Creating Unstable New York States of Mind for Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ and Edward Norton’s ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

New York City became major characters through world building, evoking the unstable mental states of Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck and Edward Norton's Lionel Essrog.
Niko Tavernise

New York serves as central characters in both Todd Phillips’ “Joker” (a gritty version of Gotham City in 1981 channeling Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy”) and Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn” (a ’50s noir vision of power, corruption, and gentrification). In fact, Gotham and Brooklyn embody their two mentally unstable protagonists: Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the terminally depressed, bullied clown-turned DC supervillain, and Lionel Essrog (Norton), the orphaned sleuth with Tourette syndrome trying to solve a murder and uncover the “Chinatown”-like real estate development scam that’s displacing Brooklyn’s poor and minority residents and demolishing their neighborhoods.

And world building New York as metaphorical period backdrops became personal journeys for both “Joker” production designer Mark Friedberg (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and “Motherless Brooklyn” production designer Beth Mickle (“The Deuce”). “The City is a character in the story,” said Friedberg, who grew up in New York City in the ’60s and ’70s and personally mined “the crime and corruption and a basic unraveling of the systems that run us.”

Mickle, who currently resides in New York, worked with director Norton in altering the time frame of Jonathan Lethem’s acclaimed mystery novel from 1999 to the ’50s to explore the historical roots of the City’s ongoing gentrification and sense of cultural loss. In this way, they are able to connect Lionel to the City. His uncontrollable verbal rants and scrambling, incoherent thought process are offset by a genius photographic memory and sense of kindness and decency. Ironically, only he’s capable of unscrambling the hidden puzzle pieces to make sense of the “Motherless Brooklyn” mystery.

“Motherless Brooklyn”Warner Bros.

“From the very beginning, [Edward] wanted this to be a beautiful love letter to New York City and the development and how it came to be what it is today,” she said. “Even though it took place in the ’50s, he wanted it to have a timeless look so I drew on architectural inspiration to select the locations from the photography of the late 1800s through the 1950s.”

For Friedberg, Gotham represented a primal version of his reality that transcended all of the toughness of the period. “But there was also humanity,” he said. “Life. Something bubbling up from the rubble. As ‘Taxi Driver’s’ NYC does to Travis, Gotham bears down on Arthur. In a way it manifests him and his experience. He takes it personally. He’s has a relationship with the place. In his mind, he goes from practically not being recognized as existing to becoming the city’s leader.”

Gotham’s mythic status was something they had to deal with as part of the DNA foundation, yet, for the most part, past versions of Gotham didn’t matter to them. “The point of tackling a myth is to interpret it in your own way, in your own image,” Friedberg continued. “We embraced the process by mapping an entire city plan and superimposing the neighborhoods we found that still had some grit: The South Bronx, Harlem, Newark, Chinatown, onto our imagined interpretation of past Gothams. We created our own transit system and mapped that onto our imagined city. The buses, the trains, the stairs.

Joker and Sophie
Zazie Beetz and Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker”Warner Bros.

“We wanted to make the iconic version of NYC at this time and at the same time not have it be NYC. We ditched Lincoln Center and other recognizable locations in favor of those that had our feel but so they could be our own. In that way we made our own Gotham. A real place that doesn’t exist. As wild and open as the story seems, we always knew where Arthur was and where he was going. His travels are a chug part of his character. He’s on an aimless, hopeless mission.”

For color, Friedberg went with a palate born of ’70s muscle cars: metallic lime greens, oranges, and browns. It was about conveying dissonance and being awful and beautiful at the same time. He said graffiti may be a misdemeanor, but it’s also an artistic voice for the alienated. “The spray paint showed the street literally boiling and screaming,” added Friedberg. “And, of course, garbage was the biggest deal. We talked endlessly about garbage and had trucks of it traveling to all locations with the garbage team. We got pretty good at destroying places while spending a surprising amount of energy and money. We could have made a small castle just on what we spent on garbage. That’s commitment.”

While they shot as much on location as possible (the Bronx staircase near where Arthur lives has become a tourist attraction, thanks to Joker’s iconic dance), the art department built quite a lot on stage. “Gotham Square was the key to setting the tone,” said Friedberg. “It’s the overture. We made a huge set covering acres of Newark. We built porn marquees and storefronts. There were hundreds of signs and dressing.”

“Joker”Nico Tavernese/Warner Bros.

The Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) stage for the late night talk show was classic “Tonight Show” but with a Gotham twist: “We hand-painted the backdrop of our Gotham skyline backing the set,” Friedberg said. “We modeled every piece of furniture and remade it until it was just so. I love the mirror in the kick of the desk, which makes it seem to float.”

But Ha Has, the clown agency where Arthur woefully works, was Friedberg’s favorite set. “I was going for Fellini by way of Lumet,” he said. “Weird. Haunted. Rough. A place out of time in a movie out of time. A lot of glass, wood, and painted metal. Urban. Tough.”

Meanwhile, for “Motherless Brooklyn,” Mickle scoured Brooklyn and Harlem for suitable locations, settling on Bed–Stuyvesant and 149th Street to convey the impact on the lower income neighborhoods during this gentrification. “We chose Bed–Stuy in Brooklyn for the rundown areas, but even buildings that we looked at three or four months after we scouted were re-facaded or had windows replaced or stoops repaired,” she said. In addition to period redressing, they had to cover up LED internet ads randomly popping up on sidewalks with newsstands.

“Motherless Brooklyn”Warner Bros.

The exterior of the three-story brick apartment building where Lionel’s love interest Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) resides was found on the corner of 149th street and St. Nicholas Avenue. However, all the crucial interiors for apartments and offices were shot on stages at Gold Coast Studios in Long Island, re-purposing walls and often  constructing three different sets to serve as one. For the L & L Detective Agency office set, Mickle researched offices from the turn of the century to early ’30s for architectural details. Particular window and banister layouts were incorporated and an infusion of forest green was sprinkled around the dark wood paneling.

They also built a luncheonette set that took inspiration from period photography. “When Bobby Cannavale [as Tony Vermonte] makes a call from a phone booth inside the luncheonette, there are great reflections on the windows of a black-and-white car that stops in front,” Mickle added. “These layers of reflections and then the period signage and Bobby behind yet another layer of glass in the phone booth were taken from Saul Leiter’s beautiful framing.”

The biggest challenge, though, was the recreation of the legendary Penn Station, a collaboration between Mickle and VFX supervisor Mark Russell (who even appear together in a cameo as a woman kissing a soldier in uniform next to Norton and the hero row of lockers). “It was very important to Edward that we showed the original Penn Station because it’s one of the relics that was torn down during the modernization of New York City, which is such a tragedy,” she said. The best movie reference was a sequence from Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch” (1955).

Motherless Brooklyn
“Motherless Brooklyn”Warner Bros.

“We did the ground floor pieces, but when it got to the outer walls and ceiling that was all visual effects,” Mickle said. “Fortunately, Edward was in the center of the floor surrounded by massive walls 100 feet by 150 feet, but these were VFX set extensions 75 feet away from him. We also included three vendor kiosks with merchandise for extras to interact with.

“It was all about the windows: absolutely stunning, epic shapes of glass covering this entire floor,” added Mickle. “It just created the inside of a jewel box on this massive scale.”

A jewel box containing the secret to unlocking the mystery by Lionel, with Mickle in the background.

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