Breaking down walls and redesigning them: Production Design Oscar winner Hannah Beachler talks Wakanda, ‘Moonlight’, and more

We aren’t just taking down ceilings, we are busting down walls. Because you take out a ceiling and the building will stand, but if you take out the wall, it will fall. My whole thing is take out the wall and redesign the building. That’s what I’m trying to do.   

—Hannah Beachler
“Black Panther” Cinema Femme cover illustration by Laurine Cornuéjols

Earlier this year, we chose “Black Panther” to be our film focus for our January issue (read my editor’s letter here). I chose the film because of its global impact on film and representation. I had no idea that I’d be speaking with the woman who created Wakanda nine months later.

This Oscar-winning woman is Hannah Beachler. She is the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Production Design. It’s sad that it took ninety-one years for this to happen, and Hannah and I talked about how it was bittersweet for her.

What Hannah represents, though, is a game changer, in everything. I feel honored that she took the time to speak with me prior to her production design master class at the The Chicago International Film Festival. Hannah and “Black Panther” is kicking down the walls of our film culture, and I couldn’t be happier with the view.

REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to production design?

HANNAH BEACHLER: On accident. I was in film school and was one of the many who were like, “I want to be a director.” That’s what you know and that’s what you hear. I was always relating to films by how they were sort of dressed, as you will. I didn’t really have the language for it. Because you don’t really learn production design.

A friend of mine, she had graduated. She was working on a really small Lifetime film in my hometown (Dayton, Ohio), which was rare, because there was never anything filmed there. She called me, and she was like “Hey, I’m doing this thing, do you want to come out and help? They pay fifty bucks a day, and you can paint and stuff like that. We’re doing work for the art department.” And I was like,”‘I don’t know what that is.”  She said, “You just have to make it look like the story.” So I was like, “Sure.”

We were painting signs and whatever and would have to go find stuff. She would give me the things to go find. One of those things were the flags they have at car dealerships. And I just remember it was such a huge deal, like, Should I just go to a car dealership and ask them?” So it was hunting for items to be put into the film. I remember one day I was like, “Do you really get paid for this?” That’s kind of really awesome. I really loved it. And that’s how I worked with her on a few small things around town.

I remember one day I was like, “Do you really get paid for this?” That’s kind of really awesome. I really loved it.

—Hannah Beachler

The other people in my classes were doing shorts. I would always volunteer myself, like, “Hey, I can put the stuff in. I’ve got all of this stuff in my house, and my family is here.”

MARTIN: Right, and this was in Ohio?

BEACHLER: This was in Dayton, Ohio. I went to film school at Wright State University. 

MARTIN: That’s great!

BEACHLER: I just started following my friend and watching her. We did a few things and then we went down to New Orleans together after we graduated. When we got there, I tried to find jobs for films shooting there. The art tax incentive had just started when I moved out there, so films were just flooding in. There were so many films everywhere. My brother and his wife and kids lived there as well, so I had a place to stay and a little bit of family support. That’s how I fell into the art department. I literally fell into the art department, and stuck with it. I love it. I realized that this is the part of film that I resonate with the most.

Growing up in a house where my mom was an interior designer and my dad was an architect, I was always rebelling against it, like, “I’m going to be a fashion designer,” or whatever it was I was into at the time. Then I realized, wow, all those things my dad was telling me, it sort of felt good, I felt at peace doing it, so I just pursued.

MARTIN: That’s amazing. When did you meet Ryan Coogler?

BEACHLER: I met Ryan in 2012, towards the end of 2012. Wynn Thomas, who’s actually here in Chicago doing stuff too, he’s Spike Lee’s production designer. His career is amazing, and I reached out to him sort of frustrated, in a rut, not knowing where to go next. I was a set decorator, and I decided I was a production designer. I was doing a bunch of little horror films. I was like “I’m in Louisiana, how am I going to do this?” He was like, “First of all, stop doing horror films. Just do films that you love. Get an agent.” I was like, “Get an agent, right.” I just started emailing people. I’m not going to go for the small stuff. I had no resume at the time.

No one was really interested. All of them were nos. I kind of gave up, and then I was like okay, looking at Eve Stewart’s IMDb page, she was the production designer for “The King’s Speech” (2010), her agency was Dattner. I really love Eve and her work, so, I figured that maybe that’s the place I want to be because those are the kind of jobs I want to get.

So I called and they asked me to send my information. I made a little website for myself and sent them my information, and I thought, “They are never going to call me back.” And sure enough they called, this woman Danika called me. She said, “I’m going to be in town to visit,” because one of their cinematographers is working down there. “Do you want to have breakfast?’” Long story short, they ended up signing me, within a week, and the script they gave me was “Fruitvale Station” (2013).

Long story short, they ended up signing me, within a week, and the script they gave me was “Fruitvale Station” (2013).

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: That’s amazing, that’s awesome.

BEACHLER: They told me that it was a tiny little film—I mean tiny—it was $600,000, and was in San Francisco. And I’m like, I’m not going to go to San Francisco.  She said, “It’s this young director; watch his shorts.”

I watched “Fig” (2011) and I watched “Locks” (2009), and of course I read the script, and I was crying. I told myself, “I have to talk to this young man!”

—Hannah Beachler

I watched “Fig” (2011) and I watched “Locks” (2009), and of course I read the script, and I was crying. I told myself, “I have to talk to this young man!” Ryan was twenty-five at the time. We set up a meeting on Skype, and it was the first real big meeting. I studied Oakland, and the story of Oscar. I put on my wall, sort of my lookbook, because we were on Skype, and I was like, “This is what I think.” And then I held up my computer to the wall.

So I showed him the colors I see that are natural in Oakland, and stuff like that. He said he was going to talk to his producers and then get back to me, but then forty-five minutes later, he called me back on Skype, and I thought, “This must be an accident.” And we get back on Skype, and then he was like, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, “Yes. “That’s how I met Ryan.

Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station” (2013)

I drove to San Francisco. I couch surfed and pet sit during “Fruitvale Station” because I didn’t have a place to stay; they didn’t have the money to put me up. I was pet sitting and working on “Fruitvale Station.”

After that, he called me again. He said, “I’m doing this Rocky thing (‘Creed’ (2015)),” and I was like, “Rocky?” I never imagined I’d do anything like that.

So Ryan is the one who has taken me through things I’d never imagined I’d do. It opened up a new world. “Okay, I don’t have to be just one thing. I can be all kinds of stories, and do things.” So Ryan has been very prominent and very vocal in my career. 

MARTIN: Do you have a process or does it depend on the director you are working with?

BEACHLER: It is a little bit different with each director. Because they are telling different stories, and I have to see through their eyes and tell the story in that way. A lot of it has aligned with how I see things, and how I want to portray the production design. It’s sort of like finding your people, finding your people you have a connection with in the way that you see things. That’s kind of how I go about working with directors. My process is finding a color story, by seeing what things look like. The research process I do is the same on every film, no matter the size.

My process is finding a color story, by seeing what things look like. The research process I do is the same on every film, no matter the size.

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: I want to go in deeper into two films, first “Moonlight.” (2016). Could you share your collaborative process with Barry Jenkins’ vision for the film and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story?

“Moonlight” (2016): Chiron, Little, and Black

BEACHLER: Barry, the one reference that we had, that we poured over, was Gregory Crewdson’s photography. That was really important in the way we were telling the story of Miami, and starting out. The film, as you know, is three chapters: Little, Chiron, and Black. As I was reading this script, this fabulous script, my attention went to Little. I think I’ve said it in the past, it’s not “The Birdcage” (1996) Miami, it’s not the Kardashian Miami, but it’s still Miami. Those things are inherently there, those soft colors, the pastels, the decos, the stucco, it’s all there.

The film, as you know, is three chapters: Little, Chiron, and Black. As I was reading this script, this fabulous script, my attention went to Little. I think I’ve said it in the past, it’s not “The Birdcage” (1996) Miami, it’s not the Kardashian Miami, but it’s still Miami. Those things are inherently there, those soft colors, the pastels, the decos, the stucco, it’s all there.

