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For ‘Black Panther,' Hannah Beachler designed a futuristic African nation that was never colonized

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The production designer talks about working on the upcoming Marvel film as well as previous projects "Moonlight and "Lemonade."

Production designer Hannah Beachleris a very busy woman.

Her list of credits includes Don Cheadle's Miles Davis film "Miles Ahead," Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning "Moonlight," and Nicolas Winding Refn's upcoming Amazon detective series "Too Old to Die Young." She was also a production designer on the singer Beyonce's visual album "Lemonade." 

Before this run of high-profile projects, Beachler worked in horror films and commercials. But it was the independent drama "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler, that turned her career in the direction it is today.

Her collaboration with Coogler continued in "Creed" and, the Marvel film "Black Panther" which is due in theaters early next year. It stars Lupita Nyong'o, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis and Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous superhero and leader of the fictional world of Wakanda.

"For me, it was always understanding that Wakanda had been there for 10,000 years and then what does it look like now?" says Beachler. "It was supposed to be a place that was never colonized too, so what does that look like?"

For many "Black Panther" fans, Wakanda is an example of "Afrofuturism," a term used to describe an art form, often found in comic books, that explores the experiences of black people through science fiction. Mark Dery first coined the term "Afrofuturism" in his 1994 essay "Black To The Future." 

When Beachler stopped by The Frame, she talked about the challenges and opportunities in designing a new world for "Black Panther;" her work on "Moonlight" and what it was like to get the call to work on "Lemonade" without being told who the singer was.

To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of the page. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast. 


On building the world of Wakanda:

It was a challenge for us. For Ryan and I we saw the opportunity to create something with Marvel that they haven't done. You know, that's the way I looked at how I would utilize the money is I had more of an opportunity to bring place to it. And be more detailed about it. And because it wasn't a place that existed or had really been defined in any other film -- I'm talking about Wakanda -- we could really play with that and we wanted to do a lot of practical builds. We didn't really want to use a lot of blue screen. And that's also where the money went.

On building real sets instead of relying on visual effects:

We had a lot of extensions. I would build so far and then I would extend. We tried not to put the VFX in front. Pretty much every single set is practical and then the bigger world outside of that would become an extension. It was a lot about making sure that those VFX were in the background. And that it was tactile and tangible and the actors had things to act off of and could sit in and you know that's really where it went. It was to creating all of these builds. And even some of the exterior stuff that you see in the trailer, we built.  You know the waterfall? We built it. And it was an extension then because it was really tall. I mean it was huge. But it was fantastic to have that water being real being live being there and people wading in it all day everyday and fighting in it and doing the thing that they're doing and having the extras in their beautiful costumes by Ruth Carter up on the set. It was just breathtaking and when you see something like that for the first time that you did, that you worked on for months, it was just... it just took my breath away.

On the responsibility of building a utopian African world:

It's the first time I actually did a world building on that. And it was a lot of research. I mean we went to Africa. I was there for quite some time. Ryan and the producers joined. And we traveled extensively for a few weeks. And it was a lot of research. It was talking to people, taking pictures of everything and connecting with... we were in South Africa mainly... connecting with it, with the motherland. And understanding all of the tradition, all the different tribes, how they responded to each other, what things were important in their lives. That was part of building that world and then pushing it all into the future so for me it was always understanding that Wakanda had been there for 10,000 years and then what does it look like now. And there was a lot of discussion because it was supposed to be a place that was never colonized too. So what does that look like? There was a lot of discussion about that and how we make that relevant.

On the challenges in representing what Africa could be if it weren't colonized:

It's a huge thing. And it was daunting because I felt a lot of responsibility to get it right. And also to create Wakanda, create its own feel and look, outside of... because over time it has morphed. All of these tribes came together, and while they're individual tribes, they've created this country, so in a sense they are one. I hope people could look at it and really feel, like, Okay, yeah, this feels good, this feels right. It doesn't feel false in some way and that this could have been what happened. Of course, you know, vibranium helps.

On ensuring authenticity in her work with each director she works with:

The really important thing to me as a designer is that for every director that I work with -- because they're all different -- that I am doing a service to their vision. I have to change who I am and what I'm looking for. I have my aesthetic and I have certain things that I do and colors that I work with. So it's important for me to be able to connect the work I do with Nicholas [Nicolas Winding Refn] will be different than anything else that I've done.  ... We want to kind of do maybe a punk rock film noir Los Angeles ... Nick Refn style.

On getting the call to work on "Lemonade":

Well I had done an "Apple - The App Effect" for Apple commercial and I had done a Nike commercial in Tampa with a director and he had used the same cinematographer who was working with Kahlil Joseph (the director of "Lemonade") and since they were going to New Orleans he was Chayse Irvin, who was the cinematographer, was like, Hey, I worked with this production designer Hannah Beachler, and Kahlil, he knew Ryan (Coogler) so he reached out to Ryan and was like, Oh, you know I want to bring Hannah on. So they called me.

I actually just got done with "Moonlight." I just got home and I was kind of tired. So the first time I was like, You know, I'm not available. And then I thought about it because I really didn't know who the singer was. They didn't tell me. And I was like, I'm not available, you know. And then a week went by and I thought, Oh man, you know, I would like to go down. ... And then I thought, Well that went by. And then they called me the next week and I jumped on it as fast as possible. ... I didn't know until I literally walked in and talked to Kahlil and he told me [that it was Beyonce]. ... I'm glad I said yes.

To hear John Horn's full interview with Hannah Beachler, click on the player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.

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