Gerald Sullivan interview: ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ production designer
“We all know about her and her trials and travails, but she was a really down-to-earth person who got overwhelmed with the struggle of fame,” says Gerald Sullivan while talking about late music legend Whitney Houston. Sullivan is the production designer for her biopic titled “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” starring Naomi Ackie and directed by Kasi Lemmons. Watch our video interview above.
“That’s sort of like contemporary archaeology,” he explains while discussing his re-creation of the iconic “How Will I Know” music video. “You do the research. You look at the video. We shot it from the fourth wall, where we’re actually seeing the producers and the directors. From the beginning, we tried to decipher the plan of this set by watching the video over and over again and then re-creating it with our construction and scenic team on stage. Then we pull back and sort of guess at what the situation would be with the choreographers, the directors, the producers who would be in the fourth wall area.”
The film was shot predominantly in Boston, which made some of the live performance sequences more challenging. “We were using some of the larger stages that exist in Boston,” he reveals. “For the ‘Concert for South Africa’ we used a massive hangar that’s here in the suburbs of Boston. We re-created everything from about 40 feet down to the stage level – and then beyond that we used set extension with visual effects. All of the architecture that’s on the stage, we built, and set up and re-created as expeditiously as we could. Then we work hand-in-hand with the VFX team to extend that set to be as large as it was.”
Sullivan describes the extensive research that went into creating Houston’s childhood home, but the apartment she lived in with her friend Robyn Crawford was all an original concept. “There was no real existing photos that we could find,” he explains. “We sort of imagined what you could get as a 19-year old with very little means. We decorated that with some of her heroes on the wall and so on.”
Sullivan is an Art Directors Guild Award winner for his work on “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) and earned additional nominations for “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), “Collateral” (2004) and “Minority Report” (2002). “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is his first biopic. “It’s the same discipline,” he says. “You’re trying to create great spaces for the script in front of you. I chose this because Whitney Houston was a big part of all of our upbringings. I had never done a biopic before. So yeah, it’s a total left turn in terms of my career goes. It was fun as hell to do. It was challenging. But the same disciplines apply.”