The centerpiece of “The Goldfinch,” director John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Dickensian novel, is the terrorist bombing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins through a haze of ashen gray dust and debris, we witness, in fragmented space and time, the destruction of artwork and the aftershock for 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort), who becomes orphaned when his mother (Hailey Wist) is killed in the blast.
For production designer K.K. Barrett (“Her”), the challenge of recreating the Met for a mythical exhibition was compounded by having to reproduce the mesmerizing 1654 Dutch oil painting of a chained goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (whose own life was robbed by an accidental bombing, the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine the same year he painted “The Goldfinch”). Fortunately, the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, Netherlands, where “The Goldfinch” resides, came to the rescue.
“We saw the real ‘Goldfinch’ and were pretty stunned,” said Barrett. “It looks real modern and doesn’t look like what the other painters were trying to do at the time. It almost looks like a sketch. The other paintings were very glossy, smooth, almost trying to be photographic. And ‘The Goldfinch’ rather celebrated the thickness and texture of paint. There’s also speculation that the painting was a parlor trick with the bird looking like it was chained to a real peg. And from a distance it does look like that…very realistic.”
“And we had artists that we thought could reproduce this, given its small scale (about 9″ x 12″). But we found out that the museum made an elaborate three-dimensional scan and, with a [3D] printer, printed copies of the painting. And they brought one out for us to look at and we held it up next to the real painting and were [amazed] at how good it was. And we knew that it would hold up to filming. We used that painting for most of the images.”
For recreating the Met, Barrett and his team found a warehouse in Yonkers, fashioning a similar layout to the famed uptown art museum, with two different sized galleries. “We designed a pathway for the action prior to landing on ‘The Goldfinch,’ and where the mother returned to, where the guards came from, and where the explosion happens,” said Barrett. “And then we had to show what it was like after it was destroyed, so we researched the way the museum was built and whether it was brick or concrete (or sometimes wood or plaster) under the walls, and recreated that.”
In stylizing the aftermath of the explosion, they looked at a lot of bombings (particularly in the Middle East), and noted the outward movement of concussion blasts. They also studied pictures of dust storms, 9/11 images on the street, and places where the horizons zero out and you don’t know where you are. “It was all real,” Barrett said. “We illustrated the way we wanted the blooming cloud of debris and dust, and to come into the room so that you could still see the room and have it envelop and slowly take it over. A cloud from Mount Vesuvius or a volcano where they start spewing with strong edges yet are very dense. And then with the materials afterward, we clawed away at the different entrances and archways into the galleries. We had a few paintings that fell from their moorings, but most paintings are pretty secured.”
For Theo, it’s a surreal experience and he struggles in a state of confusion until he forges a bond with the painting of the title. “He’s lucky enough to keep getting these lessons of the permanence of a lasting artwork to make impressions on different people throughout time, where his impermanence is coming closer and closer to reality,” Barrett said. “And the bohemian space that he stumbles onto, Hobart and Blackwell, is warmer, both in the antique store and the apartment upstairs. This is where life is non-judgmental and welcoming [with mentor Hobie, played by Jeffrey Wright].”
But when Barrett had difficulty finding the right location for the antique store, Deakins came to the rescue. “I was looking for something that was narrow and deep, and we stumbled onto a restaurant right around the corner that I had rejected already from another location,” Barrett said. “And Roger offered it up as a possibility. I looked at it again and I was very happy that he embraced that. It had a lot of windows and you could view the inside and the outside at the same time rather than going deeper and deeper into a dark space, which antique stores tend to have.
“So we shot that in the East Village, but then the downstairs of that we shot onstage again in Yonkers. And we built the workshop as a place where [Theo] learns the lessons of originals and reproductions and an admiration of craftsmen that came before from Hobie. This is a message that Donna Tartt buried cleverly and wisely, and repeats it in separating real life from fake life and slowing down to pay attention to real life. So, in a way, Theo becomes a reproduction of what he could have been by his fall dance and then slowly rights himself.”