August 16th, 2018 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
KKK Initiation Ceremony basement set... Spike Lee coaches Topher Grace and Adam Driver, who play KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and undercover cop Flip Zimerman, partner of Ron Stalworth... Set Decorator Cathy Marshall SDSA International gives us behind-the-scenes insights into the making of this acclaimed film... Photo by David Lee ©Focus Features 2018.

Set Decorator
Cathy T. Marshall SDSA

Production Designer
Curt Beech

Focus Features

From visionary filmmaker Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero.
It’s the early 1970s, a time of great social upheaval as the struggle for civil rights rages on. Ron Stallworth [John David Washington] becomes the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department, but his arrival is greeted with skepticism and open hostility by the department’s rank and file. Undaunted, Stallworth resolves to make a name for himself and a difference in his community. He bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan.
Posing as a racist extremist, Stallworth contacts the group via telephone and soon finds himself invited into its inner circle. He even cultivates a relationship with the Klan’s Grand Wizard, David Duke [Topher Grace], who praises Ron’s commitment to the advancement of White America.
With the undercover investigation growing ever more complex, Stallworth’s colleague, Flip Zimmerman [Adam Driver], poses as Ron in face-to-face meetings with members of hate group, gaining insider’s knowledge of a deadly plot. Together, Stallworth and Zimmerman team up to take down the organization whose real aim is to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream.
BlacKkKlansman offers an unflinching, true-life examination of race relations in 1970s America that is just as bracingly relevant in today’s tumultuous world.
--Focus Features
Acclaimed Writer/Director/Producer/Visionary Spike Lee brought his team from the breakout television series SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (based on his 1986 film) with him to create this equally impressive film. Production Designer Curt Beech, Set Decorator Cathy T. Marshall SDSA International and their versatile crews brought small town 1970s to life, giving a necessary anchor to this absurd-but-true tale.
SET DECOR: What are some of the key aspects of this collaboration?
...working with Spike Lee...
...the partnering with Curt Beech...
...the always multi-layeredness...and 360 degree sets
Set Decorator Cathy T. Marshall SDSA International: Working with designer Curt Beech on four projects now has been pretty wonderful. We hit it off immediately on Season1 of SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, realizing we have a similar design aesthetic and appreciation of raucous humor (which really helps). He is a rare designer, so skilled in SketchUp that his set designs come to life immediately in his 3D modelling. His sets contain so much attention to detail that I am drawn into a world that inspires me in the challenge of adding life to the characters who will walk around in them. Our communication is clear, frequent and many times intuitive, when we realize we are often thinking the same thoughts.
We both learned early on that Spike Lee is a man of few words, but definitive action.  As a filmmaker, Spike is true to his style of seeing, shooting on the fly and editing in his head. He knows what he likes and dislikes, and will sugarcoat nothing. His decisions are quick and irreversible...although I have changed his mindset a couple of times. Curt and I pretty much had to have the designs and décor nailed down and complete, with few fallback options, as we may only get a few minutes of Spike’s attention to present our ideas.
SET DECOR: Was the process different for the film than for the 2 seasons of the series?
Marshall: Yes and No. BlacKkKlansman is a period film about racial inequality taking place in the 1970s. The TV series SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT is more contemporary, fun and artistically themed, two very different design environments.
Weekly episodic scripts for the series contain lots of last minute changes and we are constantly having to pull off miracles in scheduling and execution. In Season 2 of the series, we did a lot of block shooting, filming episodes simultaneously, much like a feature.
Some of our basic work flow is the same, but for the movie, our research was critical to getting the right visual “feel” of the times. Our art department staff was immersively involved in finding reference photos of Colorado Springs in the ‘60s/’70s. Once we had the architecture and décor details figured out, we then had to focus on the historical relevance and racial tension in the’70s and times leading up to it. A considerable amount of time was spent pulling period images and shopping for the right art and set dressing.
The researched images of the DW Griffith film BIRTH OF A NATION, which led to a resurgence of the KKK back in the 1920s, were a frightening reminder of how similar a climate exists in today’s America and our leaders. The images of lynchings, and the stories they told, are hard to experience.  My assistant decorator found a trove of racist memorabilia in an antique mall in Long Island. We used some of the objects in Felix’s Klan HQ basement to help define his character. Other disturbing and unclearable pieces we just destroyed to keep out of the hands of casual curiosity shoppers.
SET DECOR: What have you gained/learned from this multiple-project partnering?
Marshall: Trust in our team of players to design and execute what we have learned is a definitive style in the way Spike likes to communicate. I have gained acceptance into a family of talented and racially diverse crew members who genuinely love and appreciate one another each time we gather on a new project.
Eclectic Encore Props  

