Continuing S&A’s mission to give readers glimpses into the worlds of those who contribute their talents to the production and distribution of the many films we all watch and love…
Being a production designer is a lot like being an architect. In fact, it’s usually the easiest way to describe a portion of what I do – and the basic concept of production design.
In the simplest terms, as a designer I create and build sets. I come into a film very early. Much of the time it’s the director, a producer or two, the locations manager and myself. We spend time looking at and deciding on locations, which places fit the tone, texture and mood of the story and characters. We talk about what sets make sense to build on a stage, or what locations we’re able to change the appearance of by augmenting the interior and/or exterior.
For me, a large part of the job is about working with the director to understand the characters; who they are, their habits, the things they love, the things they have aversions to, the people in their lives, past and present, their idiosyncrasies and so on. All of those things and more play an important part in creating the world in which the story lives, and from this world come colors and textures. The manifestation of these elements is always different given the project I’m working on at the time. For example, it could be a period piece, a project that is very stylized, or a drama. It’s about pushing the boundaries of where you think they are, in collaboration with the director, cinematographer, costume designer and property master, ultimately presenting a consistent look and feel from beginning to end.
I’ve been working in the film industry for about ten years, give or take. I started out in the art department, which has always been my focus. The art direction was always what I concerned myself with whenever I watched a film – certainly when I was making my own films. It always resonated with me beyond anything else.
Initially, my goal was to be a set decorator; my idol has and always will be Nancy Haigh (set decorator for the Coen Bros). I worked my way up through the art department and started decorating. On the film “Cleaner,” the director Renny Harlin said to me, “You should be a production designer. You don’t have to know where every two-by-four goes, but you do have to have a vision, and you have a vision and a point of view and it’s pretty amazing.”
Up until that point I had never thought about taking the step towards being a designer. After a couple of years decorating and working with many different designers, observing, asking questions and deciding what I would do and wouldn’t, I made the transition to production designer.
At first, I took a lot of low budget features and short films. I was hungry to work and get the experience under my belt. Over the past two and half years, I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to work with several gifted directors with whom I share a similar sense of aesthetic. We’ve created some memorable moments, playing with colors and ideas. I look forward to our next projects together.
For me it’s really important to be working with great, talented directors who have a clear idea of what they want their story to reveal in look and tone.
Really, the most important thing to me in any film is the story – it’s what makes me want to work on a film. I love quirky films just as much as I love serious drama. I also like dark comedy and I always love a good period piece; all these things play a part in me wanting to work on a project. I love film and enjoy what I do and more and more, I’m finding the journey is ultimately the destination in this industry.
With more than 9 feature film projects on her resume, New Orleans-based production designer Hannah Beachler most recently worked on “Fruitvale” for director Ryan Coogler and producer Forest Whitaker. Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan, Tristan Wilds and Melonie Diaz star in the indie drama that’s based on the murder of 22-year old Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by BART police in Oakland, California.