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Interview: Production Designer Barry Robison on Influences and Tight Interiors for ‘One Night in Miami’

One Night in Miami, the directorial debut of Regina King, could alternatively be called One Night in One Room since most of its action takes place behind closed doors in a motel with four Black icons of the 1960s. Awards Radar had the chance to learn from production designer Barry Robison about how he approached working with a defined space and the many past productions that aided him in his masterful work on this film.  

Q: What did you know of these four men before you came on to this project?

A: When I was growing up, I was a kid during this time, and it was a really big story about Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X’s story too, lesser Jim Brown and Sam Cooke. They were deeply stuck in the back of my mind. When my agents called, I had just come off a pretty big project in Croatia, a big, crazy Stephen King thing. I was looking for something smaller, much more heartfelt. The agents sent through the script and I just couldn’t believe it. It was really spectacular. It really speaks to my wheelhouse, right in there with Hacksaw Ridge, October Sky, Million Dollar Arm. I’ve done big movies, but I seem to really gravitate towards these realistic human stories. This one was just so fantastic. I couldn’t believe the dialogue.

Q: What surprised you in your research?

A: That it was so incredibly documented. That was very intimidating for me. A lot of times, when you read a script, you’re going to want to fudge or heighten the reality. In this, you just could not do that. I really worked hard with my art director Mark Zuelzke and our team to give this thing a sheen of reality, for a lack of a better term. It was important to get the details right. For example, when I came on board, Regina had gone out on a quick scout with the producers and had seen things that she liked. When I got into New Orleans, which is where we shot the movie, I was just sort of plugging into her vision. I realized that things needed to be mushed around a little and moved around places, but it’s all there. I got my team on board and I sent two of them down to the Hampton House in Miami, which still exists. Not a lot of people know that. In its heyday, during the fifties and sixties during Jim Crow, it was a safe haven for middle-class and upper middle-class Black families. But it went into decline in the seventies and eighties, and in the late nineties, a community group got together, saved it, renovated it, and now it’s a cultural center. It has changed a bit, but all the bones were there. We went down there, measured railings, got details for the exterior, the breeze block walls, and the color scheme of the exterior. We couldn’t use the interior colors, because they were very Miami, baby blue and pink. That was not going to fit in with what we were wanting to do with the Hampton House. That’s one example. The other thing that director of photography Tami Reiker, Regina, and myself did was we delved deeply into research like Life Magazine and images of the period. Passion had just put out a huge large-format book on Muhammad Ali. In there were extraordinary photographs. With all that said, we were really able to use those as the basis of the visual for the film. 

Q: There are four distinct and different opening locations where we first see each of the characters. What did you want to convey about each of them in those settings?

A: It’s interesting, because it’s basically the introduction of the characters to the film audience for the first time, who may not have known who these guys were, or at least the impact they were having. Certainly Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke not so much, and Jim Brown a little bit. Of all of the retelling, we got Muhammad, or Cassius, being the clown and in the pool and doing the boxing. You get a real sense of who he is very quickly. Not so much with Malcolm, a little more with Sam Cooke, though it just ingratiates you into their worlds: the Muhammad boxing world, the Sam Cooke nightclub world, and the problems he was having getting started. Jim Brown was the most interesting of the group because of the way he was introduced. You didn’t go to any of the football games, you didn’t go to the movie set right away. No, you took a road trip back in time with him to a plantation house. It actually gives me goosebumps thinking about it. It really spoke to the Jim Crow era and how all those double standards existed. You’re a good, upright, and we’re-proud-of-you man, but you don’t get to come into my house. That was a chilling event. I think it said a whole lot about who Jim Brown was and where he came from, and really in these quick brush strokes.

Q: You mentioned that the colors inside the motel were not usual. Was it a challenge to make that room interesting enough without speaking louder than the characters?

