When I sat down to speak with veteran production designer John Blackie, I assumed the greater challenge he faced working on The Good Lord Bird would have been balancing period authenticity with a limited physical geography to work with. To my surprise, John said that authenticity was (mostly) a secondary concern for him. While not unimportant, serving the drama and comedy of the story was first and foremost. It was a good reminder to me that no matter what capacity a person working on a film is given, their prime job is to be a storyteller. Below, John and I discuss how his work informed the telling of the story of John Brown in Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird.
Awards Daily: When you got the opportunity to work on The Good Lord Bird, were you wondering how challenging it would be to pull off a project wit such a strange mix of comedy and tragedy?
John Blackie: Totally. I got a call from Jeremy Gold from Blumhouse and we had worked together before. He asked if I would be interested, I read the script, I liked the combo of a dark time in our history mixed with really dark humor. It was beautiful actually, so that’s what really attracted me: taking a real grim situation and injecting this gallows humor on top of it. It made the event even more serious in a strange sort of way.
AD: As a production designer, I can imagine there are a number of challenges to doing a piece like this. Like striving for authenticity in terms of the setups.
JB: I think authenticity wasn’t necessarily the first thing that we were aiming for. We were aiming for trying to track the dramatic purpose of the script. You remove all the things that are not acceptable in the image and you try to portray it in the most accurate way you possibly can. But really a lot of the locations and the solutions to the problems were based on the story needs of each scene. You want to enhance the essence of the scene as opposed to the historical accuracy of the sets or props or anything. Even though we did track that in a big way, it wasn’t our first driving force.
AD: Most of The Good Lord Bird was shot in Virginia but of course Virginia has to step in for multiple states represented in the story. Was it difficult to represent the different geographies that Virginia had to stand in for?
JB: That was a pretty big deal. Virginia does have a very distinct and overall green look. We tried to knit together a tapestry of landscape textures to try and take us to the place where you could believe that they were traveling and changing locales. We were aware of that at every step of the way. The location manager, Colleen Gibbons, was unbelievable in helping us get there and bringing us new and different landscapes as often as possible.
AD: There’s a certain almost western vibe to The Good Lord Bird because of the time frame. I noticed that you had worked on Hell on Wheels. Was the experience on that show helpful to you?
JB: Yeah, I think any time you do a period piece it expands your horizons to what the possibilities are in terms of creating a world for the audience and the actors to be in. It always helps. Everything helps. We are a collection of every experience we’ve ever had.
AD: There’s three set pieces that I responded to in particular: one is fairly simple, one is pretty opulent and the last one probably has the widest scope. The one that is simple was right at the beginning-the barbershop scene. It is spare and sparse, but everything in that space is what needs to be there. Can you talk about setting up the barbershop and what kind of feel you were going for?
JB: I guess what we were looking at over the entire arc of the story was to have different levels of opulence and texture from episode one to episode seven. You’re trying to build a symphony. The purity and simplicity of that world in the opening scene is meant to set you up with a feel that then you can go into the forest, or to Frederick Douglass’s house – which is quite opulent. You go through each of these places and there’s a different texture and a different feel. It is basically the journey of Onion through this reality that he’s never seen before. The beginning scene is meant to be a simplistic simple life experience, because that’s where Onion comes from, and then his life gets complicated from that day forward with his interaction with John Brown.
AD: You alluded to the next set I wanted to ask you about: the house of Frederick Douglass, which is incredibly opulent. I can imagine it was a gas to set up that space.
JB: It was for sure. It was a big challenge, and we wanted exactly that. We wanted to show Onion that he could strive to attain what Frederick Douglass did in a lifetime and have that comparison. It had to be shocking to the Onion to see that kind of opulence. We really tried to push it as far as we possibly could. That pre-civil war could be that open to the black community was of an eye-opener for Onion.
AD: It was eye-opening to the audience as well because for all that we are told about Frederick Douglass historically, a lot of what we get is this stern and stolid story. To have him be so colorful, not only in nature but in surrounding, just turns you on your head a bit. Were you aware that this was going to strike people in a way they had never seen or even thought of this character before?
JB: I think so. I think we were going for that. You never know if it is going to be effective or not. You hope it is. You hope you’re on the right path. I think the interesting thing about this show is Ethan being an executive producer, there was always dialogue between myself and him and the writer, Mark Richard, going back and forth about ‘What is the essence of this moment,’ and we were trying to balance that through the whole process too. What’s interesting is that collective mind takes you to more of an illuminated place in our understanding of the story. Not to mention the fact that the story is great.
