Production designer Paul D Austerberry – who won a BAFTA and an Oscar for his fluid, colour-coded creations on The Shape of Water (2018) – brings his same detail-oriented mindset to Blitz Bazawule’s The Color Purple, a jazzy musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The film, which takes place between 1909 and 1947, centres on the downtrodden Celie (Fantasia Barrino) who, in this version, escapes her difficult reality by retreating into fantasy. Here, Austerberry tells Yasmin Omar how he helped realise its world through multipurpose sets, large-scale props and a whole lot of pianos.
YASMIN OMAR: HOW DID YOU INCORPORATE MAGICAL REALISM INTO YOUR DESIGNS?
PAUL D AUSTERBERRY: The magical realism often took place during the musical numbers, which freed us from normal dramatic conventions. I’d never done a musical before – you have to design thinking about the dancers’ needs. It has to be safe, people are going to be jumping and flipping and doing all kinds of things, but we also wanted to give the performers opportunities to use bits of the set and props to interact with, and influence their movement.
YO: SPEAKING OF SAFETY, HOW DID YOU ENSURE THAT THE SET FOR HARPO’S HOUSE – WHICH IS MADE UP TO APPEAR MID-CONSTRUCTION AND IS ON STILTS OVER A SWAMP – ACHIEVES THAT ‘UNFINISHED’ LOOK, WHILE STILL BEING STURDY FOR THE DANCERS?
PDA: We shot the swamp section out of sequence. In the film, we start with Harpo’s rundown boathouse that he builds into a family home, then converts into the juke joint. We had originally scouted a proper swamp in coastal Savannah but, because a lot of it’s tidal, we couldn’t be assured that we’d be able to keep the water level equal during the three different phases we needed to shoot there. We ended up at a former plantation in Atlanta where they’d dammed up the lakes to become swamps. We drained it, put down fibreglass mats so we could drive machinery in and construct the set, then we opened the floodgates and let the water back in. Because we only wanted to drain it once, we decided to do the biggest construction first, which was Harpo’s juke joint, then we had the finished house and finally we stripped that to a semi-constructed state. It was actually very secure to start with and we subtracted it all the way back for that dance.
YO: ONE OF THE FILM’S MOST FANTASTICAL IMAGES IS THE MASSIVE GRAMOPHONE CELIE DANCES ON. HOW DID THAT COME TOGETHER?
PDA: This was an idea Blitz had in mind before I came on, he’d shown it to Oprah [Winfrey, producer]. We start with a normal-sized record spinning in a gramophone before Celie enters this fantasy world, which takes her out of the pain of her horrible life. We copied the shape of that original gramophone and built the whole thing several times bigger – the arm, the needle, the big record with the grooves in and the oversized label – and it all turned too. Everything was practical except for the horn.
YO: THIS IS A STORY ABOUT IMPOVERISHED CHARACTERS. HOW DID YOU MAKE THE SETS SMALL ENOUGH TO SHOW THAT, BUT LARGE ENOUGH SO IT WAS PRACTICAL TO SHOOT THERE? SOFIA’S PRISON CELL, FOR EXAMPLE, LOOKS CLAUSTROPHOBIC.
PDA: That was one of our smallest sets! Through some camera trickery and a little blending with VFX, we were able to make the camera encircle Sofi a in her cell. We did it in three parts: we had a hinged panel that opened and closed, so the camera came a third of the way around an arc, then there’s a big shadow. We froze everything, put the panel up, readjusted things, aligned Danielle [Brooks, who plays Sofia] and continued to go around the circle. The barbershop set, which was part of a dance number, was really small too. We had panels that pulled the camera through the glass shopfront.
YO: THERE ARE A LOT OF PIANOS IN THE FILM, HOW DID YOU SOURCE AND DRESS THEM SO THEY FIT AESTHETICALLY WITH EACH PLACE?
PDA: Strangely enough, pianos are easy to come by – the hard part was choosing the correct one for the scene. Our set decorator Larry Dias found a plethora of free pianos on Facebook Marketplace. Most of them had to be gutted a certain amount, or at least dampened because you don’t want the sound to contaminate the dialogue. It’s actually quite a lot of work. A special person padded everything and locked out all the keys so they’d make very little noise.
This article originally appeared in the Awards Journal. Pick up your free copy now in any Curzon cinema while stocks last.
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