By Amy Longsdorf
21st Century Media
Douglasville’s Beth Mickle can still remember the exact moment when she knew what she wanted to do with her life.
It was back in the 2003 and she was still a junior at Columbia University. Even though she imagined she’d be spending the rest of her career working in an art gallery she decided to accept a position as the production designer on “Madness and Genius,” an indie film starring Tom Noonan.
The hours were long and the pay was non-existent but Mickle was in heaven every time she walked on the set.
“I’ll never forget I had to baby-sit weekends to pay the rent,” she said. “And I was living on tuna fish and Cheeerios but I loved working on the movie. I loved taking the bus out to New Jersey, where our locations were, and dressing up the sets.
“One day, I just realized that I was having a real impact on the film. I watched the monitors as they were filming and thought, `Wow, this set is actually going to be seen by and I’m the one who found that lamp at a thrift store.’ It just seemed so magical to me.”
In 10 short years, Mickle has become one of the most in-demand designers in Hollywood, with more than 20 movies to her credit. She’s worked alongside such heavyweights as Carey Mulligan, Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes, Albert Brooks, Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere. Her list of credits includes “Drive,” “Arbitrage,” “Cold Souls” and “Son Of No One.”
At the moment, she has five movies in various stages of release. Now playing in theaters is the Bangkok-set crime thriller “Only God Forgives,” which casts Ryan Gosling as the vengeful owner of a Muay Thai boxing gym.
Upcoming in 2014 is a trio of high-profile films: the thriller “Focus,” which stars Will Smith as a con artist about to pull an “Ocean’s 11”-type heist; “Thanks For Sharing,” an addiction dramedy co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim Robbins; and “How To Catch a Monster,” a dark fairy tale directed by Gosling and co-starring “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks and Saoirse Ronan.
And that’s not all. Opening this weekend is “2 Guns,” an $85 million action movie that marks the biggest-budgeted movie of Mickle’s career. Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg star as undercover agents who imagine they’re taking out a drug cartel by robbing a bank where the bad guys have stashed $40 million. But the heist doesn’t go as planned and soon Washington and Wahlberg are forced to hit the road with the stolen cash.
“It was all about the stunts and the special effects,” said Mickle, who got the job after director Baltasar Kormakur became a fan of her designs for “Drive,” the 2011 film starring Ryan Gosling. “Every other day, we were burning down buildings or blowing out windows or having big gun fights and car chases.
“I knew as soon as I read the script, it was going to be a huge learning experience for me. And it was. But I just dived on in ... I was definitely the new kid on the block when it came to action movies.”
Mickle oversaw the building of all of the sets, including Mark and Denzel’s apartments, various government buildings, rooftops and the bank where the centerpiece heist takes place.
“It was the biggest build of my career,” she said.
Particularly fun for Mickle was designing the massive financial establishment, right down the teller windows and vaults. “We built it inside and out. The façade was an old chamber of commerce building but we went inside and just constructed an entire bank from scratch.”
Since Washington and Wahlberg plan the heist in a diner across the street from the bank, a diner had to be constructed as well. It took Mickle and company three months to design and build the eatery which, after one day of shooting, was torched by Wahlberg’s character.
Mickle has high marks for the “2 Guns” stars. “Mark is hilarious,” said the designer. “He’s far funnier off-screen than I expected … The director kept the camera going and he’d have Mark just ad-lib some of his lines, and they were all different, all so funny. Mark could do it forever. He was so friendly with the crew too.”
When it came time for Wahlberg to approve some of Mickle’s design choices, he was just as gracious. “He said, `I trust you. Everything you do is okay with me.’ So he was very hands-off, in that sense. He was a delight.”
As for Washington, Mickle said he was “a very private man. But he just conducts himself so gracefully. He’s very kind, great with the crew, incredibly intelligent. He worked very carefully with the director to tweak every line of dialogue.”
One of Mickle’s smartest decisions involved the construction of Washington’s apartment. The designer was resistant to the script’s description of the abode as nondescript and bland. So instead of designing a beige flat, she, in consultation with the director, opted to do something flashier, imaging that the apartment belonged to the alter ego of Washington’s undercover agent.
Mickle was on pins and needles when she floated the idea by Washington. “He looked at me for ten seconds, straight-faced, staring at me, and I thought, `Oh man, I’m going to be fired.’ But then he said, `it should be place and there should be black leather coaches and crazy artwork and stacks of stolen TVs.’ The director and I looked at each other, like, `Whew! Denzel is onboard.’
“Just watching Denzel work, standing in , was … a career highlight.”
The daughter of Dr. James Mickle, a renowned Cholesterol expert who once had a practice in Boyertown, and Carole Bianco, Beth can’t remember a time when she wasn’t movie-obsessed. She credits her older brother Jim with initially activating her interest in filmmaking.
“Our neighbors Kevin and Jenn Harvey would come up to our house, and do little movies like ‘Attack of the Killer Gorillas,’ “ said Mickle, who often returns to Pennsylvania to visit her mother who now lives in Lebanon. Mickle’s father and stepmother Cynthia Baughman recently moved to Sante Fe.
“I remember I got my brother these little gorilla slippers for Christmas and we used those I’d be pouring ketchup on the gorillas We were 10 and 11 years old when we started doing these little eight-minute movies.”
Just like Beth, Jim is still making movies too. He’s directed a number of well-reviewed horror films including the Pottstown-shot “Stake Land” and the upcoming “We Are What We Are,” which played at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The film, which stars Kelly McGillis and was production-designed by Beth’s boyfriend Russell Barnes, is due out this autumn.
“I owe so much to Jim,” said Beth, who notes that her brother introduced her to movies like “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Evil Dead” and “Army of Darkness” which they rented from A-Z Video in Douglasville. “He really pulled me into the movie world with him.”
It was, in fact, a friend of Jim’s who initially helped Beth land the gig as production designer on “Madness and Genius.” Amazingly, the film, which cost a mere $25,000, landed a spot at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival.
Afterwards, Mickle was approached by directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden about designing their film, “Half Nelson” starring Ryan Gosling. Mickle wound up getting along so well with Gosling that he recommended her to “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn.
“My career just started blossoming after that,” said the designer who travels everywhere with her Jack Russell terrier Peanut. “I got `2 Guns’ because of `Drive.’ It all stemmed from Ryan’s generosity.”
Recently, Mickle had the opportunity to pay back Gosling.
“While we were making `Drive,’ he mentioned that he wanted to direct someday “ recalled Mickle. “Then in Thailand, as we were finishing up `Only God Forgives,’ he said, `I have a script here,’ and I want to make sure you’ll be free. I was beyond flattered. He could have had his pick of designers.
“He actually came down to New Orleans where I was finishing up ‘2 Guns’ and we hit the town and stayed out until seven in the morning talking about every single set.’
Even though “How to Catch a Monster” cost only $6 million, Gosling was able to convince all of the department heads from “Half Nelson,” including Mickle, to come work for him.
“Ryan is incredibly creative,” said Mickle. “I always knew he was. But I was just blown away by him . He is inspired by absolutely everything around him. And he articulates what he wants so well.
“He is very collaborative but he let the door open for me to develop a lot of things on my own. And then he couldn’t have been more gracious. Absolutely every time he saw a new set he gave us all big hugs and was almost tearful. He said, `You’re all making my dream come true!’ I couldn’t be more proud of him.”