John Blackie interview: ‘The Good Lord Bird’ production designer
When John Blackie started working on the production design for “The Good Lord Bird,” it became clear that the armory stand-off in Harpers Ferry would be the most difficult set to design. “It’s a historic reality to Americans. They know the place, they know the story, so I think it had to be reasonably accurate,” Blackie says in our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video interview above). There was some room for creative freedom in other parts of the story but proper detail was needed for the scenes in Harpers Ferry. “You can get away with a lot more, but Harpers ferry, there’s actual interactions with troops and people and all that had to have some kind of thread of truth to it.”
“The Good Lord Bird” examines John Brown’s (played by Ethan Hawke) fight against slavery that culminated in the 1859 raid on the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, which Brown had hoped would lead to a massive slave revolt. While it didn’t succeed and Brown was executed for murder and treason, the raid was viewed as a key catalyst that led to the American Civil War. The story is told through the eyes of a teenage slave, Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), whose father is killed by Brown’s army in Kansas. With nowhere else to turn, he becomes a part of Brown’s army, though everyone in the outfit believes him to actually be a woman.
Blackie also used the set design of the armory to help convey the tension that was being felt by everybody inside during the armed stand-off. “We sort of changed reality a little bit with the gun portals on the doors and that kind of thing. We set it up so it could be kind of cathedral-like in its lighting.” In addition to using pictures of Brown in that situation, he also worked closely with the cinematographer on achieving this look. “There’s so many great pictures of John Brown in there, lonely with the light shining down on him, you know? That was all part of the plan between the director of photography, Peter Deming and myself.”
Another difficulty that Blackie encountered came from having to have outdoor locations that resembled several different states despite the fact that the entire production was shot in Virginia. “It was fairly intense actually, finding all those exterior locations and trying to make them a road show like that is a bit of a tapestry you want to weave — different kind of textures.” He also understood that having too much of the same look for the outdoors would take a toll on the viewers of the limited series. “We tried to look for different varieties too, just to make it feel like you were traveling somewhere else and I think the audience gets fatigued if there’s too much of the same thing all the time.”