We have a long chat with Black Panther production designer Hannah Beachler about the construction of Wakanda.
Black Panther is a family affair. Yes, it’s the 18th entry in Marvel Studios’ grand shared universe experiment, but writer/director Ryan Coogler has managed to convince the Wonderful Wizard of the MCU, Kevin Feige, to allow his team to take over the most crucial segment in their franchise so far. He’s highly qualified, with two expertly crafted features, Creed and Fruitvale Station. With the former, Coogler deconstructed everything we love about the Rocky franchise and elevated its tropes to new heights of character satisfaction. Early word seems to indicate that we’re all in for something special with Black Panther, and to make that happen, Coogler brought his trusted crew along with him.
Production Designer Hannah Beachler has been with Coogler since Fruitvale Station. Not only did she continue that relationship with Creed, but she also worked on last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, and the cultural phenomenon that is Lemonade. For Black Panther, Beachler was allotted eight months of research, exploring South Africa, Korea, Argentina, and the United States for locations. Unlike in her previous work, Black Panther required Beachler to build everything from the ground up–you cannot just update your passport and book a vacation to Wakanda. Every inch of the set needed to be carefully considered and assembled.
Wakanda is a fictional African country that was never poisoned by colonialization. It is a dream, a vision, of what the people of Africa would have created in the absence of invasion and occupation. We spoke to Beachler over the phone and had a long chat about the cultural significance of Black Panther. We discuss both the real world and comic book influences on the design of Wakanda, as well as general approaches to Afrofuturism. And do not worry, there’s a little bit at the end where we seriously geek out over Lemonade.
This is a seriously nerdy conversation that will help you pass the time until Black Panther finally hits theaters on February 16th.
How do you even begin to conceptualize a place like Wakanda?
You know, it’s a big job. And you know really, the best … I think we started at a really great place. Ryan started with talking to me about the different tribes that live in Wakanda, and sort of who they are as a tribe, each one. And so, he was telling me the story about that.
He had gone to South Africa to write for a little bit, right when I kind of came onto the project, so he could sort of have that time there and sort of meet the people and travel. And he would be sending me pictures back from different places and stuff that he really loved.
It really all started trying to get into this feeling of what we wanted the tone of it to be, what we wanted the tone of Wakanda to be, who the people were. You know, it always starts with the people. And then we started macro. So, I was like, okay, how big is Wakanda, what’s the population, where is it located on the continent, what’s the topography?
Once you sort of get those things down, then we started drawing the map of where each tribe lives, where the Golden City is located, where Warrior Falls is located, where the Necropolis is, sort of where the Great Mound is, all the places you see in the film. And what are the relationships to each other? Sort of their surroundings to Bali, it’s obviously north or up in the mountains, and they’re sort of isolated from the rest of the tribes. So the next step is just going in, and then you start to really poke around into the details.
In Iron Man 2, Wakanda famously appears on a map of Africa.
Do you just sort of dismiss that detail? Do you go back and scratch that, start over? You had to make the geographical location work for you.
(Laughter) I had about four of those pictures in my office. We really looked at, “Okay, where is that, exactly, on the map? Where did they have it placed?” Because I knew Marvel fans are amazing, and they look at everything, and I knew people would point to that. That’s something that we looked at. Kevin Feige was really like, “You know, Ryan, you’ve really got to put it where you want it to be. Nobody knows where it is, not even Tony Stark, so that’s not necessarily saying that that’s exactly where Wakanda is.” They allowed us to have some freedom there, and not be penned to the location that Tony Stark had it at. But yeah, I was very aware of that.
How about the aesthetic of Afrofuturism? How do you find the balance between the traditional and science-fiction?
It’s drawing on the rich traditions of the diaspora. It’s one of those things where … For me, Afrofuturism really was the bridge between the mythology, the art, the politics, the science of Africa and of the culture and the sci-fi. I’m always in this transformative place with everything as far as how it evolves.
Were there specific source materials that you were drawing from? Did you go back to the comic books?
Yeah, I did, I really did. I went back and looked at the Jack Kirby work. When they were with the Fantastic Four, when they went to Wakanda. Then in ’77, Panther gets his own comic. I looked at a lot of that as a source, and then the Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze comics as well. For me, the originals were a lot about the time period that they were creating. Going from there, and understanding where their ideas are coming from, a little bit, and then drawing from … for me, it was drawing from the Timbuktu building that you see in the Kirby work. Because we didn’t want it to feel alien in its advancement, we wanted it to feel … It’s not necessarily sci-fi, and people usually label it as that, but it’s 2018 and it’s on Earth. It’s just that they’re advanced, I would say, maybe, fifty years further than any other nation. So, we still had to keep it grounded.
