Production designer Mark Ricker joined George C. Wolfe‘s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” just seven weeks out from shooting, and to say he had to get acclimated fast would be an understatement. “I came on very quickly, I read it very quickly, I met George and headed to Pittsburgh and started the process of trying to figure it all out,” Ricker tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Film Production Design panel (watch above). “They had hired a location manager, who had luckily done a little bit of preliminary scouting, so I was able to get on the phone with him quickly and look at some stuff. … There was a certain amount where I was going to be flying by the seat of my pants.”
Based on August Wilson‘s play of the same name, the film takes place over the course of one afternoon at a 1920s Chicago recording studio where blues legend Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is scheduled to lay down some tracks with her band, which includes Chadwick Boseman in his final role. Despite the Windy City setting, the movie was shot in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh (where the other plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle are set), and the Steel City locale worked out for the best. Ricker and Wolfe decided the recording studio, which also includes a basement rehearsal space for the band, would be built in an old factory building.
“I hadn’t yet gotten into that level of research to learn that it wasn’t unusual. The technology and the systems for the recording studios were at the beginning of their own history, so they were already re-appropriated in other spaces,” Ricker explains. “We decided it would be in an industrial neighborhood and we put it in the rear of a factory. We found out later that the real Paramount recording studios had actually been in a chair factory, so we felt good about that once we figured that out.”
SEE ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ bumps ‘Mank’ out of the top 3 in Best Picture Oscar odds
“Ma Rainey’s” sets were constructed in a converted steel factory that had brick floor in one section. The “exquisite” look of the brick prompted Ricker to build the basement rehearsal room over that area and then later build brick walls. The dark, muggy room has one tiny window through which sunlight would periodically beam in — and Ricker had to fight for that as well. The script described the room as a “windowless basement room” and Wolfe wanted it to keep it that way to, as he told Ricker, “evoke the hull of a slave ship.”
“We didn’t have a cinematographer for a long time. Tobias [Schliessler] landed with 13 days before we were shooting … and for the longest time, Jim Truesdale, my art director in crime, would say, ‘Well, of course there has to be a window.’ And I would say, ‘I know there has to be a window, but until we have a DP who can back me up on this…'” Ricker recalls.
After Schliessler came onboard, Ricker was able to sway Wolfe. “My pitch to George was that it would lend itself so well to — we don’t know what would be happening out there — but the fact that there’s all of this activity out there, we could pick and choose if somebody just plopped a crate in front of it, so the light would go away. And then [the crate] would disappear,” he says. “The fact that all of the action was over the course of a couple of hours, they could really design the movement of the light that came through that room and pick and choose when to have it and when no to. And I think Tobias did a brilliant job of taking advantage of that.”
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