Production designer Mark Friedberg makes architecture and interiors the stars
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Mark Friedberg, who most recently re-created the picture-perfect world of 1950s suburbia in Far From Heaven, more or less fell into production design—and hit the ground running. "Brought up on a diet of Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier," he majored in sculpture and American history at Brown University before getting his first two gigs, as a production assistant on Woody Allen's Another Woman and New York Stories. A career was launched. Friedberg's impressive filmography now includes Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, The Ice Storm, and Pollock, all of which have given him a unique perspective on ephemeral set design as it relates to the real-life interior.
How do you begin work on a project?
We get direction on how the film's world needs to make sense for the characters. I gave Cathy Whitaker, the lead in Far From Heaven, as much style as I could. Usually I try to make sets look real, but Todd Haynes, the writer-director, asked me for something that looked consciously like a movie set of that time.
Is research important?
It's a huge part of what I do. Typically, I really immerse myself in the language of the culture. For Far From Heaven, I looked at Town & Country and House & Garden from the 1950s and '60s. And I watched every Douglas Sirk film from the '50s to study the way spaces, windows, even curtains were used.
How did this translate into your film?
You'll notice the Whitakers' faux brick fireplace and the use of split levels.
So could your set have been a 1950s house?
Well, because we were in the house for a great percentage of the movie, I had to make it interesting from every angle—which is not necessarily the case with real architecture.
What about the role of the camera?
The architecture has to accommodate the camera, both physically and in terms of how it sees—designing for film is designing for light. The Whitaker house combined two large bay windows covered in sheer drapes, an uncovered wall of glass, and mirrors. This would look overdone in reality. For a set, it makes sense.
Was the set an existing house?
No, it was a warehouse on a military base in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Where did you find furnishings? Did you fall prey to the lure of mid-century modern?
Good vintage furniture is expensive, and we were on a budget. We headed to antiques shops and Salvation Army stores in New Jersey. We found shapes that were right and re-covered them. As for mid-century modern, we didn't go there. It wasn't the Whitakers' world.
What are some differences between designing for the screen and real life?
In film, it's nice that infrastructure isn't an issue. Zoning and permits aren't part of the process. The only restrictions are time, story, and the bottom line.
You're always in a rush, and there's never enough money. In both cases, you're also designing for a specific person, creating a world for him or her. In film, though, you don't get to know that person. The client-designer conversation is mostly imaginary.
Can you distinguish East and West Coast set design?
The West Coast is more architecturally inspired, the East Coast more inspired by the theater.
What inspires you as a designer?
I often look to artists, photographers, and architects like Mark Rothko, Marsden Hartley, Cy Twombly, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Carlo Scarpa, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano.
What are you working on right now?
A film with Wes Anderson, who directed The Royal Tenenbaums, but I can't give you more particulars. Wes is keeping things close to his vest until everything is finalized.
Your favorite project ever?
My kids—Oakley, 8, and Lucy, 2—are my best designs.