Friday, June 22, 2018
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A Production Designer's Perspective On "Carol," "Joy"
A scene from "Carol" (photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company)
Judy Becker discusses her collaborations with directors Todd Haynes, David O Russell

Directed by Todd Haynes, the critically acclaimed Carol tells the story of title character Carol Aird (portrayed by Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belvit (Rooney Mara), two women who fall in love in New York City in the early 1950s. Phyllis Nagy wrote the adapted screenplay based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Price of Salt.”

Nagy scored an Oscar nomination for Carol as did Blanchett (for leading actress), Mara (supporting actress), Sandy Powell (costume design), Carter Burwell (original music score) and Ed Lachman, ASC (cinematography).

In a SHOOT fall season Directors Series profile (10/23/15), Haynes noted that beyond doing justice to the love story itself, a prime challenge posed by Carol was properly creating the “specific New York City of the early 1950s.” He explained, “It’s a New York that’s far different from the one I explored in Far from Heaven which took place later in the ‘50s. For the time period in Carol, New York was part of a different desolate time, a time of transition, marked by the scars of finding a post-war identity. The color palette and historical material we discovered registered this unique sort of dirty, sagging, sad place where anxieties could be felt--which was important as the environment where this romance and its related anxieties were unfolding.”

Among those Haynes credited with capturing the NYC of that era was production designer Judy Becker. Becker earlier served as production designer on I’m Not There for Haynes who welcomed reuniting with her on Carol. “Judy captured the feeling of a country still finding itself, prior to when Eisenhower had taken office [as President of the United States],” assessed Haynes. “She brought a lot to setting Carol as a love story during that time period.”

Becker observed, “For Carol, the painstaking process was recreating a period that’s not what you typically think of. For the 1950s, you typically conjure up images from American Graffiti. But the reality in the early ‘50s for New York was this sort of sad, sagging place, a sort of open, negative space--not exactly the ideal environment for a budding romance but it’s what reinforces the story, the difficulty of a relationship growing during a difficult, harsh time to begin with.”

Becker described director Haynes as being “a huge planner. He comes to the table with a idea for all the different crafts and how they will work together. He brings an image book, CDs of music that might not even be in the movie but help to set and convey a tone. Todd goes on all location scouts. He’s stimulated by that. There’s a constant dialogue between myself and him. He’s very detailed while giving me a lot of freedom. I’m proud of the work I’ve done for him. He’s very meticulous in his planning.”

Becker said of DP Lachman, whom she also worked with on I’m Not There, “I respect him so much. He’s one of the greatest cinematographers out there. Whatever Ed does is going to look great so I don’t worry about things from that end. At the same time, I try to help him with whatever visual needs he has, which for Carol had a lot to do with the color palette. I went with yellows and greens in the motels when Carol and Therese are on their road trip. It made for an unsettling, not a relaxing color scheme. I generally used green, a dirty weird pink and red. I kept the colors with a little soil and gray in them, a little bit muddied. Even the Christmas colors in the toy department are treated like this--the red for example is not a bright red but a muddied red. Christmas can be a little bit of a sad time for a lot of people. When they [Carol and Therese] meet for the first time in the toy section of the department store, neither of them is very happy. It’s at a point which is just the beginning of something that eventually becomes wonderful.”

Reflections on Joy
While she did not garner an Oscar nomination for Carol, Becker has been in the current awards season conversation for both that film and Joy, which is her fourth movie for director/writer David O. Russell, the others being The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. The latter landed Becker a Best Production Design Oscar nomination in 2014. And Joy recently earned Becker an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award nod.

Whereas Carol called for the depiction of a specific time period, Joy spanned the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. “David wanted a timeless feeling like a fable or a classic movie for Joy,” shared Becker. “The decades are distinct but at the same time blend together for this fable.”

Joy is based on the story of Joy Mangano, Miracle Mop inventor and home shopping entrepreneur, who’s portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-nominated performance. We see Joy go from girlhood dreams marked by innovation and invention to a less than inspired adulthood mired in the mundane as well as responsibilities tending to her dysfunctional family. However, she regains her inventive, entrepreneurial spark and battles the odds--including betrayal, the brutal world of commerce, and assorted other derailing dynamics--to create a successful business which is a testament to the power of individual drive and enterprise. Her life story has elements of emotion, comedy, adversity, perseverance and joy, with much of the experience, for better and worse, centered on her family. The Joy cast also includes Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Elisabeth Röhm and Dascha Polanco.

While there’s plenty of planning in Becker’s work for Russell, she noted that the director finds much creative inspiration on the actual shoot day. “He talks about the day in advance in a van or in a room with producers, the DP, the assistant director, actors. I’m part of that where first thing we talk extensively for two or three hours before shooting starts. And that flow doesn’t stop. You have to be ready to bring David things at the last minute. You build on what you prepare for, sometimes having to create a bigger world.”

Becker first met Russell some 10 years ago regarding a movie that eventually wound up not getting made. “We became friends and found we had a lot in common. We grew up in the same area outside New York City but not in the same time period. We have a lot of the same cinema references in terms of mood and style. We bonded as friends and collaborators.”

Their first collaboration was The Fighter which landed Becker a nomination for an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award in 2011. She then garnered another ADG nom for American Hustle in 2014. And recently Becker scored the aforementioned ADG Award nom for Joy. Becker won an ADG Award in 2013 for the pilot of HBO’s Girls.

This is the 16th in a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.