From Ai Weiwei to Claude Monet, Oscar-Nominated Production Designers Reveal Artistic Inspirations

6:30 AM 2/15/2019

by Katie Kilkenny

Hannah Beachler, Fiona Crombie, Nathan Crowley, John Myhre and Eugenio Caballero share the paintings, sculptures, architecture, photographers (and one fashion house) that influenced their 2018 films.

'Black Panther,' 'The Favourite,' 'First Man,' 'Mary Poppins Returns' and 'Roma'
'Black Panther,' 'The Favourite,' 'First Man,' 'Mary Poppins Returns' and 'Roma'
Courtesy of Films

As the sun rises on London at the top of Mary Poppins Returns, the fog parts to reveal the outlines of two iconic buildings: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, cloaked in muted purples, greys and oranges. Both discerning art-history majors and casual onetime visitors to The Met might note the direct homage to Monet's famous series "Houses of Parliament." But in other moments in Rob Marshall's film, the artistic hat-tips aren't so clear, including scenes of London in the rain that reference French photographer Brassaï, and an opening-credits homage to Peter Ellenshaw.

Production designers draw from an array of influences when they design the worlds of their respective films, sometimes referencing precedents directly or indirectly. Black Panther's production designer, Hannah Beachler, drew from mosaics of images on a wall in her office "because you never know how that picture or its color is going to influence you," she says. First Man production designer Nathan Crowley credits walking around his hometown, New York, for his ideas: "I think it's about being around art, it's about just looking, it's about wandering through New York," he says. "I don't look at a painting and say, 'Well, that's our film,' it's a combination of experiences." (Nevertheless, specific places have helped Crowley figure out certain sets: The Bat Bunker in The Dark Knight, for instance, was highly influenced by New York's Dia:Beacon galleries, he says.)

However they draw from the visual arts, production designers are nearly always influenced by work that came before. And so, in honor of the inaugural L.A. art fair Frieze LA, The Hollywood Reporter asked the production designers behind this year's Oscar-nominated films to share the artists and works that inspired them on their 2018 films. Read their answers below.

  • Hannah Beachler

    Black Panther

    Angkor Watt
    Angkor Watt
    Ian Walton/Getty Images

    Ikiré Jones fashion house
    "They have these beautiful pieces of art that mix the idea of Lagos, of the density of the population and the market. But then there was this futuristic element of flying cars [in Black Panther], and they had the feeling of a city, which is something Ryan [Coogler] was very interested in."

    Angkor Wat
    "I wanted Hall of Kings to feel like it had lasted through because of the story of it. In my mind, the story that I came up with was that when people first settled in Wakanda 20,000 years ago, discovering the things that had happened because of the meteorite and asteroid landing, one of them was the fauna evolving into other things because of the vibranium, so they come upon the Heart-Shaped Herb. And the elders never moved it, they kept it, they built around it. So when you look at the movie and see these pie-shaped gardens, it's because that whole structure was built around these very sacred plants. That was the influence of Angkor Wat's: building something and trying to make sure a part of it, in a way that's very more decorated and designed, infiltrates it, is built around, to receive it as the most important piece of the building itself."

    Aïda Muluneh
    "It was really the earlier stuff, the white, black and red, [that inspired me with its] modernism in this tradition that is not viewed as beautiful but made to be beautiful for mainstream purposes. It's something that everybody can see themselves in. That's another part of Wakanda that we wanted to make sure we were adding into design elements, was that everyone could see something of themselves, of their heritage, of their culture, whether they be from southern Georgia, San Francisco, New York, Busan or Oslo."

    Shou Sugi Ban
    "We used the Japanese process Shou Sugi Ban, the burning that's popular these days but was actually to weatherproof cedar siding in Japan in the 15th century. And it made the wood resistant and stronger once it was burned, and you get this really velvety, beautiful finish — it's like black, char velvet, just beautiful, and then it's treated after the burn. The idea in M'baku's throne room was that [the people of his tribe] don't adhere to the idea of using vibranium, the metal that you see everywhere and the bulletproof stuff: Everything is wood. The idea in my head was that when this meteor was coming down, it let off some spray and ash, and it landed and settled at the base of this mountain where the Jabari lived millions of years ago. It concentrated and saturated in the earth, which then became part of the flora and fauna. So the trees that grow at the base, which the Jabari use to create their city and their technology, are the same as vibranium, but only when you burn them. So the [Jabari's] wood becomes a vibranium: It's stronger when it burns, and it sort of fades into this gradient as you get closer to M'baku's throne room."

