How 'Carol' and 'Brooklyn' Production Designers Created '50s-Set Christmases

“Because we started shooting the movie in March, it was a bit of a challenge to find enough live Christmas trees,” says Judy Becker of her work on 'Carol.'
Kerry Brown/Fox Searchlight Pictures; Wilson Webb
'Brooklyn' and 'Carol'

With Christmas approaching, the production designers on Todd Haynes’ Carol and John Crowley's Brooklyn shared their experiences preparing for the holiday in a different era.

Both films are set in New York during the early ‘50s. “The country had not yet recovered from the trauma of the war. New York was a dirtier, grittier, more austere and somewhat impoverished looking city before the post-war boom of the later 1950s,” says Carol production designer Judy Becker. “It was a post-World War II/pre-Eisenhower Era period, and in terms of design was closer to the 1940s than what we usually think of as the 1950s."

“The first part of Carol takes place at Christmas time so almost every set has some element of Christmas,” she related, noting that the lead characters, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), meet in the toy department of Frankenberg’s, the department store where Therese works.

Says Becker: “Carol is shopping for a Christmas present for her daughter. We first see both characters at a winter wonderland train set — I designed this based on research and had a local train collector fabricate it."

Decorations on the toy department set included Santa signs, large glittered snowflakes, vintage bells and garland. "In keeping with the design of the movie, the decorations are a bit sparse and those that we placed have slightly desaturated colors; there is a sense of pathos in the toy department," Becker relates.

The department store windows are also decorated for the holidays. Says Becker: “In my research I found that in this particular period, such window decorations were not particularly complicated or extravagant, so the Frankenberg’s windows are fairly simple and period correct.”

Through her research, Becker learned that large New York department stores were often open on Sunday only during the holiday season.

Additional scenes involved Christmas decorations. Notably, the scene during which Carol and Therese buy a tree at an outdoor lot, and then the scene when Carol decorates the tree with her daughter, Rindy. “Because we started shooting the movie in March, it was a bit challenging to find enough live Christmas trees.” Becker admits. “A practical issue was figuring out how Carol would get the tree home in her Packard. We ended up picking a tree that fit between the two characters inside the car, and it became part of the storytelling."

Adds Becker: “The decorating scene is a crucial one for showing Carol’s intense bond with Rindy.”

Brooklyn also includes a scene set at Christmas in the '50s, in a modest Brooklyn church basement, during a charity lunch (below). Production designer Francois Segun also started with plenty of research. The props came from antique stores or prop houses, and simple elements completed the look.

“We added a Christmas tree, mounted on the table with lights and tinsel, but it’s not very prominent in the scene. We also had a plaster nativity set, about 4 feet tall,” he says, recalling the traditional use. “All the churches had one at the time. The tradition was to put the baby Jesus into the manger on Dec. 25. On Jan. 6, they’d bring out the three wise men.”

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