Among the highly anticipated film releases of the year is one I’m pleased to have contributed to as location coordinator. I am thoroughly excited about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros. film that was shot in and around the New Orleans area. Starring Brad Pitt (as Benjamin) and Cate Blanchett (as his love, Daisy), the movie is based on a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backward. The script wonderfully differs from the short story in its depth of emotion and eloquence. The screenplay, written by Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd, The Insider), captured the attention of director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) because of its unexpected exploration of death, life and love as Benjamin’s world unfolds in reverse.
After several years in the making, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opens on Christmas Day. The big-budget film began production in New Orleans in November 2006 and continued in the Virgin Islands, Montreal, Canada, and finally Los Angeles, where editing was completed. Post-production involved a lot of computer-generated special effects in an ambitious attempt to age Pitt’s character believably.
Local talent accounted for much of the 100-plus crew needed to design, build, create and manage the elaborate period sets, both on location and on two local soundstages, one of which was UNO’s Nims Center Studios. Locations included a French Quarter shop; a Garden District home that was completely overhauled to accommodate filming over a three-month period; and a rolling St. Charles streetcar before it was post-Katrina operational.
I reconnected with supervising location manager Bill Doyle (now managing another bigbudget film, Columbia Pictures’ Farewell Atlantis) for a quick chat.
What made New Orleans a good place to shoot this film?
The original location was Baltimore, Maryland … As soon as we considered New Orleans it became obvious how much better it would be not just economically, but visually. The advantage we gained was that the period, era [and] architecture surrounded you 360 degrees. The best example was not the French Quarter where we had to hide modern signage and high-rises but the Nolan Mansion in the Garden District. Everywhere you looked around that house was 1899 … And so, surrounded by a timeless world, the locations became characters in the film.
Which locations were most challenging?
For us, dealing with the effects of Katrina became the biggest challenge. We needed the streetcar to run. But the power supply system had been destroyed. We needed to shoot the pool at Dillard University. But just one week before we were due to shoot, the pool was a disaster; it looked more like a cesspool than a swimming pool. These locations and [others] became obstacles that the normal film shoot does not have to overcome.
What were your favorite locations?
The Nolan Mansion … will always be my number one because of the experience I had in dealing with the family and the neighborhood. By the end of it all, I really felt as if I had become part of the Nolan Family, or at least as attached to the house and its history as the other family members.
As a regular visitor of the city, what keeps you coming back to New Orleans?
The main reasons I keep returning are the three key strengths New Orleans has over many other places around the world: world-class cuisine, world-class music, and the most wonderful people I have ever met in all my travels. 37