Why ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’ Left This Renovation Unfinished On Purpose

updated Aug 16, 2019
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Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

Where did Bernadette go? That’s the mystery her family has to solve after she runs away from their Seattle home in “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” in theaters Friday, August 16.

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The Richard Linklater-directed dramedy, based on Maria Semple’s 2012 novel of the same name, centers on Cate Blanchett as the film’s titular character, a neurotic architect who goes missing before her family’s excursion to Antarctica. Now it’s up to Bernadette’s daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), and husband, Elgin (Billy Crudup), to find her whereabouts.

A once prominent figure in her field, Bernadette vanishes from the limelight after her family’s move from Los Angeles to Seattle, where she prefers to isolate herself from nosy neighbors in her decaying Queen Anne Hill home (formerly a school called “The Straight Gate School for Girls”). Although the house is described as being located in the Northwest, production designer Bruce Curtis reveals that the architectural wonder was “a mashup of three different elements”: a Pittsburgh production studio, a Waldorf school, and the Hays Mansion, a Second Empire–Italianate estate built in 1870, in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh.

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

“When I found Hays Mansion, it was actually slated to be condemned and torn down,” Curtis tells Apartment Therapy. “Somehow the family had saved it. It was just in this incredible disrepair flux.”

In order for the crew to film at the historic manor, Curtis says he had to bring in a construction team and rebuild a lot of the property, including opening up doorways and re-doing windows. The bedrooms were among the spaces to be renovated, because as Curtis suggests, they would have been the first rooms that Bernadette “redid so they all had [their] safe space while she was chewing on the rest of the project.”

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

During the remodeling, Curtis “had taken off probably three layers of linoleum flooring and exposed this beautiful inlay floor. Once we had sheared the walls and opened up doors, there was a fireplace in every room in that mansion,” he recalls. “It was a moment of discovery for all of us as I opened that can up.”

However, not every part of the estate was restored to look new. 

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

The parlor room, where Bernadette is often seen communicating with a virtual assistant named Manjula and storing her boxes of online orders, was purposely kept undone. There’s even a moment when Bernadette cuts her vintage carpet so a blackberry can grow. “That was probably the rawest of the room and I left that decaying beauty there specifically to show that flux of incompleteness in her mind in the house,” hints Curtis.

The great room featured a custom wallpaper that was adjusted into a jewel-tone palette. “Those colors really called to me because of the drabness. They’re deep, rich beautiful colors, but they’re a bit wallowing in stagnation. The fog and rain helped bring the tone down to what was going on in that house,” notes Curtis. Set designer Beauchamp Fontaine complemented the space with a custom velvet couch and Victorian light fixtures.

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

One room that didn’t originally exist in the mansion was the living room’s nearby bathroom, from which Bernadette escapes from the window.

“That was built, from the tiles to the fixtures to the window. We knew we needed to get her out somewhere,” says Curtis. “There was a nook there that was an old opening. The house had been bastardized through the years and had been another front door, sort-of foyer area. Originally I think it was part of the kitchen, but it lent itself well off the living room.”

Since Bernadette’s home was previously an establishment, the cooking area is “a nod to an industrial kitchen,” states Curtis. Built on a stage, the kitchen features a stainless steel commercial refrigerator, which was “more about the shape, the bigness to help the scale of that room and to tell the story that they’re in something that was once an institution and bigger than the three of them would ever need,” he emphasizes.

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

Curtis and his team also filled the kitchen with high-end appliances and cookware sourced from online and Los Angeles. “They’re not struggling. Even though Bernadette is struggling mentally, creative-wise—they’re not strapped for cash,” Curtis points out, especially since Elgin is a tech guru who works at Microsoft. “They’re a bit more on the fancy side, even though she has bitten off more than she can creatively chew at the time of her life.”

Credit: Wilson Webb / Annapurna Pictures

Adds Curtis: “We were careful to say, ‘Hey, if she’s going to replace a faucet, she would have the top-of-the-line nod to the historic-ness of her environment and something that she would like as well.’”

As Bernadette took a slight pause from her creative pursuits, Curtis was “very mindful not to fully finish anything [in the house] other than the bedrooms and bathrooms,” he maintains. “Everything was in a constant state of disrepair. Nothing was finished, just creative shambles.”