Hannah Beachler On Creating Namor’s Talokan World

Feb 18, 2023

Hannah Beachler already has one Oscar thanks to her incredible world-building in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther.” She may soon be in the running for a second after helping conceive the Mayan-influenced Talokan civilization in the follow-up, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” A process that involved countless hours of research and a year of prep work.
READ MORE: ‘Wakanda Forever’: Ruth Carter on fashioning Namor’s undersea costumes and the new Black Panther armor [Interview]
During our conversation, Beachler reveals just how much consideration went into imagining an underwater world influenced by classic Mayan architecture. She also reveals how much was actually built versus CG work (it may surprise you) and explains Namor’s memorabilia room. And we wonder if and when those gorgeous original wall paintings will ever be put on display for public consumption.
The Playlist: How much lead time did you have on this film to design and build out the sets for “Wakanda Forever”?
Hannah Beachler: Let’s see, about a year.
Was that as much time as you’d had for the first film or was it a shorter prep?
More time.
What was the one thing that Ryan talked about or said was most important to him, especially when building out the world of the Talokans?
I think for Ryan the most important thing was that it didn’t feel alien, that it felt grounded. Whatever we do, it didn’t feel like you are coming upon a new planet, but you’re coming upon something that is evolved from something familiar. That was the first conversation that we had in the first place that I started. It took a long time to find it, the design language, find the aesthetic because when we first started, we were also still learning about Maya. We were also just in our beginning discovery and exploration of that community and that civilization because we were studying mostly post-classic Maya. I did some studying of more classic Maya as well because I needed to study the architecture over a long period of time. I wanted to go through the gamut of more about how they built, what they built, where they built things, and why, and to bring in that familiarity or a semblance of that into their world. Of course, [Namor’s people’s] own culture being Talokan, they are not Mayan. They’re 500 years separated because he’s 500 years separated from the time they went into the ocean.
So, it has evolved in a sense to where there is some modernity to it, but there is still that essence and influence of the way Maya was. I think that they still use the same traditions and hold some of the same values in how they are treating nature and the organic world around them. That comes from Maya. But, at this point, they have become a different people, right? Because they’re 12,000 feet and in the Puerto Rican trench in a valley. That’s kind of where they settled, and they’re that deep because when they first went in they’re in the Gulf and so they’re a little more shallow, and that was the late 1700s. But as you get into the 1800s, trade routes become more intense, so shipping becomes more intense and they’re more of a presence of humans. So, they can’t be so shallow. They can’t be at 50 feet anymore. They have to go deeper people are starting to explore the ocean in these shallower waters and warmer waters, of course, and a little less treacherous, but they have to get pushed out again further into the Gulf, and then more because it’s that sort of the area where shipping is really picking up. Now they’re going into the Atlantic and they’re about 1,000 miles off of the coast of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican trench. Still traffic, and human encroachment going on above, so they kind of move down right into the zone that it’s not quite black yet. So, they’re a little bit between, I would say, the beginning of the hadal zone and the top of the basal zone. There are about 4,000 feet of play there that they can go a little closer to the surface. Then they learned how to harness different biological materials for light, like bioluminescence. When they went in the water, in our world, in our eyes, they went in the water with engineers and architects, and scientists. Ryan had always said Namor’s mother was a scientist and astronomer. So, you had special teachers that specialized in things, so they used their engineering knowledge to help them survive through this route over 300 years to the Puerto Rican trench.
How cognizant were you on whether or not the Talokans had visited the land world? Were they influenced by what was happening on land over the centuries?
We went back and forth and back and forth, you know what I mean? That was part of, I think, the struggle and creating that world of how much do they know? I mean, it was the same with Wakanda in the first one. How much do they know about the outside world? Because at that point they were also hidden. Do they have certain things? Is Namor bringing things from the surface down that they can re-engineer and use to their ability? Is technology coming from there? I think yes. I think it’s also coming from the ocean. And we had the conversation, Namor is stealing fiber optics, not only to spy on people, but also to use within his civilization. So, I do believe he is bringing things down specifically, and I think that some people have been on the surface, where younger people have not. So, it was sort of a mix of it should feel familiar, but we should also think of there are going to be some of that population that this is all they know. They don’t know. In the same way you have war dogs that live all over the world. You have people from Wakanda all over integrating themselves into the world outside of Wakanda. I feel like you can take that same idea for Talokan that, yeah, there probably are some people we see that are with Namor, and others that have the ability to come on land, but in a sense to protect what is there.
In that context, is there one part of that world that you created that you’re most happy about?
