“Front Street Gym is the Heartbeat of the Film”: Production Designer Hannah Beachler on Creed
When the original Rocky hit screens in December of 1976, the underdog tale’s titular pugilist was a slightly doughy, none-too-bright palooka who guzzled beer after fights and collected for a loan shark. Rocky even loses the climactic bout, but earns a personal victory by going the distance. In a decade cinematically defined by Travis Bickle, Deep Throat, and “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” that qualified as a rousing crowd pleaser. By the time Rocky IV arrived less than a decade later, Stallone’s southpaw was now a ripped, perfectly coiffed millionaire who practically ends the Cold War by breaking a hulking Soviet behemoth.
Given the track record of Rocky sequels, I wasn’t initially very keen on returning to the Rocky-verse for Creed. Hannah Beachler had no such reservations. That’s because Creed’s production designer knew she’d be reteaming with Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler. “There was some chiding from some of my friends, ‘Oh, you’re doing Rocky 100,’” laughed Beachler. “But I knew that people had no idea what Ryan was going to do with Creed. I knew it wasn’t going to be what anybody expected.”
The result is the best Rocky film since the Oscar-winning original. Returning to the working-class neighborhoods of Philadelphia, the story finds the son of Rocky’s rival Apollo Creed leaving behind a life of privilege in Los Angeles for the spartan existence of a struggling fighter. Beachler spoke to Filmmaker about the collaborative generosity of Coogler, growing up around creative forces, and how a small design decision can create a domino effect.
Filmmaker: Where did you grow up and how did you fall in love with movies?
Beachler: I grew up in Centerville, Ohio. All I did was watch movies. I would get inside of the TV and that was it. I wouldn’t even hear anybody talking to me. My dad was an architect and he built the house we grew up in. My mom was an interior designer and my aunt was an artist. So I was always around creative forces. Then, when I was in college at the University of Cincinnati studying fashion design, I started getting involved with photography. I had a lot of friends in bands and we would shoot music videos for them.
Filmmaker: We both went through the film program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. When I was there, the emphasis was more on writing, directing, and cinematography. How did you gravitate toward the art department?
Beachler: I’m glad I took all of the production classes because it ended up being helpful in understanding the basics of cameras and lenses, but on all of my class projects one of my professors, Russ Johnson, would always say to me, “The art direction is really good. That’s where your eye is.” And all of the films that I watched in my film theory classes, the art direction is what I looked at. Then one day a friend of mine said, “Hey, you want to come and help out on this small film I’m working on?” We were like cleaning kitchen floors and painting things and I thought, “This is awesome.” That’s how I got into the art department.
I also worked on a small project with [the Coen Brothers’ regular storyboard artist] J. Todd Anderson in Dayton where my friend and I were the art department. [Anderson] told me, “You should call Nancy Haigh,” who was the Coen Brothers’ [set decorator]. So I did. I think she was working on Intolerable Cruelty at the time. I told her I wanted to be in the art department and I wanted to be a set decorator. She said, “Well, get in the union, and do X, Y, Z.” Talking to her was pretty epic for me at the time. I was all in after that and a week after I graduated I moved to New Orleans and started working.
Filmmaker: So you got in on the ground floor of the New Orleans production boom. Why there rather than New York or L.A.?
Beachler: My brother, his wife, and their kids lived in New Orleans. He called me and said, “There’s all these movie trucks around here. You should come to New Orleans. It seems like they’re doing that stuff here.” So I went. At the time it was so hard to get into the business in LA and New York was so expensive. So I kind of did get in on the ground floor in Louisiana. I starting by set decorating and set dressing and then a director on a film I was working on, Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2), said to me, “You should be a production designer.” So I just started saying, “I’m a designer now.” That’s kind of how you promote yourself in the film industry. You kind of announce it to yourself. (laughs)
Filmmaker: Creed turned out to be a very good film, but I have to admit I was skeptical at the proposition of another Rocky. Did Ryan Coogler have to work to sell you on the project?
Beachler: There wasn’t really any hesitation on my part. Ryan is a force unto himself. He’s a pretty spectacular human being. And I grew up with Rocky. I jumped at the opportunity and to get to do it with someone like Ryan was even more of a blessing. He’s the quintessence of collaboration. He is someone quite special to work with in that way. And the movie turned out to be fantastic and the response has been amazing.
Filmmaker: Did you revisit all the previous Rocky films in preparation?
Beachler: I did, but I grew up with the franchise so I was really familiar with them already. I’d actually watched Rocky Balboa not too long before Ryan texted me about doing Creed. We watched Rocky I and II for the feel of Creed that we were looking for, but I watched a lot of Rocky IV as well because that’s when our story would have begun as far as Adonis Creed’s story.
