Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 has released in theaters as of May 5, rounding out the trilogy for this misfit family of galactic heroes. In the third installment to the franchise, one of few women who works on production design for big budget films, Beth Mickle, set a collection of new standards for production. The film features the largest ship Marvel Studios has built thus far, as well as a collection of enormous practical sets. Mickle had previously worked with director James Gunn on Suicide Squad and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, a partnership with proven success.
Nerds & Beyond had the chance to talk with Mickle about the production design for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Nerds & Beyond: With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, there are very little VFX involved with the production design, and therefore the sets were enormous. What were your thoughts and feelings when the scale of these sets started to soak in, and how do you approach a project of this scale?
Beth Mickle: There was a bit of VFX with the sets, but it was it was almost always with set extension, so it’s adding to what’s physically there. Like with Knowhere adding the whole sky above the city that we built, and the Orgo space park. So there are some effects in some of the bigger, broader worlds. That being said, James [Gunn] really loves to have physical scenery as much as we can, and feels like it’s really important to have tangible, touchable sets right there for the actors, and to get all that real texture right in front of camera. With approaching the design for sets on both Suicide Squad and for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, we constantly had to keep in mind what was a buildable scale, and what were buildable finishes that we could actually achieve with materials that we could actually find … and all within a reasonable price point. But that made us become really resourceful, which was exciting.
A lot of the surfaces that you see in the spaceships, a lot of times it could be some kind of venting foam that’s used in household repairs, it could be plumbing piping, and strange gaskets, and things that you just find at a hardware store. We would just take paint and add to. A lot of it became what we can find off of the shelf that we know exists, and then if it was seen, what finishes we were doing that we could achieve with our art team. It made building very fun.
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Nerds & Beyond: I know the Bowie specifically is massive — I believe it fills a 20,000-square-foot space, if I remember correctly. How did you approach something so large and detailed, and what were the specific challenges that you faced in regard to that build?
Beth Mickle: One of the fun things about the design itself was we were trying to figure out the overall shape of the outside, and then that could help inform the design of the inside. We ended up referencing our first pass on shapes of what the exterior could be, and I wanted to go in the direction of some kind of power tool … something that felt tough, because it is a ship built by Rocket. We ended up landing on the circular saw.
If you look at the shape of the Bowie, you can actually really see it’s very circular. Behind the whole pilot deck is circular. That really informed the interior spaces. The med bay where we spend most of the time with Rocket, that’s a big circular space, the central core is a big circular space, the spiral staircase … that really drove a lot of the interior designs. Then you get the nice, iconic shot looking down the long hallways, which are all big and circular in nature. We really took the circular theme and ran with it. We wanted to make sure that all the spaces really connected so that the actors could all go from one space to another to the next in dialogue scenes with long walks, tracking shots, following actors from the med bay down into the pilot bay. We wanted them to be able to walk in one motion, same with some of the big fight scenes and choreographed scenes in the ship. We did a lot of the layout so that it could accommodate those specific scenes.
Nerds & Beyond: Of the new locations for The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, did you find yourself with an absolute favorite?
Beth Mickle: Oh, yes, we all just absolutely loved Kevin Bacon’s house. What’s so fun? Little shout out to the owners of that house — it was a full gut renovation that they had done on this house. It had a lot of wacky design choices in the original build of the house, and then that homeowner, whose name I’m blanking on now, did an absolutely exquisite job over the last several years of redoing everything inch by inch, all perfectly designed, so that fortunately, all we had to do was just come in and add some Christmas dressing. We worked with her furniture — her sofa, her TV, it was all so exquisitely done. We embraced almost everything she had aside from adding our Christmas decorations, but we loved it. It was such a fun location.
Nerds & Beyond: How fun to just get to decorate it for Christmas, making a fun space even more fun.
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You have a background in independent films, what skills did you learn on indie film sets that you have carried over, or you feel like have really improved your work on blockbuster film sets?
Beth Mickle: Absolutely, it would be the resourcefulness and the creative problem-solving. Those are things that you just absolutely have to hone in the independent world. There’s always a way to make something work. When you have a shoestring budget, and you’re trying to figure out how to fit that round peg into that square hole, you come up with really handy creative solutions, and it just equips you with being quicker on your feet, being able to see a finish line a little bit more clearly. So definitely the resourcefulness.
