What made The Wild, Wild West stand out from the pack of TV westerns in the 1960s was its offbeat combination of genres. Government agent James West's way with the ladies inevitably called to mind a 19th-century James Bond, while sidekick Artemus Gordon's knack for disguises, gadgets, and repartee also allied the show to the 007 movie series. Then there was a creepy element, a bent towards grisly demises and villainous dwarfs and even the supernatural that lent the series something of a horror cachet. Of course, there was also a comic aspect, a parodistic set of quotes around the proceedings that bore some similarity to the popular Batman TV show of the time.
The spirit of hybrid is alive in the ultra-expensive film version of the series, simplified in title to Wild Wild West, which Warner Bros. released Fourth of July weekend. Under the guiding handof director Barry Sonnenfeld, Wild Wild West presents itself as a tongue-in-cheek period science-fiction adventure with the light touch of Sonnenfeld's Men in Black. Designed, like that film, by Bo Welch, this Wild Wild West throws high-budget digital and in-camera effects into the mix, culminating in a near-apocalyptic battle between the heroes and a giant mechanical tarantula.
"What drew me to it, I think, is the retro sci-fi," says Welch, whose other big-budget credits range from Mike Nichols' The Birdcage and Primary Colors to Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman Returns. "The movie is conceptually the same as the TV show, but a lot more elaborate. It's James Bond in the Old West, and the formation of the Secret Service at the time of President Grant. I got to do the futuristic gadgetry, but place myself in 1868-69. Of course, I can't really do that, because I live now. Today, everything is so clean and miniaturized, because we live in a world of computers. Back then, everything was huge and oily and heavy and mechanical and overstated."
The story charts the wary development of the relationship between West (Will Smith) and Gordon (Kevin Kline), and their fight against the brilliant, bitterly vengeful Dr. Loveless (Kenneth Branagh), who lost his legs and other vital equipment during the Civil War. Loveless means to assassinate the President and install himself as leader of the world, and West and Gordon are sworn to stop him.
"I decided that Loveless is a real futurist for that period," says Welch. "He's into cast iron and steam power and metal and hydraulics, which really hadn't burst onto the scene in the United States yet. We were still fairly agrarian, though in Europe, they were doing cast-iron and glass architecture, big time. Loveless, who's from New Orleans and has that connection to France and Europe, is forward-thinking." One key to the evil doctor's radical aesthetic is the massive "lair" Welch concocted for him. It's a cast-iron and glass structure modeled on a Victorian train station, with sweeping halls and chambers lit by sunlight that streams in the high glass ceilings. The skeletal framework of the set, built on Stage 16 at Warner Bros., prefigures Loveless' ultimate arachnid weapon, and matte-painted exteriors of the lair laid deep in a desert canyon give it a sinister, lurking quality.
Inside, ramps and hoisting contraptions provide a constant reminder of Loveless' disability. But the villain has made an imaginative virtue of halfdom. "Everything in his world is consistent thematically," says Welch. "He's mounted on a steam-powered, heavy metal wheelchair. You also see him in a cast-iron buggy, and a tank that transforms into a train, and that has all sorts of capabilities. You see his boat, which is a hybrid of a Monitor/Merrimack-style armed Civil War boat and Mississippi paddlewheeler. The way the script unfolds, Loveless has an escalating scale of gadgetry. One of the first devices you're aware of is a disk launcher that's like a really large skeet shooter. It launches a 3'-diameter, serrated-edge disc that chops the victim's head off. Ultimately you see his biggest device, the 80'-tall, steam-powered and cast-iron erector set of a tarantula with various guns mounted to it. Loveless is in the head, which is the control deck, and the body is the engine room."
