Influencers: Ryan Coogler & Production Designer
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Ryan Coogler & Production Designer Hannah Beachler

Influencers: From "Fruitvale Station" to "Black Panther" and beyond, the filmmaker and his trusted production designer have transformed worlds, and each other's careers.

Influencers: Ryan Coogler & Production Designer

After production designer Hannah Beachler signed with her first agent, the first script he offered her was from a young filmmaker in Oakland who had made a handful of successful shorts and was getting some attention. Before she would meet the future collaborator who would forever change her career (“my life, really”), Beachler’s first interaction with Ryan Coogler was through his own written words.

“I kind of cried my way through it. I know I put it down several times,” Beachler said of the first time she read Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” which chronicles the last 24 hours of the life of Oscar Grant before he was killed by police. “Being a mom, having a son that was around that age, a little bit younger at that time, it was very relatable.”

The daughter of an architect father and fashion designer mother, after graduating Wright State film school in 2005, Beachler left Ohio, where she was born and raised, to start her career in Louisiana where her brother had laid down roots. The first decade of her career was a struggle, and she admits she considered leaving the business. “Oftentimes, I was the only Black person, and usually the only woman, when I was set decorating, so I had gone through all of the abuses of the industry,” said Beachler. “I’d quit several times in my mind.”

After one particular “I’m leaving this business” moment, legendary production designer mentor and Wynn Thomas told her, “Don’t you dare give up.” It was the pep talk that pushed her to find an agent. Now she found herself prepping for a Skype call with a 25-year-old director.

“Fruitvale Station”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

“I knew he was young, but then when I saw him I was like, ‘Oh, he’s really young,’” recalled Beachler of that first Skype call with Coogler. “But then when he talks, you’re like, ‘He’s — I hate when people say this — but [an] ‘old soul.’ … There was a lot of life there.”

Beachler had visited her brother’s family in Oakland a few times, but after reading the script she did — as she always does — copious research to prepare for the meeting. “I just remember being blown away by just how sharp she was and how creative she was,” Coogler said about that first Skype call. “She seemed to have a really great understanding of story and a passion for the medium.”

Not only was Beachler talking about Grant’s story and visual language in a way that excited the director, but her observational eye was already keyed into the blues, grays, and yellows of Coogler and Grant’s hometown, and how they could be used to tell the story on screen.

“I never thought about what color the Bay Area is, or Oakland or Hayward or East Bay, but she looked at it from a visual artist perspective,” said Coogler. “And having never had been out here, [she had] just looked at pictures from Google Earth or Google Images and [it was like], ‘Okay, wow, that’s it. This person gets it, that’s the color palette for the film there.’”

Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Coogler, Beachler, and their shared body of work, below.

Coogler instantly knew he had to work with this visual artist who not only understood what he wanted, but could also elevate it. While Beachler supplied Coogler with a new way of seeing his film, the director gave the production designer something far more profound.

“He looked at me as if the words I was saying held weight, which was sort of the first time in the film industry for me to speak to someone who spoke to me as if I was a professional,” said Beachler. “Because I haven’t felt that type of respect in sort of my aesthetic, and the things I was saying, and the research that I was doing, [from someone] who had an appreciation for my reverence for place, and how do we make this work in a way that is more than just throw it together, make the budget, do it on time.”

When we talk about successful collaborations, we often use the term “shared vision,” but the great strength of the three films Coogler and Beachler have made together (so far) seems to stem from how the production designer has been able to merge their two distinct perspectives into a richer whole.

“Fruitvale Station”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

“The way I look at Ryan, he’s standing on one side of the building, and I’m standing on another, and we’re looking at the same thing, only he has a slightly different vantage point,” said Beachler. “And he was pointing out that vantage point to me for the last seven years, which has rounded my perspective. Now I know I need to walk to the other side of the building before I make a judgment on what something is.”

Their next film, the “Rocky” spin-off “Creed,” required that creative bond to grow. A studio film inspired from a decades-old franchise, Coogler’s “Creed” still hinges on the rich sense of an authentic place the pair brought to the indie-made “Fruitvale Station.”

While Sylvester Stallone’s character in the first “Rocky” film was a product of working-class Philadelphia, Coogler saw his reinvention to be a world onto its own. Even Balboa’s house and haunts would be different. Philly would serve as the story backdrop for the journey of Adonis Creed (Jordan), who sheds his Los Angeles life, to find himself (somewhat misguidedly) in the shadow of a legendary father (Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, who died in “Rocky IV”) he never knew.

“Creed”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

Beachler recalled how, on scouting trips, Coogler would stop people on the street to talk about the various neighborhoods, their clothing, and to take pictures — he wanted to learn the differences between West Philly and South Philly, and all the enclaves in between.

