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

Featured back in October 2019.

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.   

If you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it: Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield on her doc ‘The Kingmaker’

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lauren Greenfield, the filmmaker who directed “The Queen of Versailles” (2012) and “Generation Wealth” (2018) about her latest documentary, “The Kingmaker,” during the The Chicago International Film Festival. She has spent most of her career exploring the idea of wealth and the truth behind it. In “The Kingmaker”, a deeper and uglier truth emerges from the story of Imelda Marcos, a woman with extravagant wealth, who was first lady to husband Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines (1965 – 1986).

During her husband’s reign, she bought an island and brought in animals from all over the world so her son could have a zoo, and then evicted the indigenous people who lived on the island. Fast forward from 1977, and the aftermath is horrifying. It goes darker and deeper from there, as we disturbingly see this corrupt government under martial law coming back into power with the presidential election of Rodrigo Duterte. The film is chilling, and is a cautionary/real-life tale reflecting our current situation in the United States. This is a must watch for everyone before election time.

Andy Bautista and Lauren Greenfield at The Chicago International Film Festival (2019)

Read my conversation with Lauren below as we discuss her powerful and timely documentary. We were also joined by Andy Bautista, who served as the Philippines’ Chair of the Commission on Elections and also was in charge of securing all of the money that the Marcos family had stolen from the Philippine government during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III (2010 – 2016).

REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to the subject of Imelda? Growing up, I just knew about her shoes. If you had a lot of shoes, people called you Imelda. I seriously knew nothing else about her or the Marcos family.

Imelda Marcos and her shoe collection.

LAUREN GREENFIELD: Yeah, originally it was her fame about her shoes. I had been looking at wealth and consumerism, and she was this iconic reference point, so it was kind of something from the history books. When I found out she was alive and back in the Philippines, and she talked to me, I was excited, but what really got me interested was the article about the animal island. 

MARTIN: Oh my god, that was so awful. Once that was revealed, I knew she was not a good person.

GREENFIELD: It was like the ultimate extravagance. People know about the shoes, but here was an island that was populated by indigenous people, so it involves human rights and animal rights. It was very symbolic because it was creating this unnatural situation that you can’t control, and that you don’t know what the consequences are. It’s like “Jurassic Park” (1993). And so the fact they kind of birthed this, and then had to go into exile, the animals and the people are meant to fend for themselves. Kind of a symbolic story about the consequences of wealth and power. The legacy that you can’t even predict, like the unintended consequences. 

MARTIN: I do appreciate you taking us way back, so you could see where this situation came from.

GREENFIELD: Well the island we shot, that’s in present tense. I was interested in what happened to them and what happened to Imelda. So I kind of thought it would be this survivor story. I was just puttering around with all of these things in her past: the dictatorship in her past, all of that, the rise of the Marcos regime, and the animals. I never expected it to turn into a comeback story. I thought that when she was a congresswoman, it was just a nod to her past. I didn’t realize it was the edge of a much bigger comeback for the family. A lot of the Marcos children were in office, but once she decided to go for national office for vice presidency with her son, that was a game changer. One step away from becoming the president again. Then it really turned into a political story. We ended up bringing in the past as it bubbled up. 

Imelda Marcos

MARTIN: I really appreciate that because it seems that in the news you only get bits of it, not the whole picture. It was great that you painted the whole picture. That kind of goes with that quote from Imelda: “Perception is real, the truth is not.” I appreciate you filling in the gaps with truth. 

GREENFIELD: I think in the past, people have dismissed her as crazy or delusional. Or in her own world. That’s where I started with her, and that’s what I thought in the beginning. But that is to underestimate her, the same way a lot of people underestimated our president, and didn’t take him seriously. She is really smart and full of agency. But I realized she was an unreliable narrator, and that a lot of the things she was saying were untrue. So I started bringing in truth tellers like Andy Bautista, people who you could tell were credible, those who give the audience a sense of what really happened. And that really dictated the structure of the edit. If you didn’t put the truth right next to what she said, you didn’t get it, because she sounds so convincing. 

MARTIN: By the end you don’t believe a word coming out of her mouth. 

ANDY BAUTISTA: But then she would give spontaneous admissions that were actually true. Like her saying she had a 170 bank accounts.

MARTIN: That’s what you were in charge of, right Andy?

GREENFIELD: Yeah, that would have been useful information for him. 

One of the reasons she was a great subject was because of her candor. Even though some of the things are not true, there are a lot of revelations because she has very little filter. And she isn’t afraid of anything. So like she’ll say–like she said to Andy–if I say the Picasso’s mine, can I have it back? If I say the Monet’s mine, can I have it back? 

Imelda Marcos at her home

MARTIN: That was a funny scene, although I don’t like to say it’s funny because it’s so messed up, but when she switched out the Picasso and Monet with family photos since she owed the money to the government. There you see the truth sliced right next to the perception.

But what I wanted to talk about was the strong women in this film, going all the way back to Cory Aquino, whose son Andy worked for, is that correct?

BAUTISTA: Yes and Cory was the one who created the Presidential Commission on Good Government to recover the Marcos’ illegal wealth. Then she passed away in 2009, and her son Benigno Aquino III became president, largely because of the mother’s passing. There was a lot of sympathy.

Leni Robredo, Vice President of the Philippines

GREENFIELD: And I think the current vice president, Leni Robredo, is kind of in the mold of Cory. 

BAUTISTA: Her husband passed away in a car accident, so there are a lot of similarities. 

GREENFIELD: And this is a person who does good. She’s fearless. 

MARTIN: Glad to hear that she is still going strong. There were some scary things that were happening towards the end of the film.

Etta Rosales, congress woman

GREENFIELD: Yeah, she’s fighting for her life. She’s fighting, she’s the head of the opposition, running against Duterte (Rodrigo Duterte). So her and May (May Rodriguez), the rape survivor, and Etta (Etta Rosales), the congresswoman, are incredibly brave.

MARTIN: I’m so glad they were in the film, just because those are other stories that are important to be told. There are a lot of scary people in this film, like Duterte.

GREENFIELD: And they are real. Duterte is so sexist. 

BAUTISTA: Did you hear the latest? He was given a doctorate in Russia. One of their organizations was giving him an award, and he said, “You know what, I don’t like awards. Just give me the most beautiful girl in the room that I can have dinner with, and I will remember you forever.”

Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines

MARTIN: That’s disgusting. Again, I appreciate you putting a complete picture together.

GREENFIELD: I’m tired of hearing about Trump. I’m kind of overwhelmed. Yet this story is such a reflection, it’s such a cautionary tale for us. I hope, that because of Imelda’s celebrity, there’s some black comedy in the beginning of the film, people will go on the journey, and also will reflect about what’s going on here. 

MARTIN: How long did it take to make the film?

GREENFIELD: It was a five year process. Two years mostly consisted of editing. And I made a couple trips too during that time as things started to change because the story was changing in real time. When Duterte won, I realized that was the end of the story, and that really implodes the structure. It wasn’t until I was able to establish the time between the Dutertes and the Marcos family that I could really end the movie.

Rodrigo Duterte and Bongbong Marcos

MARTIN: Not really a good ending, is it? I mean hopefully things will be good, but you’re right, it’s a cautionary tale. I’d like to discuss the idea of hope. I think that’s so important in these dark times, and I got hope simply from hearing those people’s stories who had to deal with the pain of the Marcos family and their reign–like the activists, and Andy. For the people who watch the film, they are going to remember these stories. As much as the idea that ‘perception is real’, truth always sticks, I feel. You hear people tell their stories that are full of truth and reality, and that’s the thing that sticks with people. And that goes with wealth too, like what’s shallow and fake . . . 

GREENFIELD: And in the movie, Imelda–the frames and the interviews with Imelda–are gilded, whereras the truth-tellers in the film are just raw.

Imelda Marcos

MARTIN: Very close-up. 

GREENFIELD: And very little decoration. 

MARTIN: What are your hopes for this film? What kind of impact would you want it to make?

GREENFIELD: I hope for us it’s a cautionary tale. What we saw there is how fragile democracy is, how in the space of one election, the things people kind of assumed would go away came back. Here we see the threat to our democratic institutions. It’s a good reminder that we cannot assume that those are intact on their own. 

