8 April 2016

Designing To Kill A Mockingbird

Robert Mulligan's 1962 To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the finest literary film adaptations I have ever seen. The film is based on Harper Lee's wonderful coming-of-age novel of the same name, which became a big success after its publication in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction a year later. Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula bought the film rights to Lee's novel after it spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (a bit unusual as the film rights to promising novels were often sold before publication), and once the rights were secured they started assembling the cast and crew.

Putting together a good cast is a hard task with any film, but I guess it's even harder when it involves the picturisation of a popular book. Pakula and Mulligan did the best job possible, especially by hiring Gregory Peck to play Atticus Finch, and Mary Badham, Phillip Alford and John Megna to play the children (resp. Scout, Jem and Dill). But apart from the important task of casting and getting on board a good screenwriter (Horton Foote), in order to catch the mood of the novel you also need the right cinematography (Russell Harlan), music (Elmer Bernstein) and production design. Art directors Henry Bumstead and Alexander Golitzen were hired to design To Kill A Mockingbird, and to do research for the film Bumstead was sent to the town of Monroeville, Alabama in November 1961(Monroeville was Harper Lee's hometown which served as the model for Maycomb, the fictional town in the book.)

In Monroeville, Bumstead was met by Harper Lee herself. The author showed him around town and gave him suggestions regarding the architectural details of Maycomb and how to accurately depict them in the film. Bumstead was very charmed by Lee who, unlike many other bestselling authors, loved being involved in the film adaptation of her book and later came to Hollywood to spend weeks on the set. After his trip to Monroeville, Bumstead wrote to Alan Pakula, talking about his meeting with Lee and discussing in detail what he had seen and how things could be duplicated for the film. Bumstead's letter is shown below, as is a letter from Pakula to Harper Lee written prior to Bumstead's visit (Pakula wanted to make sure that Lee was okay with Bumstead coming down to Monroeville). The research trip to Monroeville eventually paid off in the form of an Oscar Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen and set decorator Oliver Emert would win the award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration at the Oscars in 1963.

The letters from Pakula and Bumstead will be shown in transcript only, images of the letters can be seen here. Original source: Henry Bumstead and Alan J. Pakula papers at The Margaret Herrick Library.

Alan J. Pakula and Nelle Harper Lee 

November 3, 1961

Dear Nell:

It was good talking to you. Any photographs you can find --old or new-- that show anything of the architecture, house interiors, gardens, trees, etc. of Monroeville in the '30s would be of great help to us; and the sooner we can get them, the better. Of course, we will pay for any expenses in connection with a photographer. 

Henry Bumstead, the Art Director on the picture, may come down for a long weekend but I will give you plenty of notice and make sure it is convenient for you. If you find that these requests interfere with your time for writing, just wire me to go to hell with all the other Philistines.

We could take the easy way and just stick Atticus and the family in a nice, new ranch house and give the Radleys a big, new picture window for Boo to look through, but somehow I don't see the picture quite that way. Unfortunately, here in Hollywood, it is far easier to get the physical details of life in ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire than in a southern small town of thirty years ago.

Warmest regards to Bear and your father and to Gladys and her family.


[Alan Pakula]

Harper Lee and Henry Bumstead

November 1962

Mr. Alan Pakula

Dear Alan:

I arrived here in Monroeville this afternoon after a very interesting and beautiful drive from Montgomery. Although this is my first visit to Alabama, I have worked in the south a number of times. During my drive I was very much impressed by the lack of traffic, the beautiful countryside, and the character of the negro shacks that dot the terrain. 

Harper Lee was there to meet me, and she is a most charming person. She insisted I call her Nell-- feel like I've known her for years. Little wonder she was able to write such a warm and successful novel. 

Monroeville is a beautiful little town of about 2,500 inhabitants. It's small in size, but large in southern character. I'm so happy you made it possible for me to research the area before designing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Most of the houses are of wood, one story, and set up on brick piles. Almost every house has a porch and a swing hanging from the porch rafters. Believe me, it's a much more relaxed life than we live in Hollywood.

