As a production designer for dozens of projects representing a vast array of genres, Beth Mickle is no stranger to adapting her vision on the fly. Whether it’s joining an independent film with very little prep time and hitting the ground running, or tackling the complex nuances of managing more assets in DC and Marvel movies, Mickle has quickly risen the ranks of a department that, among others, has historically been known for its lack of women production heads — but according to Mickle, things are changing.
“It is starting to shift a bit,” Mickle told AwardsDaily’s Jazz Tangcay in 2019, “In the indie world where the movie budgets are $5,000,000 or below. It’s beginning to be around 50/50. In the bigger budget world, I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never been on set with a female production designer.’ It’s nuts. Among the top 20 names of production designers that everyone knows, only three or four are women.”
At the time of the AwardsDaily interview, Mickle was doing press for Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” for which she’d won a Satellite Award for Best Art Direction and Production Design. She’d already made a name for herself in the production design world several years earlier, thanks to collaborations with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”), Stuart Blumberg (“Thanks for Sharing”), and Tanya Hamilton (“Night Catches”) Us”).
Mickle has worked on everything from indie “The Family Fang,” with Jason Batemen directing and starring alongside Nicole Kidman and Kathryn Hahn, to action films like “2 Guns,” starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, and “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” with Tina Fey. HBO drama “The Deuce” and the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” are among her more recent credits.
In an interview with Pushing Pixels in 2012Mickle credited Refn for giving her an “incredibly fortunate” career opportunity with what would become an instant classic in “Drive,” though she identified a far earlier Ryan Gosling film as the one that jump-started her career.
Having collaborated with her brother Jim Mickle on short projects while he was at New York University in the late 1990s, her network expanded when two more NYU graduates, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, invited her to join their 2006 low-budget indie “Half Nelson ” The drama about a well-meaning high school teacher struggling with drug use would go on to receive great critical acclaim, earning Gosling and his young co-star Shareeka Epps a slew of awards nominations, including an Oscar nod for Gosling.
Of course, Hollywood is an industry dependent on strong working relationships with various creators. Mickle would go on to collaborate with Boden and Fleck on a few other indie films over the next several years, while also staying in touch with Gosling. When Refn needed a production designer for 2012’s “Drive,” Gosling recommended Mickle for the gig.
“One of the reasons why I love working with Nicolas is that he’s OK with pushing the envelope visually,” she explained to Pushing Pixels. “He’s OK with going into a heightened direction visually, taking a few risks to play with the visuals a bit more.”
The fact that Mickle got to really hone her craft in the no- and low-budget indie space doesn’t seem to be lost on her, even as her projects have gotten more sizable over time. She’s devised a method of artistry that she applies to projects of all budget types. As she told Matthew Toffolo in 2016, “The lower budget world is where you learn to be resourceful, where you can somewhat safely make mistakes which can be recovered, where you learn the complete fundamentals of how a film is made. I try to approach every production — large or small — with a calm nature, and I think that comes from being in the trenches for so many years and learning to adapt.”
She also discussed with Toffolo how those indie roots were sometimes at odds with Hollywood sets and strict union rules. “On an independent film, everyone is moving and touching and painting everything… On a union film, none of that flies,” she stressed. “At first I resisted the union delineations, preferring the all-hands-on-deck team approach, but after doing over 20 union films, and seeing that crews are treated so fairly and safety is so championed, I do see the benefits of having a regulated system.”
It’s a common shift that many indie creators must make once they’re given the opportunity to work with larger budgets, plus more resources and experienced crew than they’ve had on previous projects. The very gritty, unpretentious nature that allows smaller films to thrive under the care of humble artists must then be blended with the hierarchical and methodical practices adhered to on larger sets – practices that not only help keep the film on time and on budget, but also promote set safety.
Over the last few years, Mickle has been firmly entrenched in building worlds for two offbeat superhero franchises, DC’s “The Suicide Squad” and Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” both helmed by director James Gunn.
“With a background firmly rooted in modestly budgeted independent film, I was incredibly surprised when director James Gunn hired me to design ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 3,'” Mickle told Production Designers Collective in 2020, “Good advice I received was to try to design in a way that would warrant at least some of the set to be physically built. Time and time again we hear how disorienting it is for actors and the crew to work in an entirely green or blue-screen environment, and I genuinely believe that disorientation comes across on film.”
When it comes to preparing for a meeting with a director, Mickle broke down her presentation with Pushing Pixels, explaining that she has two main items that she brings to every interview. “The first is my portfolio that has hardcopy photos of all the main sets I’ve done, and I always include ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos,” she said. “They show the locations before we started working on them, completely empty stages or sets in a warehouse, and then after we’ve done our job to rebuild or decorate from scratch. This shows the transformations and the possibilities.” Mickle continued, “The other thing I bring to the interview is a book of inspiration photos that I pull together after reading the script and imagining my vision for it.” She explained, “I pull hundreds of reference photos for the overall tone and color, and then I pull out the top five or six sets from the script and show reference images for each one so that the director can see the direction I’m imagining for the sets.”
Mickle has not shied away from offering advice and insight about her creative process over the years, helping clarify the needs of directors and best practices for successful production designers. “A director looks for a creative collaborator in a production designer,” she told Toffolo. “The best production designers are those who go far beyond what’s on the script page and really try to create a full world for the film.” She urged production designers to “shape the overall tone” and to “create authentic and rich spaces for the characters, consider locations/sets that aren’t scripted but could help make the film[the] best that it can be.”
Mickle’s latest two projects, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Suicide Squad,” are both available on HBO and HBO Max. Learn more about Beth Mickle’s work at bethmickle.com,