Despite its striking architecture, Palm Springs has seldom been captured effectively on film — even the movie “Palm Springs” shot somewhere else. But no longer. The Olivia Wilde-directed dystopian fantasy “Don’t Worry Darling” makes ample use of the California resort town’s well-preserved mid-century buildings to showcase her vision of 1950s suburban bliss covering up something menacing underneath. Endless sunny skies, broad avenues lined with swaying palm trees and turquoise swimming pools are signifiers of an idealized life for the inhabitants of the fictional Victory Project, like the attractive young couple played by Florence Pugh and Harry Styles.
Production designer Katie Byron, the art and set decoration teams and location manager Chris Baugh pushed hard to be able to shoot in landmark mid-century buildings, and furnished them with period-appropriate items – despite the difficulty of filming in pristine historic locales.
Byron took inspiration from several of the architects and designers most associated with Palm Springs, especially Albert Frey, who inspired her to incorporate a boulder into the couple’s bedroom. “Albert Frey is a huge design hero of mine,” she says. “I obviously love Neutra, I love Schindler. Albert Frey being part of a thriller just felt like such a cool idea.” Frey-designed buildings in the movie include the Palm Springs Visitor Center at the entrance to the city, originally a gas station, and the Palm Springs City Hall.
Byron says “Don’t Worry Darling” plays on the juxtaposition of beauty and peril. “The Manhattan Project is something that was on our mind,” she says. “This idea of a community that is really isolated and it’s got extreme natural beauty, but there’s also a danger.” Wilde understood it was worth spending the money to shoot in the historic buildings, says Byron, “There was no version of us doing it in Lancaster. A lot of people might not fight as hard as she fights for things like that. She really understands the importance of an architectural space.”
Below, Byron breaks down four of the film’s locations.
The Volcano House – Victory headquarters
Located outside of Barstow, Calif. in Newberry Springs, the late-1960s Volcano House was previously owned by television host Huell Howser, and it’s built on top of a volcanic cinder cone. In one dramatic scene, Pugh runs up to the house, the Victory Project base headed by Frank (Chris Pine), on a narrow gravel road.
“It’s such a special place,” says Byron. “It’s a real house on a real volcano and it does it really have that really precarious road to get up to it. The only thing we did on that space was we took apart the deck and built the stairs that lead up to the deck and extended the deck, and then we put we put the mirror facade up. Otherwise, we were we were pretty careful. Working with these historical sites, we had to really respect these places and anything we did to them we had to do very carefully. That was one of the challenges, but also one of the things we loved so much was getting to interact with these spaces and making sure that we were good caretakers.”
“Volcano House was the most unfriendly place a production can choose,” Byron says, “It’s a couple hours away, and then you have a tiny little road that snakes around that volcano to the top, and where do you put the restrooms, the trucks, the grip equipment? Most productions would be absolutely thinking that was the craziest thing ever, but we were willing to lose the time in the logistics to get that location.”
The Kaufmann Desert House – Chris Pine’s house
Designed by Richard Neutra in 1946, the Kaufmann house was immortalized in the photo “Poolside Gossip” by Slim Aarons. Owners have included Barry Manilow, but the well-preserved modernist home is rarely utilized for shooting.
“It was so special to get, since Neutra was obviously a very good reference for the design of the film,” Byron says. “He was a design inspiration for Victory, but also kind of a character inspiration. When you scout a location, you’re taking pictures of every single inch of the place, you’re measuring all the cabinets and all the built-ins and you’re learning what type of hinges he loves…that felt really cool, like having a personal relationship with a legendary architect.”
“We were shooting in one of the most historic buildings in California,” she continues. “The restrictions of how we could shoot it and what we could do inside were definitely the highest I’ve ever worked with. The rules actually set the whole film up with this idea of ’we’re respecting all the places that we move into.’”
Byron recalls that location manager Baugh sent “letter after letter” to the representative for the house “explaining how much we wanted to take their place seriously, and after many letters we were allowed to shoot there.”
Canyon View Estates – Alice and Jack’s house
Built in the 1960s by popular LA and Palm Springs architects Palmer & Krisel, the Canyon View condominium units on a cul-de-sac off of South Palm Canyon Drive had the perfect utopian look to serve as the centerpiece of the Victory community.
For the interior of Alice and Jack Chambers’ home, Byron was inspired by Alexander Girard, the mid-century designer known for his sunburst motifs and festive colors. “There’s lots of little statues of animals and crystal birds and there’s a real playfulness with the aesthetic,” she says, crediting set decorator Rachael Ferrara and set decoration buyer Ashley Bussell for layering the meaningful items. Byron says Wilde also had ideas about the look she wanted. “She’s drawn to very special things. We would bounce crazy ideas off of each other, and we have a relationship where we feel brave and being able to propose wild ideas. She’s one of the most visual directors I know. She really empowers us with understanding what the film is about, the real meaning behind it all, and then empowers us to make some crazy decisions,” Byron says.
The production design team even included things viewers will never see, just to be thorough. “One of the things that’s special about the set is the drawers are filled with games, just in case they decide they want to have a scene where they’re playing Uno together on the floor,” Byron says. “It was all there — stuff that was ready to be used if someone wanted it or just to kind of set the mood.”
Other elements to note in their home are the jalousie windows with textured glass, which aren’t usually seen in more upscale homes but communicated a subtle hint of danger, she felt. “I felt like I wanted to give jalousies their time to shine,” she says. “Everyone is trying to rip out their jalousies and I’m just begging everyone to question that.” Byron had the vintage-looking stacked-pillow ottomans made for their living room, which also had a custom sofa and an enviable wood built-in record cabinet.
All the elements of the house come together add to the undercurrent of unease. “I kept imagining what it would be like to go crazy in a space like this, with such sharp corners and sharp edges, or being in a dangerous altercation with someone,” Byron says. “You have a giant boulder in the bedroom – you don’t want to fall out of bed and hit your head on that. It’s not a house you bring a child to. It’s opulent and beautiful but there’s a danger to it.”
The Doll House nightclub
When the residents of Victory were invited to a swanky evening at a nightclub, the logo on the front of the band’s drum set says “The Doll House Band.” The real Doll House, which closed in the mid-1960s, was a modest restaurant with a whimsical logo that was popular among stars including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. in the desert town’s early days. But it wasn’t as lavish as the movie version, which shot at downtown LA’s glamorous art deco Cicada Restaurant. Byron says the mandate was to create a “super fun, rowdy, chaotic nightclub for men.”
“We’re in that space where Alice is having an epiphany and everyone is losing their mind and she runs to the bathroom to collect herself. We really wanted to have a real distance between what she was going through and what everyone else is going through and this idea of who’s losing their mind in this moment — is it her, is it them?”