In Casey McQuiston’s best-selling novel Red, White & Royal Blue there’s one scene early on that tells you everything you need to know about what kind of book you’re reading. It happens at a royal wedding reception, where Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of the American President, encounters his sworn nemesis, Prince Henry of England, the younger brother of the groom. The two get into an argument, which turns into a physical scuffle a little too close to a massive wedding cake. One unfortunate bump into a table sends the whole thing crashing down, covering the two of them in $75,000 worth of sponge and buttercream and setting off an international scandal. This delightful bit of chaos is the inciting incident of the novel, setting in motion the delightful and chaotic romance at the center of the story.
When it came to adapting the book into a film, director Matthew López knew he had to get this scene just right or the rest of it wouldn’t work. In an exclusive interview with The A.V. Club López walked us through the process of preparing and shooting the wedding cake fiasco, one of the biggest technical challenges he had to face while making Red, White & Royal Blue. (López also co-wrote the screenplay, but as a striking member of the WGA he could only talk with us about his directing process.)
In the film version, the scene happens even earlier in the story than it does in the book, before the opening title and credits. “This scene needed to be a showcase,” López says. “It needed to start the film with a bang. You’ve kind of got to feel like you’re being shot out of a cannon in some ways. You really want to propel the audience into the actual movie, which is why we decided to run the credits after it, rather than before. We really kind of wanted to create this prologue.”
The entire wedding reception scene took three days to shoot on location at the Royal Naval College in London (which served as the setting for the receiving line) and Goldsmiths’ Hall in the city’s financial district (where the reception takes place). But López began preparing for it long before he got to the set. Together with production designer Miren Marañón, he tested the physics of bringing down the cake using models and filming smaller cakes in motion to see how they would fall. “We were really scientific about it,” he says. “Would it slide? Would it tumble? Is it sort of like a tree coming down or does it break apart? What we decided was that actually what happens is not necessarily Alex knocks over the cake, Alex breaks the table, which then sends it over. We realized that it was a question of a cascading series of events leading to the cake falling on them.”
Taylor Zakhar Perez, who plays Alex, and Nicholas Galitzine, who plays Henry, were both game for anything when it came to the physicality of the scene. To help block the sequence for maximum comedic effect, López brought on theater director Cal McCrystal, who had previously worked as a physical comedy consultant on the Paddington films. The actors rehearsed with McCrystal to get each beat of the scene right before Alex is knocked into the table, which was rigged with hydraulics to make it collapse on cue.
“I kept telling everybody it’s inevitable, even to people who haven’t read the book, that at a certain point this cake is going to fall,” López says. “The cake falling shouldn’t be played as a surprise. And so what we really talked about was that this is a scene about a cake in peril. That’s the way we shot it and a lot of the way we cut it. And Taylor and Nick that they were in on that mandate.”
The crew spent a day and a half filming the reception before it came time to tackle the cake scene. There were two cakes created for the scene, a fake one made of foam and latex that could not only hold up under the lights for long periods of time but safely be dropped on the actors without injuring them, and a real one made of sponge and buttercream frosting to dump on them once they hit the ground. “We shot the scene many times with the fake one coming down, just this big cake coming down on top of them,” López says. “We shot it from all different angles. Then we reached the point of no return and we had to drop actual cake on them.”
That’s where the fun part came in. The crew brought in several white industrial “buckets of buttercream” frosting and chunks of real cake to throw on top of the actors. “We set up three cameras, and my production designer and I carefully lined up the shot. And I counted to three and we tossed the cake into their faces.”
The cast and crew had planned to film the scene multiple times, and there was time built into the shooting schedule for the actors to shower and change into clean costumes in between takes, a process that could potentially take up to an hour. But, according to López, in the end it wasn’t necessary. “That first take we hit the bullseye. And I went back to look at it with my director of photography and my producers, and I’m looking at it and I’m like, we have it. Let’s move on. Let’s not waste our time. One take of hitting their faces, and then we just got the rest of it.”
López describes the mood on set that day as “very, very focused” but there was still a sense that they were creating something special. It turned out to be one of his favorite days on set. Even the background players, many of whom were themselves in the cake splash zone, erupted in applause once it was finished. “The boys were in a very good mood, which helped. But I think, for an actor, it’s like the ultimate fantasy, right? As a kid, you want to be in an enormous food fight. And then here they are getting paid to be covered in cake. So yeah, it was the most technical bit of filmmaking we had to do on this movie. That said, everybody, for as focused as they were, everybody was in a very good mood that day. And it must be said that we had a lot of fun.”
Red, White & Royal Blue premieres Aug. 11 on Prime Video