Well, his throne room, for sure. Pretty much everything. The first time I saw that big wide… I mean, I said to Ryan, he brought something up on the screen in the VFX stage, and I chose not to see a cut of the film, and I was working on another movie, so he’s like, “I need to look at something and let me bring this VFX up.” I was like, “O.K.” He brought it up on the screen and I said, “Is that the artwork, though?” I’m like, “Are you going to show me what they did or are we just going to look at the artwork? Didn’t you guys do this?” And he goes, “Yeah, that’s the film.” I scream loud as I could. I literally thought it was the original design. I mean, it was. That was literally what I showed Ryan. I put that in front of his face. So, something like that big VFX shot, but we had built Namor’s throne room. We did a piece of it under water and then we did a piece of it dry for wet. The megalodon jaw was built in completion with carvings that say, “This jade tooth bite,” it’s because all the teeth on the megalodon are jade with a little bit of gold. Got a little bit of a grill. We built the chair, we built that, and we also built the walls around it, it’s that circular room. What we did was we used a backdrop for that. We didn’t build it out of wood and lay it in plaster. We actually brought it and we worked for a couple months to get a really beautiful digital file of the set. We had it beautifully printed and it was humongous. It was like 25 feet tall by 60 feet in diameter.
Oh, wow.
Then we built the center steps and the throne chair around it, and it just was absolutely stunning and gorgeous. So, they had Tenoch up there on a wire coming down in the seat, and then we took the throne chair, the megalodon and the first three steps, took it off and then put it in the 20 foot tank.
Namor also has a private room or space in a cavern where he breathes air and, seemingly, has a lot of alone time. Is that his private recluse? How would production refer to that area?
We refer to it as his memorabilia room, for lack of a better word, just because there was things of remembrance for him in that room. A lot of traditional Maya was in that room. The hut was made as a traditional classic era Maya hut that’s in. The murals are influenced by the murals of Bonampak. Somebody was asking me about [why] that room wasn’t glitter and gold, and that wasn’t really what was important to Maya. The king was sort of in a fancy chair. It was more about the adornments. It was big and it wasn’t. The buildings had what we called billboards on them where the king’s building, right? It said the name of their family. There was these giant billboards, and I forget what they’re actually called, but I call them the billboards. They would paint them and adorn them and put their big name on it, almost like a car salesman, right?
Yeah, yeah.
They love to paint the battles that maybe they weren’t in of them winning or cutting off the head [of their enemies], the glory moments.
That is the riches, right? The ones that could have the spondylus shell that you have to dive 50 feet for and some people didn’t make it back, that to have that you had to be the king or you had to be related to the king to have that. Some of the traditions and rituals were important to who you were and not necessarily your status. It wasn’t really looked at it in that way of the west, but I use those words for lack of a better word because it was such an easy way. So, yes, there was definitely ways that the king adorned himself, but it wasn’t necessarily in too many materialistic things in that way. That’s what we wanted to show, that what was important to him, and it was the glory story, him fighting the panther and painting that on the wall in the same way that a king would have celebrated his battle. Then on the other wall is the establishment story of Talokan and Namor’s ascension from young child to king as influenced by Pakal’s establishment story. He was the 12-year-old king of Palenque who became chalk. I think a little bit that you didn’t see in that set was outside of that there was corn that was growing. There were two giant stellas we had cut. They were hand carved, two 10-foot stellas. Also, all these nautical pieces of technology over the years from the 1800s to the present day. So, things that Namor was mainly stealing off of ships. We had an old pirate ship wheel, we had navigational equipment that you would see from the 1800s all the way up until the war. You would see things from the war that he would throw off his ships and stuff. The latest thing he took obviously was the [diving suit] in the beginning. So, he kind of had a way of collecting, and that’s also why we called it the memorabilia room. There was an old painting that he might have taken in Italy, so we had all these things from the time that he had stolen. I had said at one point, I thought it was really funny, I said to Ryan, I was like, “Does he have the heart of the ocean?” That would be a nice ring.
That would be a really great little tiny Easter egg that maybe you saw in the corner. Was there one specific artist on your team who was responsible for those paintings on the wall and designing them, or was it a number of different artists who all contributed?
It was a number of different artists. One person painted it. We had Brandon Sadler who painted Shuri’s mural in her lab on the first movie. He came in and painted it. Actually, Brandon designed two of those murals, the panther one and then the spirit God, one that you see, it looks like a man is coming out of a snake. Then the establishment story we worked on for about eight months, because it’s so much in it, we really wanted to tell the whole story of his ascension. So, we worked very closely with our expert, Dr. Aldona, to write all the hieroglyphs to make sure we had all the right pieces, like when Namor standing on land, when Namor is standing on a shark. When he is young, he’s on the land, but when he is king, he’s on the shark, and talking about the Mayan shark should look like and what that should be. There’s these little moments that mean “precious place.” If you look at the branches of the tree, the dark spots mean going through a dark time. It’s a dark place. It’s it based on the story of the Hero Twins and the Calabash tree. So, it was a ton of work. Our wonderful graphic designer, Kelsey Brennan, after we got her started or after I got her started with that, she worked with Dr. Aldona to really hit every note, make sure every single thing was right to the place where the face on the painted face is actually Tenoch’s face. We had taken a picture of him in profile, and Kelsey created his profile on that and Brandon painted it.
A tiny quick follow-up, are those pieces of art? Do they still exist? Are they in storage somewhere that they could be displayed?
I would imagine so. I would imagine that they put those in storage. Most of the murals I believe went into storage. But, yeah, I would imagine so.
Well, those are gorgeous and people need to see them. I’m going to start the campaign so people can see them in person.
I’ll be right behind you on that. It’s actually breathtaking in person. They’re stunning.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is in theaters nationwide

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