The wonderful Danielle Scruggs gets some choice time with production designer extraordinaire, Hannah Beachler, as they talk about Marvel’s Black Panther, the importance of her job and offers advice to fellow creatives for @Okayplayer.
The past three years for production designer Hannah Beachler have been charmed after having worked on critically acclaimed movies such as Creed, Fruitvale Station, the Academy Award-winning Moonlight and Ryan Coogler’s forthcoming, wildly anticipated adaptation of Black Panther.
(Not to mention she was responsible for the set designs of eight out of the 11 videos for Beyoncé’s LEMONADE.)
Make no mistake: Beachler’s story is not one of overnight success. She has been grinding in a field that has been none too friendly to women—let alone black women—for the past 15 years. But now Beachler is a highly sought after artist whose precise attention to detail and work that requires knowledge and execution of a blend of disciplines (urban planning, architecture, construction and painting just to name a few) have brought various worlds to life that say as much about any given character as the dialogue does.
Think of the kitchen where black women of various ages, shapes and shades prepare a meal in a kitchen filled with natural light in the prologue to the “Freedom” video from LEMONADE; the Philly bar drenched in red light where Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) have a flirty reparteé in Creed; the half-painted white and pink walls in the apartment of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Theresa (Janelle Monae) and the crown on the dashboard of Black’s (Trevante Rhodes) car in Moonlight.
All of those details were brought to life by one person—Hannah Beachler. Additionally, her job also requires breaking down the script, working closely with the director, managing the set decorator, costume designer, prop master, and construction workers and even long-haul road trips from time to time. She is so sought after that we are ecstatic to exclusively announce that Hannah Beachler has signed on to work with Nicolas Winding Refn’s new series, Too Old To Die Young for Amazon Studios.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.Okayplayer: Black Panther is the third film you’ve worked on with Ryan Coogler. What’s your working relationship with him like? And have you two developed a shorthand since you’ve been working together for a while now?
Hannah Beachler: Yeah, we certainly have. I mean, Ryan [Coogler] is a really important filmmaker to me. I think his voice and his vision is an important one. He’s like my brother. I mean, it’s cool, you know? The best I could say is he’s family. So, we stick around each other, we tease each other, we hang out, you know? His wonderful wife, Zinzi, and I hang out together as well, so it just has developed into a close situation. That’s something that we did after Fruitvale Station. He turned that crew into a family and we are all still in touch to this day. I mean, we all still watch each other’s careers, work together occasionally, talk to each other, check in with each other. That’s something I think that Ryan has done on all his past projects with people.
OKP: What are your personal expectations for Black Panther? Not just in terms of box office, although I’m sure if the conversations that I’ve been seeing are any indication, it’s going to just blow everything out the water. I guess just as far as, cultural impact.
HB: Absolutely. I mean look, my expectations don’t really ever have to do with the box office for anything that I do. I think the biggest expectation I have, and hopefully I’ve done it successfully, is basically giving the world a perspective they haven’t seen of African / black folks’ world. That there is a history beyond slavery that we don’t know, and that history is really rich and diverse on its own, you know? So those are some of the things [I enjoy], and my expectations [are] that people will have fun because I love fun movies, I love to go have fun, but the type of filmmaker that Ryan [Coogler] is… there is something greater there, there is a substance. He fills the cup and presents it to you in a way that is an enjoyable experience or an experience that’s some sort of visceral experience. Whether it’s Fruitvale, where he’s giving this humanity to Oscar Grant or if it’s Creed, and he’s talking about the old generation passing on what they know to a new generation, or issues here, which I can’t do much about. But in Black Panther you know there’s going to be something that really binds it all together and makes it a full and complete experience.
OKP: I wanted to get into the process of what production design entails because I know it’s kind of a way of telling the story of the characters through the objects that surround them, but I was just really curious as to, how does that process start? In terms of talking to the director, talking to the cinematographer, how does that come together?
