Mummy: Production Design–Tom Sets, Prodigium, Chambers

Production Design

Tomb Sets, Prodigium and Chambers:

It was crucial to Kurtzman and his key design team, led by production designers Dominic Watkins and Jon Hutman, to keep this film as one that is wholly set in the real world.  Their team built 50 sets in Europe and Africa—from England to Namibia to France—and half of the sets were crafted at the historic Shepperton Studios…just on the outskirts of London.  “Jon and Dominic put an incredible team together and have designed the most elaborately amazing sets I have ever seen,” raves Kurtzman.

Hutman admits that this film is one that he has been wanting to help make since he was a boy.  “When I was a little kid, I was convinced the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz lived in the closet of our house,” he shares.  “That’s scary, and I asked myself, how do you build that mythology?  That is how haunting we wanted this film to feel.  If we did our jobs correctly, the audience will feel the possibility that something unknown and dangerous and mysterious is out there, and they too will leave the comfort of the theatre feeling a bit scared and shaken.”

Cruise was not only incredibly impressed by the production designers’ work, he was very appreciative of the level of detail.  “The sets are magnificent,” he lauds.  “They are beautiful and haunting, and the kind of work, skill and craftsmanship that has been put into every aspect of the film is inspiring.  I didn’t want it to feel like a cartoon; every choice needed to be meticulous to make it feel real.”

How apropos to start months of photography on The Mummy at night…by shooting in one of the most historic places in England: the prestigious university town of Oxford.

What they discovered were cobblestone-aged streets, oil lamps illuminating through the fog, and authentic architecture that’s impossible to duplicate on a sound stage.  “A lot of English villages are brick, but when we went to Oxford and saw those cobblestone streets rich with history—and saw that dark alley—Alex and I had the same reaction,” says Hutman.  “This was exactly what we were looking for.”

Oxford sets the tone for The Mummy, as Nick has his very first vision of Ahmanet in a dark alley close to the well-known Bridge of Sighs landmark near the Hertford and New School colleges.  For the director, that was one of his favorite moments of the production.  Reflects Kurtzman of his full-circle moment: “The first night of shooting in Oxford, with the way Sofia as Ahmanet walks creepily towards Tom as Nick—her spider- and crab-like movements, alongside 100 live rats running in a dimly lit ally—had that tone of the classic Universal monster movies.”

To accomplish their Herculean task, designers Hutman and Watkins and their art department team, including supervising art director FRANK WALSH, took over Shepperton Studios stages and back lot for filming.  With more than 150 craftspersons, their art-, props-, and set-decorations departments equaled a small city on the studio lot.

A plaster workshop made requisite molds and casts, while the sculptor shop created objects out of foam and fiberglass.  Indeed, it required a 24/7-workforce to prep for the shoot.  As well, there was a 200-person-plus construction department—led by construction manager BRIAN NEIGHBOUR—that was active from the build beginning.

 

Prodigium

One of the most impressive set builds and signature set piece for the movie was for the secret society called Prodigium.  This set represented a hidden basement loft space under the Natural History Museum in London, one where Dr. Jekyll and his army of technicians could not only protect the world from the monsters, but protect the monsters from the world.

As the script for The Mummy evolved in pre-production, so did the Prodigium set. “This set had to be scary, and then scarier,” relays Kurtzman.”  The end result was a two level, 15,000-square-foot set that felt ominous to anyone who entered.

The feel of Prodigium is rusty, worn, and halfway underground, so natural daylight can creep in.  Hutman gives us a look inside the team’s rationale: “We wanted to convey a layer of state-of-the-art technology in Prodigium, but at the same time we wanted it to feel very makeshift.  There is Roman London, medieval London, and modern Victorian London.  The challenge was to bring all those into play.”

On the bottom level of the Prodigium set were all the tools Jekyll’s army needed to do their research on the captured monsters, in this case…Ahmanet.

Resting under the aged brick and metal in Prodigium were Biohazard tents for dissection, computers to monitor such key artifacts as the sarcophagus and dagger, and the circular torture chamber where Ahmanet sat painfully chained for observation and questioning.  The director offers rationale for such barbarous treatment of a guest: “In Prodigium, Jekyll injects Ahmanet with Mercury to debilitate her.  Jenny has no idea of this betrayal, and one of the compelling things about this film—as the story progresses—is you never know who is lying to whom.”

Kurtzman commends that the princess never stopped being at the top of her game: “The role for Sofia was very physical in the Prodigium.  She was chained up day after day with her arms behind her back.  She never complained once.”

Game for all that came with the production, Boutella walks us through this scene’s pivotal introduction to Nick and Ahmanet’s bond: “Because she has mind control, she makes Nick understand her language, but no one else can understand her.  Ahmanet establishes that connection with Nick and isolates the others from that.  That’s also when she makes him empathize with her.”

