Production Design usually involves designing physical sets, graphics, props and scouting numerous locations. But for a Film that centers around a man’s love for an entire City, then Production Design may involve creating a visual language that highlights the existing architectural character while also giving the City its own unique persona. This visual language is exemplified masterfully in The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
The Film, written and directed by Joe Talbot, has been described by some as “a love story between a man and a house”, but that quick description only scratches the surface. The multilayered social dynamics and themes of gentrification show an eye-opening depiction of the ongoing battle between cities and communities.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Jona Tochet, who is the Production Designer for The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
INT: First off, we were curious how the opportunity to do the Film, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, came about? What was it about it that made you want to work on it?
JT: A mutual friend and director I often work with, Rob Richert, who later became the co-writer of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, had sent Joe Talbot my way. He already knew that we spoke the same language and both had a keen attention to detail. That was in early 2016 and Joe was always gearing up to make The Last Black Man in San Francisco. In fact, I may have seen the progression from his first draft to final. It represents a city so close to me and one in which I had the chance of living in when I was younger and able to squeeze into a "sardine apartment” in the Mission District. Later in the past, but still a lifetime away, I was also pushed out of my shop and soundstage by BioTek storage and raising rent prices. It’s timely and hits home to so many. It is also funny, warming and heartfelt, and unlike anything we've seen before. Joe’s passion is what really sold me on the project in the end, and as a practice run we made the short precursor film in mid-2016 called American Paradise.
INT: San Francisco is represented in such an authentic way in the Film and showcases neighborhoods like Hunters Point, the Mission District and the Filmore District. The Film’s Writer and Director, Joe Talbot, and Lead Actor, Jimmie Fails, are both native San Franciscans. Can you talk about the collaborative process working with Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on this movie in a City that means so much to them?
JT: It seems that no one shoots in San Francisco anymore except for the “eye candy beauty shots” that we are all used to seeing, so to have our film authentically shot in San Francisco with no cheating was legendary. San Francisco has so many hidden gems and diverse neighborhoods that it was really exciting to dig into the culture and capture the true essence of so many sections of the city. Joe and I had already developed a good rapport over the past year making American Paradise and preparing for the feature. We wanted each frame to be composed like a fine-tuned painting with every prop and piece of set dressing in the mise-en-scène to be thoughtfully curated. We were in constant communication. Whether it was a quick text or email, he would update me with any new ideas, visualizations and realizations he had any time of day, no matter what inspired it - the colors in a sunset behind a road sign or a subtle nuance of San Francisco local flare he was reminded of while sitting on Muni (Public Transit System). Being a local himself, he wanted to capture every detail. Joe and Jimmie Fails provided notes on some specific items that they wanted in grandpa’s stuff, such as the champagne cigarette holder and a chest or old dresser to carry his silk robes. Jimmie was a pleasure to work with, always humble and appreciative. He always told us how comfortable he felt in each set, allowing him to feel free enough to let go and work in, especially the house. It really felt like home to him and he would make a point to thank us for making his job a lot easier.
INT: The Film has been described as “a love story between a man and a house”. Jimmie’s childhood home, the Victorian house on Van Ness Avenue, is truly its own character in the Film. How did you approach the Production Design knowing that the house was going to be such a central figure? What parts of the house did you want to accentuate and highlight? Were there any challenges with the space at all?
JT: Finding “the house” location was actually somewhat of a happy accident. Joe, Luis Alfonso De la Parra, an associate producer, and myself were on a friendly, impromptu location scout and were drawn to this particular home, mainly due to the witches’ cap. It was a beacon. It was a home that Joe still remembered from always driving passed it with his mom when he was a kid. We decided to try our luck, knocked, and were greeted by Jim Tyler, the owner of this “high” Queen Anne built in 1889. He welcomed us in, gave us a tour and the three of us were enchanted. He coined it “the mansion” and for the sake of the movie, we called it “the house”.
