Lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, both participating in the Broadway Lighting Master Classes, have built a stellar reputation not only for their work in theatre, but also over the last dozen years in film work as well. Among their growing list of credits is lighting designs for Chicago, Dreamgirls, School of Rock and most recently Burlesque. Set in a fictional club, the Burlesque Lounge, a contemporary variety nightclub in an antique theatre on Sunset Strip presenting musical acts with a sexual twist. The film, starring Cher as the world-weary owner Tess, who struggles to keep the place running, and Christina Aguilera as Ali, the fresh-off-the-small-town-bus newcomer who gets a job as a waitress before showing she has the vocal chops to take the stage and possibly save the club from being sold.
Live Design spoke with the veteran lighting team about their work on the film, for which Eisenhauer temporarily relocated to Los Angeles to be on set for over five months. Fisher and Eisenhauer collaborated closely with director of photography Bojan Bazelli, production designer Jon Gary Steele, and art director Chris Cornwell.
Live Design: How do you approach designing a theatrical environment in a film?
Peggy Eisenhauer: It began with filling this club with lighting that would satisfy dozens of scenes and 15 musical numbers that are live on the lounge stage. The approach, which is our usual, is to seamlessly blend the club ambience, the stage production lighting, and the film lighting into a whole. In addition to the stage, we worked anywhere within the environment where filming occurred: in the backstage areas, hallways, stairwells, and dressing rooms. The goal and the approach was to blend the club into one character, one being. We ended up participating in everything that took place in the lounge. It created a single magic environment.
Jules Fisher: Really the Burlesque Lounge had two personalities, meaning it was both an environment in which a story was being told without music and in the same space was also a theatre, a show place. Sometimes there was a division there. When it was a show place, it was all theatrical lighting devices; other times in the same space there were scenes about love and lust, jealousy and mortgages, and issues over buying of the building. Our design incorporated all of that.
LD: Talk a little about the style that you came up with for this film.
JF: One of the things about this production, versus other films that we’ve been involved with, is that it required multiple styles. This show place didn’t have a style of its own; there were references of other worlds, other movies, and other theatre events for specific songs. If a song was modern or period, then we all referenced whatever we could to tell that song. The styles varied throughout the movie.
PE: For example, there was a straight-ahead classic, comic burlesque number, which was the “doctor” number. The dancers are in nurse’s costumes yelling “doctor, doctor.” That was a gritty, slinky comedy number that had a look as if it was in a faux dentist office. We got an [Arri] Ruby 7, which is a big fat cluster of PAR64s, to mimic a dentist’s examination light. The designer found a period dentist’s chair and put on wheels. We manually rigged the light to pan and tilt by using ropes and wires to follow this dentist chair around throughout the number. That was completely different than “Welcome to Burlesque,” Cher’s opening number, a sort of moody, flesh on flesh, legs on legs pile-up, which was yet completely different from a comic circus number that Alan Cumming did with dancers and contortionists. We are careful not to be sophomoric and grab at anything, but it is a variety club.
“Express,” was a modern hip-hop, boom, boom, boom, pow, pow, pow strobe dance number. Then there’s the super-jazzy finale with the giant sign letters, which we helped design for the art department. That was probably one of the biggest dance numbers we have ever done. Throughout the film, we tried to provide as much variety as called for in a modern variety club setting.
LD: How did you employ color in your design?
PE: We work so closely with the costume and production designers. Essentially, the way we approach these collaborations is that we test, test, test. I kept driving at the producers to get me a costume, scenic material, and let me conduct camera tests. The finale, you’ll find, is gold and silver. That was an early decision. The red ceiling was an imperative from the director. The blue drape that is behind Christina’s solo, “Bound to You,” well we looked for a couple of weeks to get the right fabric. It had to be the right color and the light on it had to be the right color. We had to communicate how do we get the blue that we want; the light does some of it, and the fabric does some of it.
JF: We also tend to be color cops so people don’t forget what they did earlier or will do later in the film. It’s so easy for anyone working on a project to say, “Well, let’s have them make this blue” instead of thinking, “We’re going to use blue three scenes from now.” We look at the overall picture.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview.