Todd Haynes’s “Carol” tells the story of a romance between a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) and a married woman (Cate Blanchett) in 1952, when homosexuality was still very much taboo. For production designer Judy Becker, the key to capturing the period was to not think of the 1950s at all, but rather the 1940s. “It’s the post-war period,” she explains in our audio interview (listen below), “so the brief from Todd was this is not the ‘50s we normally think of. It’s not the popularized ‘50s of ‘Happy Days’ or ‘American Graffiti’ or ‘Mad Men.’ It’s really a post-war, traumatized society still trying to recover from that period, and sort of unsettled as the characters are unsettled.”
Becker’s job began by scouting locations in New York City with Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman to find the places described in Patricia Highsmith‘s 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt,” on which “Carol” is based. “We looked at the original locations that we needed to replicate in the movie,” says Becker. That included the Bloomingdale’s where Highsmith worked when she encountered the real-life inspiration for the title character. What didn’t remain from the era was recreated by Becker and her team in Cincinnati. After that, Becker turned to photography from the era for further research. “We really wanted a planned, yet naturalistic look for the movie,” she says. “It was really important to find out what New York looked like in that era, and match that in Cincinnati.”
From there, Becker began selecting specific colors for the sets. “Right away we talked about using a very limited color palette,” she says. “Most of the colors in the movie are going to be the natural colors of the environment — the brick of the buildings, the cement of the streets, the wood of the wood walls — and then within that, what color palette are we going to choose? We had to choose a pallet very based on popular 1940s colors, but the dirtier versions of those.”
She adds, “If you look at a vintage paint book, there’s hundreds of colors in it, so choosing which direction to go in was an emotional choice. What’s going to emotionally express the world of these characters?”
Becker received her first Oscar nomination for David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” (2013) after working on Best Picture contenders “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “The Fighter” (2010), and “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012). Do you think she’ll win this year? She is a strong favorite according to our Experts, in second place behind “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
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Judy Becker photo credit: Gregory Pace/REX
“Carol” photo credit: Moviestore/REX