A frequent collaborator of directors Todd Haynes and David O. Russell, production designer Judy Becker is back this year with new films from both filmmakers, Carol and Joy. Oddly enough, both are New York period pieces named after their central characters—and they’re both squarely in the awards conversation this year. Becker has worked on Russell’s last three films in the past five years; her last collaboration with Haynes was 2007’s stylistically inventive Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, in which six characters portrayed different aspects of the musician’s personality, including “Carol” herself Cate Blanchett.
Over the years, Becker had developed a friendship with Haynes and was brought onto Carol unexpectedly. “I was thrilled because not only is Todd one of my favorite directors and always has been, but I love (novelist) Patricia Highsmith,” she says. “So it was a great combination.”
For Becker, period pieces are a fun challenge—one that she’s taken on in such films as Brokeback Mountain and American Hustle—but for her, the trick isn’t finding the props or the period cars, it’s finding the exterior locations.
Becker had taken on a New York period piece two years prior to Carol and Joy with American Hustle, which was nominated for 10 Oscars—including one for Becker’s production design—for its portrayal of 1976 New York, a very different New York City in a very different time. “The New York in Carol is really a New York of the 1940s; it’s post-war, pre-Eisenhower,” Becker says. “Todd emphasized that he wanted it to look more like the past and like a traumatized city that’s recovering from the war. It’s a little beaten down, and dirty, and gritty. With American Hustle, we were shooting the most glamorous, up-to-the-minute New York of 1976.”
Carol actually was shot in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a decision partly driven by state tax incentives. A native New Yorker who had only been to Cincinnati once during her college years, Becker was surprised by the way the city could masquerade as another. And though the illusion is pulled off to great effect, it wasn’t without its challenges. “Even when you go to a place like Cincinnati, there’s always modern stuff. So that’s the constant search—for exteriors that can be transformed into the past without costing way beyond what our budget allows,” she says.
Still, Becker was quite pleased with the results: “I actually fully believe that we found a better 1952 New York in Cincinnati than we would’ve found in New York.”
The “centerpiece” of Becker’s work on Carol was designing the massive Frankenberg’s department store featured in the film’s first scene, which included many moving parts and challenging architectural elements. Becker needed to “capture the feeling of (Rooney Mara’s character) Therese being trapped and imprisoned by this job, while conveying a melancholy feeling to the whole Christmas season that reflects on what’s going on in both the character’s lives,” she says.
Becker was slated to work next on Michael Winterbottom’s Russ & Roger Go Beyond, but has since left the project after Winterbottom dropped out.
To see more from the set of Carol and of Becker’s work, click play below: