A film’s production designer “notices the canvas on which the story is being told.” That’s how Hannah Beachler, 47, describes her job to me when we speak over the phone from New Orleans, where she lives with her son. Put another way: in collaboration with a director, through meticulous research and in co-ordination with various departments, she helps define a film’s visual mood and storytelling, right down to props that never get shown on camera. Beachler’s career changed forever when signed up on Ryan Coogler’s 2013 film Fruitvale Station, which led to a string of highly-successful projects: 2015's Creed (also with Coogler), Moonlight from director Barry Jenkins, Beyoncé and Khalil Joseph’s Lemonade, and Coogler’s upcoming Marvel epic Black Panther. Her deep immersion in each project helps her see each film as unique: “I want to continue to challenge myself with different perspectives and different world views,“ she says.
Her recent work has garnered more than just critical acclaim and commercial success, though: Beachler has been a key player in several films that have come to represent different watershed moments in culture, work that seems to have been made against all odds, telling stories that have always been needed but rarely made. The FADER spoke to Beachler about her methods, motives, and the unique art of production design.
The FADER: Black Panther has taken a symbolism unlike any blockbuster ever. Has the current political climate made you reevaluate your work on the film at all or changed your perception of it?
It's made me more proud of it, given the climate today. We finished shooting in April. I was on the film for 13 months. There was eight months of research, at least. I put together a bible of references, about 500 pages. It was about honoring that comic, then filling in the holes that weren’t there. I concentrated on sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, D.R.C., Ethiopia. If there's one thing I've learned from Ryan [Coogler], it's that place played as big of a role as the characters.
We took a lot architecturally from a lot of different regions in Africa. We were at Blyde’s Canyon in South Africa where the mountains look like rondavels, and Ryan was like, "We should put rondavel tops on our skyscrapers. We should add more of that into the technology." I started digging into things that were part of a lot of the different tribes, traditions, then figuring out a way to really make them technologically advanced, as if it would be very natural. Because we're also looking at Wakanda as never having been colonized.
Which is such a feat of the imagination.
It is. It was all very emotional when I went to Africa. I understand now where some of the things that I naturally do come from. My ancestors, we don't start and we don't end at slavery.
In a recent interview, Issa Rae said that her HBO show Insecure could not have happened without an Obama presidency. Do you feel a similar way about any of your projects?
That’s an interesting thought. I don’t know. I agree with it to a degree [but] I believe that it also closed doors.
I feel like there was a backlash to his presidency. Almost a slap in the face to everyone. Yeah, you got this but now we're going to make it this much harder. Now I feel like resisting is opening doors actually, as odd as that sounds. Though Obama gave us faith, I don't know that it made a difference because we were going to be punished for it one way or another.
Often people ask me, "Well, you're this black woman doing this job at a very high level and working pretty consistently. How have you done it?" I literally just never listened to all the “you can'ts” and “no's” and all of that. Every “no” became a log on the fire. It became a challenge to me. "Oh, I can't? Okay, let's see." It literally did the reverse of what people thought I would do.
What were your most memorable experiences during the productions of Lemonade and Moonlight?
With Lemonade, I didn’t have any time to prep. So I did a lot of what I felt: How do I make this look like not just a regular plantation? How do I make this feel like a very beautiful place and we're on a dirt floor surrounded by bricks and an old fort? It hits these ambiguous points and abstractness is what we were going for.
There was one evening that we were at the plantation. We had worked a long day, and everyone was tired. Beyoncé is standing on stage, and we couldn't get the playback for the music to work. She said, "I'm just going to go ahead and sing it. Let's just go. We need to do it." We're all kind of standing there, and she starts to sing “Freedom” acapella. The hairs on everybody just stood up. That moment, being on a plantation in Louisiana with a black woman standing on this stage, only lit by fire, it was the single greatest moment in my life doing this work. In the front of that stage was Oscar Grant's mother, Trayvon Martin's mother, Freddie Gray's mother all sitting there watching. That I got to experience that moment and that her voice filled the air of that plantation, it gave life to the people standing there, [a] predominantly black group. That is something that I will literally never forget as long as I live.
For Moonlight, a really cool experience was just being around Barry [Jenkins] and digging in deep into these stories with him. He's such a gracious director. [We drove] to Liberty City where he actually grew up in Miami, which was a very famous project there. We stopped and he looked at this building and he said, "That's where I grew up." He told me a story of when he was about four or five years old. He was laughing about it, he thought it was the funniest thing. I thought to myself, "I wish everyone could understand just because something is a project and there's this stigma related to that, there's still joy there." There's still happiness there.
“The production designers that I’ve met are travellers, are explorers, are people who like to be challenged, people who like to understand other cultures and other people.”
What are some of the unique pleasures of being a production designer?
I would say one of the unique pleasures is that you have to become an expert in whatever film you're doing. I did this horror movie Terminal: Quarantine 2, It was all about the behind the scenes of the airport where your baggage goes and what happens to your baggage. I found myself having to become an expert on that. I still can pull from some of that information from talking to architects who build concourses, talking to them about security.
The production designers that I've met are travellers, are explorers, are people who like to be challenged, people who like to understand other cultures and other people. Those are the people you're going to find in production design that are actually successful at it, or learners.
You've quite an incredible run of projects, not just in their critical and popular acclaim, but also what they've come to signify for people outside of the art. When you're creating these projects, are you mindful at all about the outside reaction or do you just separate it and just focus on the work?
I separate and focus on the work, but for Fruitvale Station, I did think that. I thought, "I want to make sure of how people are going to react to this. How the family is going to react to this? What is it saying politically in a different way?" Fruitvale Station was released the day that we got the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case. July 13, 2013. I did not realize that was going to coincide, I don't think anybody did. You couldn't have predicted that, the weight that carried then.
That would have been the day the term “Black Lives Matter” was coined, too.
Ryan [Coogler] was telling his story, so I don't think he was necessarily focused on what the outside world was going to think. [But] I can't say that it wasn't there because it was. We were showing one day of this person's life, and it not being about him being in a gang or not in a gang or all the things that people wanted to make him in the press, whether it was if they vilified him or they deified him. It was one or the other. It was very black and white for people. Ryan said, "Here's a human being that was killed in a way that no human being should be killed. How do we feel about that?"