Set in 1952 in New York City, Carol (2015) tells the story of a young aspiring photographer (played by Rooney Mara) and her relationship with an older, married woman (played by Cate Blanchett). It is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (which was renamed Carol when the novel was republished in the 1990s).
During a panel following an advanced screening of the film in New York City in November, 2015, Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and production designer Judy Becker offered insight into the process behind selecting the filming location for the film, as well as the production design involved in recreating the look and feel of early ‘50s New York.
Ironically for a film so rooted in New York City culture, in which the city itself virtually becomes a character in the narrative, the film was shot in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Becker said, “When I first came on, we were really thinking about Montreal. Montreal has really good things to offer, but streets that look like New York is not one of them. Cincinnati really offered a lot. Of course, we had to work very hard to find the right locations and transform them, but the basic bones were good for New York in that time period. It was a smaller scale Manhattan. In many ways was much better than shooting here (in New York) would have been. I say that as a New Yorker who loves their city, but I know how difficult it would be to find that Old New York in the city today.”
Establishing an authentic sense of period is paramount to a film set in a different era. The shine and gloss of present-day New York would look out of place in New York, 1952. To that end, films often have to utilize other cities that better reflect their setting in a different time if they want to avoid CGI recreations of location. But geography is just one element of forming the complete feel of a bygone era. Capturing the emotional and cultural climate of a specific though subtle detail is where the authenticity of a period film excels or fails. For Carol, the production designers understood that the early 1950s in which Carol is set precedes the glitz and glamour of the mid-1950s as that decade is more commonly depicted onscreen today.
“For Carol, it's 1952," Becker reminds us, "The ‘50s haven't started yet, it's really the 1940s and that's true of a lot of periods, but it's a post-WWII New York City. The new construction hasn't started, Eisenhower hasn't taken office, so [director Todd Haynes] really wanted it to look like a kind of traumatized city in a sense, a little dirty and gritty and really very much the old New York and not the shiny New York that's to come in the future. I think that if the movie was set four years later, it would be a very different movie, there would have been much more construction, but we basically had none of that, and that's what we were looking for.”
Carol's script had to be written with that same specificity in mind. Nagy said, “The book is set slightly earlier than [the film]. It was published in ‘52. But I thought the period right before the Eisenhower administration took office was more interesting for all sorts of reasons and suggested things metaphorically that some future production team could be inspired by. It isn't the war years.”
In any period piece, the world in which the story takes place heavily influences the characters. If the time period were irrelevant, the screenwriter wouldn’t have chosen to set it in that time. Becker gave great insight on how she lets the material dictate the way she approaches production design, and how the story inspires her choices. Becker said, “Part of my approach to any project is driven by the script and by the characters, and really trying to define how we're going to show the world of the story and, within that, the world of the characters visually. That's really my job, the way I see it. In this case, there were definite contrasts built into the story: the country vs. the city; Carol's world vs. Therese's world. So I wanted to make those distinctive, and yet at the same time there has to be an overriding aesthetic that ties the whole movie together into a certain visual style and a certain period. So, the way that we tied it together was really through sticking to a certain palette that we developed very carefully, and altering it as needed for different locations."
Becker also addressed how interior spaces during that time period would look quite different to the modern eye. It was important for Becker "to be true to the period in a way that...is often difficult to embrace...but the fact is that in that period, interiors, places were pretty austere in terms of material possessions. People didn't have a lot of stuff. Even offices didn't have a lot of stuff. When you look at the research, things looks very bare to our modern eyes, and I think the tendency is to desire to put more stuff in it to make it look more real but that's not what reality was in those days. Therese's downbeat apartment and Carol's beautiful mansion shared that aesthetic because that was just very true to the period. It was also important to incorporate many things from the decades before 1952. There's very little in the movie that's specifically from the early 1950s. It all harkens back to the past. So that was all part of the process of creating the world of the movie.”
That representation of objects relates back to Becker's earlier statement about Carol’s time period and culture being closer to the 1940s than the 1950s. People’s possessions were mostly still things they bought in the previous decade than the present. By the end of the 1950s, American households were full of new goods from an expanding consumer market and growing technologies. That was not yet the case in 1952.
Carol’s screenwriter and production designer were very diligent with their representation of the time period. Concentrating on the specific nuances of a particular year within a decade takes great consideration, and the details are visible on screen in a portrait of New York that transports the viewer back in time.