So far I have seen all the types of buildings we need for our residential street, but they are scattered throughout the town so it would have been impossible for us to shoot the picture here in Monroeville. Therefore, I feel that the freeway houses we purchased for our southern street, with sufficient remodeling, will better suit our purposes. I have also photographed a wonderful Boo Radley home, which we can duplicate on our street.

I also visited the old courthouse square and the interior of the courtroom Nell wrote about. I can't tell you how thrilled I am by the architecture and the little touches which will add to our sets. Old pot bellied stoves still heat the courtroom and besides each one stands a tub filled with coal. Nell says we should have a block of ice on the exterior of the courthouse steps when we shoot this sequence. It seems that people chip off a piece of ice to take into the courtroom with them to munch on to try and keep cool. It reminded me of my "youth" when I used to follow the ice wagon to get the ice chips.

Nell is really amused at my picture taking, and also my taking measurements so that I can duplicate the things I see. She says she didn't know we worked so hard. This morning she greeted me with "I lost five pounds yesterday following you around taking pictures of door knobs, houses, wagons, collards, etc. -- can we take time for lunch today?"

The way people look at me around town they must think I'm a Hollywood producer rather than just an art director. Nell warned me about this-- that they knew someone from Hollywood was in town, but they didn't know who I was or what I did. 

Yesterday afternoon the news was around town that that man from Hollywood was taking pictures in Mrs. Skinner's collard patch. They couldn't understand it because the opinion is that there are much better collard patches around town than Mrs. Skinner's. It seems that after giving me permission to photograph her collards, she rushed to the phone to give out the news. I must admit that when I confessed that I'd never seen a collard, both Mrs. Skinner and her colored help looked at me with raised eyebrows.

Nell says the exterior of Mrs. Dubose should have paint that is peeling. Also, the interior should have dark woodwork, Victorian furniture, and be grim. Her house would be wired for electricity, but she would still be using oil lamps-- to save money, so Nell says. Boo Radley's should look like it had never been painted-- almost haunted.

Other items which will be useful ---- the streets should be dirt, and there are no lamp posts as we know them today. The lamps hung from the telephone poles. Also, in 1932 they were still using wooden stoves for their cooking and heating. 

The almond trees that line some of the streets are beautiful, but I feel we can get the same character by using white oaks. 

There are no mailboxes on the houses-- seems people go to town to the main post office to pick up their mail.

We photographed some negro shacks, which will be of great help when we come to do the exterior of Tom Robinson's shack. Many of the shacks are located in areas covered with pine trees so we could do this sequence on the Upper Lake section of the lot where we have pine trees.

We also photographed some back porches, which will come in handy when we do the back of Boo Radley's.

All in all, I certainly feel this trip will be of tremendous help in the designing of the picture. Again, my thanks to you.

Warmest regards,


Henry Bumstead

Harper Lee visiting the Monroeville courthouse in 1961 (above), and the interior of the courthouse in the film (below) which was replicated in Hollywood and modelled after the actual courthouse in Monroeville.
To Kill A Mockingbird  is one of those rare film adaptations that not only received praise from the public and critics but also from the author. Harper Lee was very impressed with the film and later said that she was "very proud and very grateful". The film received three Oscars, i.e. for Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White (Henry Bumstead/ Alexander Golitzen/ Oliver Emert). It was nominated for five more Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress for then ten-year-old Mary Badham, at the time the youngest actress ever nominated in that category.

This post is my contribution to the Beyond The Cover Blogathon, hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy. For a list of all the other entries click here.


  1. I accept that a lot of detailed work goes into the work of set/art director, but reading these letters has given me a deeper appreciation of the skill.

  2. This was a such a great read, agree about appreciating the achievement of the movie more now. Thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon with such a great angle and subject.

    1. Thanks Kristina, it's so great to find these letters. And thank You for co-hosting this fab event!

  3. Fabulous post, really enjoyed this! Thank you so much for joining us!