Production Designer Jona Tochet Unveils The Victorian Secrets Of 'The Last Black Man In San Francisco'
The woman behind the most beautiful house in any movie this year reveals how it was found and what had to be done to make it cinematic.
It's "Jona," like "Jonathan," and it's "touché" like, dude, that was a clever point... So, now that you can pronounce her name, you should know Jona Tochet is one of the film industry's rising stars behind the scenes. A veteran of shorts, commercials, music videos, and features all, the production designer finished her most challenging and intensive shoot yet — The Last Black Man in San Francisco — and the results are more than impressive.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is the story of Jimmie Fails (playing a version of himself), a displaced and disenchanted SF native who finds solace returning to and maintaining his old family home — an illustrious Victorian in the Fillmore now worth millions. Along with his best friend, Mont (played by Jonathan Majors), Jimmie moves back in when the place is suddenly vacated to try to reclaim what he lost long ago.
The Victorian, which we will henceforth refer to as "The House," was Tochet's enormous and incredible responsibility. We spoke to her about the daunting task, finding The House, treating it as another character in the film, and using it to inform the themes of the story. She also lent us a few of her personal photos from the shoot, as you'll see below. And we'll discuss how Jona managed to have her first child just as shooting began. You want Wonder Woman? Gal Gadot, eat your heart out.
First of all, how did you find the house?
Jona Tochet: Joe Talbot, the director, Luis, an associate producer, and I went on a friendly, impromptu location scout when Joe brought us to a stately Victorian he was drawn to as a child because of its signature witches' cap. It was a beacon five stories above South Van Ness. We decided to try our luck, rang the doorbell, and were greeted by Jim Tyler, the owner of the "high" Queen Anne built in 1889. He welcomed us into his "mansion," as he likes to call it, and gave us a tour. The three of us were enchanted!
The floor plan left itself up to mystery as it seemed to go on and on. We were looking for a Victorian separated from the rest upon first look. We needed it to fulfill the role of a late Victorian. It had all the right nuances we needed for the script — the hidden balcony, the decorative details in the facade to paint, the turrets and towers, steeply pitched roofs, angled bay windows, and, of course, the infamous witches' hat.
The House had other characteristics which worked in our favor, like the beautiful stained glass windows throughout, the classic organ we all admired (which Joe eventually wrote into the script), the front parlor, the back parlor, and a big space for Mont's play — the raw and open unfinished attic.
How different is everything in reality compared to what appears in the movie?
JT: The bones were perfect but the interior was too perfect. We needed to pull it back to a neglected, unmaintained state — covered in old cracked plaster with its original paint job now faded and nicotine stained. We wanted a home that was once beautiful, but now forgotten. That's the house’s first phase in the film. The House goes through three stages: before Jimmie, with Jimmie, and after Jimmie. And each stage needed its own look, from overgrown to being nursed back to health to being ruined by modernity. We wanted the house to start as a relic, symbolic of a forgotten time, which makes its transformation after Montgomery’s play that much more painful. Because now, not only is that time forgotten, but it’s been erased.
We wanted the exterior palette to be even more regal that it was, which is why we chose gold for accents. This required a lot of work to give it an antiqued look before the restoration Jimmie and Mont complete it, as well as restore it, back to its original state for the owner. The current exterior modern garage addition, topped with a crisp AstroTurf lawn, didn't match the style of the house we appreciated so much. So, we had to mask it somehow. We realized VFX wouldn’t work since the characters would have to sneak in, pass it in frame, and work with it. We knew we couldn’t shoot the front at a different location as there were too many variables affecting our budget, which is finally when our secret garden came in. We wanted the overgrowth to add to the enchantment, even though it was from years of being unkempt. By the end of the film, we needed to be able to flip the house the way every other San Franciscan sadly has done and sort of dumb it down for the open house. I was happy to work the modern garage feature back into this third and final stage.
What was the most challenging part of the design?
