Blackkklansman runs the gamut of emotions from humor to shock. It is without a doubt one of the most powerful films we will see this year. Spike Lee’s latest tells the incredible true story of Ron Stallworth, the black Colorado Police officer who infiltrated the KKK.
Curt Beech is the production designer who brings the ’70s to life in the film. I caught up with Beech to talk about how he recreated Colorado Springs in Upstate New York. We talked about the five-week prep and how Felix’s house in fact belongs to an African-American family! Read our chat below:
What was the first thing Spike said to you about Blackkklansman?
We’ve only been working together since She’s Gotta Have It, the TV show. Wynn Thomas was the production designer for the movie and I’ve worked for him in the past. The day` we debuted Nola’s bed, I sent Wynn a picture of it and that was really fun to share that common experience with him. He’s been so supportive and is actually a mentor of mine. He’s also the first African-American production designer.
So, with this, the first conversation I had with Spike was, “Where are we going to do this?” There was no way we could do it in Colorado Springs, there was no way we could afford it. I said, “We’ll do it in New York.” I’d been speaking to the location manager about how to do this in New York, save the money and to make it all work. Spike said, “We’ll figure it out.”
We made a trip to Colorado Springs after Spike said, “Go there and see what it’s like.” We went out there for a few days and did a scout of the place to get the vibe and then we went to work looking for towns in New York, upstate a little bit that would stand in for Colorado Springs. We looked at about eight different locations and one was Ossining, New York. It’s a nice town that had some mid-century and turn of the century buildings which is a feel of 1970s Colorado Springs. We had those same vintage buildings to work with in Ossining. You don’t see very much of it in the final cut, but we did an entire street that was period correct. He speeds through it in his car and you see it for a brief moment. That was the first thing to figure out how to do New York for Colorado.
It’s set in the 70s how do you approach that in terms of the sets such as the police station, the KKK house?
I try and fill every project with research and feed my brain as much as possible in pre-production with everything that I need to make the decision that I need to make during the design process. What I find is that as I’m doing this research, I’ll gather hundreds and hundreds of images from books and online and I had a couple of full-time PA’s who are helping me do research, you put all this stuff up on a board and it starts to reveal itself. The colors pop out, the shapes pop out and then you’re able to design the sets.
In the case of the precinct which was our main built set, it was all shot on stage. The other thing I like to do is find period publications and look at those and not just modern books that look back. I like to find books from the actual design of the period because I find that` to be more helpful and more authentic. That’s always my goal, the authenticity.
After doing the research, the concept starts to evolve and in this case, the concept breaks down into three different zones. You’ve already touched on it. Ron is an enlightened man in an ignorant world. So, the world around him is not as hip, colorful and modern as his space is. His apartment is cool, his costumes are pretty cool. He should be the modern man in a world that’s looking back.
Felix, by contrast, is the extreme version of that. His house reflects more of a 50s sensibility looking back in time. Maybe it was his parent’s house or his wife’s parents house while Ron’s is squarely in the present.
The textures, patterns, wallpapers and wood paneling in Felix’s house are backdated a bit because he is the ignorant man in a progressive world. Between these two worlds is the police station.
It’s a neutral and civic space that’s in need of a facelift. It’s a little bit dated for 1972 and it’s starting to wear. It needs something new physically and that is Ron who is the embodiment of that idea. That’s the big concept.
We worked the details from there.
Talk about the location of the KKK initiation. The stainglass window and where that was shot.
I love talking about this location is the great irony is that we shot the KKK initiation and banquet at a church in Brooklyn.
Felix’s house is owned by an African-American family.
This just gets better.
It’s just fantastic to be able to do these things during the course of production. We took over this church. It was the only place that really had spaces big enough to do what we wanted to do. All of the different parts of the banquet and initiation, it was impossible to find a restaurant that had all that. The exterior was a real restaurant, but the interior was that space.
The other impossible thing to find was how is Ron going to be spying on this proceeding? We would have to cut it up in so many different ways to make it work. Instead, we built a storage room into the location in the basement of the church so Ron could be looking down and we could see both things happening at once. It was the only way to deal with the blocking issue.
After we had done the asbestos abatement. [laughs]
So, I’m going to ask you, where was David Duke’s office.
The funny thing is, if you kept walking down the hallway when they walk down the stairs to go into the narcotics area. If you kept walking down the hallway, you’d be in David Duke’s office. [laughs].
You’re giving me all the secrets now and I love it.
Every time you’d walk down that hall just to get out of the set, you’d be like, “Where am I?” If you go through the back door of David Duke’s office, you’re in Ron’s hallway so they all connected. We got pretty tight on stage. The only way to do that hallway shot with the special double dolly shot was to build it, so we built a 60-foot piece of a hallway.
The other little nugget is an interesting detail is in the intelligence bullpen, I was playing with the groundplan a little bit trying to figure out where to put Ron’s desk and I wanted to ostracize him a little bit. So, I kept trying to put him in a corner, but I still needed to shoot behind him in the space. I couldn’t have him against a wall because that’s never a good idea to have him like that. I stuck him in the corner that had a nice view of the stairs. Then I flipped everyone’s desk away from him. He’s looking at the room and everyone has their back to him. So, that solved both problems. You’ve got him away from everyone. He also has a smaller desk. He feels like he’s being shunned and it physically made it impossible for him to relate to everyone in the room. Actors don’t know it’s happening to them, but I think it helps them a lot.
I spoke to Ray Mansfield and he told me how fast it turned around from greenlighting the film and getting it ready in time for Cannes. How does that affect you as a production designer and how much time did you have?
Five weeks of prep.
[laughs] It’s what you have for a pilot usually. It was very fast, compounded with the fact that Spike works very quickly. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t mess about. He will do twice as many pages as I know and that’s not an exaggeration. He will do twelve pages a day.
Ray said the same thing to me that he’d work so fast.
Especially in a space like the precinct where the whole thing is built, lit and ready to go, he’ll go go go. His appetite is endless when he starts working. He’ll work three cameras and he hides one in a corner and gets his coverage very quickly. For us, it’s a challenge to keep up with him quickly. In terms of the post schedule, he’ll shed days from the schedule and that’s why he never goes over budget.
He’s cutting days and producers love that also because he’s able to give them a bit of a buffer by doing that.
One scene that struck me was that scene with Harry Belafonte and that chair.
That chair is everywhere in the 70s, it’s an iconic wicker chair and I kept seeing it in Ebony magazine. I presented it to Spike and he said we should get one of those and it arrived, but a crew member sat on it and broke it.
We had a few hours to go and find another one. We rushed another chair in before they started shooting. You can’t put him on a stool. It’s such a special moment and it’s so horrific that there needs to be something to look at in this frame. it’s a great shot because you get the juxtaposition of the horrors of the shot, but you get the faces around him and just the presence of Harry is incredible.
The day Harry showed up, the crew was in their Sunday best. It was Sunday clothes day on the set. Everyone came in a suit to show respect. It was a very special day. This guy is a legend and Spike said, “Be on your best and wear your best.” It made the proceedings even more special.
The world needs this film.
It’s really nice to be involved. We do a lot of these projects and you hope people will like them and get it, but this tells you exactly what you are supposed to feel and there’s no ambiguity to it and that’s why people love or hate him. He always has a strong point of view and that’s why I like working with him because he brings it every time and that’s very rare. He has created a special space to work in and I have a lot of respect for that.