If you’re going to try and ride out the end of the world, you could do worse than Long Island’s Gold Coast. As disorder sets in around the characters of Leave the World Behind, Sam Esmail’s film adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel of the same name, their polished surroundings have a strangely tranquilizing effect. Husband and wife Clay and Amanda (Ethan Hawke and Julia Roberts), along with their teenagers, have rented a “beautiful house by the beach” from father and daughter G.H. and Ruth (Mahershala Ali and Myha’la), who show up in the middle of the night after an apparent cyberattack has caused a blackout in Manhattan. Forced together by the short-term rental economy and a sudden-onset apocalypse, the film’s adult characters do, well, very little: Oil rigs barrel into the shoreline, planes fall from the sky, and sonic booms pierce the sound barrier while they lounge anxiously near an infinity-edge pool with deep turquoise water, compare worldviews in a kitchen appointed with warm woods and thickly veined marble, and fill clawfoot bathtubs with water in a useless gesture at disaster preparedness.
Their cocoon, or really the lobster pot they’re slowly boiling inside, is actually a 5,200 square foot modern farmhouse in Old Westbury, a village on Long Island’s North Shore where industrialists and their heirs once built grand summer estates. John Patrick Winberry, a partner at the 12-person Long Island City design and architecture firm, The Up Studio, didn’t know he was designing for a movie apocalypse when he started the project with his team, but the house has a cinematic quality all the same: Winberry says his team removed the restrictions of a traditionally laid out home — with a foyer and rooms to the left and right — and “cut off the back of this house and rotated it 90 degrees,” essentially cracking the layout open. In doing so, they created an L-shape that allowed “a full day of light to come into every space in the house.” The home was completed in 2019; they called it the Open Corner House.
The film’s production designer, Anastasia White, said the house settled the question of whether to place the movie in a more traditional home, as the book does, or go with a new build. The white oak floors, dark steel accents, and floor-to-ceiling windows felt untouched by history — “a clean slate,” she says. “It’s not a cozy house, but you don’t expect things will go wrong when you step into that place.”
“So much needs to be right” when a house plays such a significant role in a film, says location manager Mara Alcaly. The illusion of order while chaos envelopes everything around the characters is part of the movie’s visual language — aerial shots show the home’s expertly manicured landscaping, the perfect curve of the paved driveway cutting into what was once wild woodland — and the home itself, all clean lines and a fresh white facade, plays with the same idea. And by letting in all that natural light, the design nods to a tension between what’s inside and out: As more mysterious catastrophes unfold outside, the characters retreat to the home’s many rooms, vaguely symmetrical and soothing, as the camera pans through the floor to observe them, dollhouse-style. (The home was recreated on a soundstage, but the the basement in-law suite where GH and Ruth sleep during the film was a cinematic invention.)
The architectural vision plays well on camera. “There’s Julia Roberts floating around as she’s walking through the space, bathed in light,” Winberry says. “It was such an amazing capture of what we tried to do.” And yet the overall effect of all that beauty is ominous. The film isn’t subtle about any of this: Explosions can be heard in the distance, herds of deer flee, and a sense of abandonment sets in. The danger encroaches on that lovely, expensive home — and the people who thought it might protect them — all the same.