JT: The most challenging part of the design was doing everything we wanted while staying within budget. There was an arduous give and take affecting all big decisions we made. There was so much to do, so many sets, and so many moving parts to the production that each purchase and/or rental needed to be a well-thought-out decision because each prop or piece of set dressing needed to fit the design, the palette, and help build each individual character. There was no room for wasted expenses, which required a lot of curation and that tends to demand a lot of time, so we had to use it very wisely. I'd been invested in the film for over a year before we went into pre-production and had been collecting key pieces as I stumbled upon them.
The house was where I was forced to do the most requesting as everything was costly, from the scenic painting and aging of the interior and exterior to the restoration to the pieces of art and furniture that needed to be brought in. The walls were very tall and tedious to work with due to their elaborate woodwork, moldings, doorways, archways, and all the large, beautiful, gilded, framed artwork surrounding the interior and main stairwell. We had to know the exact framing in order to put all our energy into the specifics. In the end, however, we really made the money stretch and created 360 degree sets so we could move freely and get the coverage we wanted.
We also shot the entire film on location rather than in studio, which was a challenge. Trying to tread that fine line between being courteous and non-invasive to San Francisco and its locals while getting exactly what we wanted from each shot was not easy. The multitude of locations requiring our attention made it necessary to run split crews as much as we could afford to assure that all were dressed in time. Juggling those logistics made it complicated and stretched us thin throughout the city. The film became a labor of love for myself and the rest of the art department with everyone really pulling together to create something we could all be proud of!
Another challenge was sharing Jimmie's skateboard! It's how Jimmie and Mont get from one place to another and a major focal point of the movie. Having dabbled in skateboarding myself, I knew this couldn't be done unless we had stunt tricksters who'd spent their lives practicing. And it especially hadn’t already been done on the big screen. Thrasher Magazine and local skateboard companies like DLX and the GX-1000 group looked at us like we were crazy — until we met with George from Iris Skateboards. I had long talks with him about our odd board specifications. We needed two sets of grown men’s feet to fit appropriately. And it couldn't look absurdly large when Jimmie held his board walking around or skating alone. We didn’t want our "stunt" board and normal board to look too far off from each other. We also feared road bite throwing them off the board so, in-between each take, we had to "remember to tighten those bushings!" We wanted the board to have a classic look and have its color tie in with our palette. After designing it, George fabricated us a custom board.
What are some details that went into the production design a viewer would never realize? Any other secrets?
JT: Some secrets — color use! There weren’t many rules besides no blue/orange main color combo. Joe and I love using rich, very saturated color to create a complex palette that adds to the subtext and helps define a character. There was an even more extensive color palette invented due to the abundance of characters and locations. To Jimmie, San Francisco is home, but The House is family. Eventually, it became his domain — the one thing he could truly call his own. He became the king of his own castle.
Therefore, we wanted royal colors for the house. We chose deep red and gold for the exterior and old dusty rose for all the interior walls because it's such a soft, yet rich, romantic Victorian color and it complimented Jimmie and Mont's skin tone so well. We joked about The House being safe and homey — like a mother's womb — but there is some truth in that. For Jimmie — shades of red and hues of yellow — his infamous red flannel over sandy gold jeans matched the house and his scrubs were a dusty rose.
As they settled in and started to make improvements to the house, we wanted to show the soft side to the boys and how they recognized natural beauty by picking local flowers to adorn the interior of house. I was hoping to source dusty pink roses to tie in with the color palette, which I happened to discover were serendipitously growing along the back sidewall of The House. That was a good omen! Reds and yellows continue to pop up throughout the film. Mont’s boat is yellow and Mont’s journal and rain jacket are red, connecting him to Jimmie. Bobby's car is yellow, and so are the yellow flowers Jimmie and Mont carry when they walk through the dense San Francisco fog.
