Director George Tillman said, “I wanted to make a film that feels modern for a young audience, but, also for a universal audience that creates a dialogue about important issues about race, social justice, and identity...in order to move towards peace and change.”
In order to do so, he relied on Production Designer William Arnold, Set Decorator Frank Galline SDSA International and their teams to create authentic environments that give a depth of history and insight into characters and their community. Galline talks with SET DECOR about working with Tillman and Arnold to help bring to life Angela Thompson’s acclaimed best-selling novel.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about collaborating with director George Tillman...
George is a very energetic man. He speaks with his whole body and you can’t help but get excited about the project or the set while talking to him. He reaches in and discusses things he knows about and trusts the rest to you if he doesn’t. George was very aware of the issues within this film. He strived to make the best film with the most awareness daily. This story was very personal to him. He became close to Angie and also wanted to represent her book well.
SET DECOR: Tillman also says...
“Atlanta is a very popular place to shoot because it has many different looks and we were able to find a match for Jackson, Mississippi as Angie had in mind for the book. It had the feeling we were looking for, and the city was very open to having us there.”
The neighborhoods and homes we filmed in were very welcoming. This enabled us to get the right look for Garden Heights
, yet also find more upscale neighborhoods. Atlanta offers quite a bit as far as options go. You can find almost anything here – though we are a little shy on palm trees. Not to say they haven’t been brought in.
SET DECOR: You know Atlanta so well and have done numerous productions where you have brought us the reality of everyday life in a community, as well as subtlely defining it.
A great example other than this film would be the depiction of a working-class community in Pennsylvania for PRISONERS.
...Please tell us about some of your chosen guidelines for creating this authenticity
I pull most of my guidelines from the script. Characters come to life while reading, and I try to build the interior around who I think they are. One of the backstories for Hugh Jackman’s character in PRISONERS was that he was sober and a survivalist. We packed his basement with all the survivalist’s gear and food we could find. Very organized. Almost OCD. He was a handyman, which is why we also had his workshop in the basement. I went to a yard sale and convinced the homeowner to rent me his entire shop that I spied in his garage. It took a bit of talking, as he was sure I was a scam artist but eventually he agreed. That worked out pretty well.
For THE HATE U GIVE, we scouted several homes that lent me a great deal of insight to the interiors of Garden Heights
. Also, George had a few suggestions. Khalil’s grandmother should feel like his grandmother. Plastic upholstery over the seat cushions etc. “This is just like my Gramma’s house” was heard more than once.
SET DECOR: Speaking of the director’s involvement, did he have any specific elements that he wanted you to include? Any specific requests/feedback?
George’s main requests were things that Angie had in the book. Because the book was so popular, we wanted to stay right with that fan base. I would send him photos of the sets when I finished to be sure he would be good with them when he arrived. On more than one occasion, you could hear George say, “I want the grit. I want it real.” So we brought the real.
The set he was most concerned with and had the most to say about was Khalil’s
bedroom. He was very clear and very specific about how it should feel and different things that should be in there. I did a show and tell with him for that set, so there wouldn’t be too many surprises.
George was also involved with Starr’s
bedroom, which, again, we based heavily on the book’s description. We had to jump through a few hoops to get real TLC and FRESH PRINCE posters because of the clearance issues, but they were a must for George. When they were doing their initial scouts around town, George saw a atheletic shoe box hanging on the wall with the top on it like a shelf. He loved that and requested we put one in the room, so we had one. [Editor’s note: See photos above]
SET DECOR: Please tell us about collaborating with PD William Arnold...
Bill was great to work with. His interaction with a decorator is minimal. He is there when he needs to be, but lets you do your thing. He was present when I showed George photos of the sets and only interjected when he felt George wasn’t clear on something. Bill is also very supportive of his team. Terrific to work with.
SET DECOR: Arnold mentions the palettes as helping differentiate between the two environments of Starr’s neighborhood of Garden Heights that of the prep school Williamson.
world was clean and cold. Houses and rooms were large and more formal. There was a good deal of blue in these sets. Garden Heights,
on the other hand, was much warmer. Smaller homes, rooms more full and personal. Garden Heights
interiors are more lived in, while Williamson
interiors often more looked at than lived in.
SET DECOR: How much of this was shot on stage?
