Production designer Jefferson Sage talks about creating 10,000 years worth of history for 100 minutes of silly summer comedy
Stone Age Losers: Jack Black and Michael Cera play tribal outcasts in a twiggy Paleolithic encampment in Year One
Director Harold Ramis's biblical comedy Year One stood out this summer for its unusual blend of scatological humor and semi-serious religious philosophizing that some even suspected of acting as a stealth exercise in existentialism. For us at ARCHAEOLOGY, it resonated on a different level, thanks to some surprisingly accurate references to the ancient world, far more than one might expect in a mega-yuks popcorn movie.
The film follows the adventures of Paleolithic buddies Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera), who are cast out of their tribe after Zed eats from the Tree of Knowledge. The two exiles then stumble into the Old Testament world, meeting Cain and Abel, visiting Abraham's encampment, and finally infiltrating Sodom to free their would be girlfriends, who have been enslaved by the city's villainous ruler.
The movie mixes Paleolithic, Neolithic, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Roman cultures in a mish-mash of ancient motifs (not so very dissimilar from last year's 10,000 B.C. which followed Paleolithic hunters as they encounter sinister civilized folk who enslave romantic leads).
Production designer Jefferson Sage (Freaks and Geeks, Knocked Up) was responsible for the look of Year One, and for bringing this bewildering ancient world to life. "When I was young I actually wanted to be an archaeologist," says Sage. "So I initially wanted to be very precise in creating this world. Eventually Harold changed our thinking, and got us away from looking at it in an academic way and had us think more about the problems posed by the script. But a lot of the details in there are the results of research into various scientific journals and our looking at actual archaeological sites."
Sage says that Dura Europos, a Hellenistic and Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates in modern-day Syria, was a particular inspiration in creating the look of Sodom, which he and his crew of 250 built on a set in northeastern Louisiana
The movie's location did put some limits on what Sage and his colleagues could do. "Our idea was that Zed and Oh's tribe was a Stone Age nomadic group in the Caucuses. Initially we were attracted to the idea of having the camp be recognizably in the Ice Age, with all this snow. But we had to twist our idea around a little bit to make that work in Louisiana, and it wound up being a summer camp. We worked around a lot of things like that." The crew also created a Near Eastern world in New Mexico, the film's second location. "One thing that didn't change was that we were really interested in the time travel aspect of the movie. Those worlds we create help the comedy."
For the average viewer, Zed and Oh's goofy journey through the Bible's greatest hits will probably never be about traversing through rich millennia of history. The reliably spastic Jack Black and the hilariously modest Michael Cera are hands down the movie's main draws. For some, Harold Ramis's send up of religion is the reason to sit through the film a second time. But if you watch Year One, keep an eye peeled for all the subtle details the mind behind the worlds of Knocked Up and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story brought to this story. Finding those light, but precise, touches might make the movie even funnier.
See the images below to learn more about the inspiration behind the sets of Year One [Caution: Mild Spoilers]:
"When Zed and Oh encounter Cain and Abel they've clearly come in to an agrarian society," says Sage, who drew on reconstructed Neolithic villages in England to create this set. "We ultimately opted for a Neolithic European longhouse design, because Harold didn't like the original round houses we were thinking about. Both designs were right out of the history books." One of Sage's favorites, the village was built in a park outside of Shreveport.
Several scenes were shot in New Mexico, where White Sands National Monument and Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, were two primary locations. Abraham's camp, where the comedy somewhat predictably revolves around the invention of circumcision, was created in Abiquiu. The look and feel of the Hebrew's camps owes more to Charlton Heston-era biblical epics than research into ancient Israelite culture.
Zed and Oh's first experience with the city of Sodom are its fortifications. "We originally thought about making Sodom a grand center, like Babylon," says Sage. "So we thought about recreating the gates of Ishtar for this scene. But then it occurred to us that this city is really just a run-of-the-mill fortified town of its time in Mesopotamia, it's a petty fiefdom." The result was this solid, but unspectacular fortified wall; something an archaeologist might expect to find surrounding a small city-state.
In creating the city of Sodom itself, Sage and his team relied less on archaeological inspirations. "We looked at the Orientalist painters of the late 1800s to create Sodom," says Sage. "They have all these great ideas about architecture that show how these Near Eastern cities were made up of inexplicable ancient layers that went back thousands of years. It was great for us, because we could cut a corner in terms of design by just showing these paintings to our crew."
In the interiors of the palace, Sage also looked to Orientalists for inspiration. "The people living in the palace lead these decadent life's while there's a drought going on," he says. "We used all these rich tapestries to express the idea that instead of governing well Sodom's leaders are using their money on decoration of the highest level of sophistication."
Egyptian motifs, like lotus-head columns, proliferate in the palace banquet hall where Zed and Oh discover their love interests have been enslaved by Sodom's royalty. "To create the scene for these nightly orgies, we wanted to create a very sensuous architecture," says Sage. "And ancient Egyptian art and architecture is about the most sensuous I know."
"In creating the world of the palace, we wanted to convey something of the character of Sodom's rulers," says Sage. "The art of the Assyrian empire struck me as deliberately militaristic and imperial, so we used a lot of that in the palace, which after all is owned by tyrant who runs the city with the aid of the military. This 20 foot carved mural of a king hunting from his chariot is out of the Assyrian tradition." Many elements of this mural were inspired by a ca 650 B.C. relief from the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.
"The Ziggurat was maybe our biggest challenge," says Sage. "It's great because it's not completed and we get to see the latest layer of the city being put down. The idea was that the ruler has a palace and a temple and has heard that those ziggurats are the latest thing and wants one those too. We based ours on the one at Ur, scaled it down to fit what we wanted, and then finished it with plaster, so that's it not crumbling and brown, but white and otherworldly. Just like it would have been in ancient Mesopotamia before falling into ruin."
"We read that there probably wasn't much concern for the safety of crews of builders in Mesopotamia," says Sage. "The life of a slave was not an easy thing, so we tried to convey that in the scaffolding around the ziggurat, which is just put together with twine. That helps makes the scene were Zed brings it all crashing down."
Eric A. Powell is ARCHAEOLOGY's deputy editor.