AD: The big set piece is Harper’s Ferry. You were talking about striving for authenticity not being the driver for the show, but I imagine that set piece requires some faithfulness.
JB: It was quite an undertaking. I think in the whole story the authenticity doesn’t really matter, but on that day, in that place, that mattered from a historical point. That’s the one set I would say we tried to be the most truthful to. It may not be exactly the way it was, because like I said we had to sort of knit these story threads together so the story would flow properly. Where they’re holed up in that firehouse kind of place, we tried to stay as true to the look and the feel of that. We made it a little bit larger so we could put all of the actors in and make all the things work. It’s actually been deconstructed slightly just so all of the drama could work. We knew that it was where the rubber met the road and we had to have a flavor of authenticity that the audience could buy into. There’s a lot of people that know the story and know what went down, so I would say that is where we tried to be the most authentic.
AD: You referenced Ethan. He wore a lot of hats on this project: playing Brown, as well as writing and being one of the producers, and he was surrounded by a lot of family and friends. Can you talk about what it was like working with someone who was handling so many moving parts?
JB: I thought he was incredibly approachable, great ideas, was never ego driven in any way. The collaborative feeling on this show was fantastic. He was always willing to listen to other people’s ideas, so he was shifting and morphing through the whole process too. I would say he was probably one of the most influential actors that I have ever worked with in terms of sharing the process.
AD: I think that also goes to sharing the screen as well. When I interviewed Ethan, he said to me that ‘This is Onion’s story and John Brown is the event.’ When you were part of this and seeing how much weight was put on Joshua Caleb Johnson (as Onion) and the difficulty of him playing a boy pretending to be a girl but not trying hard to pretend to be a girl. Were you surprised at how well Joshua handled it and the amount of space he was given to tell the story through his eyes?
JB: I was surprised. We did a group of photographs for the network to show what our show would look like and where we were going in terms of color and texture and all that kind of stuff. We didn’t have a lot of time so we did photographs of the set that I had already had built and we got Ethan dressed up in his wardrobe and it was beautiful. It was stunning. But what was really the noticeable moment was when Joshua came on and put on the dress and stepped in front of those sets and all of a sudden became this fluid-gendered character that could, just with a glance, move in and out of it. It was beautiful. We all took a sigh of relief knowing that this is going to work. He proved it everyday. He worked really hard. He was very attentive. Ethan shared that stage very generously with all the actors, not just Josh. It was a great thing to see and to watch the input of all those people. That’s how you make something that’s got that kind of power.
AD: I think the degree of difficulty in a project like this, aside from the injection of humor placed in so many scene,s is that we are used to seeing stories of slavery or the civil rights movement often focus on a white character. I think the move of telling John Brown’s story through Onion’s eyes kept it from falling into the white savior trap.
JB: I couldn’t agree more and I think that’s one of the things that really captivated me. It’s a cleaner perspective. That comes from the writer James McBride. His purpose was always there and we always maintained it, and I think it comes with that kind of viewpoint. He’s looking at it from a perspective only he can have, and I think we stayed true to that and we didn’t make it the white savior movie.
AD: The story of John Brown could have been told effectively in a more straightforward way. This production took on a much higher degree of difficulty and managed to pull it off. It has to feel great to be a part of such a successful project that took on such challenging material.
JB: It feels great. You always try to do your best work and you always try to accentuate the strengths of the script and the story and the storytelling and you never know when it’s going to work and when it’s not going to work. When it comes out, and it is strong, of course you are elated. I feel very good about it and the fact that it’s out there and people are watching it. You never know. Sometimes you try hard and you never cross the finish line like you wanted to.
AD: Someone I interviewed once told me, you work just as hard on something that comes out and isn’t well received as you do on something that comes out and is.
JB: Yeah. I always look at the work now as – believe it or not, it sounds stupid I know but – the work is secondary. The experience is primary. It’s what I’m doing everyday and my relationship with the people around me and the people that are involved in this creative process. That’s the deal. That’s the thing for me. That’s where creativity can blossom. That’s where you can get a story that works. I try to focus on that relationship and that experience. I think that’s what it is for me.
AD: I talk to in-front-of-the-camera talent and off-camera talent and the thing I consistently hear is that all of you are trying more than anything to simply be storytellers.
JB: You are exactly right and if the story is something that is life affirming, I think that is what we are all after. Even when we were cavemen we were going around telling our tall tales. It is super important to human beings to tell stories.