SET DECOR: What were you glad you already had in your arsenal for this kind of filmmaking?
Marshall: I worked as a TV Commercial Producer for several years prior to transitioning below the line to Prop Master and then Set Decorator. Being incredibly organized, able to budget and schedule gives me the skills to anticipate and react to the constant changes we deal with every day.  Spike works very quickly and knows when he has the perfect take in the can. He is ready to move on to the next set or location, often regardless of its place in the shooting schedule. So I, and my team—Leadman, Malcome Sonsire, Assistant Set Decorator Aja Cooper and Shop Manager Rebecca Sherman, as well as our crew of set dressers—became masters of pivoting on a dime and scrambling to pull off miracles. Our key On Set Dresser, Jake Marshall, was invaluable in helping maintain and improve set elements and helped communicate Spike’s thinking on set, so we could react quickly.
SET DECOR: Spike Lee says,
“The Motherfucking Ku Klux Klan is absurd. The Motherfucking Alternate Right is absurd. The Motherfucking Neo-Nazis, they’re absurd, too, so you bring absurdity into the movie.” 
Which usually translates into the sets needing to be even more realistic, more credible to anchor the “absurdity”...but were there any small touches, where the absurdity showed through on a set as well?
Marshall: The beauty of the final cut of this movie is its focus on the “absurdity” of the ignorant beliefs and flawed thinking that people who are racists and non-inclusive represent. Spike deals with it beautifully, head on and with moments of extreme humor to make the horror hidden within palatable.
Their homes or businesses, on the surface, may have looked like normal suburban environments, similar to how they grew up, perhaps. Hidden in their garages or basements, on the other hand, were the true hate factories. I loved being able to go a bit over the top with several added set elements.
In Felix’s racist basement, I enhanced his walls with taxidermy of boar heads with shocking expressions of their faces. To augment Curt’s plan for the basement as a 1978 hate spewing communication hub, we found a working period mimeograph machine, which would have been the tech of the times. Add to that actual reams of paper still in it’s ‘70’s wrapper paper...which I had duplicated to make multiples...envelopes, rubber stamps, etc. And it felt legitimate. To his garage walls, I added menacing objects like some absurdly large cutting-blades bigger than any lawnmower I’ve ever seen.
We learned via research that David Duke has some kind of fetish about pure white swans. He even sells his swan photos on his current day website as “inspirational art.”  I made sure to add many swan objects and art to his KKK HQ office set.
SET DECOR: Topher Grace, who plays David Duke, talks about the oppressive nature of the research.
Marshall: The researched images of actual lynchings that took place in the deep South were particularly disturbing. As well as the realization that crowds of people and children attended these like public entertainment. And those images are burned into my soul forever. 
I grew up in North Carolina.  My father grew up on the integrated streets of Cleveland, Ohio, so my brother and I were raised to be fairly colorblind.  Only recently did my mother tell me a story of neighbor friends inviting my parents to dinner one evening. After dinner, the husband reappeared in full KKK robes and invited my father to join. My parents were shocked, politely declined and made a hasty exit. A terrible reminder of the hate that lurks beneath the surface.
SET DECOR: Grace says he listened to Duke’s news radio (which is still on) and watched Duke’s early 1980s appearances on episodes of Phil Donahue’s talk show.
“I noticed that he kept using the phrases ‘America First’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. It really jumped out because I only heard these phrases for the first time a couple years ago.”
Marshall: Haunting how those words take on a whole different meaning when spoken by certain people. I am embarrassed by the new meaning when uttered by our current leaders, and hope this film can help bring back the positive light this country used to embody.
SET DECOR: According to the studio, the real Ron Stallworth made it a point to show the cast his KKK membership card, which he carries in his wallet to this day.
