Based on Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 autobiography, much of the film “Just Mercy” takes place in prisons and courtrooms.
Michael B. Jordan plays Stevenson, the attorney who dedicated his life to defending minorities in the criminal justice system. Stevenson challenged over 125 cases, with the movie focusing on the Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx) trial, about a man wrongfully convicted of murder.
For production designer Sharon Seymour, her job was to break down the script and decide what parts would be shot on location and what required new sets.
“I made lists and started doing research through the internet,” Seymour explains. “Director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton had a Dropbox of images.”
In addition to Cretton’s researched images, Seymour and her team looked at the archive photos provided by the Equal Justice Initiative and started building visual research boards. The one set Seymour knew she would have to build was Holman Prison.
“It was featured in the ’60 Minutes’ episode. Also, Geraldo Rivera and Ted Koppel both went there so we captured a ton of screengrabs,” Seymour says.
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Once the imagery and visuals came together, the next challenge was the production budget.
“We didn’t have a large budget at all. So Peter Borck, who was the art director, really had to figure out what death row was and how to get the most bang for our buck,” she says.
Since the film was dialogue-heavy and featured a lot of interaction between McMillan and the other inmates, Seymour had to build at least three cells to accommodate those conversations. In addition to that, she had to consider showing the scale of the prison hallways. Stevenson was on hand to help with set decorating and could provide first-hand accounts of what death row looked like.
In the end, Seymour and her team built a two-story set with 10 cells. The visual effects team added the other cells and extra levels in post-production.
“We would rotate extras in and out of the cells so you get the sense of the other inmates,” Seymour explains.
The designer found the well-documented archival information particularly handy when it came to building the cell interior. She learned that, contrary to popular belief that prisons were grimy and dirty, at the time, it was quite the opposite.
“The prison system back then was run in such a military way. It was all about pressed whites and made beds,” she says.
While the prison sets were able to be recreated with fine precision, Seymour says there were other sets that were never documented. In particular, Walter McMillian and Eva Ansley’s (Brie Larson) homes.
“Bryan had spent some time in Eva’s home so we got a vague idea,” she explains.
Other than that, she created interiors based on who the characters were, their jobs and their social status. Any choices Seymour and her art team made were based on character notes.