Bobby: Ambassador Hotel and Robert Kennedy’s Assassination

Along with the 22 humans, there is yet another character in Bobby, about the day in which Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, that plays a major role: the Ambassador Hotel. The hotel’s hallways, ballrooms, hair salon, back offices and kitchen connect the characters of the film to one another.

It was always clear to Emilio Estevez that the hotel would be a vital location for the film but unfortunately, just as production was kicking into gear, the hotel where his entire story took place was slated to be demolished.

Ambassador’s History

Once one of Los Angeles swankiest spots, the 500-room Ambassador Hotel was built on Wilshire Boulevard in 1921, designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt. It quickly became an integral part of Hollywoods glamour, hosting such stars of the day as Jean Harlow, John Barrymore and Gloria Swanson. Even more so, the hotels famed Coconut Grove Nightclub became a focal point of L.A. nightlife and in the 30s and 40s, the Ambassador attained fame as the setting of the Academy Awards. It was also renown for regularly hosting US Presidents on their trips to the West Coast.

The Ambassador was still one of Los Angeles finest, if fading, hotels in 1968–when it was irrevocably linked with Robert Kennedys death– but by 1989, the deteriorating building was so in need of massive refurbishments that it finally closed its doors. The hotels fate was now left to a decade-long series of legal battles. Finally, in 2005, the historic structure was, at last, about to be gutted and transformed into a much-needed Los Angeles school building.

Father and Son

Ironically, at the same time that Estevez was hoping to keep the Ambassador open, his father Martin Sheen was helping the Kennedy family to arrange for its imminent demise. Explains Sheen: Ethel Kennedy had asked if I would support the familys effort to have the building torn down — and if a school was built, then hopefully the school would be named after her late husband. So I called several people at the City Council and told them what Mrs. Kennedy wanted. And, coincidentally, Emilio was trying to get them to delay tearing it down so he could film his movie there!

Tearing Down the Hotel during the Shoot

Fortunately, Estevez was able to wrangle a special dispensation from the Los Angeles Unified School District to film for just one week in the Ambassador before it would disappear forever. During this time, Estevez was able to capture the buildings exteriors as well as its hallway corridors and coffee shop before proceeding with the demolition. They were literally tearing down the walls around us as we shot! recalls Estevez. Its quite challenging to keep your composure through that.

The lightning-fast shoot would give the film some of the authenticity Estevez was seeking, but now the creative team was also forced to rethink the films design. The idea had always been to have the camera flow from one room in the Ambassador to the next and have the architecture of the hotel serve as a way of linking all the stories, Estevez explains. We never imagined we would have to move from location to location.

Production Design

Our Ambassador Hotel is actually made up of bits and pieces of buildings all over Los Angeles, all put together to give us the flow we wanted, continues Patti Podesta, the films production designer who first came to the fore with her evocative designs of urban paranoia for Christopher Nolans innovative thriller Memento.

Podesta knew she faced another major challenge in taking on Bobby. It was heavy in that not only was my job to try to capture the essence of the times and that moment in June 1968 but also to capture the Ambassador for probably the last time, she says. But researching this kind of stuff and getting to play with it is a designers dream.

Podesta focused on using the films design to mirror the emotional trajectory of the film. Everything starts out very bright and frivolous and becomes very sad and tragic–and I tried to use that as a map in terms of making spaces full of texture and with the right sense of light and emotion, she says.

Emotional Sketches of the Hotel

During the one week the crew had at the Ambassador, Podesta made what she called emotional sketches of the building– not so much focused on complete accuracy as on mood and atmosphere. She also pried away as many discarded doors and accessories as she could to add more authenticity to the sets that would later be created elsewhere. (Other furniture items, such as the Ambassadors authentic lobby chairs, were purchased by the production at an auction held by the School Board.)

Since the building had already been remodeled since 1968, Podesta was further aided in recreating the Ambassador by 20 minutes of raw CBS footage from June 4th that Estevez had come across in his research. In another stroke of serendipity, Podesta also discovered that costume designer Julie Weiss sister had been married in the Ambassador in the 1960s and had a scrapbook filled with detailed pictures.