Marshall: As a set decorator, I totally get the power and stories embodied in inanimate objects. When shopping, I often find something that “talks” to me as relative to the scene or character. For Ron, that KKK membership card embodied the culmination of his experience and its historic relevancy. My job is to sense that in the script, whether I met him or not. I was honored to finally meet Ron Stallworth recently at the LA premiere and afterparty. He is a lovely man and I am glad his story is coming to light.
I totally loved doing his apartment set, as the elements we found are hip stuff from ‘60s and ‘70s and are making a huge comeback today. I had a definite palette for his space in mind with the oranges, yellow and brown tones of the times. What fun! I credit one of my favorite vendors Furnish Green with their amazing stock of retro and mid century furnishings and decorative objects.
SET DECOR: Was this filmed entirely on location in up state New York/for Colorado?
Or was some of it built onstage?
Marshall: Our mid century CSPD police precinct was a huge set built on a stage in Brooklyn, as it was hard find that in the tristate area. Production Designer Curt Beech could then have the scenic crew add wear and tear touches to the wallpaper with “water damage” at the edges, or smoke stained and yellowed plexi to the dramatic ceiling lights. We added a couple of unscripted rooms as background and depth, that Spike ended up shooting some key scenes in. The Narco Squad level basement locker room was one, which I felt would contain period photo equipment, yellow kodak film boxes, 8mm camera and film reels, and even some disguises, wigs, mustaches, etc. Our upstate NY locations were Ossining NY for the town of Colorado Springs, and Haverstraw, NY for Felix’s house, exterior Precinct, cross burnings, etc.
SET DECOR: What can you tell us about re-creating that era in a small military-dependent mountain town?
Marshall: In anticipation of the scripted David Duke motorcade thru the streets, we spent a lot of time converting the storefronts of Ossining, NY with period dressing, signage, period awnings, and removing parking meters, etc. We made a period department store with mannequins in appropriate clothing, an appliance store, a ‘70’s beauty parlor, a Chinese restaurant and a country western store, complete with horse tack, saddle and western garb. We even had a covered wagon in the town square as an homage to the Wild West! None of this was seen in the final cut, unfortunately. C’est la Vie.
SET DECOR: There was an impactful address from Kawme Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael held at Belles Nightingale Nightclub.
John David Washington, who plays Ron Stallworth, comments...
“...It was this Club environment. Spike had been warming up the crowd, had a real DJ going, spinning records. We were dancing for a good 40-45 minutes while they were setting up...I really felt like I was in Colorado Springs in the ’70s, and there’s Kwame Ture, speaking to us, addressing us.”
Marshall: It’s incredible how we made a warehouse in Brooklyn look like a ‘70’s nightclub in Colorado. We added a marquee, period lighting and signage to the exterior. Inside we added large posters of musical acts of the times, period lighting, chairs and bar dressing. Corey Hawkins as Stokley Carmichael aka Kwame Ture’s speech performance was riveting and powerful and transformed the room. I still remember asking Charles Kern, our on set scenic, to add some kind of hand painted sign to the podium to define the event. The first word out of my mouth was POWER, and he made it so.
SET DECOR: The studio notes...
One of the film’s most profound moments involves Harry Belafonte as Jerome Turner recounting the True Story to the members of the Black Student Union...his first-person recollections of the lynching of Jesse Washington that he witnessed as a young man. Bracing to hear and beautifully conveyed by Belafonte, the scenes offer a palpable reminder of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by the KKK. Belafonte’s day on set was the last day of filming, and Lee asked his Crew to dress in tuxedos to honor the living legend.”
Marshall: When Spike makes a request like that, you know it has significant meaning. Seeing the grips, gaffers and all the crew dressed in suits and dresses was a wonderful way to honor a great man such as Mr. Belafonte and his creative contributions to society. Hearing his recount of the Jesse Washington story was riveting and heartbreaking at the same time.
The Art Dept had found and cleared the images of the lynching from actual Getty images, which we then had printed and matted for the student union story telling. We had added as background, protest photos from our research of the student unions and Black Panther movement coming to prominence at that time. It was a challenging and compelling experience throughout.

