Building Respect: The Production Design Behind Aretha Franklin's Biopic

If you haven't seen Respect, I highly recommend it. The Liesl Tommy-directed biographical film based on the life of American singer Aretha Franklin visually takes us back to the 1960s through a successful set work. Here, Production Designer, Ina Mayhew had the job of creating a series of locations where color palettes undoubtedly evoke more than emotions: Her suburban home from her childhood in Detroit, the sassy jazz clubs of New York City, her luxurious Upper West Side apartment, and finally her ultramodern home in Los Angeles.

In the following interview, Ina tells us in detail about the inspirations and challenges in the construction process (and gives us a preview of some of her recent works).

Fabian Dejtiar (FD): Working alongside director Liesl Tommy, you created a set that echoes the story of Aretha Franklin, from her highs, lows, and struggles of finding her own voice and independence as both a performer and a woman. What inspired you to build part of this story? 

Ina Mayhew (IM): Liesl and I began our conversations with an approach to the visual style of Aretha’s whole life. At first we thought it should be moody, with muted colors, using photographs of jazz musicians and singers as a reference. We wanted to continue the muted palette of the period, the 50’s & 60’s, for her childhood home and the various houses & apartments she lived in. 

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

But after more conversation and after watching a couple of films (A Room With A View was one), we changed our minds. We decided to make something beautiful and began researching upscale homes of black celebrities. Aretha’s father, C.L.Franklin, certainly was that: a celebrated minister on evangelical and civil rights’ biggest stages. We decided to show the wealth in which Aretha grew up. We emphasized the affluent style of her house. I consider one of my strengths as a designer—first trained as a painter—to be the addition of color to frame, to evoke emotion. And this era’s characteristics are my favorite palettes, with subtle rich tones of teals, yellows, oranges, burgundy, and deep blues. The lovely furniture style of mid-century modern pieces creates places where actors can live in their characters. This direction of style was one Liesl was happy to follow and it continues throughout all the homes we show Aretha living in, including the offices. This style also dictated the look of the other locations we looked for that didn’t play as Aretha’s dwellings, as well. It was our true north is staying immersed in, and authentic to our period.

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

In the early part of Aretha’s life in NYC, it was a time of struggle for her, both in where she lived and where she performed. Our initial conversations were useful here, and we were able to include some of our early thoughts of a gritty and muted look. We scouted for some actual places she lived and recorded. Luckily so much of NYC is period, especially the locations we needed—downtown, Greenwich Village, and in Harlem. Taking advantage of the muted tones and moody night scenes of the city, Liesl created visual transitions emphasizing Aretha’s moods, her inner struggle, and insecurity about life, and her talent and her fight to both make it as a singer and living on her own. 

Her life in Manhattan had some high points too. Some that we enacted were her first recording sessions at Columbia records; her sumptuous upper west side apartment; the grandeur of the  Woolworth building; and her birthday at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. 

All these ingredients connoted the color and beauty of the era. That of course included the clothing, brilliantly designed by Clint Ramos in our movie. 

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

FD: You have the job of designing her childhood suburban home in Detroit, the gritty jazz clubs of New York City, her lavish Upper West Side apartment, and eventually, her ultra-modern home in Los Angeles. How was the construction process for this job? What was the main challenge you faced? Did you rely on new technologies at some point? 

IM: There were numerous challenges for this film. One of the biggest was just the sheer number of sets that had to be built and dressed, and the locations that had to be adapted and dressed to conform to the correct period in time. We had to build 12 sets on stage; the largest was the Franklin family house that had 8 rooms, an entryway with a center staircase, a long hallway that connected the downstairs rooms, and a side porch. (And all this had to match what the audience could see in the house exterior which was shot on location—things such as windows, doors, patio furnishings, greenery outside the windows, etc.)  

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

The concert performance venues were shot on location and were an additional challenge in that our tight shooting schedule required us to have several of these large venues serve double duty. For instance, we used Atlanta’s Infinity Energy Center as Madison Square Garden, then we had to redress the same space to serve as Cobo Hall in Detroit, which hosted Aretha Franklin Day later in her career. Atlanta’s famed Fox Theatre served as the Olympia Theatre in Paris, then later became the Columbus, Georgia stage from which Aretha fell and broke her arm. A challenge in using these large venues is to find enough time available for that venue to allow us to dress the site in the day(s) before the shooting crew arrives, allow enough time to film the work, and still have enough time to wrap out all our equipment and scenery. The turn-around time to accomplish the change-overs was always tight, and the sets had to be designed in a way that made it possible to rapidly convert one into another overnight.  

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew
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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

As for the actual building of onstage sets, the construction process for me begins with my ideal design wish list of scale and overall size, which includes the wall height. The Franklin house, for example, was a tall set with 12’ walls; but because of the staircase that had action which played on it, that added another 12’ of the required height. It was by necessity a very large set. 

One of my most important collaborations on any project is always between me and the Construction Coordinator. It is essential that the Coordinator understand what materials I want to use for floors and ceiling elements. The Coordinator must know, for example, where I want to place double-sided walls. Most set walls are framed out and finished on one side, with the unfinished side being the side that obviously is not to be photographed. By finishing certain important set areas with double-sided walls, allows maximum flexibility for the actors’ or the camera’s actions, or both. Once there is an understanding of the style of the building I want, the Construction Coordinator is prepared for the final design drawings.  

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew
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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

A drawing tool I use now to show every build is a 3D sketch program, mostly using Sketch-Up and 3D Cad. It allows me to show what the final design will look like with furniture placement and all the architectural elements. I also like to incorporate the final color and wallpaper and other floor and wall textures in these renderings. It is a shorthand for everyone to get a look at all the design choices with the option to make changes if necessary because the 3D sketch is the early stage of the design process.  

Another new technology we began to use on RESPECT was a Matterport virtual measuring tool. It is a camera that realtors use for digitizing their spaces and creating virtual tours for prospective buyers. It can take a 3D photo of a hard-to-get-to location, often because of schedule restrictions, for the director or crew, and allows them to see it in a way that still photographs do not allow, from varying perspectives and distances. It gave us some basic dimensions and a great way to review a location in all directions without having to go back as we often have to do so many times for confirmation of window placement, entrances, etc. 

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew
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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

FD: I understand that you extensively researched concert venues she played at and built a number of the iconic venues and studios from across the US and Europe, including a 1960’s Atlantic Records studio and Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. I have been told that you studied concert footage, period photos, news, and interview footage, and watched a number of documentaries from the era. What surprises did you find there? How do you make this work in today's fast-moving environment? 

IM: Luckily there was some footage from a newsreel that followed Aretha & her husband at that time, Ted, walking through her manager Jerry Wexler’s offices. At the end of the newsreel was a short interview with Aretha, Ted, and Jerry. Most surprising for me in watching the reel was the confirmation of the mid-century style of furniture in evidence everywhere. Also surprising to me was the scale and complexity of the offices in Wexler’s complex. 

In watching footage from her concerts on tour and from her televised performances, I was surprised at how simple the sets were. They were very minimal and very much in the design of a 60's variety show—very colorful, mostly floating, simple shapes, in front of a colored background. I wanted the concerts to have a dynamic look yet still be true to the period, so I found similar set elements that mimicked the style of the time. In collaboration with Kramer Morgenthau, our movie’s cinematographer, I came up with colorful environments that relied a lot on the lighting to really bring it to life.  

When we first began the design collaboration, we had no idea of how upscale the house was that Aretha grew up in. As a result, our research was forced to evolve—indeed, this discovery required more research.  The deeper levels of our research forced me to change my design; I  began to focus on another style for the look of the interior, including color palette, wallpaper style, and the very current furniture style of the period. Aretha’s father’s aim was to impress the many guests that frequented his home and my design had to show his pride in his home and his affluence. 

The research process, though painstaking and tedious in its conduct, allows us to shortcut design decisions that have to be made under time pressures. By the latter stages of our process, when sets are being constructed and locations are being dressed, we have done so much study and know the period so thoroughly that it becomes a shared shorthand between me and my Set Decorator. When I am collaborating with my Decorator on furniture styles, window treatments, etc., we are as a result able to make snap decisions, confidently understanding the era for which we are designing. 

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Courtesy of Ina Mayhew
Building Respect: The Production Design Behind Aretha Franklin's Biopic - Image 12 of 20
Courtesy of Ina Mayhew

FD: You have recently worked as a production designer on other films such as Dolly Parton's Heartstrings and Jay-Z and Beyonce's Family Feud that add musical stories to your long-standing portfolio. Are more of these coming? Are you working on new projects? 

IM: Let me preface this by pointing out that I also recently did a Netflix TV movie musical, CHRISTMAS ON THE SQUARE, with original music and lyrics from Dolly Parton herself. It was directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen and first aired in December 2020. It was the Emmy winner for best TV movie and for Best Choreography at the recent  Emmy Awards. The challenge in this project was that I had to design an entire village square and place it on a soundstage, which we did accomplish, complete with a church steeple.

I also had a chance to design a number of music videos with director Spike Lee. One was the controversial Michael Jackson song “They Don’t Care About Us”. Spike recently recut it into a longer version last year that included footage of Black Lives Matter protests. I also designed a music video for Spike with Chaka Khan & Bruce Hornsby,  “Love Me Still”. I was inspired by the recently-deceased environmental artist Christo and I draped empty apartment buildings with colorful fabric in an earlier, more abandoned Harlem in the 1990s.  

You never know what will come your way as a designer. For some reason over the years, basketball-themed projects have seemed to find me. I did the movie ABOVE THE RIM with Tupac Shakur; I designed a  commercial with Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon riding a bicycle built for two through Central Park; I designed a commercial in which Kevin Garnett dunked a basketball through a crystal chandelier, and I did a Michael Jordan Nike commercial.  

So in that vein, my most recent feature film, which was just completed in July, was based on the early life of the Milwaukee Bucks star basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis is an NBA champion and two-time Most Valuable Player in the league. But he grew up in Athens, Greece, and the movie was shot entirely on location in Athens. Directed by the South African director Akin Amotoso, it follows the story of a Nigerian couple who migrated to Turkey and eventually, to Greece after escaping political unrest in Nigeria in the early 1990s. It’s going to be a special film that demonstrates the Antetokounmpo parents’ generosity in fully encouraging their sons to follow their passion for basketball. It dramatizes the importance of the support of family, with an unrelenting positive outlook on life, and of staying together no matter what the circumstances. As a result, the family will have four brothers on the payrolls of NBA teams this upcoming season. 

As I was saying before I took this last detour in answering your questions—you never know. You never know, as a designer, what is coming next. The best you can do is be ready, and when the chance comes, to trust your research, and to trust your talent.

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Cite: Fabian Dejtiar. "Building Respect: The Production Design Behind Aretha Franklin's Biopic" 01 Nov 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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