A: You touched on something that is totally right on. I’m a production designer who was taught, and I believe, that our work is in support of the actors. I don’t like my work to shout out and scream, “Look at me! Look at me!” There are times when you do a project and you have to do that, but on a project like this, I was in total support of the actors and what Regina wanted. Regina was very clear. She wanted her men to look good. She wanted them to look good at all times in that room. The room itself was a challenge. A motel room is very small, usually fifteen feet wide, sixteen feet deep. One wall is called a curtain wall, made of windows and a door. There are no other windows in the room, and it’s just a little shoebox. We’ve all been in motel rooms and know that look. For me, I knew it was going to be a challenge. There are over eighty pages of dialogue set in that room and I knew that a fourteen by sixteen foot room was not going to work for Regina. We were building and shooting in a community rec center in a little town called LaPlace in Louisiana outside of New Orleans. My art department was in an old abandoned supermarket. So I had this huge space, and all of us were just tucked into a corner. I knew that I would be able to tape out the space on the floor of our art department and put up cardboard partition walls so that Regina and Tami could come in and begin to fill the space. The moment they did, I saw their reaction. I said, don’t freak out, let’s work on this together. We were a terrific collaborative team. I explained to both of them that a trick a production designer can do is to enlarge the space by twenty percent without the camera eye knowing it. But that still wasn’t going to be enough. Regina and I were strategizing over dinner one night, and I said, listen, is this too far-fetched for you? Malcolm is a superstar and a celebrity. The Hampton House is a large enough motel that they may have given him his room with an adjoining room attached. Regina is very deliberative. She wants to think about it, doesn’t just snap and say, that’s it, let’s go. She thought about it overnight, called me the next morning and said, yeah, that’s a great idea, let’s go for it. So that’s how we got to our space. We’ve got the motel room, where the two beds are, a record player, a television set, some chairs, and there’s a neutral zone where the bathroom is and a closet. Through an archway and a set of double doors, there’s another room with a table and chairs. There were a lot of times in the dialogue where two characters are over here and another two characters are having a conversation. You don’t want them right on top of them. It allowed Regina and Tami to get that camera away and feel as if Malcolm and Sam Cooke could have a private conversation with Muhammad and Sam were in the other room. It also allowed for lighting for Tami. Rather than just having a single source blasting from one side, she could have backlighting, which I think really helped and enhanced that environment.

Q: This is a considerable departure from season one of Snowpiercer but is actually more like the contemporary work you did in the first few episodes of Good Girls, with a quiet, domestic quality to it. Do you prefer working in the past, the present, or the future?

