Roger Kumble's Cruel Intentions, a contemporary teen version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is set in the upscale environs of New York's Upper East Side, but production designer Jon Gary Steele tips his hat to the source material. Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe), wealthy step-siblings and co-connivers who work their ruthless sexual wiles on private-school classmates, live in an opulent Fifth Avenue townhouse with Louis XIV trappings.
"My pitch in the interview was, why don't we make the Valmont family home look like you walked back in time to an 18th-century Parisian ballroom," says Steele. "Of course, it was stylized. We bought period furniture but we reupholstered it, replaced the brocades with canvas to make it look more now. We stripped the wood and restained it, and added bronze chairs and a bronze table. And we put both modern art and period art on the walls.
"It's funny," he continues. "The interiors were done on a soundstage in Los Angeles, and first I did sketches and a model of what we were going to build. Then we went to scout in New York for the exterior--I wanted a place with French influence--and we found a big beautiful chateau right across the street from the Metropolitan Museum." The French Gothic limestone structure, built in 1898, now houses the Ukrainian Institute of America. "We got inside, and it's very, very similar to what we ended up building. There are pilasters almost exactly like ours, and it was almost the same scale."
In keeping with the tone of the material, Steele went with dark colors. "In the living room, almost everything is taupe and gilded. Ryan's room is burnt oranges and dark woods, very masculine. And since the character Sarah Michelle Gellar plays is a cruel and conniving ice princess, I decided to make everything in her room blue and silver. We painted her walls six different shades of blue, all blended, and then the trims are silver leaf. Her bed is in an alcove, like a little nook she hangs out in with all her books and CDs. We hung 150 crystals, some dipped in blue dye, from the ceiling chandelier, but I don't think you ever see it in the film."
To contrast with the dark European quality of the townhouse, Steele went with a "very American" look for the Long Island estate where Valmont undertakes the seduction of a virtuous young woman (Reese Witherspoon). The exterior was a three-story brick mansion and grounds in Old Westbury Gardens, while interiors were done back in Los Angeles, at the Chandler family mansion.
Yet another look encompassed by Cruel Intentions can be seen in the New York apartment of the nouveau riche Mrs. Caldwell (Christine Baranski) and her innocent daughter (Selma Blair), another of Valmont's conquests. "The Caldwells are the opposite of the blue-blooded Valmonts," says Steele. "So we tried to find a very opulent contemporary space." The Los Angeles location was decorated with African-American art to provide an ironic counterpoint to a scene in which Mrs. Caldwell reveals her racism. "The space had beautiful brown marble floors, and amazing views of Los Angeles, though unfortunately we couldn't shoot them."
Steele, whose other credits include American History X, Edie and Pen, art direction on When Harry Met Sally, set design on Total Recall, and extensive work in television, trained in architecture. "They did a miniseries called The Blue and the Gray in the Arkansas town where I went to school," he recalls. "They were redressing buildings for the Civil War, and I said whoa--that's what I want to do. I got my degree, but started taking theatre and stuff like that. To me, it's much, much more fun. You're doing a circus in one movie, a little town in another, and a French ballroom in another."
Cruel Intentions will be released this month by Columbia Pictures.