This week: "The Great Debaters" production designer David Bomba on re-creating 1930s Texas.
FILM design is about creating an atmosphere in which a story can be told. Whether it is a black college in Marshall, Texas, circa 1935 or a futuristic galaxy, the concern is to be true to the story as well as to the period and place in which it is to be told. The photojournalism of the New Deal's Works Progress and Farm Security administrations (Walker Evans, Carl Mydans, Eudora Welty and John Vachon to name a few) was an invaluable research tool for authenticating the look of the picture.
Replicating the world and environments for the students and faculty of Wiley College became a project of restoration and weeks of location scouting. It took several villages, miles of highway, a cypress swamp and the gracious welcome from Harvard University to put the pieces together. We restored two residential blocks and the downtown square in the town of Mansfield, La., for the cornerstone elements of Marshall, Texas. Sixty miles to the north, we relocated a sharecropper shack and also built a juke joint on Caddo Lake. A trip to Boston had us masking modern elements in Memorial Hall and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts and augmenting with period furniture, drapery, lighting and signage.