“The house” already had so much character and magic built in, and the floor plan left itself up to mystery as it seemed to stretch on and on and on. We were looking for a Victorian that would feel separated from the rest upon first glance. We needed it to fulfill the role of a late-Victorian, and not an Edwardian, which style didn’t appeal to the stories’ needs. It had all the right nuances we needed for the script - the hidden balcony, the decorative details in the facade to paint, the built-ins, the front parlor, the back parlor, a big space for Mont’s play (the raw, open, unfinished attic), and of course the infamous tower and witches’ hat. “The house” had other characteristics that worked in our favor as well, like the way pure warm light would spill through the stained glass windows just prior to dusk and the magnificent organ that Joe eventually wrote into the script. Above all, it needed to breathe life. It needed to have a pulse and a voice. The house spoke to us, and we knew it would speak to Jimmie. You could hear the wind pass through the house’s open airways, its creaks and moans as wind rushed through it on and off screen. In the evenings, when the wind would die, you could hear the house settle in for the night. The bones were perfect but the interior was too perfect. We needed to pull it back to a neglected, unmaintained state - a home that was once beautiful but forgotten which would be the house’s first stage in the film. “The house” goes through three stages; Phase 1 - before Jimmy, Phase 2 - with Jimmy, and Phase 3- after Jimmy, and each stage needed its own look from overgrown to being nursed back to health to being ruined by modernity. We wanted “the house” to start as a relic, symbolic of a forgotten time, which makes its transformation after Montgomery’s play that much more painful, because now, not only is that time now forgotten, it’s erased. The current modern garage addition with perfect astroturf tops did not match the style of the house we appreciated, so we were required to mask it somehow, which is where our secret garden came in. The overgrowth we brought in added to the enchantment, even though it was supposed to be caused from years of being unkempt. At the end of the film, we needed to visually flip the house the way every other San Franciscan sadly has done and sort of dumb it down. I was happy to work the modern garage feature back into the house’s third stage which revealed its non-purist modern revamp.
Both Joe and I love using rich, saturated colors to create a complex palette that adds to the subtext and helps define a character. We had to create an extensive color palette due to the abundance of characters and locations. With Jimmy, for example, San Francisco IS “home”, but “the house” WAS “family.” Eventually it became his domain, the one thing that he could truly call his own - he became the king of his own castle. Therefore, we wanted royal colors for the exterior of the house and a warm romantic palette inside. We chose deep red and gold for the exterior and old dusty rose for all the interior walls, which complimented Jimmie and Mont’s skin tones so well. Furthermore, for Jimmie - his infamous red flannel over golden brown jeans and dusty rose scrubs. These colors continue to pop up throughout the film and “the house.” For example, as they settled in and started to make improvements to the house, we adorned the house with local flowers which consisted of pinks, reds and gold tones. I requested that dusty pink roses be scattered about the parlors and to my surprise, I discovered dusty pink roses growing along the back sidewall of “the house,” which we considered another great omen!
INT: The Production Design for the entire Film is masterful and Montgomery’s home in Hunters Point is another incredible architectural space. How developed was this space when it was first explained to you? In terms of Production Design or Set Design/Decoration, how did you and your team conceptualize this space?
JT: The interior of Montgomery’s home was one of the most rewarding for me personally. It was one of the most interesting locations I’ve ever shot in, nestled on the corner of 3rd & Newcomb in the heart of Hunter’s Point. We were spread over two apartments on the same floor that were interconnected in a very maze-like way. One of the rooms was a very tight slanted sunroom, full of odd windows and doorways and taking over one whole corner was a massive water heater. It was clear upon first visit that we wanted this most peculiar room to be Mont’s. Joe and I had long discussions about Mont’s character and we knew that a one-room bachelor apartment of an old film noir character would have the right look for his personality. Joe had wanted it to resemble the unglamorous backstage changing room of an old theater. Being that Mont fancies himself a playwright, he adores many of the classic directors, writers, and actors from a forgotten era. Mont himself is such a unique character with an old soul from a forgotten-era trapped in a modern day world, which made his space really rewarding to build. His palette became shades of yellows, greens (creams, mustard gold, olive) and browns. I worked closely with my art team especially my decorator, Elena Nommensen, over some time to create a world that was eccentric, ornate, and full of personality - Mont’s personality - which had many, many layers full of salvaged tools, mementos, books, drawings, old costumes and theatre makeup from past plays, vintage playbills from black theatre, headshots of old film idols, movie stills, art supplies, bolts of fabric, a sewing machine, and a DIY vanity table. However, Jimmie’s section within Mont’s room was very simple as he always regarded himself as a guest, wanting to leave a minimal footprint. He kept to a corner right next to Mont’s bed and routinely opened his cot each night and tucked it back each morning. Everything Jimmie owned could be packed up in his backpack with a moment’s notice. He had his skateboard, his one signature outfit, and a small portion of the wall dedicated to a few old family photos, a couple of pinups, his cigarettes, lighter, and a Swiss Army knife. He didn’t want to impose or be at all in the way. It wasn’t his home to fully immerse in. As for the rest of Mont’s grandpa’s home, we wanted it to feel like an old fisherman’s boat house with vintage nautical colors - aqua blue, navy, cream, dark tan, along with wood tones.
Jona Tochet is a Production Designer and Filmmaker and has worked on various Films and Commercials.