She’s survived some tough times, but at the moment Hannah Beachler is definitely “in the pink.”
It’s not just because she’s been labeled the “production designer of the moment” by a weekly entertainment trade magazine or because the Wright State University grad has major responsibility for Marvel’s “Black Panther.”
“You’ll see pink in almost everything I do,” Beachler told the standing-room-only crowd that filled a WSU Creative Arts Center auditorium in December, when she was in town to talk about her work and to share advice with performing arts students. “When your audience is expecting you to go in one direction, I go in another. I like to put pink in places you wouldn’t expect to find it, like masculine settings or a bathroom. I also do blue and yellow. You’ll see a lot of blue and yellow in ‘Panther.’”
The choice of colors you’ll see in a film is just one of Beachler’s responsibilities. She’s one of three key people — along with the director and cinematographer — who are integral to the film. She has a hand in designing the movie’s overall look and transporting theater audiences to the environment that will help advance the story — whether that’s a musician’s home studio, a BART train in California or a boxing gym.
“It’s forcing the viewer to see things in a certain way,” she says. “Production design is what everything else bounces off of — it’s architecture, it’s color palette and it’s everything in the room. I’m the first one hired after the director and first one on the job after the director. I work with producers, cinematographer, costume design and visual effects.” As the head of her department, she may be supervising five to 500 people, depending on the film’s budget.
But whether it’s a small- or big-budget film, Beachler says she gives it her all. She’s perfected her craft on “Miles Ahead,” a biographical film based on the life of jazz musician Miles Davis; “Creed,” the seventh film in the “Rocky” series; and “Fruitvale Station,” which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film and the Audience Award for Best Film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
She designed Beyoncé’s visual concept album “ Lemonade,” earning the 2017 Art Director’s Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design. She was the production designer on last year’s Oscar-winning best picture, “Moonlight,” named one of the top 25 movies of the 21st century by the New York Times.
LANDING A “PANTHER”
Before “Black Panther,” Beachler had always been provided with a film script for a potential job and asked to create a vision for it. But it was different for “Black Panther.” With a $200 million budget, everything was top secret; no advance script or guidelines were provided. Beachler was completely on her own. “I knew I had to kill it!” she says of the interview with top brass from Marvel and Disney.
The superhero in the film is T’Challa, who returns home to the African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king and is confronted by a powerful enemy that threatens the kingdom and the whole world. After weeks spent on research and a personal investment of $12,000, Beachler walked into her job interview carrying a 400-page book that laid out exactly how she pictured the African nation of Wakanda and how she envisioned the tribes. She brought illustrations, animations, a storyboard and 60 key frames.
“I’m not going to lie. I was nervous,” she admitted in her speech to the Wright State students. “But I believed in the world I created. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities.”
She wasn’t the only one who believed in her talent. The powers-that-be were impressed and within 24 hours of her presentation, she had the job. Beachler was driving on the highway when she got the call. “I pulled over and screamed!” she says. The assignment came with a $30 million art budget and a staff of hundreds including carpenters, sculptors, painters, plasterers, art directors, set designers, illustrators, set and prop decorators. “When they hand you that type of money, you’d better know what you’re doing,” Beachler said. “At times we were working on three continents with 1,000 people, 100 sets. You are only as good as your crew.”
Ryan Coogler, director of “Black Panther,” told Variety magazine that Hannah is an incredible storyteller. “She takes true ownership of the characters and themes of a story and breathes life into the sets in service of them,” he said.
ADVICE TO STUDENTS
Beachler grew up in Centerville, studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati but always had an interest in film. The education she received at Wright State’s Motion Pictures Program helped prepare her for her current career.
“I learned every position in the art department — painting, carpentry, how to build a flat,” she told students. “Learning every piece of it really informed where I am today.” An introduction to film history and important films at Wright State prepared her to talk with directors. “The education I got here was far and away superior to others I’ve bumped into,” she said.
Beachler eventually realized her greatest talent was “being the person who got the stuff” for a music video or film. She moved to New Orleans and began working as a set dresser, arranging objects on the film set. She also gained experience in set painting, carpentry and visual effects. Variety has labeled her one of the hardest-working people in the film industry. “You have to be prepared to give five, seven, 10 years of your life to get your career off the ground,” she told students. “Knowing what you want to specialize in is paramount.”
One of the reasons Beachler often returns to Dayton and Wright State is that she believes “if you see it, you can be it.” “Living in Dayton, you don’t understand the scope of Hollywood,” she explains. “I think it’s important to talk to students and tell them they can make a career and carve your own path whatever you want to do.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Beachler shares not just the glory days but the difficult ones as well. “It’s important for me to share that I’m not perfect,” she told Wright State students, candidly describing everything from a battle with drugs to the challenges of being a single mom. “I had a scary past, I had heartbreak and loss but I survived all that,” she told them.” Everything started turning around for me when I found film.”
Beachler believes it’s important to bring a piece of your own world into what you’re doing. In “Moonlight,” for example, when she wanted to demonstrate that the character of Paula’s drug habit was getting worse — but didn’t want to show her doing drugs — she reasoned that someone in that situation would be selling whatever she could to support her habit. Perceptive audience members will realize that little by little, items in Paula’s apartment begin to disappear.
Beachler also talked about the sexual harassment and assault scandals facing her industry. “Always speak up or walk away,” she advised. “It’s important to keep your integrity. I stopped wanting to be liked and for women, that’s a hard thing to do. But you have to stand your ground, be who you are supposed to be.”
After “Black Panther,” Beachler felt the need for a break and took seven months off. “It was non-stop for 13 months,” she said. “I was on three continents, at 25 airports, in 17 hotels. You give everything you have for 15 hours a day. They don’t give you an option to be sick. “ At one point, she had to deal with flooding on the set. “We did not calculate what 150,000 gallons of water would do to the floor of the set,” she relates. “There was water and leaks everywhere that we had to drain. That’s the pool you’ll see in the trailer.”
Although she’s now getting a lot of attention for her work, Beachler insists she didn’t become a production designer to become famous. “It was never about the money. It was about putting a roof over my head, food in my belly and taking care of my son,” she said. “When it does all come to you, it’s not always good. I didn’t really know how to deal with all of this.”
She’s now determined to focus again on smaller films and is booked through 2019.
“I love everything about working on a film,” she says. “The storytelling, creating a canvas and working with fantastic people. For me, a story needs to be relevant. That’s how I felt about both ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Fruitville.’ And ‘Panther’ is a different sort of Marvel film, something people haven’t seen before.
“It’s really relevant subject matter today and it’s going to be especially important for African-American kids to see themselves on screen in this magnitude. I knew what it would mean for kids who want to dress up as superheroes on Halloween to know there’s a superhero that looks like them.”