The production designer on the movie, Ina Mayhew, spoke with us about working on the festive project, facing the large-scale musical’s creative challenges, and the rare opportunity of collaborating with both Debbie Allen and Dolly Parton.
You can read the highlights of our conversation below. Then add Wiretap to Chrome so you can watch Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square with comments from Ina Mayhew, and even add your own posts and reactions.
When you’re working on a Christmas film, does it give you license to have a bit more fun with the design than you’d have on typical projects?
Yes, and everyone [on the team] agreed. Should we put lights on every building? Yes! At first, it sounds like it’s too much, but we definitely had a tendency to go overboard. We loved decorating and wrapping the lamp posts with garlands and lights. We were a bit conservative about it at the beginning, but once we let Christmas out of the box, we did go a little crazy. And it was fun to see it while we were there. Regardless of how tired we were, it lifted our spirits.
Christmas on the Square had me feeling like I was watching one of the Golden Age movie musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis or White Christmas. Did you have those in mind when you were coming up with the design?
Sam Haskell, the executive producer, was inspired by the small Mississippi town where he lives. And I live in a small town, too, up in Woodstock, New York. When we started thinking about the classic town square and look at those in particular, [we thought] it should have that classic feeling. There’s something really festive about that era [of the movie musical].
As we kept going in that direction, we embraced that style and set a contemporary musical in a place that has some history. Once we went in that direction, we evolved into what felt like an old fashioned musical. There’s something more romantic and classic about another era.
How long did you have to prepare before filming began?
We wrapped Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings in January 2019, and I was already booked on another show, Queen Sugar. I went to work on Queen Sugar, and in February or March, co-executive producer Hudson Hickman called me and said, “We want to do Christmas on the Square now.” I remember taking pictures of the town square in Woodstock while it was still cold and there was snow on the ground. I would say we had between two and two-and-a-half months to design and build [the sets], and filming started in June. It was really fast.
Does accounting for big dance numbers affect how you design a project like Christmas on the Square?
Luckily I have a theater background and have done enough projects with dancing in it. The square itself had to be large enough for the dancers. Director and choreographer Debbie [Allen] and I talked about it, and she had specific needs. We had to consider textures and materials. For example, we added a little something to the asphalt area so that it was generous on all of the dancers’ feet. We also had to be careful not to use anything that’s too slick. So we had to plan and construct things differently with different materials.
Were there other design elements that had to be handled differently from other film and TV projects you’ve worked on?
The big thing was building a town on a stage. I’ve never done an entire town on a stage and it was a challenge. All of the buildings were actual size, so we had to make sure our stage was big enough for two-story buildings and the church. It was a first for me doing buildings that opened into rooms, and four or five of the buildings were exterior and interior sets. It was very elaborate.
Another thing that stood out was building the model [of the set] and making the buildings movable so that Debbie could think about how she wanted to block characters going from building to building, including the dance work. That was a big help for her, and we did some jockeying so that she could get the movement that she wanted. Also, I built the town square more like a triangle to get more dynamic ways to shoot it, and so it didn’t feel like you were literally in a square.
And one of the fun things that I loved was telling my greens guy to bring in 20-foot pine trees, and he brought a truck full of freshly cut trees to the set. It was a wonderful moment with all of the real trees, and it smelled like Christmas.
Can you share a bit about working on this film with two of the entertainment industry’s most legendary women: Debbie Allen and Dolly Parton?
This was my first time working with Debbie Allen, and between her and Dolly Parton, they really whipped this show into shape in a very short amount of time. I loved working with both of them. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a level of intuition and skill that flows out of them and you can see their ease. The movie is a big credit to these well-established women, and I hope viewers realize that it was a rare moment.
Anything else you’d like to add about working on this movie?
I’ve only done a couple of Christmas things, but they’re always fun to do – so pretty and sparkly. We made this movie in 2019 thinking it was going to come out last Christmas, but it was too close to the release of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings. It’s actually better that Christmas on the Square came out this year, so everyone can look forward to watching something cheery.
(This interview was edited and condensed)
Images Courtesy of Netflix