Additional inspiration came from 1960s feature films shot in the Ambassador, including the classic, The Graduate.

After scouring the city, a series of Ambassador-like locations were found including the historic Santa Anita Racetrack, which sports a period kitchen and pantry that resemble the Ambassadors.

The 1920s-era Park Plaza Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, the elegant, circa-1920s lobby of which was used for the scenes with Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte; the Castle Green Apartments in Pasadena which provided the Ambassadors lush gardens; and a country club in Agoura, where a few 60s-era cabanas were added to a pool strongly reminiscent of the Ambassadors.

Consistent details wove these disparate spots together into one. We started to realize that a lot of creating the right look in a hotel has to do with plants and draperies, laughs Podesta.

The rest of the interiors were built at Santa Clarita Sound Stages, located North of Los Angeles. Here, one of the key sets created was the hair salon where Sharon Stones Miriam encounters many of the films characters in their most confessional moments. Its a little posh and a little Deco a multi-faceted space where everything plays out in the reflection of mirrors, says Podesta.

Soft Colors

Throughout, Podesta collaborated closely with Academy Award-winning costume designer Julie Weiss and cinematographer Michael Barrett on palette utilizing soft, muted colors to give off the effect of a time before film became so vivid and crisp.

Her relationship with Estevez, meanwhile, was one built, by necessity, on sheer trust. The shoot was so fast and we were on such a tight schedule that sometimes Emilio wouldnt even have seen a set until literally five minutes before he was shooting, notes Podesta. But we were so likeminded and he is so articulate in what he wanted that there was a definite trust. We both saw the film the same way: as a kind of intimate series of conversations leading up to one transformational moment.

All of the artistic crews special touches from the hotel furniture to the Jackie O dresses and bouffant hair-dos –helped the cast and crew to feel even more a part of 1968. That also extended to the films photographic style. In working with cinematographer Michael Barrett, Estevez hoped to create a fresh look and feel for the film that would capture the essence of 1968 as the dividing line between an innocent, hopeful society and the troubled, chaotic one we are so familiar with today. People sometimes make the mistake of seeing 1968 as kind of a walk down Haight-Ashbury, all colorful and psychedelic, but it was really just before all that happened.

Formality of American Life

In 1968, there was still a kind of formality to American life. People still dressed for dinner, they said please and thank you. Young Kennedy supporters, along with those of Eugene McCarthy, even cut their hair before going out to campaign, Estevez explains. I wanted to capture that formality.

But Estevez also wanted to contrast that traditionalism, just as Kennedy had, with an infusion of fierce energy and creativity. While there is a formality and to the film, the camera never stops moving, he continues. Ninety percent of the film was shot on Steadicam to give the film a real free-floating kind of feeling.

Recreating Kennedy’s Assassination

The intensity of the shoot increased as the production approached the scene they all knew would be the hardest, both technically and emotionally: the frenzied shooting in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen. Kennedy had come down from his hotel suite to make his victory speech around 11:30 p.m. When the speech ended at 12:15 a.m., and as the roused audience began chanting Bobby! Bobby!, the Senator made his way into the kitchen pantry, a short-cut that led to where the press were waiting outside. In the kitchen, the mood was ecstatic and chaotic as hotel staff and party-goers crowded into the small space hoping to get a closer glimpse of Kennedy. It was then that shots rang out.

Though Estevez was not filming the incident as it had happened he wanted to authentically capture the sense of sudden madness and helplessness that gripped the room that night. For the cast and crew, it was a powerful experience. When they were shooting the actual assassination there was an eerie feeling on the set, explains Jacob Vargas, who plays the kitchen worker Miguel. I remember watching some of the playback. It just felt so real. And that made it scary. There was pandemonium, and there were bodies and blood. I wasnt even born at that time, but it gave me goosebumps.

For Estevez the scene was vital not only as the films dramatic climax but because he hoped it would cut right to the core of Kennedys stand against violence. To remind audiences of Kennedys alternate vision, Estevez overlaid the scene with one of Robert F. Kennedys most beautiful and eerily prescient speeches, given in April 1968, on ways to end violence.

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