Crafting the look and feel of The Color Purple was a lightning-in-a-bottle experience for Oscar-winning production designer Paul D. Austerberry (The Shape of Water) and Oscar-nominated set decorator Larry Dias. "It wasn't a typical, straightforward period piece," Austerberry says.
The second movie adaptation of Alice Walker's classic novel, director Blitz Bazawule's The Color Purple shares one woman's journey of resilience and independence over multiple decades. "Blitz really honors the book brilliantly," Dias says. This iteration of the story goes beyond the source material, however, and incorporates musical numbers from the Tony-winning Broadway production.
That meant that the production design team had to be both period accurate to the early 20th century and capable of mounting extravagant song-and-dance numbers that unfold within the imagination of Fantasia Barrino's Celie. "Something that I utilize on every movie I do is just researching as much as you can and creating as much knowledge as you can," Dias says.
That way, Austerberry and Dias were prepared to deliver era-appropriate oil lamps and drapery one day, and the next, a giant gramophone with a rotating bathtub for Taraji P. Henson. "The music just comes alive," Dias reflects. "When we go into song, it just opens up the world in a way that I think it's uplifting and inspiring for this story."
A.frame: From a production design perspective, how did you initially approach this new iteration of The Color Purple?
Paul D. Austerberry: Blitz had come in and sold the idea of magical realism and how we would live through Celie's mind's eye and create this world of, at times, fantastical imagery. But we had to be careful, because if we didn't ground it in proper research and reality, you'd lose the strength of it. So, we really did the research. Larry and I had various paths of research and compiled them all together. We wanted to make sure that this was a musical, but we wanted to keep the spaces small and intimate wherever possible. Obviously, the street is a big open space with 100 people dancing, so that's different. But for anything interior, we wanted to create intimacy, and then occasionally, we could branch out into those bigger spaces.
Larry Dias: My concentration is typically focused on the interiors and the environments, so I go to sources like the Library of Congress and some of the state-run sites that have archives for the state of Georgia. I also go to the library and bookstores and try to find as much as possible, because the internet can be a treasure trove of stuff, but it can also be deceiving. You can look at something and think, 'Oh wow, this is great,' but then you realize you're 15 years later than you're supposed to be. That's what I did here. It's about getting as much imagery as possible that's truly appropriate to the story we're trying to tell and the region we're trying to portray.
There is a contemporary feel to this too, especially in how it uses colors. How did you find the balance between period accuracy and a sense of modernity and freshness?
Dias: You've hit the nail on the head using the word balance. We strived to ensure that the scenes where we're in Celie's reality had enough of a pleasantness, because we're dealing with a story that is hard to swallow; she's had a terrible life, so we have to strike a balance. If we got that right, when we did go into fantasy, there is enough of a contrast that it isn't just a transition; you've opened up her world, which I think was the brilliant idea from Blitz. You don't see Celie as a victim all of the time. She has quite a vibrant imagination, and it is brought alive in the movie, and that's a vital part of this particular story.
Austerberry: A lot of the research was black and white due to the documentation from the Depression era, and a lot of stuff was quite depressed and run-down. We wanted to elevate it a bit. We found many pictures of small houses made with lots of scrap materials, but the garden was lovely. The picket fence was reasonably well-kept and everything was swept. They didn't have a lot of things, but they had pride. That was important to Blitz. And we wanted color. The paint would've fallen off, or if they didn't have money to repaint, it would have just been bare wood, and we wanted to have that texture and aging but also bring in color. The houses at the beginning are quite brightly colored, which we got from the Asante people. When we translated that for our film and in this setting, it leaned into ochres and earth tones, so it was subtle. We have these musical numbers and fantasy sequences, but we wanted to keep the audience in the grounded elements.
You mentioned embracing texture in the film. How was that emphasized in your designs?
Austerberry: Texture to me is always important, and it was actually how we told elements of the story. We spend so much time in Mister's house, which has a lot of history. It has been passed down, and it's run-down, so it has a lot of character. When Celie comes in, she makes it more tidy and homey. And when she starts sewing things, the textures from the fabrics change, and that enhances the environment. We consciously chose not to clean it up, smooth everything out, or get rid of the aging. We wanted to keep that textural quality of everything. We went through a lot of decision-making about how we translated 10, 15, or 20 years going by.
