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.”