AS: Is Ryan Coogler a visual person? Is he very focused on how the sets look?
HB: For sure. He’s super visual. That’s pretty much the only way we work. Visuals and storytelling. And it has been that way since Fruitvale Station. Ryan is also his own writer so our process is, after he starts writing he will get on the phone and tell me the story. And he’ll tell me what’s important to him about the story. For Creed, Philadelphia was really important as a character. The gyms were really important to him. And we talk about color. He pretty much was the one who came up with the colors in Black Panther, as far as the River Tribe being green, Nakia always was in green, the Dora Milaje in red. He told [costume designer] Ruth Carter and I that the royal color was purple and black. The Border tribe was blue.
When he was in Africa he texted me a picture. He was staying in a hut out in Lesotho with some of the shepherds he met in Cape Town. He just met these guys and they said, Hey, come to our hut! He went up to Lesotho and stayed with these dudes and sent me a picture outside their hut that was like ten feet in diameter, in the middle of nowhere. There’s a picture of Ryan with one of the Lesotho blankets on and he’s like, This is the Border tribe! That was a couple months before we even started the movie! He sent me that picture and it never changed. That was all Ryan. He was like, They’re blue! You know he’ll say those things and then Ruth Carter and I will add our perspective to it.
But there’s also stuff like the heart-shaped herb where I’d be showing him different visuals every single day. What about this? What about this? I think this is really cool. Finally it was like, This is it! This is what I’m doing! You’re just going to have to trust me, Ryan! It’s gonna be great! This is the heart-shaped herb and this is the whole story behind this plant. He’s finally like, Okay! All right, all right!
He really sets the mood, the tone for everything. There are times when I’d have the fabulous illustrator Tani Kunitake go in and I’d say, Tani, take a couple hours with Ryan. He’d go in with his paper and pencil and Ryan would tell him what he’s seeing in his head and Tani would draw it out and bring it to me. I’d look at the sketches and be like, Okay, this is cool. Let’s do this. Let’s add this. Let’s create an aircraft for the Jabari and have it coming up over this hill.
Ryan and I have our way and you know there’s not a lot of words. Sometimes we don’t have to say anything. We’ll just look at something and I’ll be like, I got ya. Yeah, I see your face. I know what that means! I think everybody in the film industry wants that relationship.
There are so many famous director/PD relationships like Martin Scorsese and Dante Ferretti, David Fincher and Don Burt. Jess Gonchor and the Coen brothers although the Coens have also used Dennis Gassner and Rick Heinrichs. They have always worked with Nancy Haigh and no other set decorator. Those are very coveted relationships. And I got to the point where I was like, I’m never gonna find that! And then here came Ryan. I know how lucky I am to have that relationship.