Dias: For a set decorator, texture is king. You have to have some visual interest. If you don't have enough texture, you end up with flat surfaces, and it becomes very dull, and you won't be a friend to the DP. So, you have to figure out how to get your push-pull and create texture and enough color that's appropriate for the movie.
How much were you able to source from the period, and how much did you have to recreate?
Dias: Luckily, we were in the South, and between Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, it's a treasure trove of antiques. There are also several prop houses here in Atlanta and a few in California. There were a couple of other period films happening at the time, so I had to be a little bit covert and act like I wasn't that interested in anything, go in, get my hands on it, and then it's in my possession, because that's nine-tenths of the law! [Laughs] So, I just kind of swoop in and get my hands on stuff, and I really truly create an arsenal for whatever the period of movie is. I shop the whole movie, and I create a warehouse that becomes my own sort of prop house. It really served us well, because oftentimes, they want to turn the camera this way, or they think of something they want the actors to do and they go, 'Can you get us something?' I'd be like, 'Yeah, I have one in the warehouse. I'll be back in 10 minutes with it.' That, for me, is my secret weapon, is to get my hands on as much as I can and be prepared for pretty much any situation that can come up.
I acquired about 99 percent of what I needed, so there were only a few things that we had to manufacture. When you get down to drapery and any sort of textiles and linens, you have to manufacture the majority of that, because most of the original stuff has rotted. Certain things, like the quilts, were all authentic and antique. Those are often stored away, because they are family heirlooms.
Austerberry: Larry knew collectors that had some pretty impressive collections of signs we were able to rent from. We did pepper in ones we created specifically for this movie. The amount of work to make all the products, just for a small hardware store from the period like this one, was quite significant. Larry even managed to source some beautiful period counters. We would have used the originals for reference and then made them, but he was able to source them. We ended up toning them all together so they looked like they were bespoke for that particular store back in the day. It was great resourcing from Larry's team.
Paul, you previously worked with cinematographer Dan Laustsen on The Shape of Water. How did your knowledge and understanding of how each other works help you here?
Austerberry: Dan's an excellent cinematographer. Larry and I would see the dailies and go, 'Oh my God, he's done it again.' We would think we've delivered something pretty good, and then he's elevated it and made it sing with the lighting. There's absolutely a shorthand, because I worked with him on The Shape of Water. He's not afraid of contrast, and likes things quite moody. Dan was mad at me when we went to this historic church that was all white, and I couldn't do anything about it. He wanted it to be painted, but they wouldn't let me. To this day, he holds it over me, because it's tough to shape the room nicely in that white, white environment. We talked about dark ceilings and lots of texture and aging, because with his lighting style, it would be lost if you were a bit too subtle. We did tests, because you get a bit scared; you think, 'Did I go overboard on some of the aging?' We definitely tested all the colors. He can change the color with the light that he uses as well. He would be all over Larry for the practical lighting, because as most DPs are, they love the set decorator. We had authentic oil lamps. We used fake versions for those off in the distance but had real ones for the close-ups. They were constantly flickering up and going too high and bright. It was an absolute nightmare for the on-set props people, but it was essential to get the right kind of lighting in there.
Dias: I had not worked with Dan before but absolutely fell in love with him. I had my daily Dan hug that would happen every single time we opened a set, because he genuinely would elevate them. He'd say, 'Larry, your set is beautiful,' and I'd go, 'Thank you, but I've done plenty of movies where I've had beautiful sets that get destroyed if they're not lit properly.' Dan consistently elevated them dramatically, and he made them beautiful. He's very particular about what he's doing, but Dan is really pleasant to work with and he's very collaborative. He is not a DP who dictates what things need to be. We had limitations because the majority of the movie is done without there being electricity in place. When you're dealing with fixtures like oil lamps, if the wicks are too long, the flame starts jumping around, or it starts pouring out smoke. It's a continuity nightmare. But he was very open to just making it work, and he did.
Another thing that he does brilliantly and magically is that he utilizes windows and window treatment as another lighting tool. That was another area that I had a lot of crossover and collaboration with him on. He was making sure the texture of whatever was on the window, such as the drapes with an open weave or lace, would be thrown onto surfaces. He would pump light through the windows and end up with this shadow play, turning a plain wall into magic by just throwing a texture on it. He's a true master.