Production designer Mark Friedberg shares the secrets of making the cinematic worlds of Wes Anderson, Ang Lee and Todd Haynes

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Mark Friedberger and David Schwartz (Sam Dean)
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Sam Dean

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“I made my career on films that probably shouldn’t have been made, economically,” said production designer Mark Friedberg at the first in a new series of quarterly master classes at the Museum of the Moving Image this past Sunday afternoon. 

Friedberg has been the production designer for a long list of beloved directors and provocative films: Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, and Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven and Mildred Pierce, just to name a few.

The event was intended as an extension of the museum’s mission to explore how movies get made. Introducing the class, Museum of the Moving Image chief curator David Schwartz recalled how, over the years, Friedberg’s name “kept showing up in films that we wanted to watch.”

Schwartz and Friedberg sat side-by-side on the stage of the Museum’s main theater, taking each of those films "we wanted to watch" in turn to discuss what went into getting them just right, with illustrative clips peppered in.

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Before Friedberg made a name for himself as a meticulous practitioner of historical reproductions—like the set (and Pollock-esque paintings) for Ed Harris’s Pollock—or of gigantic flights of fancy, like the cut-away view of Steve Zissou’s ship in The Life Aquatic, he got his start doing grunt work on Woody Allen films.

“When I got out of college,” Friedberg said, “I was a painter,” but a friend got him hooked up with a P.A. job on Another Woman and, the following year, New York Stories.

“And then I was playing basketball with Woody during lunch! And there was petty cash! They would pay for my food!,” Friedberg recalled, “but I was still thinking it was a temporary thing.”

His big break came when he was asked to pinch-hit for an absent crew member on New York Stories. “They needed these African masks for a set, hanging on the walls,” Friedberg said, “and they knew I was going home every night and painting, so they asked me to make them, and paid me extra for it. It was the first time I had actually gotten paid for something I had made.”

Soon, he started production designing for friends’ films, and eventually found himself talking to Ang Lee about the design for his 1997 The Ice Storm: “I came prepared for a job interview, but Ang said, ‘I was always curious about art history, but never got a chance to learn. Let’s talk about Cubism, because I think it might have something to do with this story.’ So I started talking about Cubism, and it turned into this amazing conversation about personalities shown from different angles, and how the ice is like a lens, and there’s no real eye contact.”

Friedberg got the job, but noted that he was still in the “best education I had was no education” phase of his career. On his first day, he started painting the white modernist panels on a character’s house “slightly different shades of neutral” because he thought it would give the light an unsettling, unnatural quality appropriate for the film. “The art director almost quit over that,” Friedberg said, “but I think it worked.”

For his next film with Lee, 1999’s Civil War-era historical war movie Ride With The Devil, Friedberg got to work on a slightly different scale. In one scene, in which raiders from Missouri burn down the town of Lawrence, Kansas, Lee wanted to actually burn down a town on the Missouri-Kansas border, and it was Friedberg’s job to build it.

“Traditionally, when you make a town, you make facades,” Friedberg said, “like in Blazing Saddles, that’s where I learned it.” But Lee wanted a fully three-dimensional set to convey the sense of destruction coming from all directions, not just from the point of view of a posse riding down Main Street. So, Friedberg got in touch with FEMA. A nearby town that was in the flood zone of the Missouri River had been evacuated, and the government agreed to let Friedberg build it out and burn it down before they razed it themselves.

“It took six months to build, and ended up being only seven or eight minutes on screen,” Friedberg said, “but for a Jewish kid from the Upper West Side, that was a lot of fun.”

Sometimes his own life came in handy. Friedberg’s family’s summer-rental house had been down the block from Jackson Pollock’s Long Island home, and Friedberg had idolized Jackson Pollock as an artist, and recruited a team of five NYC-based artists to be Pollock impersonators and make imitation canvases for Pollock (called, naturally, “the Jackson 5”).

And then there were projects for which reality had to be forcibly altered. For Far From Heaven, Friedberg recalled how he and Todd Haynes had met in a sculpture class at school, and how the set for the film was meant to “approximate Hollywood approximating Brentwood, which is approximating Connecticut,” where the leaves on the ground looked “fresh from the prop house,” intentionally artificial.

For the handful of scenes in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes that Friedberg worked on: “A lot of the work in the Jim world is taking away … he’s a man who can start a sentence talking about a Chevy engine block and end with Schopenhauer, in just two commas,” and “I basically spent two weeks just shopping for ashtrays and coffee cups.”

But Friedberg has a knack for lacing general lessons into the specific (or the banal), and laid out his favorite techniques and aphorisms as the class went along. “It’s not always about graphic representation,” he said at one point, noting that good production design includes “the ballpoint pens in the drawer of the desk that won’t even make it on camera.” Holding up the cap of his bottled water, he said that “this could be as important in a film as a whole cathedral you build,” illustrating how “design for film is not sitting in a room and coming up with grand ideas, like you’re in The Fountainhead—you can’t just leave the details to chance.” And, in keeping with that, “for the directors I want to work with, visual language is as important as the dialogue, or the music, or anything else going on, to tell the story.”

Which is clearly the case with Wes Anderson, a director famous for his visual meticulousness. Friedberg recalled his first meeting with Anderson, discussing The Life Aquatic's giant-scale cutaway shot of a 150-foot ship. Friedberg, after hearing the idea, said “well, we can build part of it, and paint the rest out around it,” and Anderson stayed silent. So Friedberg went on: “or we could build half, and paint the rest out …” Anderson still didn’t reply. Finally, when Friedberg asked, “you’d never make the whole thing, would you?,” he said “Wes started smiling, and his producer stopped smiling.” That conversation began an near-yearlong process of building the ship in Fellini’s old studio in Rome for this single shot:

The Darjeeling Limited, Friedberg’s next film with Anderson, had a similarly grandiose transportation-based setup, this time on a train. Friedberg had to design an unfolding caboose, (the Indian railway doesn't allow real cabooses), and make mirror images of the main train-compartment sets (each facing out towards an opposite side of the train) so that Anderson could film when the train was moving in any direction on the limited amount of track they were using. On the insanity of this undertaking, Freidberg noted that Anderson's productions are a lot like Anderson movies:

“It’s always a thing about a guy who’s kind of nuts and in charge, and a gang of people who do his bidding and get into trouble.”

Asked during the Q&A that rounded out the class about the future of jobs like Friedberg’s as digital production becomes more and more advanced, he was optimistic about the profession's prospects. “I’m grateful for being alive when I was, to get to actually make things,” he said. “[Now] it’s similar to deciding whether to a build a set or shoot on location, just another practical, budget-based decision that directors have to make,” he said, “but generally if the actors are near something, it still needs to be real.”

Appropriately enough for a master class, the event ended with a request from an aspiring designer on Friedberg's core professional philosophy. He laid out two career paths: little fish in big pond, just working your way up the ladder, or the small pond strategy, “or puddle strategy, which is what I did,” he said, working on things that are “interesting for your brain” as long as you can get “food in your belly.” While working on passion projects, “commercials are a good way to make money and learn the ropes,” Friedman said, “just try not to make everything beige.”

And, he’s noticed, “quality seems to rise to the top, strangely. At least in terms of crew.”