Set Decorator Claire Kaufman on Creating the World in Little Women (Exclusive)

Earlier this week, I spoke with Claire Kaufman, the Emmy-nominated set decorator whose latest work is in the upcoming Little Women. She has decades of experience working in production, serving as a set decorator on movies like Grown Ups and shows like “Drake & Josh” and “American Horror Story”. I talked to Kaufman about her job and experience on designing Little Women, coming out Christmas Day.

As a set decorator, Kaufman oversees everything that goes into the look of a scene - from furniture and artwork to utensils and drapery. She then works with the production designer (in this case, Jess Gonchor) who creates the set, “and then it’s my job to make that set come alive for the character or the script. It’s a pretty amazing job!” she says.

Little Women is set in 1860s New England, in the aftermath of the Civil War. As a period piece, it required a much closer look in examining how the people from that time lived. “I did tons of research, researched tons of stuff on the internet, the history of the time, what was going on, what they were doing, what they were wearing,” said Kaufman. 

The March Sisters partaking in a play in their home. 1 Wilson Webb/© 2019 Ctmg, Inc.

They shot over the course of 60 days in Boston, however the production design team spent much longer in the city. “I was in Boston a total of seven months. We prepped there starting in June, then we wrapped in December.” 

Being in Boston, a city full of well-preserved history, benefited much of the research that went into the design of the movie. Kaufman visited numerous museums, examining table settings, fabrics, and drapery. Her team also toured some of the homes in the area. “We went to the [James H.] Mann house which was incredible - it was where the Civil War basically started, she said. “It’s really impressive how well those homes were preserved”. She described the whole process as a great experience, especially for her never working in that time period previously. 

The production team likes to get a head start on production, well before shooting. Her team consisted of Jess Gonchor, supervising art director Chris Farmer, and a crew who works under her department. “I have a lead man, several buyers, an on-set dresser, and I brought in a draper. It was incredible because we made all the drapery from scratch”. While trying to stay at least “three steps ahead”, they get sets and locations ready, which included dressing a street in Lawrence, M.A. to look like New York. They worked there for two weeks before the company even arrived. 

Director Greta Gerwig discussing the scene with Emma Watson. Wilson Webb; © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Kaufman recalled her time working on set as being a very positive one. Her favorite memory was directly tied to the location itself. “I’m from California, so just getting to see the seasons in Boston was incredible,” she said. “We built the exterior of the March house out on a piece of property, and it was incredible watching the seasons turn there, watching the house turn alive. It was pretty amazing!” She also praised director Greta Gerwig and the film she created. “The project really came from her heart. It was really a great experience watching the script come alive, and how she had really kind of taken it and turned it upside down. The casting she managed to get was incredible and just watching this project come alive”. 

March House Parlor. Set Photo.

Kaufman says she’s seen Little Women twice already. “The first time I was biting my nails looking for any cringe-worthy moments, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t find any! The second time I really enjoyed it, I’m really proud of the work we did.” She thinks seeing her work in theaters is always nerve-wracking, due to it being so largely projected on a big screen. Despite that, she’s still happy with the outcome. “There’s so many moving parts in the [sic] version, and so many families. I really tried to create a look and feel for each one of the characters and the families and their homes in the film.” 

She takes that as the biggest challenge she faced when designing the movie. “For me it’s about getting caught up and really believing that you’re in this place. We want people to believe and live in it. Like my designer said to somebody, ‘we want people to walk out of the theater wanting to live in the March house’ because it was this creative beautiful home we created.”

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March and Timothée Chalamet at Laurie Laurence. Wilson Webb/© 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Awards season is in full swing, with Little Women among the frontrunners in a long and contentious race to the Oscars. Gerwig’s adaptation has already been nominated for dozens of awards, with Kaufman receiving nods for Critic’s Choice and various Critics Circles. “It’s such a great feeling when people respond to your work and appreciate it,” she said about her team’s nominations. “It’s really taken as a huge compliment, especially when it comes from your peers, because everybody works incredibly hard and there’s an incredible amount of great movies that came out this year – so many period movies, so many different ones, so it’s been a really interesting season.”

To end our conversation, Kaufman gave a word of advice to students looking to get their start in film production - just do it. “Just get out there. I tried lots of different things when I first started. I wanted to learn how to paint, how to build things, but set decorating was definitely my passion. I just think being in the trenches and getting out there is the best thing you should do if you want to be in the film business as a creative.”

 

Little Women is out everywhere on Christmas Day.