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: The ocean—

BEACHLER: The ocean, the blues, the sand colors—Miami proper is nothing like, you go to Miami proper and you’re like, this isn’t “The Birdcage.” This isn’t just like neons or Lamborghini and things; it’s rough. But in that abject beauty, there’s still beautiful colors, there’s still remnants of this past deco world that you knew was just this gorgeous world, sort of this crumbling world. 

Gregory Crewdson

I just wanted to pull that out. Because again, since it was another small film, our best way to control anything, we weren’t going to do a lot of big builds or anything. The way to control the locations was to control the color. So I did look a lot at Gregory Crewdson, his series on the suburbs where he took normal people and made this fantastical world around their lives. That’s what we have to do here.

“Moonlight” Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert

So I started out on Little and poured all of these pastels into him. As he changes, as the story changes, he understands more about his mother, and then who he is, as a gay man, questioning that, and then Black kind of leaving the situation, in an effort to help himself, in a sense, the color theme pulled out.

As a kid, everything is colorful. You look at everything in such a different way. I can remember going back to my elementary school, it seemed huge to me: the halls were long, the ceilings were so tall, and the adults were so, and the colors were so. I can remember going back as an adult, not at all what I thought; it was so tiny.

As a kid, everything is colorful. You look at everything in such a different way. I can remember going back to my elementary school, it seemed huge to me: the halls were long, the ceilings were so tall, and the adults were so, and the colors were so. I can remember going back as an adult, not at all what I thought; it was so tiny.

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: I totally get that’ my elementary school was like my life, it was like my playland. 

Andre Holland and Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight”

BEACHLER: It’s how you see things from that point, to this point. It totally wasn’t as colorful, it wasn’t as big and scary. And I’m a different person now.

Then it was that, so how do I get Little to Black, you know, extracting the color. By the time you get to Black’s life, you get the black car, which was sort of the bookend to Blue’s (Mahershala Ali’s) car. Blue’s car was blue, Black’s car was black. Which you wouldn’t believe how many license plates are black in Georgia. We had to figure out, will it be “BLK 6” or “BLK” and the area code? Because there were so many, because we couldn’t use any of those license plates. So we bookended a lot of things; you see Black in his apartment, which is no color. Then when he goes to meet Andre Holland’s character, he goes back to—

MARTIN: So warm, so inviting.

BEACHLER: At that point in his life, he’s like, I’m going to do what I want, I’ve sort of left the pain of my mother behind. 

MARTIN: That scene was insane.

Naomie Harris and Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight”

BEACHLER: I know. She’s like, “Who is you, Chiron?” And he had to think about that. He is who he is when he gets to the restaurant. And so it was like the warmth comes back in, and the color, then they go to Andre Holland’s apartment. And you see the yellows, you see the Little coming back, the wonderment coming back, and the discovery coming back. And that’s how we treated those colors.

And so it was like the warmth comes back in, and the color, then they go to Andre Holland’s apartment. And you see the yellows, you see the Little coming back, the wonderment coming back, and the discovery coming back. And that’s how we treated those colors.

—Hannah Beachler
Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland in “Moonlight”

MARTIN: I’m so glad that film won Best Picture. With “Black Panther” (2018), could you talk about your process in creating Wakanda?

Wakanda, “Black Panther” (2018)

BEACHLER: When I first started building Wakanda, Ryan and I would sit and have our conversations, about what the different streets were, what the people did and do in the city, etc.

Then I started building the research. He said one thing to me, he was like, “Put yourself into it.” You look at the city a little bit differently when you start thinking, okay, I’m going to put myself into it. It was really hard at first. The first thing I did was the records hall. I was writing the history of Golden City and started studying the history of different cities around the world. Then I started applying the ideas of these histories to Wakanda, or to the Golden City specifically.

One night I was sitting there and got off the phone with my mom. I was adopted, and we were talking about it. She said, “Are you ever going to look for your biological parents?’” I had tried a couple times by looking through the records and through the courts. Thinking about that, and Ryan describing how he really wanted the palace to sit for filming, I wanted to have the stories I was telling as far as the history. I needed to have a gate; the history of the gate was that it was there ten thousand years ago before Wakanda, and once the city became filled with everybody, the gate came down.

So the gate has to be held up, and there are these two buildings. They were once this, and now what did they become? I was thinking about my own story. And I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if everyone in Wakanda would never have to try to find out who they are. It’s a lot about the African American story as well. Because I am not an African. My sensibilities are coming from my experience in this country, which is that I don’t know anything about myself. Even if I knew who my parents were, my history, it stops at a certain point. We do DNA testing, but we don’t really know what that is. I thought, this is where all the records for every Wakandan will be, and where they live. And at any point in time you can understand your entire history. You’ll never have to struggle in the pain of not knowing who you are. That was really important to me, to put those there. Because in a sense it was me healing the five- or six-year-old girl who was always wondering. Maybe one day she can go to this records hall, find out about her past, and her ancestors.

I thought, this is where all the records for every Wakandan will be, and where they live. And at any point in time you can understand your entire history. You’ll never have to struggle in the pain of not knowing who you are. That was really important to me, to put those there. Because in a sense it was me healing the five- or six-year-old girl who was always wondering. Maybe one day she can go to this records hall, find out about her past, and her ancestors.

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: That’s so special. That’s the great thing about being an artist. You can make new realities through your art.

BEACHLER: There’s a certain privilege to do that. It’s a healing thing too. I can make up what I would want it to be. So there were parts of me in it, and incorporating Ryan’s life. Now it’s becoming more about people and not just a building. Because so many times you look at movies, and it’s just, I mean, come on, there is a whole city here. All these effects, but none of it means anything. I don’t feel anything. It’s like, that’s a cool building, but—

MARTIN: —what’s the story?

BEACHLER: That’s right, what’s the story? And part of me wanted to have people feel like we don’t know all the tiny secrets behind the buildings, but for some reason you kind of feel something about it. 

You’re not just looking at it. There’s more interest there. There’s a curiosity of what it is. That was really the hope for the Golden City and Wakanda—creating a curiosity for people to want and go explore that continent more, and other countries in the continent. It was a blast, I can’t lie. Daunting at first. It was like, “Start,” and I was like, “Where do I start?”

That was really the hope for the Golden City and Wakanda—creating a curiosity for people to want and go explore that continent more, and other countries in the continent. It was a blast, I can’t lie. Daunting at first. It was like, “Start,” and I was like, “Where do I start?”

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: You did your homework. Is there a way for people to read the five-hundred-page book you made? It must be amazing. 

BEACHLER: There is more than one that I did, actually, with referential images. That one was four-hundred pages. Ryan still has a copy of that one on his desk. I brought that in for the interview for the job. I made a couple books for that interview. So I did one four-hundred page referential. It was for my presentation and everyone got a copy.

MARTIN: And they were like, “Hired.”

BEACHLER: And he still has that book. 

MARTIN: Now let’s talk about your Oscar experience. How did it feel winning, as a woman and a woman of color? Personally, and to have girls/women of color come up to you and say they want to do what you do, because they see themselves up there?

Hannah Beachler with her Oscar for Best Production Design for “Black Panther” at the 91st Annual Academy Awards.

BEACHLER: That meant a lot to me. It was very odd; it was an odd thing because it was bittersweet, the nomination was bittersweet. I was overjoyed, but I was also like, “How is this happening?” Like a dream rushes over you. The historical end of it, which I’m proud of, but everyone wants to be a first. It was hard because it had been ninety-one years—we’ve had other women of color designers.

MARTIN: They haven’t been elevated.

BEACHLER: No, they haven’t been elevated. You kind of think, “Wow, it’s slow moving, isn’t it?” It’s been ninety-one years and we’ve had our first woman of color win an Oscar for Production Design. How do you handle that in a way that is—how do you handle that? Especially after so much time. I probably would have dealt with it a little differently if it was like the third year of the Oscars. You know what I mean? But it’s been ninety-one years, almost a century. Think about that. Film has only been around for a hundred years. Almost a century.

