Ball State graduate Marlie Eckelman Arnold, ’03 MS ’05, was part of the art direction team that helped turn the Marvel superhero movie “Black Panther” into a worldwide phenomenon.
The film grossed more than $1.35 billion and was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
Watching the awards ceremony in February from her home in Atlanta, Marlie jumped for joy when the film received the Oscar for Best Production Design.
The award also inspired Marlie to reflect on how far she had come since first launching her movie career in 2011.
That year found her dumpster diving— not for food, thank goodness, but furniture.
Marlie had just arrived in Los Angeles, having left behind a successful career as an architect in Florida. Eager to jumpstart a new vocation in film, she had taken a job as an art department production assistant for an obscure web series based in Long Beach.
The producers couldn’t afford to pay her. They also couldn’t afford paint or set furniture.
As Marlie ransacked dumpsters for supplies, she questioned her sanity.
“I went to college for seven years,” she remembers thinking. “I have two degrees. I left a stable job. Why am I doing this?”
Despite the Hollywood backdrop, the story of Marlie’s eight-year rise to the top of the film industry portrays more courage and determination than glitz or glamour, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what it takes to make it in show business.
“You only have this one life,” Marlie said. “You just have to go for it.”
Out of the comfort zone
Marlie, originally from Muncie, and her husband Chris, a Findlay, Ohio native, met at Ball State.
Graduating in 2003 with a bachelor of architecture (BArch) and in 2005 with an M.S. in information and communication science, she had hoped to merge the degrees into a career in smart-home technology. Chris graduated in 2005 with a B.A. in landscape architecture.
The couple decided to move to Florida and each worked diligently in their respective degree fields for about six years.
It was a conversation with Marlie’s twin sister, Melissa Pevic, that first got Marlie thinking about a career change. Pevic had moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Indiana University, working in the film industry and meeting her future husband, Matt Pevic, supervising editor for the hit ABC drama “How to Get Away with Murder.”
While working on a Harry Potter film, Melissa saw set drawings that reminded her of her sister.
“I think you could use your architecture degree to get into film,” Melissa told Marlie.
In 2011, Marlie and Chris took the plunge, moving to Los Angeles, where they stayed with Melissa and Matt and began to look for work.
Marlie initially found work through a website called mandy.com, a gig platform for actors and film professionals.
“I started to work on student films. I worked on commercials and music videos,” Marlie said. “I did a lot of working for free and a lot of networking and slowly you get to know people in the industry.”
Like most in the film industry, Marlie is self-employed and works on contract as a member of the Art Directors Guild. As an assistant art director, she helps the art director shape a film’s overall visual appearance. In her role, Marlie helps scout locations, and is part of a team that designs and builds sets and researches materials.
Over time, Marlie’s talent and do-anything attitude eventually helped her earn a role in the art departments of more mainstream movies and TV shows. Her breakout year came in 2015, when she worked on “Tomorrowland,” featuring George Clooney and Hugh Laurie, and Fox’s “Fantastic 4.” She’s currently an assistant art director for the “Watchmen” television series on HBO.
“The education that I received in the architecture program is a resource I tap into every day,” she said. “Without that foundation, I think it would have been far more difficult to get my foot in the door of this industry.”
Following Marlie’s lead, Chris left his landscape architecture job and followed her into showbiz as a set designer. His first significant job was on the Oscar-winning film “The Big Short.” He has worked on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and more.
“He’s incredibly talented and has had a fantastic career as well,” his wife said.
Following a vision
For “Black Panther,” Marlie was personally hired by Hannah Beachler, one of Hollywood’s top production designers, whose vision inspired the creation of the fictional African country of Wakanda that is home to the film’s hero, a land rich with both tradition and advanced technology.
Marlie spent significant time with Beachler on the film, traveling to South Africa and South Korea, researching cultures, scouting locations and collecting ideas. She even served as the art director on two scenes, transforming the Atlanta City Council chambers into UN Headquarters and an Atlanta-area stone quarry into a snow-covered mountain pass.
Thanks to a tax-incentive program Atlanta has become a location hotspot for Hollywood, and Marvel Studios has filmed many of its recent hits in there. For that reason, Marlie and her husband Chris moved there from Los Angeles in 2016.
Marlie does not get an Oscar statue for her work on “Black Panther.”
“I would not consider myself personally to be an Oscar winner,” she said. “I was part of an Academy Award-winning team. Hannah Beachler is really the Oscar winner.”
But not having an Oscar on her mantle (yet) doesn’t diminish her pride to have been involved in such a successful and groundbreaking film. And whether or not one of her projects wins awards, Marlie said seeing the final version is always exhilarating, whether on television or the big screen.
In the course of her Hollywood career, Marlie said she has developed an acute appreciation for the creativity and labor that goes into making a fictional landscape like Wakanda seem real to movie lovers.
“There’s a story behind everything you see,” she says.
Fortunately for Marlie, those stories now involve far fewer Long Beach dumpsters.