When I sat down to talk with veteran production designer John Blackie, I thought he had a bigger challenge at work. The Dude Lord Bird The authenticity of the period has to be balanced with a limited physical geography to work. To my surprise, John said that authenticity was (mostly) a secondary concern for him. While not insignificant, serving up the drama and comedy of the story was first and foremost. It was a good reminder to me that no matter how many abilities are given to the person working in the film, their main job is to be a storyteller. Below, John and I discuss how their work told the story of John Brown at Showtime. the good lord bird.
Awards Daily: When you got a chance to work the good lord birdWere you wondering how challenging it would be to pull off a project with such a strange mix of comedy and tragedy?
John Blackie: Totally. I got a call from Blumhouse to Jeremy Gould and we had worked together before. He asked if I would be interested, I read the script, I liked the combo of a dark time in our history mixed with really dark humor. It was really beautiful, so it really attracted me: taking a real serious situation and injecting this gallows humor on top of it. This strangely made the incident even more serious.
AD: As a production designer, I can imagine there are many challenges in doing a piece like this. Like striving for authenticity in terms of setup.
JB: I think authenticity wasn’t necessarily the first thing we were aiming for. We were trying to track down the dramatic purpose of the script. You remove everything that is not acceptable in the image and you try to portray it as accurately as possible. But really a lot of the locations and solutions to the problems were based on the story needs of each scene. You want to enhance the essence of the scene as opposed to the historical accuracy of sets or props or anything. Even though we tracked it extensively, it wasn’t our first driving force.
Eddie: Most The Good Lord Bird was shot in Virginia, but of course Virginia would have to make the move for many of the states depicted in the story. Was it difficult to represent the different geographic regions for which Virginia had to stand?
JB: It was a big deal. Virginia has a very distinctive and overall green color. We tried to weave together a tapestry of landscape textures and take us where you could believe they were traveling and changing places. We knew about it at every step. The location manager, Colleen Gibbons, was incredible in helping us get there and bringing in new and different landscapes as often as possible.
AD: There’s a definite almost western vibe the good lord bird because of the time limit. i saw you worked hell on Wheels. Was that show experience helpful to you?
JB: Yeah, I think whenever you do a period piece it expands your horizons in terms of creating a world for the audience and the actors. It always helps. Everything helps. We are a collection of every experience we have so far.
AD: There are three set pieces that I’ve specifically responded to: one is quite simple, one is very grand and the last has probably the biggest scope. What was simple was right in the beginning—the barbershop scene. It’s spare and sparse, but everything in that space is what it should be. Can you talk about setting up a barbershop and what kind of experience you were going for?
JB: I think what we were seeing over the whole arc of the story was to have different levels of richness and texture from episode one to episode seven. You are trying to make a symphony. The purity and simplicity of that world in the opening scene is meant to set you up with the feeling that you can then head into the woods, or into Frederick Douglass’s house – which is quite grand. You walk through each of these places and there is a different texture and a different feeling. It is basically Onion’s journey through this reality which he has never seen before. The opening scene leads to a simple life experience, as that’s where The Onion comes in, and then her life gets complicated with conversations with John Brown from that day on.
AD: You pointed to the next set I wanted to ask you about: the home of Frederick Douglass, which is incredibly gorgeous. I can imagine that it was a gas to set up that spot.
JB: It was sure. It was a big challenge and that’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted to show The Onion that he could try to achieve what Frederick Douglass did in his lifetime and compared it. Onion must have been surprised to see such opulence. We really tried to push it as far as possible. That pre-Civil War may have been an eye-opener for The Onion open to the black community.
AD: It was also eye-opening for the audience because historically we’ve been told about Frederick Douglass, all we get is this harsh and static story. To have her so colorful, not only in nature but around, just turns you on your head a bit. Did you know that it was going to impress people in a way that they had never seen or thought of this character before?
JB: I think so. I think we were going for that. You never know whether it will be effective or not. You hope it is. Hope you are on the right track. I think the interesting thing about this show is that with Ethan being an executive producer, there was always a dialogue between me and him and writer Mark Richard, back and forth about ‘what’s the gist of this moment’ And we were trying to balance that too through the whole process. What’s interesting is that the collective mind takes you to a more enlightened place in our understanding of the story. Not to mention the fact that the story is great.