HB: I mean the first step in any of it for me always is sitting down with the script and connecting. I’ve got to be able to connect to the script, and then you know the filmmakers as well. With that, I will pretty much do a deck or a lookbook, and depending on the film and how big the presentation is, obviously. That sort of is like, what fell out of my head as I read the script, and then the notes that I took, and this is what I saw. My first reaction, my first initial reaction to that. That’s something I share with the director, and we sit down and we talk about that. I think if he or she, they, feel that my instincts are correct or that there’s something there. Like he can connect with what I’m doing, or she can connect with what I’m doing, then we move forward.
Then after that, it’s just about digging in, and yes I work with the cinematographer. I work with the costume designer to make sure that the canvas that we’re painting as a group, uses the right tools and the right brushes and so on and so forth in that metaphor, that’s going to actually paint the picture of this film. Because each film is different so, often times you’re working with a different crew of people. It’s always necessary to sit down and sort of know what their work has been … I’ve worked with the great Ruth Carter on Black Panther, and Rachel Morrison, who is a director of photography. It was really important for all of us to sit down together and talk about what I’m doing, what Ruth’s doing, what Rachel’s doing, how does that mix together to become one aesthetic that not just compliments… but that they complement each other as we go on.
Once that’s complete, then I start conceptualizing, and that’s always different. Depending again on a film, say, Black Panther, everything was from the ground up. It was really building an entire civilization, and then on top of that the bigger world of the film. So, you’re taking that one step at a time, because if you took it all together it would feel very overwhelming. Ryan was in Africa writing for a little while. He would send me these pictures of just the people. It would be somebody’s feet on the ground with the bells around their ankles. It would be a man in his African shirt or a mask. He just starts sending me these images, sort of saying this is sort of what he’s feeling and seeing; and then I would take those images and be like, ‘This is how he feels.’ This is sort of the essence with all, and Ryan specifically, and why he’s one of my favorite directors to work with.
So, I’m not just designing a film architecturally. I’m building another character and the way that Ryan works, it becomes so much more in that sense. That’s why I really love working with Ryan because he sees what I do as adding a character in the story. Many directors do, but he just wants that tactile, tangible feeling. So, that’s essentially what I do: world build, and capture an essence and hopefully add to the aesthetic, add to the story.
OKP: Did your process have to change at all with going from indie films to this big budget movie?
HB: It did. I still put a thousand pictures on the wall. I always do that. Whether I’m paying to print ’em out or they’re paying to print ’em out, they’re gonna get up there somehow. I think that it’s just necessary.
I would say that the process of going from a smaller film to a larger film is the same in that I still have to meet each point on the list. But it’s different in that your availability and resources are obviously different. The time that you have is different. I had eight months to prep on Black Panther, and I had three weeks to prep on Moonlight.
OKP: Oh, wow. Wow.
HB: I had 300 people working with me—from the carpenters, to the sculptors, to the painters, to the plasters, to art directors, set designers, illustrators, set decorator, props, lead man, directors—all those. There are probably about 300 people at any one given time coming and going on Black Panther. On Moonlight, I had five people. That included me, so I was the set dresser, a painter, a carpenter. Everything is the same for me. I bring the same professionalism, the same everything, you know? Because that’s important. I have a reverence for this media, so I feel like I’m gonna give the same to each project regardless. Now, time might be different, resources might be different. The one thing that is always constant is me. So every single film I do, regardless of the budget, every project that I work on I treat with the same intensity.
OKP: I wouldn’t have even thought that just looking at Moonlight because it’s such a beautiful and such a rich film. I kind of feel like what you saw in the background with these characters told as much of their story as the actors themselves and the dialogue itself. So, the fact that you’re talking about, ‘It was just a five-person crew responsible for all that,’ it’s like, ‘Wow.’ That’s just so admirable.HB: When I read Moonlight itself, and I told Barry [Jenkins] the director this, ‘I have the same feelings go through me that I did when I read Fruitvale Station.’ You kind of just know this has to get made. Whether I’m a part of it or not a part of it, this has to get made. This needs to be seen by the world and this needs to be seen by people. Really, my attitude about it was that I want to be a part of helping get it out there. You know, again, it was small. It [our budget] was $1.5 million. They didn’t pay me what I usually get paid. They didn’t have everything. I drove to Miami, a 17-hour drive. You know it’s a whole thing, you know? But that’s when I say I’m consistently myself bringing in the passion and the experience and the knowledge of how to get things done. I’ll bring that to every film I’m part of. I did it for Fruitvale Station. I drove across country to San Francisco from New Orleans and back.
