‘Moonlight,’ ‘Black Panther’ Production Designer on Big Break With Ryan Coogler

Valentina I. Valentini
Variety

Hot off of Beyonce’s mini-movie music video “Lemonade” and Barry Jenkins’ awards-contender “Moonlight,” and now diving into Ryan Coogler’s third feature, Marvel’s “Black Panther,” Hannah Beachler seems to be Hollywood’s production designer of the moment.

Her big break came with Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” — a 2013 fact-based drama centered on the death of a young black man, Oscar Grant, at the hands of police officers. It made a big splash at Sundance and took home multiple indie film prizes, including best first feature at the Spirit Awards.

Before “Fruitvale,” Beachler had worked on some horror films, TV, and commercials, but it was the movie, she says, that changed the trajectory of her career.

“I got a piece of advice a few years ago,” says Beachler, who grew up in Centerville, Ohio, studied fashion design at the University of Cincinnati, and attended Wright State University for film. “Basically, it said to only work on stories and scripts you connect with and have a feeling for, a visceral reaction to. I think it was [“Hidden Figures” production designer] Wynn Thomas who said that to me. It really resonated with me and I took it to heart.”

About a month later, Beachler signed with the agency Dattner Dispoto; “Fruitvale” was the first script they gave her. After that, Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” came up, and by what she calls “a twist of fate,” she was hired for the project. Not long after that, Coogler came calling again and asked her to work on the “Rocky” spinoff “Creed.”

“Hannah is an incredible storyteller,” says Coogler. “She takes true ownership of the characters and themes of a story and breathes life into the sets in service of them.”

Beachler never expected she’d do a boxing movie, but when the time came, she saw the excitement in the work and immersed herself in that world.

Before “Fruitvale,” Beachler had been a production designer for about three years; prior to that, she worked as a set decorator. “Meeting Ryan and designing ‘Station’ truly changed me as a person,” Beachler says. “At the end of the day,” she explains, “it’s about wanting to experience different worlds, different people, understanding different parts of life through different perspectives — always learning about the world and getting to experience really cool stuff along the way. I always wonder, ‘What can I experience next? What can I create next?’”

What was next after “Creed” was Beyoncé. Beachler made the connection through DP Chayse Irvin, one of several cinematographers on “Lemonade,” with whom she worked on commercials for clients such as Apple and Nike.

When Irvin heard that “Lemonade” was going to New Orleans — where Beachler is based — he threw her hat into the ring. “I was like, ‘Right! Let’s do it!’ ” says Beachler.

“Moonlight,” the most recent project on which Beachler’s influence has been sprinkled, is a coming-of-age drama written and directed by Jenkins and set in war-on-drugs-era Miami. As they started to work together, Jenkins and Beachler talked a lot about the look of the film and how it defines the life of Chiron, the protagonist who grows from boy to man.

“We really dug into how to string the look through its three chapters,” says Beachler. “We wanted to bring Miami to life in a way you don’t often see.”

Next up is “Black Panther.” Beachler can’t talk much about it yet, but does allow that her team’s main goal is to bring to life the world of the comic book.

Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who also shot “Fruitvale,” is back on the Coogler team for “Panther,” and is delighted to be working with Beachler again. “She is resourceful when resources are limited, and creative and original when given the freedom to design from scratch,” Morrison says. “She brings authenticity to every concept and keeps the narrative at the core of her design.”

Related stories

BIFA Honoree Naomie Harris on 'Moonlight,' Bond, Artistic Responsibility

How the Gotham Awards Became the Iowa Caucus of Oscar Season

How Golden Can the Gothams Really Get?

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter