“When I was a kid, my mission was to go out and find a great place in the woods and build a fort,” says veteran film and television Production Designer John Blackie. “I’d go and get all the kids in the neighborhood interested in it, tell them what to do, and build the fort. I love the collaboration. It’s the greatest collaborative art form anywhere, really, filmmaking. I love that part about it.
“When I watch any kind of television or movies or anything, I’m totally captivated,” he continues. “I forget the job that I do. I become a viewer. I totally let go of everything and just enjoy the story. [Veteran Production Designer] Henry Bumstead was great. There are so many great designers out there. I’m interested in every aspect of filmmaking and storytelling. A good story is just the best thing that you can have.”
Blackie, who is Canadian, boasts a career spans more than 35 years and encompasses such projects as The Ray Bradbury Theater, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The TV Show, Tucker and Dave vs Evil, Fargo, Copper, Hell on Wheels, Damnation, Togo and, most recently, The Good Lord Bird. A seven-episode miniseries based on the novel of the same name by James McBride. The Good Lord Bird debuted in October 2020 on Showtime.
The show’s star and Executive Producer Ethan Hawke plays John Brown, a real-life abolitionist who, in the late 1850s, led a failed raid and slave revolt but helped spark the American Civil War. The story was told from the point-of-view of Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a just-freed gender-fluid teen who joins Brown on his crusade and ends up part of the famous 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry.
The Good Lord Bird received tremendous acclaim upon its debut, with critics and viewers hailing its compelling mix of drama, tension and humor, as well as its authentic period look.
“The issue in front of us was trying to keep a historical document funny, which is hard, walking that line, trying to make it interesting, funny, accurate,” Blackie told Below the Line during a recent Zoom chat. “It was a real challenge. I loved the story. I loved the book.”
What aspects of it did he appreciate?
“I think it’s the fantasy element,” Blackie replies. “Throw in a character that’s gender-confused, to say the least, and in a historic place, it just changes the way you look at everything. It’s such a heavy subject, the whole abolitionist thing and slavery and all of that. It’s just so harsh. It’s nice to have that comic relief, and it’s kind of a dark comedy, which I found really interesting.”
Hawke teamed with Mark Richard to create and produce The Good Lord Bird, with Richard among the writers, and they tapped filmmaker Albert Hughes to co-produce the show and direct the first episode, “Meet the Lord.” Blackie recalled a “great collaboration” with the show’s key creatives.
“The writer, I had worked with before, the script writer, not the novel writer,” Blackie says, referring to Richard, who’d also scripted Hell on Wheels. “I knew him, so there was a shorthand already there. We trusted each other. Ethan was fantastic. Albert Hughes was really fantastic to deal with. It’s my favorite part of the process, really, that collaboration and trying to get to the same kernel of truth in a story with all the people, so that we’re all telling the same thing.
The Good Lord Bird author James McBride was involved with the production. He visited the set one day, Blackie recalls, as he and his crew were erecting the town sets.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Blackie begins. “In the town, there’s a slave pen, and one of the characters, Pie (Natasha Marc), had to be able to see it from the window of the building she was in. There was a hanging that was going to happen later across the street. So, there was a lot of screen description that was described in the book. I walked McBride through and I said, ‘So, what do you think does it? Is it right?’ And he goes, ‘I just make that shit up. You gotta figure out how to make it real.’ (Laughs) He was great. He was really great.”
Time and money are always a challenge on any show, but Blackie reports that he contended with several other specific hurdles when it came to The Good Lord Bird. For starters, Blackie had never plied his craft before in Virginia, and so he “just tried to navigate that whole world there.” Also, other than Mark Richard, he knew not a single soul on the production.
“Absolutely everybody was just new,” Blackie recalls. “I didn’t have anybody that had been my trusted compadres over the years. So, that was interesting. Very interesting. It really ups your game when you have to learn a bunch of new people and a bunch of new ways of doing things. There’s some things better than the way I do it and some maybe not as good, but it’s always good to change your game up, right?”
In the end, Blackie made it work. The team on The Good Lord Bird became trusted compadres.
“Everybody from the Graphics Department, the Painters, the Carpenters, my Art Directors, my Draftsmen; it was a different kind of configuration than you’re used to, but I guess it’s making a soup and keeping all the flavors alive in that soup,” Blackie says. “I needed everybody. There’s no one that is… down to the A.D.s. They’re so critical in doing it properly, the Director of Photography, the Directors, all those people. Keeping that process fresh and vibrant and interesting, that’s a big part of the deal.
“I’m probably not supposed to admit this, but I actually care about the process more than I care about the product,” he continues. “I like to build a nest for people to be creative in, and that frees them up to bring their best game. And I think that’s my skill, is to bring other people’s talents to bear and to be able to flourish around me. It’s like I do hardly any of the work. It’s a collective of really talented people around me. So, I think it’s the process that I like more than the product in my own work.”
Blackie has received numerous awards and nominations over the years, but never an Emmy. What would it mean to him to add an Emmy nomination or a win to a list of honors that he’s received in the past from the Art Directors Guild, Cable Ace Awards, Directors Guild of Canada, and the Gemini Awards?
“Oh, it’d be fantastic, unbelievable, really,” he replies enthusiastically. “I don’t like to think about what’s going to happen about that kind of thing. If it happens, that’s great.”
Blackie has worked on many shows and movies where he was on board from Day One, but he’s also lent his talents to several shows already in progress. That can be tough for some Production Designers, to build upon an existing world. Blackie claims to have no problem doing so, if that’s what a job demands. After all, work is work. Plus, he views it as an opportunity to find better solutions.
“If I came in late, usually it’s because there was some kind of an issue with the first go-round,” Blackie notes. “If they’re changing the Designer, usually there’s a need for change. So, I just look at it strictly from a visual standpoint and try to eliminate the elements that are difficult in a production sense, like taking the rocks out of the road, for example, so we don’t trip on them on the way, to make it as smooth-running as possible. I think that it’s a bit more of a practical approach, but it’s still fun. And then, again, you’ve got to get the team together and make the team flow. So, the process ends up being pretty much the same. You can’t always get the best project, so the important thing is to work and to get better at what you do.”
Taking a similar glass-half-full attitude, Blackie has welcomed the digital/CG elements that have completely changed the production design game. Blackie, who’s currently working in Calgary on Vikings creator Michael Hirst’s upcoming Western series, Billy the Kid, considers them yet another set of tools in his kit.
“I actually love it,” Blackie explains. “I’ve always embraced the new technologies. We always have, in my world, done 3D design and all that kind of thing. Just the way that it becomes an unbroken workflow from idea to final product, you can take drawings, send them to the VFX guys. You can have more of an influence on the final outcome by embracing the technologies that exist. It’s just the way to make things better. We’ve had a paperless workflow for quite a while here.
“They say when you go to heaven, St. Peter meets you there, and he’s watched over your pile of garbage that you’ve made in your lifetime,” he concludes. “And you have to deal with that before you get in. So, digital technology helps you eliminate a bunch of the garbage that you make.”
The Good Lord Bird is available to watch on Showtime. All pictures courtesy of Showtime; Photographer: William Gray.