Editor's note:
Marshall would like to acknowledge and thank her crew and invaluable resources...
The entire Art Dept under the leadership of Production Designer Curt Beech did an awesome job on this project to create the Colorado Springs environments of 1978. Art Director, Marci Mudd kept the construction and scenic crews on track, on budget and defined the scenic work of Emily Gaunt and graphic design work of Emma Stensass. My assistant decorator, Aja Cooper and shopper Nadya Gurvich were in the trenches of the scavenger hunt for period dressing, and it shows. Leadman, Malcolm Sonsire, shop manager, Becca Sherman and the entire set dressing crew dealt with endless schedule changes with professional aplomb. This work takes a village of talented folks and I am honored to call them friends and family.
Many thanks to SDSA Business members:
City Knickerbocker
Eclectic Encore
Prop n Spoon
Newel Props
Furnish Green
Reuse America
Carpet Time
Acme Props
Bridge Furniture

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KKK Initiation Ceremony basement set... We chose a church meeting room in Brooklyn for the initiation scenes. The basement was really decrepit, with peeling paint and crumbling walls. Needing an elevated room for Ron Stallworth to hide in, yet view the Initiation Ceremony was a real challenge. Curt designed the whole back wall of the space as an elevated storage room. Note Ron's Afro in the upper right window.... Topher Grace, John David Washington. Photo by David Lee ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD Intelligence bullpen... The CSPD/Colorado Springs Police Department precinct was a huge set that allowed many rooms for the main characters to evolve their strategy for infiltrating the KKK. Here, Ron Stallworth [John David Washington], Flip Zimmerman [Adam Driver], Officer Jimmy Creek [Michael Buscemi], Chief Taggert [Robert John Burke] and Sergeant Trapp [Ken Garito] evolve their investigation. Image ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD Intelligence bullpen... Production Designer Curt Beech created an astonishing depth in the design of this set...note the central skylit atrium and dramatic shooting angles. He instructed the scenic artists, led by Emily Gaunt, to age the set supposedly built in the sixties’ mid-century style, with 15 years worth of aging details like water stained wallpaper and cigarette smoke yellowing on the overhead plexi light panels. Such fun to add the period furnishings and personal items to the desks and background. Image ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Chief Taggert’s office... Chief Taggert's office was so totally of the times...built in the ‘60s and seasoned in the ‘70s. Photo ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Chief Taggert’s office... The office provided many conversation areas and a depth to the rest of the precinct. I loved decorating this office with many of the mid-century pieces I'd love to have in my own home today. Especially the lighting! And look what Curt did with the amazing ceilings, which served to light the actors as well. Photo ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Chief Taggert’s office... Hard to believe this is a set with the amazing greens work out the windows. Really feels like Colorado. Photo ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Chief Taggert’s office... Even in close up the set element period wallpaper and art work set the ‘70s time period around Ron Stallworth's head... John David Washington. Photo by David Lee ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Precinct hallway... Our set was so large we had to incorporate an existing cement column into the floor plan to fit on the shooting stage. We left the sprinkler system plumbing exposed to complement the hallway features. The visual depth and period decor make this the most interesting police precinct I have ever decorated, for sure. Photo ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Precinct floor plan... An example of Curt's design for the CSPD Precinct... Note the atrium and hallways that enhanced the many shoot days on stage with areas for background action and authenticity. Image ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Sergeant Trapp’s office... Sergeant Trapp [Ken Garito] was a bit more approachable and a real part of the undercover team. His office keeps similar period elements as the Chief's upscale office, but was more down to earth with sports memorabilia indicative of a team player. Photo ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Records room... This set played prominently and took our scenics and set dressers many hours to label and age the records boxes and file bins for that 15-year-old period look. Photo ©Focus Features 2018.

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CSPD, Narcotics Division... The Narcotics Division of the CSPD was a bit funkier than the Intel Unit upstairs, which was, theoretically, housed in the basement and filled with mismatched furnishings in a more cramped space. Curt placed his own design touches by adding chewing gum periodically to the CSPD sign. He is such a subversive... Photo ©Focus Features 2018.