I drew from a lot of different places, I think, and keeping the tradition involved in the aesthetic and the design language was of the utmost importance, because it’s about black representation, the black future and agency using architecture and history and science and myth and biomimetics, and biomorphosis, and all of that went into the design.
I understand that your son’s a pretty big Marvel fan.
He’s a huge Marvel fan.
Is he happy with Mom’s work?
The other day, I was like, “Sit down, tell me the truth, what do you think?” And he is very happy, because he’s like, “I’m not going to say anything about anything until I see the film.” He was with me at the premiere. He was very happy because he told me that I better not mess it up.
When you’re reading the script, and you encounter locations like the Great Mound or the Necropolis, do you start to anticipate the challenges of their creation, or are you just full-on giddy with excitement?
I’m giddy with excitement. Because that’s a production designer’s dream, to really build these amazing places that don’t even really exist. It’s like a kid in a candy shop. Your imagination gets to completely run wild. On a movie like Panther, and with a company like Marvel, though, you still have your limitations. But you really are able to do more than what I’ve ever done before. There’s a handful of production designers that get opportunities like this. I am forever grateful and thankful for this opportunity, and then for it to be a subject matter that’s so close to me, and so important to the black community, I think it is amazing. Being able to put my hand on that, and be a part of that, is so important.
When you were working on the movie, could you sense the significance of what an enormous cultural moment Black Panther is?
Oh, yeah. Sure. Absolutely. It was an enormous moment for me, and I’m part of that. Everything I do, that was always on my mind, and the representation was always on my mind, and getting it right, and coming at it from a perspective of having lived in a world where my existence is in question at times. That is definitely something that was with me all the way. Knowing when I was little that there was none of that. And it’s not that I didn’t enjoy TV, and everything that was around me, of course, but it was never a story that I saw myself in. I know how important that is for young kids now. I wanted to also put everything in it that my five-year-old self wanted.
I was there at Comic-Con when the cast first came out. The reaction from the crowd, seeing this all African-American cast, a cast that had really never been on stage before in Hall H. It was profoundly moving.
Yeah. Yeah. Powerful.
And the way that this film is getting people excited, who have never even watched a Marvel movie before-
Oh, my God, yeah.
It’s crazy, you know. My mom is so, so excited to see Black Panther.
I wanted to talk to about your collaboration with Ryan Coogler, but also Ruth Carter and Rachel Morrison. I imagine all your departments have to get on to the same page.
Is there a rulebook that you guys followed? What’s that collaboration process look like?
We had a lot of meetings, and we were always looking at each other’s work, and always talking about it. It was something that you lived and breathed. On top of that, Ryan posed many questions about Wakanda to me, and he’ll be the first to say that when I research, it’s an extraordinary amount. I like to be as thorough as I possibly can. The cast was really the creative foundation that we all have at hand, and then work off of that foundation, and expound upon that foundation.
I created what we call the Wakandan Bible. By the time it was all said and done, it was 500 pages. It was also packed with references, pictures, about Vibranium, about the tribe. Things that we can all go to, talk about the tribes that we referenced for our Wakandan tribes, like the Lesotho shepherds, which you’ll see from the Border tribe, and they have these fabulous Basotho blankets that they wear. That’s the actual shepherd, their horse; they’re expertise horsemen. All of that was included in it, so if anybody ever had a question, or we really needed to figure something out, we were like, “We all have this foundation … we all have this, let’s work from that.”
That was created, and that was something that helped everybody. It was a lot of just, every day, talking to each other. Talking to Ruth about colors and the different sets. Ruth would come on to the sets with some of her illustrations, and sometimes she had put together some outfits, and we would look at the set and look at the colors of the costumes, and talk about that, and adjust where necessary. Everything had to work together. Everything had to be cohesive.
What is the key element to Wakandan culture?
I think the most important element really is their history. That’s an important element to Wakandans, their ancestry, their history. Where they came from, and what their future is, because from the past goes the future, right?
That’s sort of how we always looked at it. I think that’s a key element, because part of being advanced … and we came to this very early, and Ryan had said part of their advancement, to be this super technologically-advanced society, you also have to have a certain type of enlightenment and advancement in that way, like on your human side, in order for everybody to not just kill each other. Because if you had that type of power, and you didn’t have the enlightenment, and maybe went the wrong direction, that would just be a warring nation all the time, and they would destroy everything. You have to have this enlightenment that goes beyond greed, that goes beyond Western ideologies, capitalism, that goes past and beyond that, and be enlightened and connected as a society as a whole and we take care of each other.
That’s something that was definitely a foundation at the base of everything across the board.
What’s exciting about the idea that Wakanda is that it’s unconquerable, and it’s never influenced Western colonialization. What would that culture look like, naturally?