I slept on couches and house-sat pets so I would have a place to stay so I could be there for that process because I knew it needed to be done. Thank goodness I was because what came out of that was great family and someone I just love to be with is Ryan as a good friend. I think when you go into a project you’re sort of like, ‘Nah, whatever, I’m just gonna do what I’m gonna do,’ and you’re not doing anybody a service by that. Because it’s a little less than Creed, or Creed as a whole less than [Black] Panther, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve my sight and my literal passion. It just doesn’t mean that.
OKP: Right, absolutely, and it’s obviously paying off with dividends. Was there any specific moment that made you pursue production design as a career?
HB: Yeah, I would say I think when I realized I wanted to go into production design was when I felt like I wasn’t really paying that much attention to the decorating and the set that because that’s what I wanted to do before. In the sense that I was now becoming concerned about the architecture and the bigger picture. There was a moment when I was working on a film and I felt like, ‘Oh, there’s, this, this, this, this, this.’ And the director on that film, which was Renny Harlin said to me, he was like, ‘You should really be a production designer,’ and I was like, ‘Ah, I’m just a decorator.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you don’t have to know where every two-by-four goes but you definitely have a vision. You should think about that.’ And probably nine months after that is when I sort of self- promoted myself to a designer.
OKP: Oh, nice. I think this is also something you kind of spoke to as well when you’re talking about kind of bringing yourself regardless of what the project is. The other question I was gonna ask you was: What advice would you have to offer to aspiring production designers?
HB: Learn everything in your department. Learn everything in the art department, the props department. Talk to carpenters, painters, sculptors. Talk to everybody. Learn what the job is because that is part of being good at what you do. Listen and observe people 24/7, all day, every day. That’s part of your job is understanding the character, understanding the psychology, and knowing who people are. Understanding everything you can about economics, about cities, about why people that live in New York are different from people that live in Los Angeles.
You have to look at the architecture of the city itself, because Los Angeles is a car culture and New York is not. Those two people are completely different people. They might look the same, they might talk the same, they might walk the same, but they’re idealistically, ideologically they’re different people, just because of the way their cities are set up. You have to learn to learn. Because you don’t know what you don’t know, so you’ve gotta learn these things. Mentors are so important. Find a mentor if you want to get into this field. Wynn Thomas, who’s been Spike Lee’s production designer since She’s Gotta Have It, is my mentor.
He’s one of the reasons why I even thought I could do this because I just did not see a black person doing this job. I saw Wynn Thomas, and that was the thing that was like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah, I can do this.’ He did Tim Burton‘s Mars Attacks! I think mentors and understanding what it is you’re doing and having real passion for that is important if that’s what you want to get into.
OKP: With black cinema and where it is today, do you see it being in the middle of a renaissance or more like a continuation of what’s been happening before?
HB: Yeah, I do feel like it’s a renaissance and I don’t feel like it’s a continuation of what was. It’s funny because I had this conversation with Michael B. Jordan. We were sitting back talking about it and it’s crazy—especially in this climate that we’re in this country—that it seems like there’s this block to me. And you know what? That’s when renaissances come out. Creativity and all of that comes out of what appear to be very oppressive times, just like it did with the WPA back in World War II. We got some of the best art of the time, you know, Frida Kahlo and all these young artists were really prominent during that period in time. That seems like that’s what’s really happening right now in this country, this what I would call the “Black Renaissance”.
Part of me feels like it’s at the point where we are saying what we need to say. We’re doing what we need to do, and we’re pushing and fighting through. And we’re on the path that has been deemed for us, previously. Some of us are kind of going onto our little secondary paths and paving the way. For me, it’s always about who comes next. And you have a lot of people, like Ryan and like Michael and Barry [Jenkins] and Jordan Peele and all of the artists, musicians, actors, who are all saying, ‘You can’t stop us anymore.’ People are tired of seeing the same singular story being told over and over and over again as if that’s the only story there is. It’s a diverse world. The younger generation today, they want to know more about everybody’s story, their story, Ryan’s story, Barry’s story. There’s room for diversity.
We’ve proven that time and time and time and time again. Creed broke $100 million. Get Out broke $100 million. Lemonade did, well, you know. Moonlight won the “Best Picture” Academy Award. There’s no denying it anymore, but people want other stories. We need to work on Latino stories and Asian stories and Asian-Indian stories. We need to work other cultures and races into the fabric of cinema. But it’s world cinema, not just U.S. cinema because U.S. cinema isn’t the only cinema. There’s so much information and people don’t just want that one thing anymore. They want all the information. They want to see all the things, and I think it’s a beautiful place. I’m glad that I got in on the ground floor.
I think a lot of that too has helped the trajectory of my career, let’s be clear. That’s made a big difference in me, because 15 years of doing this, this is not an overnight success. 15 years ago is when I started in this business and I can distinctly remember being on films as the department head, the set decorator, being the only female, our tech scout of 50 people, and being the only black person on the entire film.
When I was on Black Panther, I looked around and I actually got tears in my eyes. The DP is a female, I’m a female, the costume designer’s a female, the UPM was a female, the AD was a female, the executive producer, Victoria Alonso, is female, all of different shades, sexual orientations, and they represent all of us. So, you look around at that crew, it was a diverse crew. For the first time I looked around and I saw everybody. I saw everybody, and that was pretty awesome. That was well worth the many years of hard work. I think as a female you have to be okay with not worrying about, ‘Oh, they might not like me.’ I don’t care if they don’t like me. At the end of the day, I’m here to help as a piece of the puzzle to put the director’s vision on the screen.
That’s serious to me, to get that there and to make sure that I’m doing it right. Because I’ve also worked on a lot of private stories Fruitvale Station about a real-life event. Oscar [Grant]‘s daughter is gonna watch that one day. We need to get this right. There’s no playing around on this. A child is gonna see this. I need to make sure I’m honoring family, I’m honoring his memory, and I’m honoring his daughter. I don’t have time to sit around with you and argue about something with somebody. I need to make sure that when this girl grows up she sees how people saw her father. The most important thing about that was we gave him his humanity.
It’s hard to be like, ‘I hate my job,’ because I don’t hate my job. I get to go to work. I don’t have to go to work, you know what I mean? I get to do this job every day. I’m grateful for that and I’m blessed for that. But I also have a responsibility what it is I’m putting out, what it is I’m a part of what’s going into the world. I need to be able to put my head down at night and know that I’ve made right decisions and that I’m leaving something that is of use in some way to somebody.
I just worked on a Logic video, for his song “1-800-273-8255” with the director Andy Hines, and it was again another very serious topic. I mean, we had a good time on the video but the subject matter is a real one. It has big-time actors in it. I can’t say too much. It’ll be out on BET later in August. Andy is a fantastic director and it’s gonna be a really beautiful video. But I hope that it touches people and I hope that people see that and they can take something from that. To me, that’s what you’re putting into the world, and you just really have to think about what kind of person you want to be in the film industry or whatever industry that you’re in, and what you’re leaving behind.
OKP: Oh, absolutely. How did that collaboration come about, with you working with Logic?