I think the recognition that not every single detail has to be so precious that it has to be labored on to the point of eating up time from other sets also. I learned pretty quickly what was important to focus on and what was okay to let go as background details that you didn’t have to squander labor and money on so that you could keep it on the foreground important pieces.
Those are very important lessons from my early days. And while I’m really lucky to be working in this bigger arena over these last five years, it’s really important to me to keep doing smaller, independent work. Between Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, where I was committed to making sure that I stay nimble with my budget ranges, I did a $30 million production — Dear Evan Hanson. After Superman: Legacy, I plan to do another modest film just to keep myself sharp.
Nerds & Beyond: To keep honing those skills that you learned and carry with you.
Beth Mickle: Yes, I don’t want to get soft!
Nerds & Beyond: Very few women do your job in regards to superhero films and sci-fi. Have you received a piece of advice in your career that’s really stuck with you in regards to that?
Beth Mickle: Yes. There’s actually been a number, and let me revisit some that have been the best.
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Don’t be afraid to be heard, and don’t be afraid to speak up. I think that often women feel like their voice doesn’t carry as much as much weight in a roomful of men. And it’s harder to be heard. But I feel like it’s really important. And I’ve had to say it a few times to men that I’ve worked with, like I’m speaking please let me finish my thought, you know, and it’s important to be able to do that just to make sure that you’re heard.
And then another piece of good advice I received from Denise Di Novi, a fabulous producer, who was with Warner Bros. She really advocated for me to get promotions over the years and to get on to studio movies — she gave me my first studio movie. I remember she said she felt it was important that studios offered these jobs to female department heads when they could, and really tried to even the playing field. That’s really stayed with me and I feel a great deal of responsibility to continue that. Being so fortunate to be in a position to be doing these giant films, I feel a great deal of responsibility to help out women getting into the film industry and trying to thrive and prosper in the industry. And so wherever I can, I try to make sure to find ways to promote them, to find ways to support them, to find ways to make sure that their talents come through as well.
I’m very proud to say on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, half of the people in our art department office were women, which was a first for superhero movie and for big franchise movies in general. It’s normally three women to the 38 men. This was an exciting change.
Nerds & Beyond: Congratulations on helping to get that new standard on the board. If this film can do it, others can, and hopefully that precedent is set now.
Beth Mickle: Thank you. Thank you. When will be the time?
Nerds & Beyond: Fingers crossed we see more people do that.
Beth Mickle: Thank you for that.
Nerds & Beyond: Absolutely! Nerds & Beyond is actually an all-women, independent team, and in entertainment journalism it is still primarily a male-dominated field. So it’s very similar between us.
Beth Mickle: I’ll say you’re the first interview I’ve had with a woman for this, which I’m very happy for. It makes the message here much more even, and it’s even more important coming from you guys. I appreciate that.
Nerds & Beyond: I know you mentioned Superman: Legacy, but are there any other projects you have coming up in the future that you’re allowed to share?
Beth Mickle: Unfortunately, no others that are on the horizon, but I’m so excited to have had Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 just come out, and then yes, just very excited for Superman: Legacy ahead.
I will say on that front, just back to the women aspect here … it’s been fantastic that more women have gotten the opportunity to start doing these bigger movies. It is really exciting, and I’ve had a lot of women say it’s really exciting to see that a woman is going to get to do Superman, one of the more iconic characters out there. The enormity and the importance of that project and my involvement is not lost on me. It’s already a career highlight to be doing it, but to be doing it in that context specifically really is … what’s the word to say?
It makes me overwhelmingly happy to be in that position.
Nerds & Beyond: I imagine that feeling is quite overwhelming! I just have one last kind of fun question. If you had to pick one character from the new movie to be your assistant for the day, who would you choose?
Beth Mickle: Oh, wow … I would choose Mantis. She’s so fun, I just love her.
Nerds & Beyond: I appreciate your time, getting to meet you, and pick your brain for a little bit.
Beth Mickle: Thank you so much, I appreciate the questions, and I appreciate the women-centric space you have. Well done.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is playing in theaters now. Check out the gallery below for behind-the-scenes production images from the film.