When I think about modern architecture in feature films, I am reminded of the 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself where filmmaker Thom Andersen argues that modernism signifies villainy. He cites Richard Neutra’s Lovell House in L.A. Confidential, John Lautner’s Chemosphere and others in Lethal Weapon 2, The Big Lebowski and Twilight; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in Rush Hour, Black Rain, The Replacement Killers—all inhabited by pimps, gangsters, pornographers, and other miscreants and lowlifes.
Although it was filmed during our current period of mayhem, happily, Malcolm & Marie takes a different tack. Shot during pandemic lockdown in June 2020, it is a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–inspired two-hander played by Zendaya and John David Washington that takes place in Feldman Architecture’s Caterpillar House in Carmel, California. (Coincidentally, Jonathan Feldman studied film before switching to architecture.)
Built in 2011, the low-slung, horizontal 2,800-square-foot present-day update of the California ranch houses of Cliff May and William Wurster emphasizes natural light, warm colors, rammed-earth walls, and 270-degree views of the landscape. However, it was used by the filmmakers in seeming counterpoint: it was shot entirely at night, and in 35mm black-and-white film. Production designer Michael Grasley says "We wanted to find a contemporary house and an architectural language that embraced the California open-plan, midcentury mindset, but that at the same time was new, dialed-in, and didn’t look like a house from the 1960s."
The house is a cool, secluded container for the heated arguments, discussions, and confessions of the couple—not unlike the isolation brought on by the pandemic. The textures, abstraction, geometry, and severe contrast with deep blacks and harsh whites take precedence over the warm characteristics this house is noted for. Symmetry—characters often shot dead center flanked equally on both sides—along with reflected images in mirrors form a stage for this conflicted relationship rather than a design for living.
The house is revealed gradually, so we come to know its layout over time with its own narrative structure. The film opens with the couple returning to the house, rented by the studio (contributing to a sense of separation and impermanence), after the movie premiere of Malcolm’s breakout film. Marie is miffed that she was not thanked in his speech. And so the tribulations begin with highs and lows, anger and reconciliation, strength and vulnerability displayed throughout the night.
There is a strong relationship between the home’s interior and exterior, which the characters freely traverse, but whereas the real-life owner’s emphasis is on looking out from the inside, the film’s focus is looking inward. Director Sam Levinson says "You begin to feel like they’re two snakes trapped in a jar, and we’re not going to take the lid off."
We follow movement, with the camera tracking along the exterior to reveal the characters’ separate activities inside as we follow their moods and distinct worlds, which the home’s layout permits. With a serpentine spine, the viewer is led down and around the house’s spaces.
Shot in the thick of the first lockdown, Malcolm & Marie became an early model of how to film during the pandemic using strict protocols. The home’s remote location helped, as did the natural ventilation. Passive heating and cooling, plus the residence’s intrinsic circulation meant that the air was continually refreshed, and no noisy heating or cooling was required.
The Caterpillar House has LEED Platinum status—it’s the first house on California’s Central Coast so designated—with radiant-heated floors, photovoltaics, low-energy windows, and recycled insulation. The production team installed horizontal blinds and vertical drapes for dramatic emphasis (and for hiding lights and cables) more than function.
At first, I thought the filmmakers had made their lives more difficult by choosing to shoot in black-and-white rather than color, and in film rather than video. But Levinson says it is in homage to film history: He cites the golden age of Hollywood and the work of Joseph Losey (The Servant), while the cinematographer and production designer reference John Cassavetes (Opening Night, Gloria) and Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte, The Passenger). In the film, Malcolm admires director William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday). The production team say the medium emphasizes "emotional realism rather than aesthetic realism." Another update is featuring Black stars in black-and-white film—something unheard of back then.
The entire filmmaking process was impacted by the pandemic, from the shoot itself to the financial structure. Since personnel were taking a risk, key crew were given points on the backend to receive financial rewards if the film succeeds. In addition, proceeds will be given to both the Santa Lucia Preserve (where the Caterpillar House is located), and Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Malcolm & Marie is turning a B&W chapter of our times into color.
You can watch Malcolm & Marie on Netflix starting February 5, 2020 .
Get the Dwell Newsletter
Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.