A: Actually, I like working in all of them. The past is fun, just because of the research. The present, eh, not as much, to be honest with you. Let me explain to you about those three projects. Good Girls was brought to me by one of my oldest friends, Dean Parisot. He’s a director, and we’ve done a lot of projects together. He said, oh come on, this will be fun, let’s do this. I wasn’t doing anything, so I said sure. I hadn’t done television except little bits in my early career as a soap opera designer, which impacted a lot of One Night in Miami, which I’ll explain later. I hadn’t really done episodic, and I was kind of curious about it. I think I did three episodes of Good Girls and that was enough. I said, okay, I got it now. I think I had just come back from doing Hacksaw Ridge in Australia with Mel Gibson, and that was an amazing project. Difficult, super difficult, low-budget, no money, we were down in the trenches. My agents called and said, well, let’s get you some money. Would you be willing to come in and take over a project that’s had trouble with their production designer? I went, really? They said, yeah, it’s not far along at all. Read the script, see what you think. I knew Snowpiercer because I love the feature so much. I thought, why not, let’s give it a go. It’s longform, what I’m really wanting to do. I took a Skype meeting with everyone, and they had to say certain things to make me want to do it. When they said the right things, I said yes, I’m going to do this project. Unlike Regina, I can go, boom, I’m not all that deliberative. They said they didn’t want it to look like the feature, they wanted it to have its own identity. They explained to me what was going on and where they were headed. I flew up a day later to Vancouver and took over, and then brought my supervising art director up a few days later. We walked the stages, and there was nothing done. They had the idea of building the trains on these flatbed semi-trailer beds, but that was it. I went, wow, what’s going on here? We’ve only got five weeks before principal starts. We really had to crank. We went crazy with them and made Snowpiercer. That was a blast. I loved it. I only wanted to do one season, and that was great. I’m kind of missing it a little bit. I loved my crew up there, and it was a wonderful project. I worked with wonderful directors and producers. However, what Snowpiercer taught me was a really important lesson for One Night in Miami, which was how to pack a lot of visual information into small spaces. In Snowpiercer, believe me when I tell you, none of the sets, not one of them, was wider than twelve and a half feet wide, and they weren’t any longer than sixty feet at the largest. Most were forty feet, thirty feet, but always within that twelve and a half, thirteen-foot width. I learned how to pack up a lot of information into small places. Coming full circle back to this project, we were dealing with small spaces and trying not to make them boring for the audience for that length of time. Wall texture was super important. The colors in the room, Regina, Tami, and I worked really hard. I’m an old white gay guy. I’ve been doing this a long time. I understand how skin tones look in the space, but it was making Regina comfortable in the space. We did a lot of sampling. I explained to her the psychology behind color, and why we would choose green. It’s restful to the eye, but there’s energy behind it because of the yellow in the palette. She really liked that. We found the green, and did the test with different African-American skin tones in front of it. Same with the wood, because there’s a lot of wood in that set. We didn’t have to worry about the floors, because they were linoleum, which speaks to Miami heat, as does the green wallpaper. It was really pretty interesting. She wanted her men to look good in that room at all times. Working with Francine, the costume designer, it was really this group project. It was really fun, really a great project. Let me just bring you up to speed about a couple of things in that set. That set does tricks. A couple you could see within the camera, others you can’t see. For example, there’s a room divider screen, and that room divider screen is on a moving track, because they were on a very tight shooting schedule, and it was very difficult for the grip department to blow the walls or remove the ceilings. We did have the ability to do that, usually that was done overnight, but we would use these things from the soap opera called camera ports. On a soap opera, back in the day when I was doing it, they had these massively big cameras that would lumber around. The directors would always want to get into the set, but because they were so big, they couldn’t always. So we would cut a hole in the wall and a picture would be put over it, so when the camera wanted to get in, the picture would hinge out of the way and the camera could go right in and be with the actors. I explained that to Tami and Regina, and they loved that idea. We worked with placement of paintings, mirrors, furniture, and did the same thing in that space. That was one big trick, because Regina just wanted the actors in the room without the camera being present. Being able to have those camera ports so the lens of the camera could be right at the wall of the set without breaking it and going into the room was very cool. I was very happy to introduce that to those guys.

Q: Will we be seeing that Stephen King project you mentioned in the future, and can you talk about it?

A: Sadly, no, but it was one of the coolest projects ever. I just loved it. It was going to be a longform remake of The Dark Tower. I got a call from Glenn Mazzara, the showrunner-producer, and he said, we’re going to shoot in Croatia. I’m going, okay, a Western in Croatia. What? We just had so much fun, I can’t even begin to tell you. The reason I also didn’t do the second season of Snowpiercer was because I was in Croatia doing this massive, crazy, mashup nutty project. I don’t know if this is true or not, but according to Stephen King, he writes a Dark Tower book – it’s an anthology – when he needs to clear his head of all the other garbage from writing other books. It was just crazy. I loved it. It was for Amazon. I was really hoping it was going to go, because exploring that world was very rich. But there it is. It’s fun being a production designer. You get to create worlds. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to do small, big, sci-fi, real, so that people can’t put me in a box. In Hollywood, people like to put you in the box a lot. When I first came to LA, I got stuck in the comedy box. I did Wedding Crashers, You, Me and Dupree, and I finally had to put my foot down and say, no more comedies.

One Night in Miami is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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