Given the remarkably positive nature of her first collaboration with Barry Jenkins on Moonlight, costume designer Caroline Eselin dove head first into the director’s next film, If Beale Street Could Talk. Set in Harlem, the period film follows Tish, a young woman in the midst of a stellar love affair, who becomes pregnant, just as her fiancé is hauled off to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. While Beale Streetwas appealing given its director alone, an artist Eselin greatly admired who’d won Best Picture with his last film, the project was a “beautiful opportunity” for more reasons than one. For the first English-language film adaptation of indispensible novelist James Baldwin’s work, Eselin was able to travel back to a “rich and multilayered, complicated time, as things are now, too.” “Rich with love, explored in every way,” Beale Streetwas this costume designer’s dream, crafted in meticulous detail to reflect a specific window in American history.
Teetering between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the film’s lush aesthetics were carefully considered, balancing Harlem’s recent past with Tish’s own moment in time, and never leaning toward the future to a compromising degree. “The ‘70s has a life of it’s own; in the look of the ‘70s, there’s an exaggeration, a flashy [quality]. But we stayed further back in the late ‘60s, which is great for the characters, because no one in our world would have the latest and greatest except Frank Hunt,” Eselin notes. “We didn’t want the ‘70s completely overpowering our movie, so we stayed in the late ‘60s, while honoring the ‘70s as well.” From the very first day in office, through the final days of post, Jenkins and his team worked tirelessly to come down on the “classic and timeless side.”
You mentioned working productively with Barry Jenkins on Moonlight. But what was it about the director that inspired you to reteam with him here?
I just am in awe of Barry; he’s an amazing, beautiful person and such a talented, eloquent director. Barry is so accessible, and I found this out on Moonlight. He’s always there, in the trenches with you. He loves costumes; he loves what we do, and he’s passionate about the story we’re trying to tell with costumes. So, it was a no-brainer. I would do anything in the world for Barry Jenkins. If Barry was doing a McDonald’s commercial, an infomercial on wooden tables, I would be there in not even a second.
When you had your first meetings with Barry on this film, what did you discuss? What visual materials did you look at?
First of all, we looked at photographic research. We looked at Camilo José Vergara, Gordon Parks, Bruce Davidson, Jack Garofalo, all these Harlem photographers of the time. Then, one book that I love, that I go back to a lot because it’s this amazing sampling of people and life, is Paul Fusco, the [RFK Funeral Train] book. It’s 1969, and it’s all these people shot from the train, down by the tracks.
Was Baldwin’s writing descriptive to the degree that it could guide you in crafting the film’s costumes?
Completely, and that was almost our first place, our jumping-off place. Baldwin gave us our permission for color; he is so descriptive of clothes in the book, and very descriptive of color. We wanted to honor Baldwin as much as we could.
What was the balance you struck, with your period clothing? Were you primarily sourcing vintage fashions, or building them from scratch?
Everything. We built, we sourced, crawling around in clothing recyclers and cardboard boxes with masks on our faces. I was up in peoples’ attics pulling things out, and we pulled from everywhere. I would spend weekends going through New York City and Brooklyn, going to vintage shops, and then we would make day trips out to these clothing recyclers. We were still a scrappy indie movie. We had more money than Moonlight, but then you put that in New York City, and it’s a period piece, and it’s not that much more—so, we were pulling from everywhere we could. We shot the whole novel, but in the edit it became more intimate, and I think that was beautiful.But we had a lot of people to dress, so we tried to pull in as much as we possibly could, scrounging up the great state of New York and New Jersey and wherever else we could find [clothing].We built some things for Regina [King], and modified a lot of things for pregnancy, and things like that.
Which outlets did you turn to, when sourcing wardrobe for the film?
