Exclusive Interview: Production Designer Hannah Beachler on "Miles Ahead"
If you've seen Beyonce's lemonade, which let's be honest, who hasn't, then you are aware of Hannah Beachler's work as a production designer. She is currently working with director Ryan Coogler for Marvel’s much-anticipated Black Panther and she previously collaborated with Coogler on Creed, the spinoff from the Rocky film series, starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan, as well as Fruitvale Station, 2013's Sundance Film Festival breakout, which won both the Grand Jury and Audience Prize. Hannah talked to ProductionHUB about her film MILES AHEAD, the differences between biological film and fiction film, and breakign into the industry.
How did you first break into the business as a production designer?
I was a Set Decorator for sometime and on the film Cleaner, the director Renny Harlin said to me, "You should Design, you have a real vision." Up until that point I hadn't really thought about it. A couple years later, I remembered that and decided to make the leap into production design. A friend I went to film school with, Karri O'Reilly, was producing a bunch of low-budget horror films in Iowa when it had a tax credit and had heard I was wanting to design. Sheave me a ring and said, "Do you want to do these four films in Iowa?" I said, “When do I start?” and that was really the beginning.
What made you decide that this is what you wanted to do as a career?
I had originally gone to school for fashion design and quickly realized while I like all the art and technical parts of it, it wasn't really the business I wanted to go into. I took up photography and started making videos for some of my friends in bands. That turned into going back to film school. We watched probably hundreds of films in our theory classes and I always focused on the design. It was something I think came naturally to me. My father was an architect and my mother was an interior designer; they are both long retired now. I grew up around it. My father designed and built the house I grew up in and my mother was constantly changing the interior. I'd go to my dad's firm and just look at the huge wall of paint and upholstery samples and sit on his lap while he was at his draft table. I guess it just took a while to find how it was going to come out of me.
Talk a little about how you started working on Miles Ahead.
When I read about the project, it was called Kill the Trumpet Player at the time, and looked up to see who was involved. It just so happened one of the Producers, Robert Ogden Barnum, who was on Hateship, Loveship which I Production Designed. So I emailed him and said “I'm interested in this film, I'd love to do it.” Some time went by and I had done another film, and I got an email from Rob saying, "What are you doing this summer?" and I called my agent. The next thing I know I'm reading the script and on the phone with Don Cheadle. I told Don at the end of the conversation that I really wanted this film. A couple days later I got the call that they were offering me the film. I practically fainted on the spot, I know I screamed a lot. That was a big turning point for me.
How do you determine the style direction you would take with this film?
As I do a first read of a script, I take notes, write down the locations, some of the descriptions and different lines from the characters that reveal something about them. Miles Ahead was such a great script, it was almost a stream of consciousness. It was definitely like a Miles Davis song – it moved and took shape, it came in and out, floated and, at times, was hard and in your face, then would pull back quickly and often without explanation and that's what I loved about it so much. It was so easy to get lost in the creative of it and just let your mind go. So I followed suit. I certainly wanted to hit the points of the different time periods, but control the color, mood and tone. I put together probably thousands of images of NYC during different time periods, from different photographers, and pictures of Miles in his home, the studio, photo shoots and concerts, and put them all on the wall in the art department. I remember Don walking into that the first time, we could stand in front of those walls and really talk about everything. And if you stood back the color story began to present itself in a very organic way and that is what I pulled from. I'm not the designer who wants to force anything because you lose a truth about what it is you’re doing, especially with stories like this. It needed to be stylized but that needed to come from a very natural place. It all came back to Miles’ music at the end of the day, social music. I let Miles' music do the heavy lifting in a sense.
Does/did the fact that it's a biographical film influence the design? How?
Not at all. It is not your typical biopic at all. Don said to me, this is a movie that Miles himself would want to star in. And Miles was quite a character. I had to let go of any formalism to do this and "what it's supposed to be" and allow it just to be. And that's not always easy to do, because you're trained to an extent to use the script as a blueprint, but this script was merely a suggestion. I had to get this cradle to grave idea out of my head because that was not the goal at all for Miles Ahead. It was social music, it was free and it was a wild ride of a story.
What were your favorite sets to work with on the film?
My favorite set was the biggest set, which was Miles’ house. It was dressed for three different time periods and we literally gutted a church and made it a home, from top to bottom. It was a massive set with little time and a really tight budget. The incomparable Helen Britten, Set Decorator, took it on and killed it. It was amazing. I had a great crew who went above and beyond. I think the best moment was when Miles Davis' son and nephew walked into the set for the first time, which was very nerve racking. I stood outside and let them just walk through and take it all in. When they came out, his nephew had tears in his eyes and he came over to me and said, “That's my uncle’s house. How did you do that? Every detail is my uncle's house." I was floored and I just thought, “Yes we did it.” That was a very important moment for me, personally, because I wanted to honor Miles and his music, and I wanted to honor the idea behind the script.
Did you make any decisions that you previously thought were great style choices, but then changed them before finishing the film? If so, what were they?
There was one thing I wished I would have done more of, after the fact. Some might say is very nitpicky, but I still think about it. In the dorm room scene, we put up this great fabric behind the bed, and I look back and think, “Why didn't I do the whole wall in the fabric?” I'll always think that I suppose. I try not to obsess on it too much. It still looked great but there's that one thing.
Obviously music has a very large influence in the film, how did you think you conveyed that clearly to the audience?
Music was everywhere. It was such an integral part of this film, simply because it was Miles Davis. From his trumpets – there were a ton – to baby grand pianos everywhere, to albums and stereos, to gold records. I don't think there's a scene that doesn't have something to do with music in it. Maybe the scenes in the bathroom and closet. But mostly it was everywhere, you couldn't miss it. And Miles’ music is playing throughout the entire film, and that's what the audience wants more than anything. I didn't want the idea of music to be subtle. It was in your face the whole time.
How different (if at all) is production design for a biographical film vs a fiction film?
Well I consider Miles Ahead to be factional (fictional and fact) so it mixed the two. There was a lot that was true and a lot that wasn't. It was a mash-up of his memory from many different times in his life, and you can never be quite sure what is real and what isn't. There are little hidden gems everywhere, from characters (that's all I'll say about that) to items that circle back to his real life that are a part of a fictional world in the film. I really can't say, but you have to watch it more than once to catch it. I think the die-hard Miles fans will pick up on it, but it’s truly brilliant stuff, influencing the narrative without the audience really knowing, another Miles thing if you will. It all comes back to his life and his memory during his silent period and how he remembers everything and who is real and who is not. I've said too much. Hahaha!
Has there ever been a production decision that you felt might not work? How did you overcome that and/or did you stick with that style choice?
I stuck with my style choice. Don was very giving as a director in that way. He allowed me to bring my creativity to the table. We would discuss ideas at length every day and he would talk to me about what a scene was, and the momentum and motivation behind them, and was so trusting and really allowed me to spread my wings. It was a great experience.
What are three pieces of advice you might give to someone who is wanting to be a production designer.
Learn as much about the art department as possible. Work in as many of the different roles as you can at length, understand what it takes in each craft. Never forget about the budget and respect your crew, listen to them and know when and how to change directions. Having a great crew is everything and can make or break you. Let them do their jobs, trust them as much as you want the producers and director to trust you. And be creative, never be afraid of an idea. That is more than three :)