Barry Robison interview: ‘One Night in Miami’ production designer
Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. are the quartet at the center of “One Night in Miami,” but there is a fifth, unspoken star: the motel room. The Amazon film, based on the play of the same name, is a fictionalized account of a meeting between Cassius Clay (Goree), Malcolm X (Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Hodge) and Sam Cooke (Odom) after the future Muhammad Ali defeated Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander) for the heavyweight title in February 1964. The majority of the movie takes place inside the motel room, which is not exactly ideal from a production design standpoint. “Motel rooms are normally small and uninteresting for the most part. So the challenge was how to not have it be uninteresting,” Barry Robison tells Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Film Production Design panel (watch above).
Robison first researched and sent his team to the real Hampton House in Miami, which is now the Historic Hampton House Cultural Center but still had several motel rooms and areas, like the restaurant, intact. The real rooms were only 14 x 16 feet — obviously too small for a film — and Robison had to find a way to open up the space to present to Regina King, who was making her feature film directorial debut, and would be workable for cinematographer Tami Reiker.
“[We were] in an old abandoned grocery store in LaPlace, Louisiana, and it allowed us to sort of mark out on the floor the scale of the room,” he explains. “I knew that Regina was going to be horrified when she saw the actual size, so we started with the real size, 14 x 16. I knew that that wasn’t going to fly. I’ve done a lot of movies where I’ve talked the director into allowing me to increase the size by 20 percent — it’s kind of an incremental increase in size without the camera eye picking it up and it going over scale.”
That still didn’t work until Robison thought of an entirely plausible reason for Malcolm X to have a larger room complete with a kitchenette area that added depth and another set of windows. “I convinced Regina that because it was Malcolm’s room and he was a celebrity that they had given him a motel room that had an adjourning room attached to it, thereby allowing us to create a bigger room,” he reveals. “And also it allowed Tami to get backlight that was sorely needed. Normally a motel room is three-sided walls and a curtain wall of windows. That’s how we got that room to open up.”
Once the size was settled, the next decision was the room’s interior design. Hampton House was a refuge for Black people, and King wanted the color palette to reflect that. But most importantly, the Oscar winner’s “overriding dictate” was that her four leading men had to “look really good” in the space with their different skin tones. They landed on green with wooden walls and textured wallpaper.
“We settled on the green palette because the psychology behind the color was important. Green is a soothing but energizing color whereas blue is lazy and whatnot,” Robison says. “We did a lot of sampling, a lot of camera-testing to finally get the tone of the wood to be right. The one other thing about this thing is we’re in Miami, which is a tropical environment for the most part. You’ll notice that on the floor there are no rugs; it’s all linoleum, which was a holdover from the research I had done on the Hampton House. All those rooms are linoleum due to the humidity. … It was important to Regina not to make any part feel grimy or grim.”