That’s how we had to go about it and evolve some of the traditions that were from tribes that have been on the continent for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. There’s tribes that have been on the continent for 50,000 years. What has their evolution been in that 50,000 years? How old is Wakanda, and so what does their evolution look like? And with that, how has the tradition moved and evolved into this technology? That was one of the things I really kept my eye on and played with a lot of turning things into … Like, okay, well, sand is their nation, sand is part of their technology. It was something that helped tribesmen and tribeswomen, and now it does in a way that is 50 years advanced. There was points where I was like, “It’s 50 years advanced, how does anybody know what it is. It could be anything.” Just that thought was daunting, to think that … where do you go with that? I turned to biomimetics and biomorphosis for their technology.
This is your third film with Ryan. How has your relationship with him evolved over the course of these three films?
We definitely have a shorthand now. He’s like family, so I can give him a hard time every morning and keep my job. Ryan is … I feel like the luckiest person in the world to work with someone like Ryan. He has such a unique perspective and vision on everything, and he’s constantly making me think outside the box, and constantly making me challenge myself, and compete with myself, and be the best that I can be. He’s a true leader. He’s the type of person that, when you’re having a conversation with him, he’s listening to you. He’s not waiting to reply to you. You know that, you feel that. He brings that intensity into everything that he does. He’s brilliant. And he’s such a good person. It’s almost an emotional response from anyone you talk to about Ryan. He doesn’t like to ever hear compliments and all that. I can see him right now, if he was sitting next to me, he’d be like, “Oh, Hannah.”
I always say that he comes from the sun. There’s really no other way to describe him. I’m not saying he’s perfect, because he’s not. I’ll be like, “You have to make a decision right now, Ryan.” “How much time do I have?” “Like, now!” And then he’ll give you a look, and you’re like, “Okay, tomorrow.” But he brings the best out in the crew, and he creates a unity in the crew that translates to the screen. It’s really quite special, and I’m very lucky to work with him.
He’s like my brother, you know. I can just be 100% myself, which also ups the creative game, when you can just … really, to the core of who you are, be who you are, and know that that person’s going to love you anyways. You can bring your best. That’s how Ryan is. He knows I’m a little silly, and crazy, and I ramble, and all of that stuff. He finds it endearing, and it’s really funny, and I enjoy hanging out with him. His whole family is amazing. His wife, Zinzi, is amazing. His brother, Keenan, is his assistant. He’s amazing. It’s just a really great experience in the Fruitvale family, to have gone from Fruitvale to Black Panther with these people, and have stayed a family through all of these years in our careers. It’s been a journey and a half, and it’s been really great to do it with this group of people.
It seems like an incredibly unique experience within Hollywood.
Yes. Yeah, absolutely.
Ok, so, I can’t let you go without talking about your work on Lemonade. For a solid year, that album ruled my life, all out lives. Looking back on it, is there anything from that experience that you brought into Black Panther?
Absolutely. Every experience bleeds into the next experience. I’m constantly learning on every journey that I take. I think Lemonade prepared me … and it’s interesting because when I finished Lemonade, it was maybe three or four weeks later that I got Panther. It was January 11th, and I finished Lemonade on Christmas of that year. I had this unique experience on Lemonade with Beyoncé that … she really allowed me to create the sets without input … and a lot of it was we didn’t have a lot of time, either. I only had heard two of the songs.
I talked with Kahlil [Joseph] and her about what the look wants to be, and her ideas and themes about black women on a plantation, sort of taking ownership of this. I was free. I was literally, completely free. There were a few things that she really wanted, like the billboard with the red curtains and all that, but everything else … In her mind, it was like, “I brought you on because I’ve seen what you can do and I want you to bring your creativity to this, not lord over you. I brought you here to do what you do.”
That was awesome because I think that directly prepared me for Panther, because I didn’t go into creation so profoundly, because it didn’t exist. Usually, you have parameters with the city that you’re in or the story the scene told. There’s something there. There’s always something that already exists. We’re going into the existing location and … or replicating the White House Oval Office, or something, or whatever it is that you’re doing. But this was like, none of it’s there. This is all coming out of your head. That’s sort of … the experience with that … is equivalent to a panic attack … in some instances maybe that happened (laughter). Because there are no guidelines. There are no rules. This really hasn’t been done before.
Lemonade was so fractured, and it was sort of a deconstruction of a moment and a feeling, you know, not so much about the structures that it’s being made in, it’s about evolving as a human and a woman, so you have to put that on screen, and you have to reach into a place that you’re not used to reaching all the time. There’s an emotional toolbox, learning you’re an emotional architect, at that point. That’s sort of the thing that happened on Panther, in a way, and I think Lemonade got me ready for that on a bigger scale.
I loved working on Lemonade. Beyoncé is a powerhouse and very giving. Yeah, that was awesome.