  • Fiona Crombie

    The Favourite

    A Candida Höfer piece at the the North Carolina Museum of Art's "Candida Höfer in Mexico" exhibition from October 13, 2018-January 20, 2019.
    A Candida Höfer piece at the the North Carolina Museum of Art's "Candida Höfer in Mexico" exhibition from October 13, 2018-January 20, 2019.
    Christopher Ciccone/Courtesy of NCMA

    Candida Höfer
    "One of the first references I was drawn to was Candida Höfer, the photographer. Her sense of scale and emptiness in incredibly ornate spaces was very informative for me. Even in my initial pitch to Yorgos [Lanthimos] I had a few of her images. [Though] they're wildly off-period, they're not England or anything, there was a sense of the grandeur and scale but also sparseness that I thought really resonated for the film. And so she was a big one for me."

    James Pryde's The Red Bed
    "There was a painting by James Pryde [The Red Bed] that was a big oversized bed in a bedchamber. Again, it came down to this idea of playing with scale: Tiny humans, huge bed, massive room, this idea that there's an abstraction to our film. That's quite historically accurate, but I loved seeing that abstraction of scale and space."

    David Sims
    "I remember looking at David Sims' photographs of roses. There was something very lovely about flowers and decay and imperfection. I think that one thing that I’m really pleased with about our film is that there's a humanity and groundedness and imperfection: There's a mess on the floor, the bed is unmade, they're organic spaces that live with the characters, and I was really feeling that when I looked at his photos. "

    Alessandro Cirillo
    "There's a contemporary artist, Alessandro Cirillo, whose wonderful photographs are small portraits, but the faces are blown out with a flash. There was something about those: They're in dark backgrounds and the faces are lost, and I just loved the reconfiguring of a classic portrait. I tried to reinterpret a period film and give an original take on that period of history — it's not your classic period [piece], we invented our own language, and so I remember being really attracted to those artworks for that reason."

  • Nathan Crowley

    First Man

    Dia:Beacon's exterior
    Dia:Beacon's exterior
    Bill Jacobson Studio, New York/Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

    Norman Mailer: Moonfire, the Epic Journey of Apollo 11
    The book Norman Mailer: Moonfire, The Epic Journey of Apollo 11, the Taschen book that had Norman Mailer's essays on space and philosophy of landing on the moon, [influenced me]. I really consulted it because of the wonderful images in that book; that was probably the first things I looked at. And I looked at it a bit for Interstellar because they're just incredible photographs.

    "I live in Brooklyn, and I'm a big modernist, minimalist [fan], so I got up to Dia:Beacon a lot and spend time up there because they have all those brilliant Richard Serra sculptures sunk in the ground. I always try to find the simplest image and I think architects like [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe and modernist art, I like the simplicity. In movies, you don't need a lot of clutter in the frame: You can put a man against a wall and say a lot."

    George Bellows' Boxers
    I also do work for the Met Museum of Art's Costume Institute, I design some exhibitions. So I spend some time wandering around the Met and you go see George Bellows and the boxers. You see the force of their humanity and apply that to trying to push leaving the Earth, gravity, it takes an enormous amount of force."

    James Turrell's Meeting
    "If there's ever a James Turrell exhibition, I would never miss it. That's just inspiring. [MoMA] PS1 has his classroom with no roof [Meeting], to go there just to get a different perspective, that's pretty cool, seeing the clouds move."

