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Arts and Culture

Was 'Bad Times at the El Royale' Inspired By Tahoe’s Cal Neva?

Movie poster with a neon sign.
Movie poster for 'Bad Times at the El Royale,' directed by Drew Goddard (2018).

KUNR’s Wyatt Daane sat down with Robin Holabird, a film reviewer for KUNR, to discuss the noticeable correlation between the Cal Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe and the El Royale Lodge in the film Bad Times at the El Royale. The movie was released to home audiences earlier this year and is about 7 strangers who are harboring dark secrets when they each arrive at a mysterious hotel on the California/Nevada border. 

Was the film Bad Times at the El Royale actually filmed on the California and Nevada border?

No, the movie filmed in Canada, which is very typical. Canada has a strong production network and incentive program and it has a lot of big trees--so does Lake Tahoe. Our trees are different than theirs, but the general audience doesn’t care.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the El Royale has a significant resemblance to the actual Cal Neva Lodge. Do you see a similarity like that?

A photo of the two hotel lodges side by side.
A side by side comparison of Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge and The El Royale Hotel.

There are little bases being touched about it. Yes, absolutely, in the sense that this is a hotel that straddles state borders. So, you walked into the Cal Neva when it was open and to your west was California and to the east was Nevada. There was a line through what they called the Indian Room, the state border, so you could have your picture taken on the state line. If you went swimming in the pool, there was a line through the pool that divided the state, so that concept, absolutely.

I did some research that Frank Sinatra built a bunch of underground tunnels in the Cal Neva when he owned it, and in the movie Bad Times at the El Royale, there's a bunch of tunnels where people can look into the rooms and stuff happening in the movie. Do you see any correlation between the two?

The main correlation that I’m aware of is, yes, there were tunnels. Frank Sinatra used them so that he could get in and out without being seen, without having to cross the casino, and not because he was being sneaky or anything but because as Frank Sinatra, it was hard for him to take a step without being mobbed.

The tunnels I have been in, and I have been in them, were dirt and rock walls. There weren't windows or anything like that. They were just underground tunnels cooler than the rest of the place in terms of temperature to walk around. The El Royale, again, revisionist or creative writing by the director and writer, wrote that there were actually windows to look into the rooms so you could see Cynthia singing her songs or you could see other things that were interesting or you could film illicit acts going on, then blackmail somebody about them.

That was a scene from the film where Jeff Bridges ask’s Cynthia Erivo why she’s staying at the El Royale. Do you think there's a certain statement they make in that film about how lounge singing works and how it’s operated over the years?

It was a little bit different; this takes place in the 1960’s, so a woman traveling alone without an entourage, some of the other aspects of it would be a bit different, but lounge singing, yes. That did happen; Reno did have lounges. Again, Reno was not considered for the movie, and if you know sets and things like that, you look at the casino used and--not quite. But the director and writer, Drew Goddard, was playing with the way things were, kind of like Tarantino does currently with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and especially with Inglourious Basterds. A little bit of revisionist history going on there, maybe not even a little bit, sometimes a lot of revisionist history going on.

The director wanted a singer, he had been talking to Beyonce as well, and he hit with Cynthia Erivo. This is her first screen role, most people aren't aware of her, which is really odd because she's probably going to get an Oscar nomination this year and if she wins, she’ll have an EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. That means she has an Emmy, Grammy, Tony right now.

For the most part, you don’t really see a massive correlation between the El Royale and the real life Cal Neva?

Oh, I see a correlation--the concept is there; the springboard is there, but then like any movie, and this one does not say [it's] 'based on a true story,' but even, you know, it might have because they would have said, ‘Well, there was this hotel that was across state lines, so that's based on a true story.' No, this one is flagrantly imaginative, inventive, not fantasy as such because you believe the story as you’re watching it.

There's ties with things that happened or that you know could've happened. There's ties with the Manson killings in it; we know those happened. But they don’t run it exactly the way it happened. There's a correlation, but don't take a history test based on watching this movie.

Would you say that Chris Hemsworth, his character in that film, is sort of a pseudonym for Charles Manson himself?

He plays a character with a lot of magnetism, which Manson had. Did Manson look like Thor? No. Manson’s, like, 5’3 and Chris Hemsworth is this hunky 6’4 guy. There's a lot of changes, but the concept is there that there's a man with such charisma that he could convince these insecure and other type of people to do things that they probably would not have done on their own, so that's the springboard that would link it to the Manson situation.

Tarantino just came out with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that has the similar kind of ties to the Manson revisionist history that you’ve been talking about.

Tarantino did that previously with Inglourious Basterds where he gets to burn Hitler alive in a theater, which is possibly what everybody wanted. [It's] movie revisionist history and, again, with that movie, you don't take your history test based on it. But, it’s an odd kind of entertainment and fun watching those movies, which are so violent, but they're so energetic and there's so much enthusiasm by filmmakers, like Tarantino or Drew Goddard with Bad Times at the El Royale or the Coen Brothers, that you sort of have fun watching them even though you know, 'My god, this is horrifically violent and this is awful.' And yet, it’s fun to watch.

Robin Holabird is a film reviewer for KUNR and author of the book Elvis, Marilyn, and the Space Aliens: Icons on Screen in Nevada.

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