Actually, we only built the police station. We built it in the art department office, so we were all misplaced for a while.
is often at the heart of a small community, as is certainly the case with Mr. Lewis’s
Please tell us about creating this wonderful set and all that it conveyed.
I reached back to my childhood for this one. My barbershop only had two chairs but it was full of local color photos of kids, ads, all the product on the counter. Hot foam for the cleanup. Being that Mr. Lewis was an older man, I tried to make his shop dated, full of history, family and believable.
The corner market
is another keystone for a small community. Here Starr’s
, who turned his life around after prison, owns and operates the store, Carter’s Grocery
. At a point in the story, the market
is on fire...
The tricky part of Mav’s
store was the fact that there would be a fire in there. Because it was on a location, I put all the gondola shelving on rollers so they could be easily moved while filming. I also had three sets of one row fully dressed for take 2 and 3, when the fire starts.
The fire was all practical by the SFX team. They had flame bars strategically placed based on George’s camera angles. We had to empty all of the product from their boxes, and the boxes all had to be nontoxic when burned. We made our own chips bags, so we knew for certain what the paper was made of. Then we had only an afternoon to put together the aftermath. We burned a few more gondolas and dragged them from the store. Pulled some actual debris from the filming and dressed that about the front door.
SET DECOR: And speaking of set change, please tell us about moving forward in the Carter home from the opening scene of “the talk” to present day...
Because of the income level of the family, the changes were minimal. The dining room set for “the talk” was the set owned by Lisa’s
mother, from whom she had inherited the house. The dining set was moved to the breakfast room at the rear of the house and a new “used” set was brought in to replace it. Drapery change and a MUCH larger television were also added.
SET DECOR: Anything serendipitous on this project?
I was able to reconnect with some great local artists and get their work on film. George saw a mural on a building that he loved it and wanted to shoot it. I happened to know the artist so I got in touch with him. In the end, he painted a mural for us.
SET DECOR: Was there a particular draw to you to do this film?
The main draw for me is always character-driven scripts. Action films don’t really do it for me. I enjoy telling a story, building a character, creating the environment. People’s “stuff” and the placement of that stuff is very telling about their life, personality, happiness, and their history. That kind of sculptural work needs to be present in the script for me.
SET DECOR: And what has this filmmaking experience brought to you. What is your take away?
I was very moved by this script. Although we see this subject in the news far too often, reading this script, working on this film and getting close to these characters really brought it home for me.
* Editor’s note:
Full storyline synopsis from Twentieth Century Fox...
Sixteen-year old Starr Carter [Amandla Stenberg] lives with her close-knit family in the working-class community of Garden Heights. Her father, Maverick [Russell Hornsby], is a reformed ex-gang member who grew up in Garden Heights and once served time in prison. Now, a family man and valued member of the community, Maverick owns the community grocery store. Starr’s mother, Lisa [Regina Hall], a nurse, half-brother Seven [Lamar Johnson] and younger brother Sekani [TJ Wright] complete the family.
Dismayed by the lack of academic achievements of schools in their community, and wanting to give their children better opportunities, Lisa and Maverick enroll Starr and her siblings in Williamson Prep School, a predominantly white school about forty minutes away. In Garden Heights, Starr is Starr-Version One. She is comfortable speaking the slang vernacular of her community, enjoys hip hop without feeling self-conscious, but fears being seen as acting “white.” At Williamson, Starr becomes Starr-Version Two, constantly on guard not to appear or act too ‘hood.’ She refrains from speaking slang, even if the white kids do, her two best friends Hailey [Sabrina Carpenter] and Maya [Megan Lawless] are not black, and her boyfriend Chris [K.J. Apa] is white.
Everything changes when Starr witnesses the shooting death of her childhood best friend, Khalil [Algee Smith] at the hands of a police officer during a traffic stop. As the sole witness, Starr must choose between speaking up for Khalil, or remaining silent. Telling the truth could endanger her and her family by implicating the Garden Heights drug lord [Anthony Mackie], as Khalil worked for him. She also worries about the Williamson community connecting her to Khalil’s death, and what they will think.
As her home community cries out for justice for Khalil, and word spreads about Starr’s involvement, she finds herself navigating an increasingly volatile environment. Starr begins a journey of self-discovery, one that will reveal powerful truths and realizations about herself and where her true community lies.