You kind of think, “Wow, it’s slow moving, isn’t it?” It’s been ninety-one years and we’ve had our first woman of color win an Oscar for Production Design. How do you handle that in a way that is—how do you handle that? Especially after so much time. I probably would have dealt with it a little differently if it was like the third year of the Oscars. You know what I mean? But it’s been ninety-one years, almost a century. Think about that. Film has only been around for a hundred years. Almost a century.

—Hannah Beachler

MARTIN: I’m so glad you won the Oscar, but I realize there were so many women of color before you, and I understand that is the bitter of the sweet.

Hannah Beachler Oscar acceptance speech

BEACHLER: “Why you are enjoying it?”, you’re thinking in your head, really. All the black woman who had to fight for me to be where I am standing. That had to perish for me to be where I am standing. So it’s bittersweet because there’s pain, death, and struggle behind me being on that stage. Not just in the film industry, but in the world. And the fight to get to that point. You carry it very lightly, like a baby, very carefully, very fragile.

All the black woman who had to fight for me to be where I am standing. That had to perish for me to be where I am standing. So it’s bittersweet because there’s pain, death, and struggle behind me being on that stage. Not just in the film industry, but in the world. And the fight to get to that point.

—Hannah Beachler

But what helps is when you get messages from eight year olds. A little girl messaged me after I won the Oscar and her mom had taken a picture, and she had written in crayon, “I did my best, and my best is good enough,” and put it on her wall. And her mom took a picture and sent it to me. My heart just exploded, and then it started avalanching in. These young women are just so excited. So that’s the sweet part of the bitter, that people are interested in production design.

Production designer Wynn Thomas

I can do this, I can be that, because I saw Wynn Thomas do this. I literally thought this in my head, if Wynn can do this, I can do this. It’s literally the whole conversation I had with myself. I know by example how important that is. I might have not pursued this as hard if I hadn’t seen Wynn, or even go further than my horror movies. And maybe not eventually do it at all. I saw him excel, and work with Ron Howard, Spike Lee. He was doing “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), working with Tim Burton in “Mars Attacks!” (1996). I saw him do it, and I’m like, “I can do it.” So I just pushed and kept going. Representation is so important, and I know it. Sometimes people are like, it’s not important, but it is.

MARTIN: It is important. 

BEACHLER: I am the example of representation, because it is the reason I kept going. Then I realized after the Oscars, and these things kept rolling in, how important it was for me to be out there speaking. Don’t let that slip away, like “Okay, it’s over.” I had to hold onto this energy, I had to keep talking to these young women and young men about how these are things that you can do. It might not be production design, maybe you want to be a director, maybe you want to be a musician, maybe you want to be an artist or a fashion designer. Whatever it is you want to be, you can do this. And that’s pretty much what it was. After the Oscars it changed into something more sweet for me, because, of course I had a great time at the Oscars, don’t get me wrong, I had a blast, choosing my dress—

MARTIN: Loved the dress, by the way. It was beautiful.

Regina King, Hannah Beachler, and Ruth Carter

BEACHLER: Thank you. And of course it was great, and wonderful, and seeing Ruth (Ruth Carter, Oscar winner for Best Costume Design for “Black Panther”) win her Oscar, and Regina King winning her Oscar. When I saw those ladies, we just came to each other, hugged, and jumped up and down, and cried; it was an amazing moment. We aren’t just taking down ceilings, we are busting down walls. Because you take out a ceiling and the building will stand, but if you take out the wall, it will fall. My whole thing is take out the wall and redesign the building. That’s what I’m trying to do.   

One Reply to “Breaking down walls and redesigning them: Production Design Oscar winner Hannah Beachler talks Wakanda, ‘Moonlight’, and more”

  1. Moonlight and Fruitvale Station—2 of my favorite films of all time. Thanks for sharing! Good article

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