  • John Myhre

    Mary Poppins Returns

    Ai Weiwei and his piece, "Sunflower Seeds"
    Ai Weiwei and his piece, "Sunflower Seeds"
    Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

    Monet's "Houses of Parliament" series
    "Sitting down with Rob Marshall, the director, we said our film needed to open in the London fog. And we wanted to do something on the embankment with Parliament and Big Ben in the background just at that exact moment they're appearing at dawn and out of the fog. So of course we immediately thought of Monet and his series of unbelievably beautiful paintings of Parliament coming out of the fog. And it was so exciting because while we were working on Mary Poppins, Tate Britain did a whole show on London as seen by artists from all time periods, and they had a room where they gathered maybe 10, 20 of those drawings that he did over a period of years. That room was very inspirational. To stand in the center of that room and seeing Monet's works surrounding [you] like that, it felt like you were in the fog in the London. So those images were all over the art department walls and I'm sure the cinematographer's — the elegance and softness were quite inspirational."

     "We also knew we were going to be shooting some very important scenes at night and the fog in the night with wet cobblestone streets, and the French photographer Brassaï did the most beautiful black-and-white photography in Paris of the streets at night wet, with the wet cobblestones and the fog and just really beautiful atmosphere. And that became quite a bit of a major inspiration for us as well."

    Peter Ellenshaw
    "Peter Ellenshaw did the glass paintings that are at the beginning of the first Mary Poppins. So the design of the first Mary Poppins was all very paint-driven, and really based on his work. We went to Disney, where they still have a couple of the very large-scale glass paintings that they filmed and panned over and through for the opening title sequences. Your heart just starts beating when you're sitting there, looking at the original pieces of art. And these are very large-scale paintings that they didn't film the whole piece of, they would start at a corner. It was almost storytelling, and they would pan across London and reveal something then go down to the left and then to the right — super clever. We ended up using some of the original Ellenshaw artwork and hired other artists to paint in his style, and that became the opening credits sequence for the movie."

    Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds
    "He always finds beauty in the simplest things. I did a show in China about three or four years ago, and one of our translators had been working as a translator for Ai Weiwei. One day he asked me to hold out my hand, and he poured six of the porcelain sunflower seeds into my hand. I've got those on the mantle of my fireplace, and I look at those every day."

  • Eugenio Caballero


    An Orozco Mural at Dartmouth College
    An Orozco Mural at Dartmouth College
    Dartmouth College and Eli Burakian

    Nacho Lopez's "La Venus" series
    "You see certain things of Nacho Lopez [in the film]. There's the series of pictures that is called 'La Venus' about this very humble guy who was hired to carry a naked mannequin to take it to another place. What Nacho [documented] is this subject and his mannequin and the reactions that that evoked in people. He makes a stop in a cantina, and he brought the mannequin in, and people were teasing him about [the mannequin] being his girlfriend. It's beautiful because you can really see the city and all these posters and things that were there; all this iconography and visual references. I, for example, when the two workers — Cleo and Adela — were towards a place where they meet Fermin and Ramon, I even put a mannequin there as an homage to him."

    David Alfaro Siqueiros' and José Clemente Orozco's Murals
    "I can never go into creating something — I have it in my DNA — without the influence of the big muralists in Mexico, especially [David Alfaro] Siqueiros and [José Clemente] Orozco. I knew the one that's the best known is Diego Rivera, but Siqueiros and Orozco are also very internationally well known artists. I really respect them for different reasons, but one of them, especially Orozco is for stripped-down nature of his strokes. I think we really somehow wanted to somehow have those very enhanced strokes and certain elements in our set."

    Jose Maria Valasco
    "I always go to painting. We have very nice landscape as well, when the car crosses the dirty, sensual Mexican field, with the volcanoes on the side, or this feeling of reminding [Cleo] in her hometown when the kids are playing in the field. I always thought of Jose Maria Valasco, who is probably the most important landscape artist in Mexico. He was from the turn of the century — the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, before the revolution."

    Edward Weston
    "I also thought of this American photographer that came to Mexico and did amazing portraits of people, where you can really see the souls of them, and also landscapes. He was a very modern photographer who came around the '20s in Mexico. His name was Edward Weston. He came from Glendale, Calif. to Mexico and fell in love with Tina Modotti, another great artist and photographer, and they were an important part of the art scene and landscapes for three years around the '20s, just after the revolution ended, and then he went to Point Lobos, back in Northern California."