'BlacKkKlansman' production designer Curt Beech on recreating 1970s Colorado Springs for the movie
Curt Beech explains how he created three different, authentic worlds for Spike Lee's award-winning movie 'BlacKkKlansman'
Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' released this past August 10 on the 1st anniversary of the attack by white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally. Acclaimed by critics and loved by the audiences, the movie won the prestigious Grand Prix at the Cannes.
Based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, played by John David Washington, it chronicles the life of an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police department in the 1970s who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan through a series of bizarre and true events. While Lee has rightly walked away with so many of the plaudits, production designer Curt Beech's work has not gone unnoticed.
Beech created three distinct worlds for 'BlacKkKlansman': the police precinct, which was the setting for approximately 20 pages of the 110-page script; Stallworth's apartment; and the home of local Ku Klux Klan member Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen).
Beech and location manager Tim Stacker settled on Ossining, New York, to sub in for Colorado Springs, but there was a challenge in finding the correct police precinct. Because the precinct is an important part of the movie — both Stallworth and fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) work there — Beech decided that it would be custom built. "Precincts in New York are hard to find because there are so many cop shows that are shot in New York," he explained. "So we needed to build it on a stage."
While the film is set in the early 1970s, Beech didn't necessarily want each set to reflect the exact same timeframe. For instance, "the police environment is in need of a facelift," Beech explained, adding that he feels it's more reflective of the 1960s. "It's getting old; it's stained and scratched. We built the precinct very clean, and then spent a lot of time knocking it down, and making it feel much more lived in."
Stallworth, who is initially depicted as a modern man, lives in a place that reflects that style—expect to see bold, clashing patterns and lush carpeting in his home. And when he goes to work at the precinct, Beech explained, "Ron is literally entering a physical world that's more stained."
Lee introduces the audience to the young African-American detective as he's being interviewed to be the 'Jackie Robinson' of the local force. "Ron is the enlightened man in an ignorant world, so his environment is hipper, cooler, and smarter. It shows his integrity and sense of purpose, and how he is connected to the present and future," he said.
Klansman Felix Kendrickson's home is equally reflective of his character. "Felix, by contrast, is the ignorant man in a progressive world. He's stagnant and frozen by the past, and he can't move beyond that. He's looking backward," Beech said. "I sort of imagined that it's not his and his wife's house; it's their parents' house, they are living physically in the past even, so it feels dated. It's definitely not as cool and hip as Ron's."
To Beech, authenticity is key, and this includes a key focus on even the most minute details. In 'BlacKkKlansman,' even the mail on the table is period-correct and the papers on the table have the right label on them. While this helps the actors focus on their characters, Beech pays such close attention to detail because he has previous experience working with Lee.
The production designer previously worked alongside the director in 'She's Gotta Have It,' and says he's learned that anything in the background can end up in the foreground. "There were a couple of places I never intended for him to shoot; it was just intended to be background. But of course, he shot some big scenes, so I know better than to not finish something," he said.
This means that the lighting is period-appropriate and even the ceilings. How they may potentially appear onscreen was taken into consideration. In fact, Beech says the ceiling and lighting in the precinct was one of the more expensive undertakings for the film. "I think the audience should look up!" Beech laughed. "They won't, and they shouldn't; but we did spend a lot of money making sure it's correct."