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Influencers: Production Designer Mark Friedberg Finds the Epic in the Details

The "Joker" production designer is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Despite the story his IMDB page tells, production designer Mark Friedberg still thinks of himself as a New York indie filmmaker. It just happens that the friends he collaborated with have become some of the defining auteurs of their generation — Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Todd Haynes, Wes Anderson — while meeting some new ones along way, like Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and Barry Jenkins (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” and the upcoming “Underground Railroad”). There’s a reason such distinctive cinematic voices gravitate toward Friedberg.

“What I love about Mark is there are so many little details in the script [he brings to life],” Jenkins told IndieWire. “Mark is so great about allowing for creativity, but working within the plausibility of the characterization.”

Story and character comes to life in those details: How the “Beale Street” family’s one good bottle of booze is only accessible with a step ladder, or the lived-in feeling that their brownstone radiates with their familial bond, or the crack in the foundation of Fonny’s (Stephan James) first studio basement apartment that Friedberg insisted upon, as it was likely the only apartment the young artist could afford.

“I just love walking on a set and you can touch things,” said Jenkins. “That level of detail, you go, ‘Does anyone ever notice that crack?’ And then actors walk in and they can pick up things. If an actor leans on a wall, his hands are going to touch that crack and that’s actually there.”

Whether it’s the Sirkian world of Haynes’ “Far From Heaven,” or the set-within-a-set on “Synecdoche, New York,” Friedberg’s collaborators, especially producers, are quick to note how often he also serves as the production’s unheralded hero, finding creatively satisfying solutions to create a story world within budget constraints. An obsessive researcher, Friedberg doesn’t simply recreate with realistic period accurate detail — he tailors it to a director’s vision in ways big and small. Take, for example, the down-and-out New York of the 1970s and ‘80s that Friedberg grew up in and has recreated onscreen a handful of times. It can be a child’s disorientating wonderment (“Wonderstruck”), a place of resiliency (“Beale Street”), or decay, disillusionment, and darkness (“Joker”).

Friedberg used to teach a class, “My Best Design Tool Is My Car,” and for “Joker” director Todd Phillips, it was driving around with the production designer that his Gotham started to come alive. “We spent a lot of time alone first even before our location scout came on board, just looking at neighborhoods, talking about where Arthur lives,” Phillips told IndieWire. “The version that Mark and I talked mostly about was this sort of living, breathing thing that we wanted to feel onscreen.”

For “Joker,” Friedberg quite literally made a city — complete with its own map, neighborhoods, and transit lines to track Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) journey to the dark side. It’s a world of constant environmental distress for the character, where the audience experiences a heightened sense of everyday hassles.

“Mark created a Gotham where everything feels kind of oppressive,” said Phillips. “We wanted everything to be always above Arthur, always sort of the city bearing down on him. That was something, so the steps [were] obviously a big location that Mark and I finally found… [W]e kept just thinking about these steps and sort of the topography in the Bronx and everything just being ultimately a hill that Arthur has to climb.”

Friedberg’s Gotham is inseparable from the story, as the garbage-laden city serves as Arthur’s main antagonist. And yet there’s beauty and depth in the analog decay, the frame filled with incredible texture, grounded in a world on the brink of collapse. With an art department budget the size of many of the smaller productions he’s worked on, Friedberg was able to manufacture his grittiest vision of New York yet.

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