From the apartment-set love story that emerges from Donnie’s sparse new one-bedroom, to giving Rocky a new home that captures a broken (and sick) father mourning his relationship with his son, Beachler’s production design is an incredible piece of character storytelling through space. But it would be the main Philly gym that would serve as the anchor of Coogler’s story.

“We had looked at 1,000 gyms, that’s all it was all about, gyms, gyms, gyms,” said Beachler, who recalled being so excited when she found Front Street Gym that she couldn’t wait to show Coogler. “I took Ryan to it and it was just like we walked in, we just knew right then and there. He was like, ‘Hannah, the ceiling.’”

“Creed”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

Beachler instantly started imagining how she’d transform the space with posters and plaster, making it a foil to the modern, sleek Delphi Gym in Los Angeles, seen at the beginning of the film. “[There] was so much importance that happened in the scenes in that place, with Sly and Michael,” said Beachler. “That set was very special.”

Yet, as important as it was to get this particular dramatic container right, both collaborators pointed to another set as being just as essential to the film. Coogler had conceived of the crucial midpoint of the film, a fight versus Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabe Rosado), as a long continuous take.

“Because we look in every direction up and down and around,” recalled Coogler of the technical challenges his vision presented. “There’s nowhere for the set to hide.”

Beachler’s solution was transform a symphony hall at Temple University into a fight arena. The orchestra pit was converted into a regulation ring that spun, all the better to accommodate the choreography of the single take that covers the fight. Adding risers and 40-foot banners to the theater seating made the symphony hall feel like a 1950s boxing area straight out of “Raging Bull.”

“Creed”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

“She made it look like a seedy fight spot, with building the ring and the seating and getting people in the balcony seats, hanging the banners,” said Coogler. “It really felt like a fight space in Philly, you could sell tickets and have a great fight in there. It was really impressive.” The scene is one of the most noted in Coogler’s career because of the camerawork, but watching it again, you quickly see how important the complex set, dripping with atmosphere, is to the long take.

For Beachler, that scene is the most emblematic of the trust she and Coogler placed in each other while making a far bigger film than either had previously crafted, the key next step for both of them. “That one shot, I felt, cemented our working relationship,” said Beachler. “I think that [scene] was when I felt like, this is someone I will work with for as long as I work in this business. This is my director.”

“Creed” also exposed Beachler to an expanded budget level as a department head, and the type of Hollywood production meetings that were new to her. “And then when ‘[Black] Panther’ came along, I honestly, when it was announced, I was like, ‘I’m not going to be the one, right?’” recalled Beachler, assuming the massive Marvel/Disney film would never let Coogler hire her. “So, for me, it was like watching him ascend, and hoping that I could join him again one day.”

“Black Panther”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

According to Beachler, Coogler took a casual, “this is who I want to work with” approach to hiring on the massive Marvel feature. “For [Marvel], it was [that] production design is a very expensive department, and that specific department can get pretty crazy,” said Coogler. “They tend to like experienced hands there; but they said, ‘Let’s meet with her and we’ll go from there.’”

When Beachler got that call, she went into “overdrive.” “First, it was that feeling in your chest where you know this is that chance that comes once in a lifetime,” said Beachler.

She made the most of the opportunity, working 24 hours a day for two straight weeks, and spending $12,000 of her own money to hire a concept illustrator. She created a 400-page pitch book, a 4×8 foot mood board loaded with references and illustrations, and a storyboard of how she envisioned Wakanda and its various tribes.

Throughout those two weeks, panicked about getting ready to present to Marvel boss Kevin Feige, Beachler kept texting Coogler, who uncharacteristically didn’t reply. When she pulled into the Disney parking lot, she finally received a text back from the director, who had a simple message: “Be yourself. Just be yourself.”

“Black Panther”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

What Coogler knew, and had experienced countless times himself, is that Beachler has a knack for finding and creating images that triggered an idea or an emotion. He was confident that her pitch to Marvel would demonstrate she was ready for the gig by translating a clear sense of the world they wanted to create.

But even the supportive collaborator was unprepared for how transportive the presentation would prove to be. “She set up a whole room up of images that she had pulled,” said Coogler. “That was the first time I can remember feeling like I was in Wakanda.”

Although a fantasy world, Coogler and Beachler both wanted to approach Wakanda in the same way they did the settings of their first two films. “[The East Bay and Philadelphia] are real places, they have histories and they look the way they look for a reason,” said Coogler. “So a big thing for us with those movies is trying to figure out, why does Philly look the way it looks? … We had to do a crash course in understanding the place and understanding how the neighborhoods worked.”

