Ruth De Jong interview: ‘Nope’ production designer
“Nope” isn’t just the title of Jordan Peele‘s third film. It was also the writer-director’s reaction when Universal suggested that the production use an existing Western town for the film’s theme park, Jupiter’s Claim. “He said nope!” production designer Ruth De Jong tells Gold Derby with a laugh. “No, they were very supportive once they understood exactly what Jordan and us as filmmakers [wanted to do]. … It was great because his vision was clear and Donna [Langley, Universal chairperson] was very receptive, and obviously we went off and did our thing. I think had it been where we found a Western town, I just don’t know that it would’ve been as powerful, character-wise.”
Arguably not, considering the specificity and idiosyncrasy of Jupiter’s Claim. The sci-fi horror hit follows siblings O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), horse trainers for Hollywood productions, who set out to capture and sell footage of a UFO UAP (unidentified aerial phenomenon) to get out of financial straits. Near their ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles is Jupiter’s Claim, a Western theme park operated by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who has never met a situation (or “bad miracle”) he doesn’t want to exploit.
“Our whole backstory was he initially wanted to capitalize on [his film] ‘Kid Sheriff,’ but because of copyright infringement, his part had to be — whatever it was — 30 percent, so Jordan had this idea of, ‘What if the colors were just terrible?’ And I was like, ‘What’s terrible?’” De Jong, who previously worked with Peele on “Us” (2019), recalls. “But we wanted the whole thing to just feel very askew and off, but yet, similar to Knott’s Berry Farm, where you’re like, ‘Of course, this thing is here.’ We almost wanted to sell the audience that it’s always been here and they’re like, ‘Wait, Jupiter’s Claim?’ We wanted to ground it as much as possible yet have it just twist outside the idea of a throwback Western town.”
Jupiter’s Claim has all the makings of a typical Western town — the usual saloon, bank, post office and general store are all there — but they’re drenched in bright pastels, giving the park a vibe that’s inviting, kitschy and suspect. “It’s a Western town on acid,” De Jong, who also built the Haywoods’ house from scratch, quips. She studied old Western shows, like “Bonanza,” before designing Jupiter’s Claim, including a full layout with models. “[It was] just tons of old TV shows that were based in Western towns and it was fun to then take that and turn it to just be entirely ours. And it ended up working. We built all the buildings at three-quarters scale and the doors were maybe [6 feet]. Everything was just a hair off, if that makes sense, and built for kids. The coloring — I locked myself in my office for two days and just chose every building from the trim to the wall. It was really fun just to think about this world.”
Though the film only spends substantial time inside Jupe’s purple office, every single building in the park had full interiors. “They were fully dressed. You could walk in, you could walk out,” De Jong explains. “The camera only really went into Jupe’s office, the candy store a little bit, the gold painting station. Everything was practical. We just wanted to breathe life into the space. The stadium — we built 360, obviously, and we brought the horses in, had the little mini stable, the petting zoo.”
And if you’re wishing that Jupiter’s Claim were real, you’re in luck (sort of). The entire set was moved to Universal Studios as part of its backlot tour in July, coinciding with “Nope’s” release. The idea came about when De Jong and Ian Cooper, producer and creative director at Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, were wondering what to do with the elaborate town after production wrapped.
“Normally, it goes in the trash. There’s fold and hold, where they’ll say, ‘Wait six months, get the whole thing edited, see if we need reshoots,’ that sort of thing,” De Jong says. “It was a long, long planning process. Ian and I just got really behind the idea and Jordan was just ecstatic, I think, being at Universal and being a key collaborator and filmmaker there. A lot of the [sets] on the tram tour, it’s 20, 30 years of the same thing. The idea of having a fresh film, a contemporary film, present day, and be able to have the sets there — so Universal boogied. … I think initially, it was a lot of, ‘Oh, man, is it worth the cost?’ This and that. But at the end of the day, from my perspective, it was a huge gift. No sets end up memorialized in any kind of way.”