Designing Christmas Magic: Spotlight on Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square

Words by Kai Charlies

I’ve discovered a lot about Dolly Parton this year. Her charitable foundation has been instrumental in getting over 130 million Free Books to children. She also was recently revealed to have given one million dollars to Moderna to help develop a Covid-19 vaccine. So, can we all agree she is truly an Angel on and offscreen? Dolly’s personality and love of Christmas is evident in her recent Netflix film Christmas on the Square. The movie tells the story of a woman returning to a hometown with heavy memories, and the Angels who are trying to help her. The film features three new original songs by Parton and several elaborate dance numbers.

The production of this film required a large company on screen and behind the scenes. I had the opportunity to talk to Production Designer Ina Mayhew about the process. Ina has an impressive resume of Production Design work in television and film. She has collaborated with Spike Lee, worked on popular shows like Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, Queen Sugar, Jay-Z and Beyonce’s Family Feud, and the upcoming biopic on Aretha Franklin Respect, and many more. Square was filmed last year, before any Covid-19 restrictions.

Early Production Stages

I was curious about how soon the element of production design impacts the project and learned from Ina that her job begins in the earliest of stages. After conversations with Dolly [Parton] and some inspiration of Producer Sam Haskell ‘s small town experiences, Ina solidified the vision by adding her experiences in her home town of Woodstock, New York. The elements of small-town life and community, combined with the feel of a winter wonderland were key creative goalposts. Once the theme was realized intensive design and color palettes had to be researched and assembled. This work crossed a variety of crews and tasks as well as collaborative discussions with all facets of the crew. Ina and her team began solidifying the vision with storyboards and even tactile “look books”, and dried paint chips. Ina’s small-town experience also went into capturing the distinctive look of Christmas in the Square‘s shops entrances and the size of the roads. Mayhew labeled the process as “intense” as attention to detail was a priority, there was even a virtual 3-D model of the town created to strengthen the design.

All of this work was brought to a duo of Atlanta soundstages large enough to drive a car through as well as staging several crowd and dance scenes that set the mood of the story. There is a strong lived-in look to the film, which comes from the vision of a small cozy town and even the characters from the film. As viewers of a project, we often fail to notice how design and settings effect our emotional takes on a character. A subtle but important part of the film is the main character Regina’s scenes in her home. Regina has a coldness to her, a scrooge like demeanor but also a strong personal style. Ina talked about how Regina “Doesn’t like the conventional” and how that was reflected in the interior decorations of her house. It also meant that the actual house the scenes were filmed in became another project that needed to be designed.

The Company of Women

I was really impressed by the Diversity on screen and behind the scenes of Christmas on the Square. I asked Ina about her creative journey working with different Directors and musicians. She shared that communication and the ability to “come to solutions quickly” are key facets of her job. Her strong Theater background and collaborative skills work with many styles of directors and producers. Mayhew also has a solid crew of women that she was able to bring from Queen Sugar directly to the production. She shared that Director Debbie Allen is very “firm” about representation on set. She also has experienced Dolly being very conscious of representation in this project and on her Heartstrings show. When I asked Ina about the overall energy of working with a group of women, she described it as a “real comfort and ease”. She also noted there was more sensitivity and less restrictions overall.

I learned so much about all the little touches that make a viewer really feel a part of the world they are watching. I hope this education I’ve shared helps deepen your enjoyment of Christmas on the Square. Also be sure to visit Ina’s Website to see some amazing videos, she has worked on with artists like Michael Jackson.

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