Awards Radar got the opportunity to chat with Gerald Sullivan, the production designer responsible for recreating the iconic sets of Whitney Houston‘s new biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Sullivan was responsible for recreating the live performances, Whitney’s childhood home, Clive Davis‘ office, and much more.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody follows Whitney Houston as she is discovered by record executive Clive Davis and rises to international fame, becoming one of the greatest singers of all time. The film was released in theaters on December 23rd, starring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, and Ashton Sanders.
In this interview, Sullivan breaks down what went into recreating the sets, collaborating with Whitney’s family members and friends, and his background.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Gerald: I am a graduate of SCI-Arc, Southern California Institute of Architecture. I segued into the film industry from architecture in the mid-’90s. I have had the good fortune of working with many notable directors and production designers. My career in production design has afforded me the opportunity to work on a wide variety of film genres and to visit and work in many different countries and cities in the United States.
How did you get involved in the movie?
Gerald:I previously worked with Erika Hampson, producer, who shared the script with me.
You recreated iconic scenes such as Whitney’s childhood home, live performances, Clive Davis’ office, etc. how extensive was the research process, and how did you start your research for scenes such as these?
Gerald: First, we would scour the internet for relevant photos of each location. We would use Google Earth to view each location in its context. Once we found actual images of Whitney’s childhood home, for instance, we would then begin scouting for matching homes in the greater Boston area. Clive and his associates were kind enough to provide photos of his office and its furniture.
Can you elaborate on how you designed the live performances?
Gerald: For the live performances, we would watch any existing footage we could find of a particular tour after we would research the venue, collect existing stage plans and recreate as much as we could fit in a stage and have VFX extend the portions beyond our stage space.
What was your favorite set to design?
Gerald: I really enjoyed the research involved in all of the sets we created. I particularly liked recreating Cive Davis’ office with its ’70s/’80s feel. Clive lent us the actual seen artwork above the sofa in the classic photo of Whitney signing the contract with Clive.
Can you expand on your collaboration with Whitney’s family members and friends?
Gerald: We received some of our pros and consultation from the Houston state, and Pam Houston was able to answer the many questions and requests we had.
What was the biggest challenge?
Gerald: We filmed in Boston (and Los Angeles for the Beverly Hilton), so finding locations that would feel authentic to New Jersey, NYC, etc., took the most time and was most challenging.
What’s next for you?
Gerald: I am currently working on the Amazon series Mr. & Mrs. Smith, starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine.