Marvel's Black Panther is a breathtaking movie. From the first time T'challa's ship flies through the cloaking mirage into Wakanda, to the Vibranium laced African costume designs and the new kinetic Black Panther suit, to Killmonger and T'challa's heated exchanges, this movie makes an impact.
I was curious to find out how Marvel let the creators pack in so much awesome in one movie, and so I went right to the Black Panther production team: Oscar-nominated production designer Hannah Beachler (Moonlight, Beyoncé "Lemonade"), costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Selma, Roots, Chi-Raq), and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story, Amber Lake).
**Spoiler Alert: The story below contains some spoilers for Black Panther.**
The movie really borrows a little from each comic book era of the character: Shuri is from Reginald Hudlin's run, Ross and Nakiya were created by Christopher Priest, Killmonger and M'baku are Kirby characters. And Ramonda's look and the look of the ships looked like what Brian Stelfreeze dreamed up for Ta-Nehisi Coates. Did Marvel dictate what parts of canon to use, or was that director Ryan Coogler's decision?
Joe Robert Cole: The studio never put a mandate on us, we were free to make adjustments based on how we wanted the film to play. There's some obvious things that we wouldn't go too far with, but the idea was being able to play and use characters that we thought were relevant for the tapestry of the story, but in a way that we felt would help our narrative was kind of an open. We just wanted the story to be personal and meaningful and entertaining. And so they gave us that freedom. So we made choices. We didn't want Nakiya the crazy villain.
We wanted to empower her, we wanted the spy, we wanted the "war dog." This is what a war dog is going to be, let's use her in that way and make her a great love interest. So really like finding ways to, in a modular way, use the world of Wakanda in a way that would tell the kind of contemporary movie that we wanted to tell.
Hannah Beachler: I think this movie for me would be the most in-depth in terms of research I've ever done. So yes, a LOT of research was done with the comics, and Ryan and Louis Esposito (executive producer) really helped me with that. Because there's so much, you know? But yes, I took all of that research and created a Wakandan bible that everyone used as a reference so that we were all on the same page.
Ruth E. Carter: Hannah was on the project way before I was and created this bible that was like 500 pages, and mostly text! So you had to sit down and read that thing and really get into what the world was, but it was so helpful, it was her vision of this futuristic African society and it helped dictate the world we were creating. And also helped us to work together, because it really was a collaborative effort.
Ryan really likes collaboration in the creation process on his films; he even co-wrote the script. What was that process like?
Joe: It was pretty awesome. It was the first time I've ever co-written something, and there was an ease to it. I say that because Ryan is so gracious and collaborative and he's just kind of a joyous person to be around. So that process for me was made easy by him as a person, and we'd go back and forth tackling scenes and figuring things out and trying out different things, inventing things.
Hannah: Ryan knows who he wants to work with because of what they bring to the table and that they're open to learning and are open to collaboration and brainstorming. And I think that that's what makes him a great director and someone that I will work with the rest of my life. Because it always starts at the top, right? And that's where we bringing in the best people in the business comes in. Marvel was really great about allowing me to bring in people that felt most comfortable with and people that I've worked with before.
It takes trust. I hired my art director and was like, "OK, Welcome to Atlanta. Now I need you to go to South Korea to Busan for four months." You will basically act as a production designer and work with me on two different continents to make, this work and no, you don't speak the language, and no, you've never been to Korea, but you'll figure it out. And although Jesse Rosenthal has been a part of many Oscar-nominated films, but he'd ever worked on anything this big, but it's like this is the only time trickle down works, you know. And so Ryan is setting a tone, and the part of the renaissance that's happening.
Ruth: Ryan worked with me very closely, when we had our first meeting he knew exactly what he wanted, what tribes would wear what color and where they were located in this world, but then he stepped back, he doesn't stand over your shoulder dictating anything, and he's very open to you making suggestions and finding solutions.
The technology in this film is incredible because it's woven into everything in Wakanda. Like Vibranium. How did you decide how to use the tech and how to create that look?
Ruth: Vibranium is woven into everything around them; it's in the walls, it's woven into the fabric, and it's affected the plants around them. So how does that affect the fibers? What does that mean? So yes, once you understand how it works, weaving Vibranium into a Besothho blanket and then using it as a shield becomes possible. We also didn't want the technology to be hand-held, because that goes out of style almost as soon as it comes out.
Hannah: My favorite set is Shuri lab. I kind of went nuts in there, there are so many things you can't even see on camera, I don't think. But it's very open and her mind works fast, so I wanted to show that. It's very open. From the glass screens to the protoype necklaces and the suit that comes from them. Everything in the lab has a story and a purpose. That's how I work, though. Everything has a story and a meaning.
Joe: Shuri is technology in this film, she even talks about constantly upgrading and changing, so there is that element of growth that we wanted to show. Wakanda isn't stuck in one era, even though others don't know about it.
The cliff scene reveal when T'Challa leaves the ship and enters the ritual combat space was incredible. The Korea fight scene is also phenomenal, as was the car chase. What scene or part of the movie was the one that was the most difficult to pull off?
Hannah: That cliff scene you mentioned. I remember thinking, Lord, If we survive this set, I will fall down and kiss the ground. But we made it through. That is the reason I said that from the beginning, when we started concepting the set. Because it was such a huge undertaking. I mean, I would say the warrior falls was the biggest set that we had. It's a favorite, but God did that thing test me.
Ruth: I think the most difficult part of the design collaboration process was having to "unteach" what has been seen in the media about African culture and fashion to my team. The concept of showing technology in an ancient African space is so foreign to people. It's never been seen on screen before. (Read here about how Ruth Carter created Black Panther's costumes.)
Joe: Trying to find a way to navigate in a personal way the connection between African-Americans and Africans was one of our biggest challenges in the story. What is actually different about being in a place that has not been colonized, has not been conquered. A lot of times as African-Americans, on either side, we make so many decisions based on white people. It was, it was part of the process is figuring out what the history of Killmonger was and what is his origin and how we wanted to tie him in to Wakanda.
Let's talk easter eggs.
Ruth: Oh we hid adinkra symbols and words in the clothing; each color represents one of the five original tribes, we even hid talismans of the tribes in the Dora Milaje costumes themselves. T'challa and Killmonger's rings, there's so much symbolism. Even the komoyo beads. Each one has a purpose and a meaning.
Hannah: Oh my God. There are so, so many. I can't tell you exactly what they are. But that is what I mean when I say there is a story behind every single thing in thie movie. Okay, I'll sort of give you one ... when they are in Korea, there is a story behind that tiger picture, and there's a story behind these two fish that are at the top of the landing in the Busan casino scene. Lupita and Chadwick stopped at the landing and there's these two fish behind them, and there's a huge story behind that, which all relates to the fish, the tigers, and the scales, which are all something that relates back to T'Challa.
You can't tell us more than that? Please?
Hannah: I can't. It goes so deep. you can find the story, but just think about where that is taking place, and the fish and the scales and ... you'll find the story. Just think about where that is taking place and the fish and the scales. And you'll find it.