Recreating Depression Era Cincinnati
In Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, present day Toronto stands in for Kit’s hometown of Cincinnati more than 70 years ago. Production designer Peter Cosco was responsible for faithfully replicating the era for the film.
The first step for Cosco was finding the Kittredge home. He was looking for a house built in the mid 1920s, but it also had to be in a neighborhood where everything around it was appropriate. “So much of the story takes place in the backyard and side yard. Sometimes we’d see a house that looked perfect from the street, but when you went into the back yard, there was a big addition, or the neighbors had a big addition.” The filmmakers eventually chose a house that backs out onto a ravine, which eliminated the problem of having an apartment building or a modern house across the way.
The interior of the Kittredge home was built from scratch on a soundstage. “You can control everything, you could lay it out for your needs when you build it,” he says. “It gives you the advantage of making it a little bit bigger or just reconfiguring the insides.”
For the homes furnishings, Cosco got help from the American Girl books and accessories. “Often the best thing is to go to actual source material from the period, like magazines or catalogs of the day, like Sears,” he says. “In this case, American Girl already had a wealth of material. For instance, we knew that in Kit’s attic she’s got a little roll-top desk, a little chair that goes with it and this metal-frame bed that’s got flower stencils on it, so we found the bed and then created the stencils. It was really helpful to have this very specific, and very accurate, source information to work from.”
A serendipitous find at the house translated into an overall decorating scheme. “We found a coach light on a post, a little leaded glass thing that was original and I decided that it would inform all our decisions,” Cosco says. “The house already had some Arts and Crafts details, so we used that as our starting point and really ran with it, creating an Arts and Crafts theme that was a popular decorative style in the ‘20s.”
For Kit’s hideaway, Cosco needed to fabricate not just the perfect tree house, but the perfect tree, as well. “It’s a refuge for Kit, where she goes to write, and Patricia wanted it to be a very magical space,” the designer says. “We constructed a tree with a steel armature, and welded on the branches. The bark is cast plaster and burlap. The actual tree house was placed onto this structure, and then a canopy of leaves was put on top of that.”
One of the most complex and visually rich settings in the film is the Hobo Jungle, which Kit first visits in search of a story for the newspaper. Cosco found the perfect location under an old bridge by a river. “It’s an open bridge, so it’s got many of the qualities railway bridges of the time would have had,” he says. “We did a lot of research to recreate what a hobo settlement would have looked like.”
The set included an open fire pit, a cooking area, a laundry area and many tents and sheds. A path that snaked through the woods gave the effect that the hobos had their own individual spaces, which also helped to give the location a real sense of dimension and scope.
The evening before shooting began at the Hobo Jungle, flash flood warnings were issued in Toronto. “A section of the set literally washed away,” remembers Cosco. “I stood there watching bits of our set dressing floating by in baskets or washtubs. Odetta, our set decorator, jumped in and I followed her. I’ve said to her since that if I didn’t see her jump in, I probably wouldn’t have. The two of us were almost waist-deep in water fishing out these things as they were floating by.”
Kit’s father is a car dealer, so naturally automobiles figure prominently in the film. Beau Boyd, the picture car captain of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, was responsible for finding and maintaining a fleet of about 70 vintage cars. “We had to find pre-1934 cars that run semi-decent and look new,” says Boyd. “Some of them had to seem brand new, because there was a dealership scene with eight brand new cars.”
Finding the vehicles involved a lot of legwork. While there are companies that rent vintage cars to movie shoots, Boyd prefers to work with collectors. “Collectors generally put more money and time into their car. We go to car shows and meet people, give them a card, and say, ‘I'd like to rent your car for a movie.’ That's the best way to find them.”
The fleet includes Ford Model As, Grahams, a Maxwell, a Peter Witt streetcar, some trucks and a trio of extremely rare cars. “The prize is the 1934 Chrysler Airflow,” says Boyd. “The Air Flow is important to the story because Kit's dad is one of the few people with a very upscale car. When he loses his dealership and loses the car, it changes the whole tone of the film.
“They only made it one year,” explains Boyd. “And we have three of them. It's a very pretty car, in addition to being very rare. At the time, most of the cars were square-bodied and this was a departure because it was very art-deco and way ahead of its time. It only lasted one year because it didn’t sell well. It was too radical.”
For costume designer Trysha Bakker, the film was a return to familiar territory since she also had served as costume designer on two of the made-for-television American Girl movies. Among the challenges for each film has been replicating the main doll’s signature outfit. “We have to find the fabric that looks like it, and if we can’t find the fabric then we have it printed.”
One of the problems the costumer faced during the film of Kit Kittredge was the difficulty of finding authentic Depression-era clothing for the shoot’s more than 100 costumes. She ended up creating many of them from scratch using old catalogs like Sears Roebuck and vintage photographs by Dorothea Lange to find the right designs.
As the film progresses, Kit and her family have less money to spend on clothing and the costumes reflect that. “The characters start to wear the same clothes over and over again and they started to get a little more threadbare,” says Bakker. “We used sandpaper and rasps and we put the clothes in TSP and washed them over and over again to take the color out and age the garments down.”
One of the most heartwarming days of filming for Bakker and the entire cast and crew was July 4, 2007, when the production was honored to host a vivacious 6-year-old girl from eastern North Carolina named Eliza Bourg, who has been battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Through the work of the Make A Wish Foundation, the production learned that Bourg is a huge fan of American Girl and Kit Kittredge in particular. She also loves movies and television. Bourg was invited to visit the sound stage in Toronto and was immediately whisked into her own “star” trailer. She was put through the hair and makeup process and then costume designer Trysha Bakker brought in a special little hobo dress just for her. Without telling Bourg or her parents, the filmmakers had decided to include her in the Thanksgiving dinner scene at the Kittredge house. Eliza has now completed chemotherapy treatment and is doing well.
“Having Eliza visit the set was the purest example of what making this movie was all about,” says producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. “On the most important American holiday, this sweet little American girl courageously battling an illness stepped on set and opened all of our eyes to what adversity and hardship is really like. It was as if a modern-day Kit had joined us all for the Thanksgiving feast.”
Director Rozema adds, “Words really can’t describe the impact Eliza had on all of us that day. Her spirit seemed to mirror Kit’s. It was a reminder of the sense of community human beings can share when faced with crisis. Her story inspired all of us that day and we certainly hope that Kit’s story will inspire people as well.”