Before she designed movie sets for 'Lemonade' and 'Moonlight,' Hannah Beachler was rock 'n' roll

As a UC student, she worked on music videos
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-25 14:37:05-05

It was rock 'n' roll that led production designer Hannah Beachler ("Moonlight," "Miles Ahead") into the film world.

Back in the '90s, when the Dayton, Ohio native was a student at the University of Cincinnati, she found herself immersed in the city's robust music scene. That led to working on DIY films and music videos for Ditchweed and Grrrrrrl Possy with local legend Dana Hamblen.

Hannah Beachler.

The two women bonded over high-energy artistic hijinks in the Short Vine area. "We crack up talking about it," said Hamblen, now owner of Chicken Lays an Egg in Northside.

Beachler worked on whatever needed to be done, including playing a go-go dancer in a Grrrrrrl Possy video and a stripper in the Afghan Whig video for "Come See About Me."

John Curley, bassist for Afghan Whigs and owner of Ultrasuede recording studio in Cincinnati, remembers those days well.

"She and Dana were always going thrift store shopping and just looking for interesting stuff," he said.

"It's not surprising that she ended up where she did," Curley said. "It's something that came naturally for her. She took things that she was doing anyway and turned them into a career."

Beachler developed her artistic instincts early. "It was part of my life every day."

When she was four years old, her architect father, who designed and built the family home and guest house, began taking her to his office in the Oregon district of Dayton.

"I would go through all the paint chips, all the carpet samples. He would drive me around and stop in front of a house and say, 'That's Italianate architecture,' 'That's Frank Lloyd Wright.'"

At home, her interior decorator mother was always busy.

"There was always something new, something my mom was changing," Beachler said.

After her time at UC, she enrolled in film school at Wright State University. After graduation, she worked for a while at Hasbro Toys before breaking in to film as a set dresser and decorator on a long string of less-than-famous movies.

It was director Renny Harlin, her boss on 2007's "Cleaner," who told her, "You should be a production designer." Production designers are in charge of the overall physical look of a movie. That includes sets, props, costume, hairdos and makeup.

"You don’t have to know where every two-by-four goes," he told her, "but you do have to have a vision. And you have a vision and a point of view and it’s pretty amazing."

Her professional status got a major boost when she worked on the acclaimed 2014 drama "Fruitvale Station," followed by Don Cheadle's vivid period piece "Miles Ahead" -- shot in Cincinnati -- and Beyonce's video album "Lemonade."

This year, it is "Moonlight" that has enchanted critics and awards voters.

At first she was reluctant, worn out after eight months of working on "Creed." But her agent said, "Just read the script, and we'll talk."

Beachler recalled advice she received from veteran production designer Wynn Thomas, who made his name on projects as diverse as "Do The Right Thing," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Mars Attacks." He told her, "If you don't connect with the story, don't do the picture."

With "Moonlight," she connected.

"There was a visceral feeling I got reading the script for the first time. It threw me back to the first time I read 'Fruitvale Station.' I thought, 'This is something that has to be made.'"

Although set in the real world of Miami, the movie boasts a carefully chosen palette of colors and textures, she said. "It's confusingly beautiful. You're seeing things that are not beautiful. The look comes out of a very purposeful process."

It is common for viewers to take it for granted that the setting for a given movie scene always looks the way it looks on film, even though it usually has been carefully staged, arranged and decorated to serve the purpose of a script.

"People think it's just there," Beachler said. "You've done a good job when they feel it's innately a part of the scene, when they can forget about the sets and the place and soak in the way you are trying to tell the story with that imagery, that canvas."

Even so, she is rarely fully satisfied with a finished product.

"There's always little stuff. It's never good enough. You can pick and poke and edit all day. At some point, you have to just stop and go with it."

"Moonlight" was made on such a tight budget that she had to perform chores that normally would fall to crew members under her direction.

"I had to roll up sleeves, get in there and paint, carry furniture. Everything," she said. "It was all good. I had a great team. It really was a labor of love."

Now, she is in Atlanta on her biggest job yet -- Marvel's "Black Panther," starring Chadwick Boseman as the comic-book hero who first appeared on film in "Captain America: Civil Wars."

"This is a first for me, working on a comic book film," she said. "It's a whole new world."

The Marvel brand name brings particularly intense scrutiny from people who grew up reading the comic books and have high expectations -- including her 19-year-old son.

"We are working really hard to get it right, for the story and for the fans."

She has no plans yet for what she will do after "Black Panther," except relax.

"'Black Panther,' that's a full-time job of really concentrating and being fully in this. And I've got five more months on this. It's a lot of hard work we're doing."

Working on a wide range of movies has reinforced her belief that connecting with a movie's story is much more important than money or technique, topics that some fans love to analyze in exhaustive detail.

"This is a very magical medium," she said. "It's all about getting lost and being in the story. I don't want to know how I got there. You don't want all the little tricks and bits and bobs to be exposed. You keep some of that for yourself."