If you’ve seen Fruitvale Station, Moonlight or Beyoncé’s magnum opus, Lemonade, then you’ve enjoyed Hannah Beachler’s work. From the opening credits to the final shot, the Hollywood production designer creates unforgettable worlds for viewers.
Beachler has one of the most underappreciated jobs in the film industry. But make no mistake: Her role is crucial. “It’s my job to make the director’s vision come to life,” she says. However, her route to success has hardly been a straight shot. Here, Beachler takes us through the winding roads that led to her enviable position.
Have you always been interested in the arts?
My mom took me to the theater when I was very young. I went to school for fashion design, but I realized it wasn’t for me. At the time I was in the music scene and I had friends who were in bands. A friend asked me to help with a music video. I’d get the stuff we needed and set it up. I did a couple of underground movies too. I was doing the work of a production designer, but I didn’t know that’s what it was called. I thought I wanted to be a director, so after college, I enrolled in film school in Dayton. During my senior year, my professor said, “Your films aren’t really that great, but your art direction is fantastic.”
Did something click for you when you heard that?
I began researching production designers and set decorators, and I realized that this part of filmmaking was truly important to me. Then I just pursued it like it was nobody’s business. I was a set decorator before I started production designing. I made the switch when a director said, “You should design. You have a good vision.” I put together a website [to let everyone know I was doing production design] and a college friend saw my post about it on Facebook. She was a producer working on small horror films and had asked if I wanted to join. I jumped at the chance. That was my first job.
How did you transition from the horror genre to dramas like Fruitvale Station?
I did whatever I could, from commercials to music videos, because I needed to learn as much as possible. I submitted my info to talent agencies in L.A., and everyone [basically] said, “Hell, no.” It was a tough time—I didn’t always know where my next meal was coming from. Then one day Wynn Thomas [a Black production designer well known in the industry with countless Spike Lee films to his credit] called me [out of the blue]. I was sitting in my car, and he gave me this 30-minute uplifting, butt-kicking pep talk. He said, “Pick yourself up and continue.” Three weeks later I got a phone call from an agency, which wanted to bring me on. My first project was Fruitvale Station.
And then Beyoncé called?
Fruitvale Station performed well, and then I moved on to other projects, including a Nike commercial that aired during the Olympics. Afterward, I did Moonlight. Ready for a break, I returned to New Orleans, but then a woman called to ask me if I would be interested in working on a music video for a pop star. Tired, I told her I wasn’t available. Then I realized I actually did have the time but figured it was too late. The next week the team called back and inquired again. This time I didn’t turn it down. When I arrived, there was Beyoncé. And it was for Lemonade. Right after I finished the project, Ryan Coogler contacted me about Black Panther.
What advice do you have for women who are creating their own path?
Specialize. Know what you want. No matter what field or industry you’re going into, if there is a goal, then specializing will make it easier to navigate how to get there. It took me a long time to figure that out. I always knew I wanted to be in the art department, which made it easier to make connections and network. And don’t be afraid to stand out. If there’s one of you, you can bet there’s at least a thousand more. Think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to do something you’re not used to.