Production designer Mark Friedberg has worked on a number of very different New York City-based movies, with an even wider array of directors – ranging from Jim Jarmusch on a low-budget indie to Todd Phillips on the soon-to-be blockbuster “Joker.” A great admirer of “Moonlight” and author James Baldwin, he jumped at the chance to work on Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
The setting – 1972 Harlem – was one Friedberg was familiar with, having grown up just south of Baldwin’s neighborhood and having watched it radically change over the years. He quickly realized that a documentary-like approach would not be what guided the style of the film.
“We have a lot of scenes in the waiting room of a prison,” said Friedberg in an interview with IndieWire. “My reading of the story, being a Jewish guy from the Upper West Side, was one way and then I took Barry to a real prison as a possibility for that location. He was like, ‘We’re not gonna shoot here.’ Within a second Barry wanted to leave, and it upset him to be in there. He said, ‘That’s not what this story’s about. This is not the story of what it means to be a black man in prison. We’ve been telling that story. This is a different story.'”
With the exception of the flashback love scenes, the prison waiting room scenes between Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) are incredibly intimate. Although separated by a piece of glass, Jenkins needed Friedberg to help capture that.
“In the end, if you go back and look at the movie, you’ll realize that’s the most colorful set,” said Friedberg. “That set is five different kinds of yellow. The tiles are all mixed up. It’s almost boisterous.”
Friedberg, a regular designer for Todd Haynes who worked on his Douglas Sirk homage “Far From Heaven,” realized he would, to some degree, be using a different set of tools than he originally planned on “Beale Street.” When Jenkins was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he described his approach to color and visually capturing the young couple’s love.
“It would have felt false to try to paint the entire picture in the energy of Fonny behind glass,” said Jenkins. “To me, there was this idea in the writing of this almost ecstatic nature amongst Black folks when they’re surrounded by family, by community, or they allow themselves to live fully in their love, and so I think part of the film wanted to reflect that ecstatic feeling. I call it the ‘aesthetic of the ecstatic.’ And it’s what some of the colors pulse and saturate I think with the pulsing and saturation of Tish and Fonny’s love.”
Friedberg realized the Jenkins’ vision wasn’t a document to how hard it was to be an African-American living in Harlem at the time, but rather finding that visual language that captured the passion of the young lovers’ passion and an undaunted spirit.
“I’ve worked with lots of different kinds of filmmakers, someone like Wes [Anderson] is much more of a scientist, and things are all planned and figured out,” said Friedberg. “Todd Haynes is in the middle, but Barry goes with how he feels, at least on that job. A lot of the way we got to our decisions was poetically rather than scientifically – trial and error.”
In adapting Baldwin, Jenkins moved the Rivers family out of public housing and into a brownstone, but he still needed his “Beale Street” to be set in the realism of the author’s Harlem neighborhood. Friedberg, who was used to doing New York period films like “Wonderstruck,” was prepared have to leave Harlem to find period detail that could meet the film and its budgetary needs.
“Harlem is a different place now, it’s a world of renovation and influx of money,” said Friedberg. “I originally pitched Barry not shooting in Harlem for that exact reason.”
Still, Jenkins intuitively felt the spirit of the movie needed to be set in Baldwin’s Harlem. With Jenkins preferring to build a set rather than shoot in Brooklyn, Friedberg tried to find a way to thread the needle and found a developer who had just purchased an old Harlem family home that he was preparing to renovate and flip. He convinced him to rent it to the production for 10 weeks before gutting the brownstone.
“Their home wanted to both convey their lack of economic resources but, I think, the plethora of their emotional resources,” said Friedberg. “So it also wanted to be warm and inviting and, while not made of the fanciest elements, but it was made of loved elements, and it was cared for, and it was a place that you did not feel unhappy being in, especially since you spend a lot of the movie there. The old home had a lot of history the production designer could excavate and dig into.”
Jenkins appreciated the way Friedberg’s design was so detailed, capturing little things that told the story of the family. For example, at first Jenkins balked at the idea that Sharon (Regina King) would have to climb up, as Friedberg suggested, to get the good glasses and bottle for a toast to her daughter being pregnant.
“And what I love about Mark is there are so many little details in the script,” said Jenkins. “She goes up, gets on a step-ladder and goes up to the top shelf of the cabinet, because if you are poor, to working poor class family, you’re going to have one bottle of good booze and it’s going to be somewhere you have to make an effort to get to it. Just little details like that, because that space was completely empty. He gutted it and he rebuilt it.”
Friedberg also knew cinematographer James Laxton preferred the Rivers’ home be a set, where he could more easily light and capture the warmth of their love. The production designer worked closely with the cinematographer to build lighting into the set design.
“We tried in every way to also make it a functional space,” said Friedberg. “And in the end, I think that really drew James and Barry and I together. We started with three different ideas of what this thing should be, and ended up with a singular result.”