West and Gordon aren't exactly chopped liver in the high-tech department. "They have a sort of parallel evolving gadget experience going on in the train," says Welch. As in the series, the two agents reside in a handsomely appointed private railroad car with pool table; it was designed to period specifications and constructed on another Warner Bros. soundstage. "We wanted to make it like the interior of an English men's club. It's loaded with beautiful fabrics, and we did an effect of inlaid hardwoods on the ceilings and walls by drawing them on the computer, and then printing them out and laminating them to wood. When used in combination with real wood, it forces the two to come together, and looks like one piece. With the inlaid woods and dark green velvets and carpet, the train interior is dark. I personally like dark-toned walls because I think human beings look better against them. We did our own interpretation of the interior of the White House, the entry hall and Oval Office--again, it's very green and very dark. Then, of course, Loveless is a dark character, and his palette is basically cast-iron color, with a little bit of gold."
The gadgets that Gordon designs tend to rocket rather than steam power. "He has a rocket-powered bicycle that you see early in the movie," says Welch, "and they have this inspiration towards the end to turn it into the first flying machine. They attach wings and struts to it, and at the end there's an air-to-ground battle between the spider and this nitrocycle." Another distinction between the bad-guy and good-guy gadgets: "Everything Loveless does is intended to kill, maim, destroy, while everything Gordon does is meant to evade or trick or distract."
Welch and special effects artist Michael Lantieri tried to accomplish as much in-camera for Wild Wild West as possible. "We built a lot of stuff full-size," says the designer. "The more you can put in-camera, the better chance you have of convincing people that it really exists. As good as CG has gotten, there's nothing as good as having the object there. There are physical objects that are designed to have the weight and greasy texture of a steam-powered engine, for instance, on Loveless' wheelchair. But within that, our physical effects people put a remote-control electric motor, and then rigged it so it would shoot off steam. Kenneth Branagh was able to drive it with a joystick mounted to the handle, so it's essentially real, except that it's electric."
As for the tarantula, "Michael built two different heads onstage, and a section of one leg, which weighed eight tons. We mounted it to a giant crane, to have it smash down in the foreground of the frame, and to have Will Smith climb on it while it sprayed steam out at him." In the lair, cast iron was suggested with paint and finish, but the tarantula leg was made of steel to withstand stress when it pounds into the ground. "It's nice to sell this prop to have some of it real. Of course, you can't really build such a thing, a lot of it is CG-modeled."
On Wild Wild West, Welch used the computer as a designing tool to a greater extent than previously. Usually, his staff of illustrators would do the sketches by hand. But, he says, "Some-times I do a drawing or an illustrator does a drawing, and then we'll scan it and work on it to enhance it, to make it more real. The most obvious use I have for it is when I have a location where I'm either going to do a matte painting or add sets to radically change its appearance. We might take a picture of a location, scan it, and then scan drawings or other elements and put them into that location to see whether it works."
One example of this is Loveless' lair, which is digitally blended with plates photographed in Monument Valley. Apart from some scene-setting locations done in Santa Fe, NM, the rest of the movie was shot at Warner Bros. studio, the Disney Ranch, or Los Angeles-area locations. "There are a couple of shots of West riding a horse down what's supposed to be Pennsylvania Avenue," says Welch. "We shot it in a park in Van Nuys, CA, and combined it with matte paintings of the White House. If you walked into this park, you would go, 'Washington, 1868? You've got to be dreaming.' But by manipulating it on the computer, figuring out what part we'll actually use, where we'll put the street, what trees or buildings or water we need to add, and what we need to get rid of, you begin to see how it will work. It's a good previsualization tool for something that radical."
The computer plays an even bigger role in the design of Welch's next film, What Planet Are You From?, a Mike Nichols science fiction comedy starring Garry Shandling and Annette Bening. "Shandling plays an alien from a planet of men identical to him," says the designer. "Not only are they all men, but they have no penises. The planet is extremely dull, because there's no reason for impressing anyone. The computer naturally has a crispness and electronic feel to it that is perfect for illustrations of the planet, so I've used it almost exclusively. The struggle is in earthbound, realistic, gritty kinds of sets: You toil and toil, and it still feels slightly clean."