Introducing The Gratitude Series, a four-part Refinery29 special running in November that will celebrate the women of color whose work in Hollywood we are grateful for — especially during a time when the industry is still struggling to be more inclusive. Hannah is our first subject; check out part two, three, and four.
Hannah Beachler grew up in Centerville, Ohio the daughter of an interior decorator mother, living in a house built from the ground up by her architect father. So she knew from a young age that she was destined for an aesthetically-driven career, eventually believing she would land in the world of fashion. But she had no idea that one day she'd end up as Hollywood's only high-level black female production designer, dreaming up the sets and visuals for movies like Creed, Beyoncé's Lemonade music video, and the upcoming Marvel flick Black Panther. "It's heartbreakingly sad," the New Orleans resident says of the lack of diversity both in front of and behind the camera. "A couple of years ago, the thought hit me, like, I can’t be the only female of color working at this level. That can’t possibly be right! But talking to friends of mine and just being on sets, I haven't seen women like me in this kind of position." She doesn't blame the lack of diversity in her field completely on the film industry, though. "I think it's a combination of films not hiring enough people of color, and people not knowing that this is even an option as a career path. I’m hoping that maybe I change some minds on the Hollywood side, and also maybe introduce aspiring professionals to this idea as an option. Like hey, everyone! In case you didn't know, there's a really great craft in production design!" Beachler says her own rise to the top wasn't always easy. After majoring in fashion design in undergrad, she started helping friends out with their music videos. Eventually she went back to school to study film, initially interested in becoming a director before a classmate asked for her help with the set on a Lifetime project they were working on. "That was it," Beachler says. "I did the production design for this really tiny horrible show and I was like yeah, I want to do this forever." Working as a set dresser on a series of smaller movies and horror films (which meant making sure everything was taken care of, including "cleaning out old trash bins and scraping kitchen floors") eventually led the way to her breakthrough as the production designer for Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station in 2013. "Ryan and I immediately clicked," says Beachler. "Fruitvale was the movie that really set me on the trajectory of my career. That was when people really started to notice me and my work."
"I can't be the only female of color working at this level. That can’t possibly be right!"
Now the 46-year-old mother of one spends her days mood-boarding whimsical worlds, decorating imaginary homes, offices, and neighborhoods, and working with the director as well as set dressers, hair, makeup, and costume departments to achieve just the right vibes for each story. "Everything you’re seeing on screen is the production designer, outside of the camera work and lighting," she explains. "I'm basically the architect of a movie's visuals." The current much buzzed-about Oscar contender Moonlight, for example, required a super specific lens on the neighborhood of Liberty City in Miami. "That was one of the first things that [director] Berry Jenkins and I talked about: How to mix a very stylized vision with a very real world. We had to combine the South Beach pinks and teals and neons and Cuban architecture with the grit of the projects in a way that would provide a canvas for a story that completely turns the idea of masculinity on its head." After the months and weeks of pre-filming preparation on a film is finished, it's time for Beachler to work on-site, which usually means making sure every aspect of the set is in place, rehearsing with the actors and the director, and overseeing actual scenes and stunts, which is typically a 14-16 hour day. Beachler is always up for the challenge, however — especially when her boss is Queen Bey. Beachler was working on an Apple commercial when she was asked if she'd be interested in working with director Kahlil Joseph on a shoot in New Orleans; Beachler said yes before finding out what the job actually was. "It was an experience that cannot be replaced by anything I'll ever work on again," Beachler says of creating Lemonade, which would later be nominated for an Emmy award. "She is an artist for the ages. There was one moment when it was super late and we were all tired; we had been at it for days. Her playback wasn't working, so she decided to just go ahead and sing a cappella. So I’m standing there with like 50 people listening to Beyoncé sing out into the middle of the night. It was bone chilling! I mean, the hairs on everybody’s arms raised up. She can sing, and is the hardest working woman I have ever been around." Beachler points out that when working on culturally-significant productions like Lemonade or Moonlight, it does help to have people of color behind the camera to provide an authentic and accurate perspective. "I do believe that the people experiencing the story need to be the ones to tell the story," Beachler says. "I worked with Kahlil Joseph on Lemonade, and though it was all Beyoncé's vision, I think it was important that there were two African-Americans behind the camera making sure that representation was strong. I was very proud of that." Believe it or not, there is one person who has even higher standards for Beachler than Bey: Her 18-year-old son Dominic. Back at work with her Fruitvale Station and Creed colleague Coogler, Beachler has been working day-and-night for months on the sets for the comic book-inspired Black Panther, which will hit theaters in 2018. "My son told me, 'Mom, you better not mess this one up!" Beachler says. "He’s like, ‘I’ll never speak to you again if you embarrass me in front of all of my friends!' No pressure at all."