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Upcoming release The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp and Aaron Eckhart, explores the breathtaking scenery of 1960s Puerto Rico as the story of the drunken journalist Paul Kemp and his dealings at a newspaper unfolds in the Central American territory.
Production designer Chris Seagers and his team embarked on an intensive period of research into the area. “Puerto Rico, at that time, was a really depressed place,” says Seagers. “It was very poor, and the main industry there was agriculture. However, American developers were beginning to move in, bringing the oil refineries and pharmaceutical companies.
The Puerto Ricans were being pushed aside in the name of progress, which was actually pure greed. That’s what Bruce wanted to capture. It was a pretty unique transitional period. You are leaving the post-war era and entering the 60s.”
“Chris is a magnificent artist,” Depp states. “He was on the money every single time; everything down to the finest detail just was Puerto Rico, 1960.” Producer Graham King goes further: “Chris would build a set and we would use that set maybe three or four times, but the audience will never know! He’d turn it around dress it differently, etc. It was very creative, very guerilla-style filmmaking.”
Capturing location photography was critical for both the film’s director Bruce Robinson and Depp. “We didn’t shoot on sound stages because Bruce Robinson just doesn’t feel it,” Depp says. “He’s an animal of the street. He likes to be in an environment that’s not necessarily structured for cinema, but for feeling and emotion.
It’s what you’d call available stimulus. Bruce was pretty adamant about the idea of shooting in locations and there’s nothing better for an actor than to be in that world.” The principal location that Robinson was looking for was businessman Sanderson’s beach house, which represented the essence of the story.
It had to be the quintessential Caribbean paradise, aquamarine water, sugar white sand, waving palm trees, and beautiful sunsets. The film did not have a large budget for construction. However, it was soon obvious that the only way to get the combination of an exquisite beach house and the glorious beach location was to build it.
The location department was fortunate enough to find the perfect spot at the Governor’s beach property, located just outside the town of Fajardo in Puerto Rico. “The concept behind the design of Sanderson’s house was that the first time Kemp walks through the door he sees that perfect horizon line.
It’s just the ocean and that house!” explains Seagers. “It’s everything he has ever dreamt of. The house, the girl, the ocean, the boat! Initially, he is in awe of the whole thing; but as we progress through the movie he becomes more and more disillusioned.” Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg was ecstatic when she saw Sanderson’s house.
“Chris Seagers told me that he had once worked with an architect who specialized in recreating that ahead-of-the-curve 1960 style,” says Brandenburg. “It was a real tour de force of architecture and a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to dress it.”
Another notable set was the San Juan Star newspaper office, Kemp’s place of employment when he arrives on the island and where he meets most of the principal characters in the story. Finding the right location in old San Juan was key. “Bruce wanted to see some landscape, and show 1930s windows,” says Seagers.
“We were walking through Old San Juan one day and suddenly saw this 1930s building. When we went inside, we found a series of offices on the sixth floor. There were a few air conditioning units and roofs to deal with, but, for the most part, it was perfect. Our biggest concern was whether they would let us gut it, and lo and behold, they did. We took out all the walls to make it all one big space.”
The dressing of the newspaper was an intricate business for set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. “We had a list of ten or twelve different desks that we were creating,” she says. “They were for the society columnist, the fashion reporter, the sports guy, and the business guy. We painstakingly went through archival volumes and scanned actual articles of the time to use as dressing on their desks.”
“In the movie, Kemp has been hired as a replacement to Madame Lazanga,” says Brandenburg, “so initially, the desk was fully tricked out. Madame Lazanga was purported to have been a drag queen. So when we first see the desk, it is full of astrology gear, feather boas, hats; all kinds of flamboyant stuff. When Kemp takes over, it all gets stripped away.”
In addition to the newspaper offices, one of the key visuals in the film was the printing press. Seagers was very skeptical about the prospects of finding a period printing press. “One day we heard that The San Juan Star had closed down,” says Seagers. “We tracked down the proprietor who invited us over and there it was.
It wasn’t exactly period, but printing presses have not really changed that much. It had everything we needed, the conveyor belts, even the rolls of paper. All we needed to do was to repaint it and add some details to make it more historically accurate.”
While Seagers and his team were at the printing press, they were allowed to go up to the archive office. “Incredibly,” says Seagers, “there were these wooden pallets with bound archival copies of The San Juan Star going back to the late 50s. It was all there. All the reference material we needed in one place.
Fortunately, the owner agreed to let us use the archival material for the Star newspaper office set.”