Shane Valentino interview: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ production designer
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a historical drama, but one element of the film wasn’t entirely true to life. The courtroom — the centerpiece of the film where the seven titular defendants and one more man faced charges of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention — was not modeled after the real one at the writer/director’s request.
“The original courtroom was designed by Mies van der Rohe in the International Style in the Federal Building in Chicago and the look wasn’t quite what he was looking for,” Shane Valentino tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Film Production Design panel (watch above). “I think he was just coming off of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ [on Broadway] and those sort of traditional courtrooms with a lot of the wood tones, and was sort of leaning toward that aesthetic.”
Valentino at first lobbied to recreate the original but realized it was the right call to emulate traditional courtrooms that everyone’s been used to seeing onscreen for decades. “I think it sort of falls into what everyone’s imaginary courtroom looks like,” he says. “It worked, especially in the counter to the countercultural movement and the different groups and what they represented in the antiestablishment or at least the challenging of the status quo.”
The initial plan was to build the courtroom on a stage, but they ended up scouting, eventually landing on a church in Paterson, N.J. “For all intents and purposes, it serves as the same type of forum — it’s a space of oration,” Valentino notes. The BAFTA nominee was “really attracted” to the scale of the space, which comes across onscreen with the courtroom’s tall walls, large paintings and murals, and elongated table for the defendants.
“The scale was really important because it had to feel like these eight defendants were up against something that was much bigger than them and also to see how that space in and of itself could have different levels of historicity to it,” Valentino adds. “You have the paintings and the mythologies that go with it. I had a Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian murals at the top and then we had [paintings of] the former judges lining the walls on the left and right sides and the opposing windows on the left. And so I think that did create this environment that was very different from when we first meet them.”