AD: The big set piece is Harper’s Ferry. You were talking about striving for authenticity by not being the driver for the show, but I think the set piece requires some loyalty.
JB: It was quite an undertaking. I think authenticity doesn’t really matter in the whole story, but that day, in that place, that matters from a historical point of view. That’s a set I would say we tried to be true to. It may not be exactly the same, because as I said we have to weave these threads of the story together so that the story can flow properly. Where they’re hiding in that firehouse type of space, we tried to stay true to the look and feel of that. We made it a little bigger so that we could have all the actors in it and make everything work. It’s actually been fragmented a bit so that all the drama can work. We knew this is where the rubber meets the road and we got to taste the authenticity that the audience can buy. There are a lot of people who know the story and know what happened, so I would say we tried to be the most authentic.
AD: You referenced Ethan. He wore a lot of hats on the project: playing Brown as well as writing and being one of the producers, and he was surrounded by a lot of family and friends. Can you talk about what it was like working with someone who was handling so many moving parts?
JB: I thought he was incredibly approachable, great idea, never ego-driven in any way. The collaborative spirit in this show was fantastic. He was always willing to listen to other people’s views, so he was changing and changing throughout the process as well. I would say he was probably one of the most influential actors I have worked with in terms of sharing the process.
AD: I think the same goes for screen sharing. When I interviewed Ethan, he told me ‘this is the story of The Onion and the John Brown incident.’ When you were part of it and see how much weight was put on Joshua Caleb Johnson (as Onion) and he was having a hard time playing a boy pretending to be a girl but pretending to be a girl. was not trying. Were you surprised by how well Joshua handled it and how much space was given to him to tell the story with his own eyes?
JB: I was surprised. We did a bunch of pictures for the network to show us what our show would look like and where we were going in terms of color and texture and all that sort of thing. We didn’t have much time so we took pictures of the set that I had already made and we dressed Ethan in his wardrobe and he was beautiful. It was amazing. But the really noticeable moment was when Joshua came and put on the costume and stepped in front of those sets and suddenly became this fluid-gendered character who could move in and out of it at a glance. it was beautiful. We all heaved a sigh of relief knowing that it would work. He proved it everyday. He worked really hard. He was very attentive. Ethan shared that stage very generously with all the actors, not just Josh. It was a great thing to try and see the input of all those people. That’s how you create something that has that kind of power.
AD: I think the degree of difficulty in a project like this, other than the injection of humor into so many scenes, is that we’re used to seeing stories of slavery or the civil rights movement often focusing on a white character. Huh. I think the trick of telling John Brown’s story through Onion’s eyes kept it from falling into the white savior trap.
JB: I couldn’t agree more and I think that’s one of the things that really fascinated me. This is a neat approach. This comes from author James McBride. He always had a purpose and we always maintained that, and I think it comes with that kind of approach. He’s only looking at it from the perspective that he can have, and I think we stayed true to that and we didn’t make it a white savior movie.
AD: The story of John Brown could have been told more effectively in a simpler way. This production faced a lot of difficulty and managed to overcome it. It feels great to be a part of such a successful project that takes on such challenging material.
JB: That sounds great. You always try to do your best work and you always try to hone the power of the script and the story and the storytelling and you never know when it’s going to work and when it’s not going to work. When it comes out, and it’s strong, of course you’re excited. I feel great about it and it’s true that it’s out there and people are watching it. you never know. Sometimes you work hard and you never cross the limit you wanted.
AD: Someone once said to me in an interview, you work as hard on something that comes out and isn’t as well received as you do on something that comes out and is.
JB: Yes. I always look at work as – believe it or not, it sounds silly I know but – work is secondary. Experience is primary. This is what I am doing everyday and my relationship with the people around me and the people involved in this creative process. that’s the deal. That’s the thing for me. That’s where creativity can blossom. That’s where you can get a working story. I try to focus on that relationship and that experience. I think this is it for me.
AD: I speak to in-camera talent and off-camera talent and the thing I hear constantly is that you are all trying to do anything to be a storyteller.
JB: You are absolutely right and if the story is something that is life affirming, I think that is what we all are. Even when we were in the cave, we were walking around telling our long tales. Telling stories is very important for human beings.