HB: They called my agency and asked if I was available. I actually was at Comic-Con that weekend, and the scheduling was kind of off and stuff like that. But the director was very persistent. He called me up when I was at Comic-Con and we had this really great conversation. My son was with me at Comic-Con, so I flew him back to New Orleans and I said, ‘Let me drive up to L.A. and do this project.’ So, that’s how I kind of ended up on the project. Once Andy sort of got me on the phone and I found out what a cool guy he is and really loved what he and Logic had in mind for this video, I was like, ‘Okay. Yeah, I’m definitely on board.’ I got to see an old friend, so you’ll have to wait ’til the video [is out to see who it is], but it was somebody I’ve worked with in the past.
OKP: Did you have anything else you wanted to share or any kind of memorable things that you can share from what you’ve been working on?HB: So many funny stories and so many cool stories. I can say that I got to spend a lot of time in South Africa and South Korea. Both places are just fantastic, and that trip was with Ryan and I, and just having come from Fruitvale Station and done Creed … our journeys through the world to that point and standing in the Motherland and looking out over these views and vistas made by God, or whatever that saying is that made all this, was probably the best moment next to having my kid in my life.
OKP: Oh, wow. I cannot wait to see this movie. It just seems like it’s gonna be so different from the typical comic book movie. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it just seems like there’s gonna be some more depth to Black Panther.
HB: Every time I’m on a set I’m like, ‘Okay, this is why I’m doing this.’ I don’t think anybody’s ever seen some places before. Of all the things that have been done, they’re so unique and [Black Panther is] not like anything else. So, I’m really proud of that, because I believe that it’s an achievement, I would say, for me in my career. I think that people will really enjoy it and I hope that it opens up conversations and people want to do more investigating about, ‘Where did that come from? What part of it’… And learn about different tribes and different cultures and the different countries in Africa.
It’s a lot of ground to cover, so… We really cover I would say Sub-Saharan Africa—Nigeria, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zambia. That’s really the main areas where we reached for a lot of the things. I can’t say things specifically. I almost said something but I was like, ‘Oh, step back.’
OKP: Oh, man, this sounds so exciting. I started to look stuff up just based on the trailer. Actually, there’s one part of the trailer I really loved was when Michael B. Jordan puts on that antelope mask because most movies would have had him putting on a balaclava or something, but he puts that on. I was thinking, ‘Oh, what culture is that from? Where does that come from?’ So even just from the trailer, I was looking stuff up, so I know once the movie comes out that’s gonna open up a lot of conversation.
HB: It is, and the influence of that mask is from the Dogon people, so look them up because they’re pretty cool people. I really enjoyed learning about the Dogon people. They’re master craftsmen at wood. It’s like, I want people to feel the richness of what Africa is, and how it really is the birthplace for all that we do know. There were empires there, there were civilizations there. I get so tired of hearing people say, ‘Oh, well it’s a shit-hole anyway. There’s nothing there.’ They have libraries, and masks, and streets, and everything you say about the Romans, those are in Africa before the Romans.
OKP: Right, they learned about that from different African countries, so…
HB: Exactly. They learned that all of the empires were archers, craftsmen, so a lot of the warriors were master archers or used metal in helmets or had armor and swords. They were masters at swordplay.
The whole thing was kind of fun. [The Marvel team] were all fantastic. They really wanted to allow us to make this movie the best that we could. There was never any, ‘You can’t do this.’ They were open to us, and I really feel that Marvel is avant-garde right now, they’re leading the way.
Especially with the kind of stories, they’re getting made, and the fact that you know the crew you’re working with is mostly women. Unfortunately, that’s still kind of an anomaly, but I am hoping seeing the success of this will kind of push people to realize it’s time for a change. Let’s get to a point where this isn’t even newsworthy because it just happens all the time.
OKP: Right, because no one ever says, ‘Look at this all-white male directing crew.’ It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s just a day that ends in y.’ So, hopefully, it gets to the point where, if it’s an all-women crew or all people-of-color crew, it’s just, ‘Oh, that’s just how it is.’
HB: [Laughs] Exactly, exactly. That’s great. No one ever says that. But yeah, absolutely. I’ve been extremely blessed the last, I’d say, three years of my career and the really great projects that I’ve been lucky enough to work on.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.