Recently, while hunkering down for a hurricane, the household watched a ton of movies on DVD thanks to a generator. One of them was Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, which cost a staggering $110 million to make, is what the movie trades call a biopic—the sprawling saga of one of Hollywood’s favorite characters, Howard Hughes. Rich, handsome, brilliant and increasingly deranged, Hughes has been irresistible to scriptwriters and directors alike, as can be seen in such films as The Carpetbaggers (1964), The Amazing Howard Hughes (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980).
In 2004 it was the turn of Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hughes during the two most dramatic decades of his life, from 1927 to 1947. The Set-Production Designer was Dante Ferretti, and the Set Decorator was his wife Francesca LoSchiavo, herself a five-time Oscar nominee.
In the past two decades Dante Ferretti, a production designer with seven Oscar nominations to his credit, has lived in medieval Italy (The Name of the Rose), the South of the Civil War (Cold Mountain; modern Manhattan (Meet Joe Black); 19th-century Manhattan (The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York) and 20th-century Tibet (Kundun).
Though he is Italian—his mentors were two of Italy’s greatest directors, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini—for The Aviator Ferretti has resided in what might be called his spiritual home: Hollywood during its golden age.
This was no less a challenge for Ferretti and LoSchiavo. Most of Ferretti’s other films were set in either a distant past or a distant location. The Aviator is set in a place and time familiar to most moviegoers. “We had to be very accurate, very believable, because many people know the period,” says Ferretti.
Other important scenes are set in the Manhattan office of Hughes’s rival, Juan Trippe, head of Pan Am Airways—Alec Baldwin plays the sleek and smooth-talking Trippe. For that lavish Art Déco interior, as well as for the interiors of Hughes’s and Hepburn’s houses in California, Lo Schiavo moved a good part of Los Angeles to Montreal where the film's interior scence were shot. “I felt everything had to be really authentic,” she says. “Hughes was one of the richest men in America. We couldn’t decorate his house and office with props, so I worked for three months in Los Angeles rounding up the very best objects, furniture, painting, fabrics and antiques.”
In The Aviator, key scenes take place in one of Hollywood’s most glamorous nightclubs, that Moroccan fantasy called the Cocoanut Grove. Although the Grove has gone the way of many of the movie world’s landmarks, Ferretti and LoSchiavo were able to get a measure of its size by visiting the vast room it once occupied in Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel. Armed with that knowledge and stacks of photographs, they then worked round the clock for four weeks to re-create the original on a soundstage in Montreal. “A phenomenal scene,” is how DiCaprio describes his—Hughes’s—first entrance into the club. “Women are on swings overhead, pheasant goes by on a waiter’s tray, the band starts to play, people are drunk and dancing, a whole society is celebrating, and this young god of the industry is coming in to take over.”