The 1950s can inspire various forms of nostalgia. Three films this Oscar season give life to that bygone era in three very different ways. Till gives a historically accurate representation of the period, heavily based on newsreels and photos documenting the Emmett Till case. The decade gets a rose-colored perspective with Don’t Worry Darling, taking a more opulent and luxurious lens to the Golden Age in America, while Living takes on 1950s London, showing a more restrained aesthetic and color palette than its American counterparts.
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Based on a true story in 1955, Chinonye Chukwu’s Till follows the life of civil rights activist Mamie Till-Mobley after the brutal lynching of her teenage son Emmett Till. While Till Mobley’s journey starts in her Chicago home, the bulk of the work for production designer Curt Beech was to recreate areas in Mississippi that were key to the Emmett Till case.
“The news reels that showed the town were really valuable,” says Beech, “and there were even some of the store and everything that went down around the courthouse, the courthouse square and the courtroom.” While there was no footage from inside the courtroom, Beech had a vital source of information through co-writer and producer Keith Beauchamp. As someone who worked closely with the real Till-Mobley, Beauchamp was a major resource for Beech when no historical evidence was available.
Outside of recreating historical sites, Beech needed to figure out how people of the time designed and decorated their homes. The 1950s was a time before consumer culture really took off, which meant that not everyone could go to the local department store and buy the latest styles for their home. “Decorations in people’s homes were much more personal then,” says Beech. “So, there’s a sparseness to decor and design in the 1950s. The reality is people didn’t have their walls lined with photographs of loved ones, because photographs were very valuable and they were hard to get.”
Since the homes were sparsely decorated, the wallpaper was essential to create a color scheme for a room. “We sourced a lot of vintage wallpaper from the period,” Beech says. “We had to scan it and reprint it and, in that process, we were able to tweak the colors a little bit and saturate or emphasize them a bit more to get that colorful look that Chinonye was seeking.”
The only color they stayed away from was yellow, which they reserved for scenes involving Emmett Till. “At the beginning, he’s in this very yellow room, he has a yellow dresser, and we really leaned into this yellow,” says Beech. “Yellow became his color and a color of joy for him. The only other time you see yellow in the film is at Moses Wright’s house and there is a yellow lamp and the yellow chair where Emmett sat to write a letter to his mother.”
Don’t Worry Darling
Moving into a fictional version of the ’50s, Don’t Worry Darling presents an idealized vision of the time period. Director Olivia Wilde’s film takes place in a 1950s experimental utopian community, where Alice (Florence Pugh) begins to discover that the town of Victory may not be as glorious as it appears.
Having previously collaborated with Wilde on Booksmart, production designer Katie Byron had the advantage of knowing what the director wanted for her story. “We did a lot of research for the 1950s, but we moved in the direction of opulence, luxury and sensuality in color palette and tone, and then we got to refine the details through the period,” she says.
The town of Victory, California is based on Palm Springs, where the bulk of the film was shot, which was the center of the Desert Modernism movement. “We used Palm Springs as a model because it’s an oasis in the middle of the desert, constructed for people to play with materials for design aesthetic,” Byron says. “The idea is that it’s in California, but the nearest city is very far away, so you’re protected in this desert utopia bubble.”
The architectural style also lent itself to a utopian feel, where things seem almost ahead of their time. “Some aspects of Desert Modernism feel almost futuristic,” says Byron, “and we were interested in the progressive new designs of the period that were more commonplace in the 1970s, but had their birth in the 1950s.”
Pastels were popular during the time period, but Byron opted to avoid the flat colors and instead used jewel tones. “We’d bring in color through optics, colored glass and mirrors to make it feel more like the color is coming from light and texture,” she says. “When I first read the script, I imagined black and gold and silver and glass and then slowly started to weave in color.”
One important color used in the film is Albert Frey Blue, named after the Swiss architect responsible for the desert modernist style. “It’s a robin’s egg blue that Albert Frey would use in a lot of his desert homes,” she says. “He was at the forefront of design in Palm Springs, and we actually used quite a bit of his architecture as reference.” Frey used the color in his designs as a way to fuse the modern appearance of construction materials with the organic look of the desert. “It was a color he really loved because it spoke to the desert landscape.”
Living takes us back to 1950s Britain, showing us a very different style of design. Oliver Hermanus’ English adaptation of the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru sets the stage in London in 1953. The film follows Mr. Williams, played by Bill Nighy, a bureaucrat facing a fatal illness as he tries to find meaning in his life before it’s too late. Production designer Helen Scott had the challenge of bringing London back in time.
“You get little pockets of the 1950s,” she says, “but you don’t really get a complete journey on foot or by vehicle.” As the script demanded, that some scenes involve the exteriors of buildings, Scott needed to get creative with the locations to avoid anything too modern. “The walk to the bomb site where the playground was created was split over several locations just kind of joining together,” she says. “It was a walk from Central London through the suburbs and out to the East End, so it was quite difficult.”
Whereas Beech and Byron had color to play with to enhance the stories, Scott says the most important aspect of design in 1950s London was restraint. “We obviously didn’t shoot in black and white, but we had a very pared-down palette,” she says. “We started off with black and white, and we actually did use whites as opposed to grays and off whites.” The monochrome palette enhanced the dull, static feeling of Nighy’s character, as a man who has worked his entire life without searching for meaning. “The visuals have quite a simple aesthetic,” she says. “We never had a kind of grungy, textured feel about anything. It was always quite clean and sharp and clear and explicit.”
The London County Hall served as the backdrop for the film, though the building is no longer used as a government headquarters. The location now holds two hotels and an aquarium, but luckily part of the old building remained. “We based ourselves in that area and utilized what we could,” says Scott. “All the staircases and corridors are pretty much the same, but we obviously had to strip them of their modernity and take them back to the ’50s.”
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