Box, The: From NASA to the Neighborhood Grocery Store

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“The Box,” from writer-director Richard Kelly, stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. The film was released November 6 by Warner Bros.

The filmmakers recreated Richmond, Virginia, circa 1976, a looming part of which was the NASA Langley facility where Arthur worked–and where, they eventually discover, Arlington Steward has set up his base of operations.

For Kelly, who grew up in Langley’s shadow, “Embedding our story in the historic setting of the Viking Mission meant presenting Langley in what some would call its glory days. A lot of it hasn’t changed significantly from the way it looked in the 1970s: the same interesting architecture, the gantry, the rocket sled, the wind tunnel where they tested parachutes, the media briefing room. We tried to photograph as much of it as we could in a way that felt organic to the story while also paying tribute to what happened there. We were granted unprecedented access and wanted to make the best of it.” ?

Historical Accuracy

To accurately retro-date his imagery, Kelly enlisted technical consultants, one of whom was famed NASA veteran, lecturer and author Gentry Lee, one of the original members of the Viking Mission team fictionally depicted in the film. Lee not only vetted the script but proved invaluable in helping to set the scene visually. He also accepted a small role in “The Box,” playing, appropriately enough, a senior NASA engineer working with the young Arthur Lewis. ?

In addition to his own recollections, Lee provided an unexpected treasure in the form of a book of candid photos of the NASA facility in 1976, taken by the amateur photographer son of one of the Mission scientists. From this, production designer Alexander Hammond drew ideas to transform another practical location–the Lucent Technology building, formerly Bell Labs’ 450,000-foot manufacturing floor–into Langley’s bustling engineering lab. ?


The camerawork on “The Box” was also a combination of high-tech and nostalgia, notes cinematographer Steven Poster, using the new Panavision Genesis digital camera for the first time. “In the 1970s we would use a certain kind of filtration and diffusion on the lens. The lighting was also different, in terms of its harshness or softness and the instruments you used to achieve that. It’s almost indefinable. I’m using digital technology to capture the images and then, in post-production, incorporating some of the things we did back then to take the look to its final conclusion.” ?

After working on Langley’s expansive spaces, Hammond then turned his attention to the more intimate spaces of the Lewis’ two-story home, which was built on a soundstage. In keeping with the story’s theme, one of the house’s design strategies was to form boxes within boxes for a feeling of entrapment. Hammond explains, “Inside the Lewis house there are spaces created where you can see someone framed in a doorway or a square window in a very formal way, and behind that is another doorway or window, then behind that maybe another, so you have a series of portals. When you’re looking at someone and then they move, suddenly something that they were blocking is revealed.”

Hammond also notes, “What the house tells you is that these people don’t have a lot of money. It’s nice, but not huge. They’re a little bit pushed beyond their means.” ?

Production/Costume Design

Regarding the 1970s decor, Kelly and Hammond agreed it should be subtle and not at all stylized. “The wallpaper, the earth tones that were so popular then,” cites Kelly, “we wanted to integrate all that but not go crazy with it.”

Costume designer April Ferry applied comparable restraint to the wardrobe, choosing the less-flashy patterns and colors of the time. Regardless of how they looked, there was a unifying element to all of it–the fit. “The clothes were tight and we’re not used to that nowadays,” she recalls. “When we put an outfit onto an extra they’d often say it was a size too small. Well, it wasn’t too small. That’s how we wore our clothes in the seventies!”

The wardrobe for Arlington Steward required a more timeless look. Collaborating closely with Frank Langella, Ferry envisioned for his character “a very elegant, well-dressed presentation, with beautiful English fabrics.” That took them to renowned New York tailor Leonard Logsdail. The pair then went hat shopping for the perfect classic Homburg, which added formality while also making the 6’4″ actor even more imposing on screen. ?

Using Practical Locations

Much of the filming for “The Box” utilized practical locations. The Milton Academy preparatory school in Milton, Massachusetts, stood in as the school Walter Lewis attends and where Norma teaches; a Motor Lodge in Kingston, near Plymouth, Massachusetts, hosted some inexplicable goings-on; the Turner Hill Country Club in Ipswich was the setting for a party that Norma and Arthur must attend though they are woefully preoccupied; and the Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor lends its startling architecture to one of the film’s pivotal scenes.?

One of Kelly’s favorite sets was the Ukrop’s Supermarket, a well-known Virginia-area chain, which was made and stocked from scratch for the film with vintage cereal boxes and canned goods, as well as pricing and signage. “I grew up going to Ukrop’s. It’s a local chain that’s been around for more than 50 years. It was fun to recreate that as a specific element of my childhood instead of going with something generic,” he says.

Details like this, plus the fact that Kelly set the story in, essentially, his old neighborhood and integrated elements of his parents’ lives into the characters of Norma and Arthur Lewis, all contribute to the making of what the director calls his most personal work. ??