“If Beale Street Could Talk” goes back to the ’ 70s

Pro­duc­tion de­sign and cos­tumes ground poignant love story in re­al­ity

Variety - - Contents - BY CHRIS­TINE CHAM­PAGNE

for weeks, di­rec­tor barry jenk­ins and the de­part­ment heads of his lat­est film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” met at pro­duc­tion de­signer Mark Fried­berg’s Man­hat­tan home, where they crafted the look of the movie, re­leased on Christ­mas, Day scene by scene.

Cos­tume de­signer Caro­line Eselin, who had worked with Jenk­ins on his Os­car-win­ning “Moon­light,” cher­ished the process and left with what she de­scribes as “the most amaz­ing gift ever” — one of the books Fried­berg made for ev­ery­one out of the ma­te­rial gen­er­ated dur­ing those cre­ative ses­sions.

The James Bald­win novel on which “Beale Street” is based was a rich source of vis­ual in­spi­ra­tion. Like the book, the film, set in 1970s Har­lem, cen­ters on a young African-amer­i­can cou­ple — Tish Rivers (Kiki Layne) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James) — who are build­ing a fu­ture to­gether when Fonny is ac­cused of rape and sent to jail for a crime he didn’t com­mit.

Right from the start view­ers no­tice how film’s wardrobe is rich with color — vi­brant greens and bril­liant yel­lows.

“Bald­win gave us the per­mis­sion of color,” Eselin says. “You can’t dis­count any of the hard­ship in the movie, but we wanted to cel­e­brate color and what love will bring you through.”

Eselin also hon­ored as often as pos­si­ble the au­thor’s spe­cific wardrobe de­scrip­tions. Fonny’s red-and-black lum­ber­jack jacket is straight from the book, as is the beret Tish’s mom, Sharon (Regina King), has on the day she comes home, and Tish re­veals that she is preg­nant. “Bald­win wrote that as her ‘cream- col­ored shop­ping hat,’” Eselin says.

Al­most ev­ery­thing worn in the film is a vin­tage find, and Tish’s wardrobe is made up of only a few pieces be­cause her char­ac­ter wouldn’t have been able to af­ford a lot of clothes. In the flash­back scenes, Tish is wear­ing items — in­clud­ing a wool cape Eselin lucked upon in the bot­tom of a card­board box at a New Jer­sey cloth­ing re­cy­cler — that speak to her youth and op­ti­mism.

When we see her in present time, her wardrobe re­flects ma­tu­rity and her emo­tional stress. In one scene, Tish is wear­ing Sharon’s sweater while vis­it­ing Fonny in jail, per­haps find­ing some com­fort be­ing wrapped up in a piece of her mom’s cloth­ing. “I wish I could take credit for that, but that’s all Barry Jenk­ins,” Eselin says. “It was some­thing he thought up when we got to set that day.”

Jenk­ins con­tin­u­ally in­spired his team. Fried­berg re­calls tak­ing the di­rec­tor to see a former jail in Staten Is­land that is now a movie set, think­ing it would work for the many scenes in which Tish vis­its Fonny in prison.

“We walked in, and about eight sec­onds later, we walked out. Barry said, ‘It’s not a movie about the hor­rors of an African-amer­i­can man in jail,’ ” Fried­berg says. “Barry re­ally wanted that scene to be about their con­nec­tion. It’s not about the space they’re in, it’s about the space be­tween them.”

So Fried­berg built a small prison vis­it­ing room in an old ware­house in Yonkers, N.Y., where he also con­structed the base­ment work­shop/apart­ment Fonny lived in be­fore his life took a dark turn.

One of the film’s most im­pres­sive sets is the Rivers fam­ily apart­ment where Tish lives with her par­ents and her sis­ters. It looks and feels lived in. Fried­berg built the home on one floor of a Har­lem town­house that had been bought by a real es­tate in­vestor who was about to flip it.

“It was a tough sell, ini­tially,” Fried­berg says, not­ing that Jenk­ins and DP James Lax­ton weren’t con­vinced they could shoot one of the film’s key scenes — a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the Rivers and Hunt fam­i­lies — in the space. But Fried­berg promised he could make it work, and the apart­ment “ended up be­ing the heart and soul of the art de­part­ment’s con­tri­bu­tion to the movie.

“We were a very small movie with lim­ited re­sources and some­how we man­aged to tell the story in all the places it needed to be.”

Love in Trou­bled TimesKiki Layne as Tish and Col­man Domingo as Joseph star in Barry Jenk­ins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

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