For much of Jordan Peele’s new thriller Nope, one thing is clear: There’s something wrong in Agua Dulce. In this ranch-speckled stretch of desert, OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, respectively) are the proprietors of a Hollywood horse-handling business—but a string of mysterious events quickly upend the daily rhythm of their lives.
Whether you’ve already seen the film or not, the dramatic desert shots beg a few questions: What exactly is happening in Agua Dulce? And where is this place?
You'll have to watch the film for the answer to the first, but the latter will lead you to straight inland California. Located just north of Los Angeles, real-life Agua Dulce and the neighboring town of Santa Clarita were chosen by Peele and production designer Ruth De Jong (the two also collaborated on Us) for its actual residents—animal wranglers like the Haywoods—as well as a Hollywood history far lusher than the barren landscape might let on. We sat down with De Jong to hear more about creating the world of Nope, from the ranch where much of the film takes place, to the abutting roadside theme park run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun).
Was Nope filmed entirely in Agua Dulce?
We were in Santa Clarita and Agua Dulce, kind of on the border. We found a pair of ranches that were connected, and we built both of the sets from the ground up. The main house looks straight into the valley, and when characters cross between the properties—whether they’re in a car or on a motorcycle or horseback—they’re actually doing so. It’s not a cheat where we were cutting, it was all functional, practical, and real: 360-degree usability. The only CGI is in the sky.
It was so incredible to be able to create everything we wanted exactly how we wanted, and then marry them and have their proximity be so close. It made the whole design process very fluid with Jordan [Peele]. I love world-building, when you can build on location as opposed to a soundstage, and be outside. It’s a lot of fun.
Tell me about the theme park run by Steven Yeun’s character. Where did the idea for that come from?
[In the film], Steven’s character, who was a child actor, had this idea to create [his theme park] Jupiter’s Claim off of a very successful character, a kid sheriff, that he played but didn’t have the rights to. He needed to change the name and branding enough [so] that he couldn’t get sued— it’s like setting out to create the Universal Studios theme park without it being Universal Studios. So we had to create this sort of wackadoodle park that’s a little bit off but not off enough that you wouldn't want to visit it, if you happened to drive past. We also wanted to convince the world that it was really up there in the desert, some sort of well-kept secret.
I was looking at [television shows like] Bonanza and [the films] Heaven’s Gate and Once Upon A Time in the West, with those classic Western towns. Having worked on There Will Be Blood and Yellowstone and various shows, I had a lot of cataloged imagery in the back of my brain. Jordan and I took a field trip to Knott's Berry Farm [in Anaheim, California], which is much bigger than what we were doing, and several other places like Pioneer Town [in San Bernardino County] and Calico Silvermining Ghost Town [in Yermo, California]. Then, we just pretended we were Ricky. You’re thinking about everything that can make money–the kiddy train and the petting zoo. And now, they’ve actually rebuilt Jupiter's Claim in Universal Studios. You can actually go to it. It’s part of the tram tour.
When it comes to Agua Dulce, what is the interaction between that part of the desert and the city of Los Angeles?
A lot of Hollywood craftspeople live out in Agua Dulce and Santa Clarita, especially animal wranglers [like those] featured in the film which is why we chose it in the first place. There’s a lot more land, it’s inexpensive. You’re a solid hour outside of the city, so from Universal Studios you could make it out there in 45 minutes without traffic. Bobby Lovgren was our trainer who provided and trained all of the horses, and his ranch was ten minutes from our sets. He would say, “Never have I ever had a set in my backyard.” You get a lot of the carpenters, prop makers, and special effects guys with their workshops there, too.
There’s also a lot of history. William Mulholland, who brought water to Los Angeles—that’s what [the 1974 film] Chinatown is about—owned one of the ranches from 1896 to 1911. Bugsy Siegel, the mobster, also lived [on that same ranch] from 1911 to 1932 and was doing shady stuff up there. It’s crazy. The other ranch that we built on had [belonged to] Howard Hughes, who was a famous director and pilot. He would pick William up in his plane. Hughes’s ranch is where we built Jupiter’s Claim because he had this huge airstrip. It was so old-school Hollywood, and yet people have no idea. People just see it as dry and hot and dusty.
What was it like being in Agua Dulce for the shoot?
Hot. It was so hot. We shot in the middle of summer last year. You’re out there all day getting sweatier and stickier and dirtier and that compounds for four months. Thankfully, I watched the movie and was relieved that the actors didn’t look like they were dying. But it was very smooth—just a matter of keeping the people and the horses hydrated. We had to be smart about being in the open air with the skydancers, those blow-up, almost animatronic things that you see at car dealerships. Let’s just say the electricians had a rough week when the skydancers went in. They were running cable for miles and miles and miles.
Written By Charlie Hobbs | Conde Nast Traveler