Ryan always said he wanted the film to stand on its own so we made the firm decision that this is a new Rocky universe in the sense that we didn’t pick up the locations like Rocky’s house from where they left off in Rocky Balboa. But I did look at all of the other films to see what we could pull from each one. There was a lot of stuff on set from the Rocky movies. That was always the trick — keeping it new and giving it this new flavor, but honoring the Rocky movies from the past and what they did design-wise.
Filmmaker: How did shooting on location in Philadelphia inform the look of Creed?
Beachler: I loved Philadelphia. And I was there in the winter. (laughs) Philly is integral to Rocky. Some piece of every Rocky has been shot in Philly and we did a lot of work to get the feeling of Philly right. Ryan really wanted the city to be its own character. I went out on location scouts previous to prep to walk around Philly with Ryan and the producers. Some of it was location scouting and some of it was research to get the feel down. Ryan would stop people on the street and talk to them about their neighborhood or their clothing. We would take pictures of people. We tried to understand the differences between West Philly, South Philly, Fishtown, Kensington, what all these different places meant to the people that lived there.
Filmmaker: Adonis does most of his training at Front Street Gym, which is an actual gym in Philly. Tell me about that location.
Beachler: Front Street Gym is the heartbeat of the film. When I first talked to Ryan about Creed, the first thing I wanted to do was put a look book together and I knew the gyms were going to be integral. I got online and I started looking at every gym in Philly and then other gyms in other cities that were comparable to Philly. A lot of what you see in the film was already there at Front Street. Other than having to do the walls and all of the posters and things like that, the red, white, and blue was there. The boxing ring was there. That was a place that we had an instant, visceral reaction to. It was a comparable gym to where Apollo takes Rocky to train in part III when he’s fighting Clubber Lang. We wanted it to be different from Delphi Gym — Duke’s son’s gym in LA, which is the first gym we see. We wanted that to be really slick and have top-of-the-line everything, whereas Front Street is holding it together with string and hope.
Filmmaker: Adonis’ apartment when he first arrives in Philly consists of a mattress and a lamp on the floor. It’s a literal stripping away of his life in Los Angeles.
Beachler: It was about stripping away his LA life and beginning his journey in Philly. It needed to be the opposite of what you see in his apartment in Los Angeles, where he had nice things and where Adonis had a good job. We needed to take all of that away. That building was actually on Broad Street. It was an old brownstone that had been split up in a thousand different ways. We built inside of the space to make Adonis’ room smaller, but we used the basic architecture of the building to do all of our augmentations.
Filmmaker: Adonis’ love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), also has an apartment in the building. The relationship between them is one of the things I most connected with in Creed. In the original Rocky, the character’s first date with Adrian takes up more screen time than the climactic boxing match. None of the sequels got that balance quite right.
Beachler: Bianca is such a great character in that she’s so independent and doesn’t need Adonis to save her in any way from her hearing loss or anything else. I think that separates her from a lot of female characters you typically see in a boxing movie, where they’re usually on the sidelines cringing the whole time.
Ryan and I went back and forth about where Bianca’s apartment should be in the building. There was an apartment on the first floor that I really liked that I wanted to use and Ryan really wanted it to be on the second floor. We kind of let [cinematographer] Maryse Alberti be the tie-breaker on that one. (laughs) There’s a scene where Bianca is leaning out the window talking to Adonis and Rocky, and Ryan said, “I really want it to feel like a Cinderella romance. She looks out the window and down at him and he looks up at her.” Looking at it now, he was exactly right.
Filmmaker: When Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) moves into Rocky’s house, he finds a picture of Rocky and his son. The photograph is actually of Stallone and his late son, Sage. What was the impact of that particular piece of set dressing?
Beachler: It was a big deal. Ryan came to me and said that Sly wanted that photo in the room. I did know the story of (his son’s passing) — everybody on set knew the story — so it was quite a moment. It was one of those moments where you didn’t know what was going to happen. Part of the rawness of what you see in Creed comes from things like that. Part of good production design and good set decoration is giving the actors something that they can see on set that resonates with them in some way. Tessa was very vocal with her set. There were a lot of things on that set that were her personal things that she brought and put around so that she could have that piece of herself there. That’s always important to me. Being a production designer is not always about what 2×4 goes where or what finish of paint goes on the sets. It’s also about the small things that you can do, because those have a domino effect (that carries into) every other part of a film.
Matt Mulcahey writes about film on his blog Deep Fried Movies.