MARTIN: Watch this film before the election. 

GREENFIELD: Exactly. That’s true for here and elsewhere.

Andy Bautista

BAUTISTA: My hope first of all, is that these kinds of films are very important, for Filipinos in general, to make informed judgements. Because judgements are being made, but they are not informed. Lauren’s independent. This production is not really a Filipino production, it’s an objective assessment of what the situation is. I think the hope is in its call to action. Right now there is a lot of apathy. It’s a bit riled up. 

I was looking at the people of Hong Kong who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If you think about it, these people are really fighting for what they believe in. 

GREENFIELD: I am really excited because the film is going to go to the Hong Kong film festival. And yesterday it was asked to be in Rio de Janeiro.

MARTIN: That’s interesting because there was another documentary that dealt with similar themes, Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy,” about the politics in Brazil.

“The Edge of Democracy” (2019)

GREENFIELD: Yeah, it’s happening all over the world. Yes, the subjects of the film are dark, but I think the hope is (A) It could be a cautionary tale, and (B) there is a record, like you said, that can be seen as a reference point, with misinformation and propaganda. I think you’re right that the audience knows when somebody is telling the truth and when they are not. You have people like Andy, May, Etta, and Leni, and there’s just something authentic about their voices. And with Imelda, in the beginning, before you know that she is lying, you still get the sense that–

MARTIN: Like something fishy is going on. There’s something not right about this.

GREENFIELD: She is presenting to the camera, how she wants to present. Whether it’s moving the gold sheep…

MARTIN: There was that funny bit where she had all the pictures and she then knocks one off, and keeps going. Then a guy comes from out of nowhere and starts picking up the glass behind her.

BAUTISTA: And then Lauren focuses the camera on the man picking up the glass.

MARTIN: Yeah I guess you have to laugh at these things, but it’s pretty awful as well. 

I wanted to talk about representation. Could you share what you feel you were representing that is not represented as much in film.

Leni Robredo, Vice President of the Philippines

GREENFIELD: The misinformation that’s going on in the Philippines now, the real story of martial law, and hearing from the survivors. May had never told that story of the rape before we filmed her. That was so powerful. I think she was even surprised at herself that she was so honest in all of the details. I know the Marcos family have had a lot of platforms for their voice. It’s important to establish what the Marcoses are trying to put forward, and carefully deconstruct that, because we all need to hear the other voices. Those are the ones historically that have been deafened down. Because of the fear of Duterte, before the Marcos family, we don’t hear Robredo’s (Leni Robredo) amazing voice. The indigenous woman who spoke up about what happened to them are so powerful. It’s true that it happens to be all of these incredibly brave women who are speaking out. We’ve got Leni, we’ve got May, we’ve got Etta–I mean Leni’s the one standing up to Duterte, it’s unbelievable. So that was one thing to represent, and I guess the story I wanted to tell is how if you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it. 

MARTIN: That’s so true. 

BAUTISTA: It’s about the past, and how she is able to really rewrite the past. Again it’s the concept of this information of fake news, which to me, makes you think about the continuing relevance of the first amendment. The American concept has always been the interplay of ideas and the best idea will eventually win. I think Zuckerberg was saying that in Georgetown. But if one side has a little bit of resources…

Imelda Marcos’ son Bongbong Marcos

Let’s circle back to the animals. There is a very powerful message here about political inbreeding and dynasties galore. It leads to things not being taken care of…

GREENFIELD: Victims of corruption. 

BAUTISTA: She wanted her son to have his own zoo, like Lauren was saying. To her, there seemed to be nothing wrong with that.

Imelda Marcos and Ferdinand Marcos

GREENFIELD: Just to get back to the female side of it, it’s interesting how Imelda molded a unique power of that time. Being the kingmaker and expressing her power through the men, she was able to seduce and charm all of these world leaders with her feminine wiles. She said it was kind of helpful that they underestimated her. So I think, in a way, it is Leni that represents a more contemporary kind of female power. Again, like Andy said, she did get into politics because of her husband, but she’s using her power to express herself as an empowered woman, not somebody who is using her sexuality to manipulate. 

“The Kingmaker” trailer

“The Kingmaker” releases in theatres on November 8th, 2019