For Jimmie's dad (played by Rob Morgan) — old royalty — royal blue, plum, and dark green. For Mont — cream, mustard, gold, olive, and brown. We wanted to have Mont's grandpa's (Danny Glover) home feel like an old fisherman's boat house with vintage nautical colors — aqua, blue, navy, cream, dark tan, and wood tones.
Aunt Wanda (Tichina Arnold) got florals to compliment her old hippy free-spirited nature. We carried over some of the color palette from our precursor short, American Paradise, with green again symbolizing greed. Like when the green neon Mission Theater sign pours into the realtor's office, highlighting Clayton's face. And also Clayton's "For Sale" sign tied to The House's gate. The victims of greed, like the movers Mary and Terry hire, are also shrouded in green.
Where did you draw inspiration from? Were there other movies or anything that informed your decision-making?
JT: Almost all our inspiration stemmed from taking in San Francisco and all it has to offer — the people, architecture, viewpoints, history, art, and stories — especially Jimmie’s life story. Victorian architecture and furniture influenced the look of The House and old houseboats helped visualize Grampa Allen. Plus, the reverse glamorous, cluttered, backstage dressing rooms of old theaters and one-room bachelor pads of old film noir inspired Mont's bedroom. Old Edward Hopper paintings and movies like The Childhood of a Leader, Vertigo, The Sting, The Master, The King's Speech, Harold and Maude, The Secret Garden, and also Mad Men. The Night of The Hunter is another one that inspired me. Color palettes and composition really drive my work.
How did you juggle being a mom with the film schedule?
JT: I would have to say, the most challenging, yet awe-inspiring, part of the entire process was the fact I was in the final stage of my pregnancy during pre-production. I had been working closely on the creative before our son was even a twinkle in our eye and loved the project so much that I wanted to see it come to full fruition. On the morning of our final tech scout at Aunt Wanda’s house, I started to feel contractions! I continued to work, sent renderings and made calls from the hospital, and all of us, including my mother, partner, and four-day-old son were there for a sunrise shot on shoot day one! As Joe and our producers like to joke, I gave birth to two babies that week!
There were many coincidences which somehow made it all feel right. After our production start date had pushed, the baby’s due date had fallen on the very same start date. Coincidentally, we were also thinking of "Montgomery" as one of our first baby name choices prior to ever hearing the decision on the character's name.
Above all, it was the most humbling experience and it inspired my every move! I made sure I bonded with him, as well as breastfed, so I kept him very close. We had invested in a camper and a family van so we could pull it off near set. We made sure he was safe and comfortable in his bassinet and I worked whenever he was sleeping. And infants really do need their sleep. If it wasn’t for the help of my partner, mother, and the support of my crew, I couldn’t have done it. We were a team! To say it was the hardest undertaking of my life would be a major understatement. It'll be a really great story to tell his friends in high school!
What advice do you have for young women interested in production design?
JT: We, as women, especially those wanting to be mothers, have to listen to our souls and take the chance without letting anything hold us back from having a successful career in addition to having a family. If you're like me, and you wait for the perfect time to put your career on hold, the time will never arrive. It's a balance. Continuing to work in the business as a mother takes a lot of juggling and planning in order to make it work. Both are demanding and are certainly not easy, just like most beautiful things in life. The support from my partner as well as my loved ones, and having the confidence to know my children will grow up to respect and admire my perseverance is what drives me forward. They will love you more for it. Being a mother has been the most important and gratifying role I've ever played. The best things in life are worth any amount of effort and whatever is meant to be will work itself out! (And here’s hoping pretty soon day cares and nursing rooms will be requirements on movie sets!)
Preach! One more thing: What's it like to have your name on a movie poster?!
I have an affinity for movie posters and have a small collection of my own. They are risky because they say so much about a movie in seconds. They twist your arm or push you away in a moment. I've always been drawn to analyzing them and the choices made into what composed the imagery so to have my name be a part of such a beautiful poster — dreams do come true!
Hell yeah. Thank you, Jona. Congratulations on the movie!