Production Design: From the Streets of 'Detroit' To 'Ebbing, Missouri'

7:30 AM 11/6/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

In THR's first production design gallery of awards season, 'Breathe' and 'Battle of the Sexes' are also profiled.

Detroit Production Design 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures
  • Detroit

    Research was critical in making Detroit (Annapurna), Kathryn Bigelow's retelling of the Algiers Motel incident during the 1967 Detroit riot. "This incredibly sad and difficult story demanded a great deal of attention to details in order to represent the authentic version of Detroit in 1967," says production designer Jeremy Hindle. "The Detroit riots are very well documented. After months of research, we had many stills and film footage."

    Quite a lot of the film was shot in the Boston area, and so they began searching for locations including the one pictured above. "Scouting for this large street set that we use for multiple riot scenes took quite a while. We almost scouted every street within an hour of Boston.

    "Once we settled on this location in Brockton, we did a 3D model of the street and started to recreate all of the elements of the original streets. After months of design, we spent six weeks on the street building each storefront with authentic window dressing, all of the exterior painted and neon storefront signage as well as building and dressing the interiors of each shop for looting and smashing windows."

    He adds that a 50 ft. exterior section of the street was also created for riot scenes "with burnt out buildings and storefronts rigged with fire effects. The street was designed to house four cameras simultaneously, for both interior and exterior day and night scenes while also giving the director a 360-degree set to move around freely in, simultaneously providing enough period practical lighting and live fire effects for the director of photography."

  • Breathe

    Andy Serkis' feature directorial debut (via Bleeker Street) tell the true love story of Robin and Diana Cavendish. When Robin (Andrew Garfield) is paralyzed from the neck dow by polio at age 28, he and his wife work to improve his life and to help other polio patients. This hospital set was created on location at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in the UK. The work required substantial research into respirators and iron lungs.

    "People would lie all day and night in these iron lungs. Also in the ward you see our respirators, which were incredibly naitve and Heath Robinson like," explains production designer James Merifield. "I wanted to show the stark reality of this space by putting a 'rib cage' like lighting frame over the beds with extremely directional lighting like interrogation lamps, thus supporting Robin's inert desire to escape this form of hell."

  • Battle of the Sexes

    Battle of the Sexes, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ film about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) for Fox Searchlight, involved a key press conference that was lensed in the lobby of Ambassador College in Pasadena.

    “I had originally scouted the building when Jonathan, Valerie and I were thinking outside the box for hotel buildings and were exploring brutalist and unusual '70s architecture,” production designer Judy Becker says. “Aside from the gaudy carpet, and the yellow backdrop curtain, which helped tie the little press conference set together, I pretty much followed the reference from the real event. The elements of the press conference are pretty basic — a folding table, the necessary microphones, and the very era-specific portrait of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, based on the Leroy Neiman original.

    "I love the simplicity of material life in the post WWII / pre-1980's decades and I try to be meticulous about being true to that and not overdressing a set from that time period," she adds. “Sometimes the simple sets like these have the greatest visual impact. Minimalism is not only harder to pull off than maximalism, but in the end, you really do realize that less is almost always more." 

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

    In this Fox Searchlight release, Mildred, played by Frances McDormand, commissions three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at the police chief (Woody Harrelson). This location was found in Black Mountain, N.C. "We spent weeks scouting for a perfect road," says production designer Inbal Weinberg. "It had to be isolated and rural, with large vistas and open landscape. Importantly, it also had to physically connect with the set for Mildred's house, so that from her house you could see the billboards in the background. So [writer/director] Martin McDonagh, our location manager Robert Faulks and I spent days in the car, driving through mountains and valleys, listening to old-school country music, looking for our road.

    "Once we settled on our road the next challenge was the billboards. I did a lot of research of vintage billboards as well as modern-day ones, and we sometimes stopped by the side of the road if we saw a billboard we really liked. We got help and advice from local billboard companies, but our structure was more complex than usual because it had to also be fire-proofed, so my construction team worked closely with our special effects department to prep the billboards for our fire scene."

    Weinberg adds that she and McDonagh did many mockups with different graphics, fonts and colors before selecting the final look. "It was Martin's idea to try the red background, which immediately made everything more dramatic. Since the written content was so sensitive, we were asked by the local community to cover the billboards whenever we weren't shooting, which required a dedicated team with lifts and huge pieces of material daily."