On the stage next to the Prodigium set was Jekyll’s office set.  His huge, lacquered desk and leather chair—along with the disturbing medical research tools proudly displayed in glass cases on the walls—and authentic anatomical artifacts left an eerie taste.  Kurtzman notes: “You feel a strong sense of authority inside this lair of Jekyll’s, and this very set is where the fight of the century takes place between Jekyll and Nick.”

For his part, Crowe appreciated that The Mummy production embraced, as he puts it, “full-on, old-fashion film sets with soaring ceilings and the water coming out of the walls.”  He admits that it wasn’t remotely hard to slip into character.  “It was brilliant.  My kids visited while I was on the set, and they got the same breathtaking experience as I did walking onto it.  The Prodigium and Jekyll’s office were great space to work in; the art direction across the board on the film is amazing.”

The Prodigium set offers one of the most intense fight scenes in The Mummy, and Crowe and Cruise were there to up their game.  Describing the scene, Crowe offers: “Tom and I made a pact to really do something with our fight scene.  There is a bit of martial arts, a bit of boxing, some wire work and a couple of rugby moves.  There is a particular back-slam onto the desk that will rattle the theaters when you see it.  Since Tom is such a supreme athlete, you always know he is going to come out of the gate at 100 miles per hour.  You have to be on your best game, so you push a bit harder and go a little heavier.”

 

Ahmanet’s Haunts

The first Shepperton Studios-based set where film shot was on the studio back lot; there, the art department crafted a huge build of a decrepit pier.  Here, we first see Ahmanet crawl out from her sarcophagus casing, and feed on her victims.  This large-scale build was complete with a bridge, 70-foot abandoned ship, and a running body of water—one that emulates a nondescript part of the embankment on the Thames river.

Continuing along the Shepperton lot, the production ventured deep into the series of tomb sets needed to tell the story: The Antechamber, Cavern and Mercury Tomb. These tomb set environments needed to link together in the story, as the characters began their adventure in discovering the sarcophagus of Ahmanet.  “In our story, there is a drone missile strike above ground that opens up the desert floor, and what is revealed below is an ancient Egyptian tomb.  This is the complete opposite of what the audience has just witnessed in the scene modern-day Iraq.  Our characters—and the audience—are in disbelief as to why this tomb is 900 miles across the desert in the middle of nowhere?”

Before the reveal of the Mummy, the first level of the tomb set is the Cavern.  Here, we see Nick, Vail and Jenny rappel down into the sink hole left by the firefight and explosion.  “These tomb sets are all about the first time they are revealed to the audiences and we begin to see what is below,” says Hutman.  “The mystery asks that we go deeper and deeper underground is what makes this journey so exciting.”

Our trio doesn’t know what to expect as they discover the Antechamber set, complete with four, 16-foot warding statues, figures of a half canine/half man—“Anubis,” an ancient Egyptian god associated with mummification, the underworld and the afterlife.  A wall of hieroglyphics in the Antechamber tells Ahmanet’s tragic story, and is eventually blown up so the threesome can enter the next level of the tomb.

The reveal and unearthing of the sarcophagus happens in the Mercury Tomb set.  This eight-week build took hundreds of craftspersons to pull off.  Indeed, this is where the coffin—strapped to the center by a snake chain—sits in a CGI pool of mercury. “We wanted this set to set the tone for the whole movie,” shares Hutman.  “It had to feel real, textural and gritty—like you were actually 1000 feet underground.”

When you look at the Mercury Tomb set, it is difficult to believe the back side is wooded framework.  Carpenters and plasterers made the stones, then the painters used many shades of grays—some matte and others shiny—to make the rocks look authentic.  Supervising art director Walsh proudly states: “We made molds from real rock quarry faces; we didn’t try and sculpt them.  They simply looked fantastic.”

The greens department put the finishing touches on the set by systematically placing 30 tons of shale—which they had sourced from mines in North Wales— on top of the constructed set.  On the day of filming, props and SFX added the finishing touches…by adding dust motes and cobwebs into the air.

As you the audience gets a closer look at the Mercury Tomb, they begin to see that it is less tomb and more prison.  “The Anubis statues face inward to make sure Ahmanet doesn’t escape,” offers Hutman.  “Ahmanet has been locked away for thousands of years for a terrible crime, and no one was ever meant to find her.  The Egyptians believes mercury was a powerful warding against evil, hence the sarcophagus floating in it.”

Oscar-winning editor Paul Hirsch reflects on the choices the production made: “There are a few scenes that are extraordinarily intricate in terms of the numbers of set-ups and angles with which we need to construct the scene.  One of these is the Mercury Room, where the sarcophagus containing Ahmanet is first discovered.”

 

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