the-scenes areas being viewed.
“I’ve never done television that way, so I had to really study how they do sitcoms,” De Jong says.
During an early scene where Emerald and OJ visit Jupe’s office, the two stumble upon something of a shrine to the former child star’s long career, complete with memorabilia and posters of her various projects. One of the most memorable of these artifacts is a mock issue of the famous satirical magazine Mad Magazine with a cover parodying the ransacking of Gordy’s house. After De Jong and Peele got Mad’s permission to use a cover, they recruited one of the magazine’s original cover artists to design the issue, which features Gordy standing on a coffee table ruining a birthday party, in nod to the fictional episode of the sitcom. in which the attack took place. The team also researched hot topics from 1998, when the sitcom was supposed to air, to find headlines seen on the cover, such as one referencing the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton scandal.
“It was fun to go meta on this with the team, with the art department and the original cover artist. It was wonderful,” says De Jong.
The footage also contains a wink and you’ll miss it for Peele fans, in the form of scissors on Jupe’s desk that are identical to those wielded by Lupita Nyong’o as the villainous double in “Us.”
The film’s climax features a jaw-dropping sequence featuring some of the craziest props imaginable. In order to track the movements of the UFO, which turns off any electronics it comes in contact with, the Hayward siblings and their ally Angel (Brandon Perea) set up multicolored inflatable sky dancers – the kind we sees outside car dealerships – around the valley and turn them on, mapping the UFO’s trajectory in the process.
De Jong used more than 70 sky dancers for the sequence and had his team map the spacing of the dancers around the valley with a computer. Gaffer Adam Chambers and lighting console producer Noah Shain set them up on set and used miles of cables to electronically connect them. To turn them on and off, the team used an iPad to turn the device on and off. Despite some technical problems – including field mice chewing on the cables – De Jong enjoyed creating the dancers almost for the screen. Most of the film’s effects were practical because of the wind blowing when the UFO arrives – according to De Jong, the majority of the wind was stirred up by flying a helicopter instead of the alien.
“It was good to have full control,” says De Jong. “That, for me, grounded it.”
Deep Sea Creatures
While the majority of the film consists entirely of practical effects, the UFO that kicks off the plot was by necessity a CGI creation. Peele and Guillaume Rocheron, the production’s visual effects supervisor, lead the charge of developing the design of “Jean Jacket”, as the UFO is referred to by the main heroes. To help them start the process and find inspiration, De Jong developed a mood board of deep-sea creatures, from giant squids to dark worms, which informed the final design of the true deployed form of the UFO.
“A lot of them do these crazy, flashy things,” De Jong says. “We were like, ‘this stuff exists?’ No one would believe it was real.
Once De Jong developed the mood board, Rocheron and Peele worked with the visual design team to develop Jean Jacket’s final form – a parachute-like mass of white tentacles with a single green square eye. According to De Jong, the visual effects process was lengthy, with the character only being finalized in the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere.
“There was a lot of noodles to get to this point,” says De Jong.