There was this wonderful place called Rue St. Denis, down in the East Village, that I loved to go to, and they were so wonderful to work with. I think they’re working with industry now; they’re [no longer] a brick and mortar store. And there was this one shop in Brooklyn that I went to all the time. Then, the clothing recyclers in New Jersey—Udelco and Trans-Americas Trading Company—I don’t know where all the pieces come from, but they ship modern-day stuff out to third world countries, and hold the vintage. You have to go through these huge boxes of stuff, so there were days and days spent with masks on, crawling into huge bins and boxes and fishing out pieces. There was also a beautiful costume rental house, tucked away three hours out of New York. It’s called Right to the Moon Alice, and we had a good day trip or two there. We got a lot of great shoes from there. It’s hard to get ‘70s shoes that are still in great shape, and she had a lot.
How did you handle the challenge of dressing such a large cast, creating diverse looks for an array of essential characters?
Thankfully, James Baldwin was all there for us. It’s like he was the blueprint of every character. He was the map, the source of it all. I don’t recall being worried about how any of these characters were going to look because James Baldwin was there.
It’s clear that color was a critical factor, in designing looks for Beale Street. The way in which you applied yellow and blue hues to Tish and Fonny was particularly memorable, with each character mirroring the other. How did you think through the use of color on this film?
It always goes back to the source, James Baldwin, and Barry’s script, but the opening scene sort of instinctually happened. Barry and I had boarded out the whole movie, as far as Tish and Fonny, and then designed everyone else around Tish and Fonny, as far as palette, and how things were going to work. But the yellow and blue in the opening was something that happened naturally. I think instinctually, we just knew they would be so in sync, and finish each other sentences, and mirror each other—and it was unspoken between them, too. I don’t think they called each other that morning and said, “What are you wearing?” It just naturally happened, their whole lives together, because they’ve known each other since they were babies. It’s just that they’re tethered, tied together into one.
There’s a green story that goes through the movie, and that started with Baldwin, definitely. He writes a lot of green in the book. Sharon arrives in Puerto Rico in a green dress, and we ended up putting Sharon in green the whole time she’s in Puerto Rico. There’s also one scene that’s not in the movie anymore, where Ernestine, the sister, is in a green bathrobe, when Tish and Fonny come home, after their first night making love. Those were the jumping-off points of the green, and then we pulled it further up into the movie because I loved how green is new life. As Sharon says when we’re getting to know the family, they’re toasting to new life.
When [Tish]’s at the prison, she has on her green corduroy jacket, and the green patterned shirt underneath that, and then she comes home and she’s in green. There’s a moment when Fonny’s in green, when he’s out looking for a job and he runs into Daniel in the street. Green, on this, is new life, optimism and growth—and then of course, Fonny goes through that whole terrible scene with Daniel, where those hopes are sort of dashed. But then we carried that through in other places, the way it would work. It started with Baldwin, and we pulled it back to make a story.
Watching Beale Street, you get a sense of many visual elements working in harmony. How did you coordinate color with the film’s other department heads to achieve such a balance?
It was a super collaborative, communicative relationship with [production designer] Mark Friedberg and [set decorator] Kris Moran. We were constantly exchanging information, swatches. Kris would send me stuff all the time, and it was such a wonderful gift. We wanted for things to work together, to have a cohesive feel with color. We tested in the house the week before we shot; the art department was not even finished, or maybe they were. The house was almost done, the interior. They gutted that house, and redid it completely, but we spent a day testing lots of different things in the house. There were color stories, and there were also relationships, or associations. With the art department and [cinematographer] James Laxton, we had these meetings every week at Mark Friedberg’s house, where we would go through the script. Mark had his computer set up with every set, whether it’d be a model, or a drawing, or a reference photograph, and we’d go through the whole movie, and make decisions, and throw out ideas and suggestions. I remember the night we came up with the color that Mrs. Hunt was going to wear, that was at Mark’s, so we all worked together on the color of the movie.
What were the primary challenges you faced on this project, apart from those we’ve discussed?
I think that as with the Rivers [family], we were making the best with what we had. Making independent movies is certainly not easy, but you don’t want it to be easy, either. We shot all New York [scenes] in practical locations, which was wonderful because you really felt like you were in [this world]. We shot some things in Yonkers, on a stage, but all the Harlem stuff was shot in Harlem. Was it a challenge that maybe I couldn’t have a truck that was bigger, because we were in the city shooting? [Laughs] It was. There’s always challenges, but I think it all worked out how it was supposed to.