Meet the Visionary Bringing Aretha Franklin’s Biopic ‘Respect’ to Life
Production design is a White boy’s field, but Ina Mayhew broke that mold
When the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect comes out (hopefully later this year), you can credit production designer Ina Mayhew for how it looks. It’s her job to create sets and designs that make the location real. It won’t just be Jennifer Hudson, with sass and verve in her role of playing Aretha, who illustrates how the Detroit native became our first lady of soul. Mayhew’s work also helps bring that story to life.
“I study the things I need to build,” says Mayhew, a New York-based designer who is considered a legend by her peers. She has worked extensively with Dolly Parton, Tyler Perry, and Ava DuVernay and was personally tapped to work on the music video for Jay-Z’s 2018 cultural hit “Family Feud.” “You have to get it right,” she says.
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Part of getting it right includes studying architecture and art of the time period, the significance of colors and textures in furniture and carpets and wall coverings, plus how those accoutrements interact with the actors and their character’s personalities. In Aretha’s case, since the biopic starts with the singer as a child, Mayhew had the difficult job of piecing together what that neighborhood looked like, what the original house looked like, and even how the staircase was built.
The card-carrying member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences worked several seasons on Queen Sugar, creating the lush sightscapes that distinguish that show from many others. She just built a warehouse in New York that houses all the things she finds and needs to use in her films. And she makes a point to hire women of color and bring them into an area that is traditionally a White boy’s club.
I talked to Mayhew about designing sets for our favorite films, her artistic upbringing, and her focus on mentoring women. Here’s what else she had to say.
ZORA: What were the challenges in re-creating Aretha Franklin’s childhood home?
Ina Mayhew: The house is the centerpiece of that movie. It was that era of the ’40s and ’50s, and, you know, her mother left when she was seven or eight. It was a balance of the design and style of the house knowing that [her father] had a lot of money. Everything was beautiful and perfect. The real house was in disrepair, and no one lived in it for many years. By 2012, someone bought it, but it was in poor shape. We understood the structure and things like where is the staircase — the stuff that I don’t know that everyone pays attention to. What the yard looks like out the front door. I wanted to make sure we found an exterior house that resembled as close as possible what [Aretha’s childhood house] looked like. It was all about land.
What about Aretha’s New York home and her churches?
She was in New York for more than 10 years. We don’t really know where she lived. You would think that there was more information, but there just wasn’t. We really worked hard to find it. Every now and then, I’d read a blurb in a book about a conversation between her and someone else saying upper East or West Side, and I’d say, “Okay, now I have an idea.” For some of that, I had to use my best judgment. … We did tons of design boards. We shot it mostly in Atlanta; there are many churches here. One I knew very well, and it has a very red interior. A lot of wood.
I’m from theater, and all we ever did were period pieces, so I was already a person who’d go to museums as an artist, plus I come from an art family. Everything is a kind of study.
Your parents are artists?
Both of my parents are painters. My mom’s Italian. My dad is a Black artist, Richard Mayhew. My parents let me do my thing. There was no “Girl, you have to cook and sew.” I started theater in high school. I loved the idea of not being in a studio but having these big sets. I loved building sets and painting sets.
Wait. You actually build things yourself?
I’m handy. I was always a draftsperson. I could always make stuff and paint. To this day, I collaborate with the carpenters and tell them what I want and how it could be built.
“I’m happy that all these men didn’t [question] ‘oh she’s a woman, can she do it?” There wasn’t a hesitation.”
How do you encourage women to join this behind-the-scenes field?
My whole thing is to be supportive, to be patient with the ladies as all the guys are with all their guys. They bring in people that are clearly not qualified, but they somehow just jam them through. They do it because they teach them. This is how you have to do it. The big thing is I like people that have some skills, really established skills, whether it is researching, drafting, graphic design, or illustration. If you don’t have that skill or background, I can’t take you seriously.
You worked on Tyler Perry’s first film?
It’s so interesting to grow up with everybody and see where they all are now. We were all really early and young. Reuben [Cannon] was the person who introduced me to Tyler and eventually Paul Garnes and Roger Bobb. It was this group of us that all influenced each other. I’m happy that all these men didn’t [question] “Oh, she’s a woman, can she do it?” There wasn’t a hesitation.
Do you have any memories of working on the music video for “Family Feud” with Jay-Z?
Ava called me up. I’d just finished 16 episodes of Queen Sugar. It was August, and I was at my aunt’s house visiting my family. I was completely burnt out. I was about to say, “Can I call you back?” And then I had to talk it over to myself. Yes, of course, I want to do a Jay-Z and Beyoncé music video. Ava wrote a very specific script. We had a small amount of time and had to figure out locations and all that. The only thing that Jay-Z wanted was a Catholic church in New York. That was very specific. So it did help with the concept. There’s a script and then a conversation with the creator and the talent, and you want to find a way to make it all work as a total piece.