Coogler wanted Wakanda to be tactile in the same way, which would mean Wakanda’s architecture, streets, industry, transportation, and interiors would be rooted in authenticity. “We felt like we had to build a fictional history for the place,” he said. “For us to say what the castle looked like. For us to say what the vehicles looked like, or what the streets looked like. So that was Hannah’s version of that work. It was creating a history for the place.”

“Black Panther”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

Beachler’s intricate presentation detailed the contrasting districts that reflect each tribe’s geographic aesthetic, and where people cannot be separated from their environment’s chief color schemes. It more than convinced Marvel executives, who didn’t hesitate to award her the job and a $30 million art department budget, but more importantly, the presentation was the start of Beachler’s approximately 500-page “Black Panther” bible.

“It was a big reference point for us to come back to for when you have questions,” said Coogler, who said he returned to it this Fall as started to prep “Black Panther 2.” “It was the thing that everybody had, because visual effects, and costumes, and stunts, everybody needed it so that we could ask her questions, like when it came to casting, or when it came to building a set, or figuring out stunts or figuring out clothing.”

The new canvas of Wakanda opened up Beachler creatively, and revealed a whole other level of her talent and insight. Ideas are brought to life in details big and small, as Beachler expresses a vision in Wakanda replete with a social awareness that even the most thoughtful architects would be exhilarated by. It technologies are thrilling — from remotely operated cars and planes to magnetic levitation train systems, and more — but the connection between people is also important in its design.

“Black Panther”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

It was the idealism of urban planning and Afrofuturism grounded in something tactile and real. The budget and world-building may have been on a new level, but the filmmakers’ approach to this fantasy city was remarkably similar to “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” “I felt like it was cemented when we did Step Town, because we talked about that standing in KwaZulu-Natal, Ladysmith [a city in South Africa],” said Beachler in describing an early scouting/research trip. “And he looked down at the ground that we were on, and he looked at me and said, ‘That’s Step Town.'”

In the middle of the modern metropolis of the Golden City was Step Town, the old city region of T’Challa’s capitol. The vibrant culture and history of the civilization comes to life in this district where Wakandans come to dine, shop, and hang out. From the street art to the architecture, Beachler transcended the CGI flatness that can sometimes plague MCU films.

And it wasn’t just work designed to come to life on screen, there was a level of detail in Beachler’s Step Town set that made it real for the cast and Coogler, not unlike when he stood on the real streets of Ladysmith. “She built all these storefronts,” marveled Coogler. “Some places where you could really cook meat and where you could really buy some tea. It was crazy stuff that we were doing.”

It was work that won Beachler an Oscar; she was not only the first Black production designer to win the award, she was the first to even be nominated in the category. She has completely shifted industry expectations, and, as a result, reinforced and reinvigorated her creative process, which should manifest in future projects.

“Black Panther”

courtesy of The Everett Collection

“[Ryan] believed I could do all of this before I believed I could do all of this,” said Beachler. “It transformed my career insomuch that I can now decide what work I want to do. I have access to rooms and people that I would never have access to, literally never, without Ryan. It’s a big deal. I wouldn’t have won an Oscar without him. That’s not a possibility. It’s his vision. It’s his storytelling. And it’s really his trust in me.”

In the years since “Fruitvale Station,” Beachler has become an in-demand production designer. After that film and working with Barry Jenkins on “Moonlight,” directors like Todd Haynes turned to her for “Dark Waters,” while Steven Soderbergh is relying on her to bring “the race-torn, rapidly changing” Detroit of 1955 to life for his new film “No Sudden Move.”

Beyond her obvious skill, and compatible aesthetic sensibility, Coogler — like other directors — finds it easy to work with Beachler because of her her great communication skills. “Hannah really loves what she does,” he added. “Her energy is kind of infectious. She’s a perfectionist. And she loves film language and speaks it really fluently.”

It’s a skill set Coogler is relying on again for “Black Panther 2,” but also one he believes is suited for directing, an endeavor he is actively supporting Beachler to explore. Beachler has a “small project” set up at Carri Twigg’s Culture House Media at Netflix that she’s eyeing as her own directorial debut.

After years of stagnation, Beachler remembers the moment — aboard a Marvel private jet, as she and Coogler were going over “Black Panther” illustrations — when they realized how quickly they had risen together. “Ryan stopped and said, ‘Hannah, we’re on a jet flying over South Africa, having a production design meeting. We were just on “Fruitvale Station.”‘” —Tambay Obenson and Chris O’Falt

Ryan Coogler & Hannah Beachler

Credits: "Fruitvale Station," "Creed," "Black Panther."

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