Don’t judge a clown by his makeup--or a book by its cover--would be a prime lesson learned by production designer Mark Friedberg whose brilliant work on Joker (Warner Bros. Pictures) might not have been if he hadn’t overcome his initial reluctance to take on what from afar seemed like another blockbuster film in the comic book genre.
Of the Joker script, Friedberg recalled, “Ironically when I was first called, I didn’t want to even read it as I didn’t think I was the guy to make a superhero movie. But after being convinced by friends and colleagues to read it, I was hooked. Great script. Bold and raw, how I like it. After meeting with Todd (director Phillips, who wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver) and realizing that he was interested in a big-swing uncompromising approach, I was in. My instinct was that if we hedged on this material it would fail, but if we went for it and it worked, it could be amazing.”
Indeed Joker is a character study departing from the supervillain/superhero movie norm as Joaquin Phoenix plays the title character, introducing us to a socially awkward outcast/loner named Arthur Fleck whom we see evolve into the Joker. And his environment--a dysfunctional, decaying Gotham City, patterned in some respects after a 1980s’ NYC--becomes a character in the film as well, impacting Fleck’s psyche. It’s a world of despair, alienation and bullying, shedding light on how the Joker came to be, even evoking empathy for him at times.
Friedberg and Phillips were very much simpatico when it came to depicting Fleck’s surroundings. Friedberg observed that Phillips “came to the project with a vision of how to realize it. He wanted a gritty real world and that’s what I’m good at. He was sort of new to drama and to working in a period but he’s a smart dedicated dude and that was never an issue. Plus this time and place was one that both he and I grew up in so it was easy to communicate about.”
Friedberg and Phillips also got the chance to communicate with each other from the very outset. “Todd has some sway at Warner Bros. and was able to start prep very early, which meant him and I driving around a great deal as we got going like for a few months,” related Friedberg. “This was where our relationship bloomed and where the look of the picture came into focus. He also very much liked our concept artist Hugh Sicotte and his work. I would shoot pics at locations and sketch them, then Hugh would render the images and that turned out the best way to communicate, through pictures. Todd and DP Larry Sher have worked together a great deal and already had a short hand. So Larry and I had to play catch up. But in the end Larry and I worked very closely to define every space and all the lighting, most of which was practical.”
Relative to sets and other artistic considerations, Friedberg shared some Joker highlights--including the apartment of Arthur Fleck’s mother. The production designer described the apartment as “the central location for Arthur. It’s a place he keeps going back to and one that seems to hold some of his dark secrets. It’s not his place. It’s his mom’s. He doesn’t even have a room. And if it’s where he grew up, then where did he sleep? On the couch? His mom is as delusional as he is, perhaps even more so. We were implying that the place was nicer when she moved in and has fallen to the state that it is now, although she’d never admit it. It took some convincing to get Todd to go along with the prismatic geometric wallpaper but I’m glad we did. It imprisons him like all of Gotham.”
Friedberg cited his favorite Joker set being the Hahas Clown Agency. “It’s like a Fellini set shot by Lumet. Surreal. A men’s locker room but one where the men put on makeup. It’s also a business that is at the end of its relevance. Who still hires clowns? So there’s Arthur believing he is a performer while we see it as kind of pathetic. Pathetic but also beautiful.”
Another notable set was one of the biggest in Joker--that of The Murray Franklin Show. “We didn’t just build the show, we built the entire stage, its dressing rooms, prop warehouse and control room. It was a universe unto itself.”
Friedberg was also partial to the use of graffiti in the film. “Graffiti is a form of expression, especially for those who have little voice. It’s also a form of art and of protest. Ours intensifies as the story progresses. It signifies that the street is identifying with the clown that is out there defending himself. We had great graffiti artists working with us and it was one of my favorite parts of the design.”
Beyond the graffiti artists, Friedberg benefited from working with other colleagues, including supervising art director Laura Ballinger and set decorator Kris Moran. “This was my first time working with Laura,” related Friedberg. “She is amazing, incredibly focused, hard work ethic, even-keeled. She is a pro’s pro. At first I wasn’t sure if she liked working with me. Sometimes I judge folks by how much they laugh at my jokes. By the end I got her to giggle a little and she got me to focus a lot. What a great experience.
“Kris Moran is one of my old friends,” continued Friedberg. “She and I have been working together in various capacities since Far From Heaven (on which she was assistant prop master). We finally worked together as designer and decorator on If Beale Street Could Talk. Kris understands the street. She is refined and she is also tough as nails. I thought she would be the right person to bring out the pathos in Gotham and all around Gotham. She’s also fearless which is what this film needed.”
The references to If Beale Street Could Talk and Far From Heaven touch upon the many notable directors Friedberg has designed for--Barry Jenkins, for instance, on Beale Street, and Todd Haynes on not only Far From Heaven but also such films as Wonderstruck and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (for which Friedberg won an Emmy in 2011 and an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award the following year). Friedberg has also collaborated with director Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (nominated for an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award) and The Darjeeling Limited, and with director Ava DuVernay on Selma.
As for his biggest takeaway from his experience on Joker, Friedberg said, “Don’t pass on anything till you read it. Don’t only judge people by their past work, judge them by their potential and the ideas that they put out empirically. I think a lot of the reason this movie got initial attention is because it’s about an iconic character whose name is in the title. But it was essentially made as an independent film. Uncompromising with no consideration of box office. We just fought for the ideas and feelings laid out in the script and by Todd. So my biggest takeaway is that as filmmakers we should trust that our audience wants to think and feel and is not afraid of tougher material. That they can handle real and tough cinema and we should give it to them.”
This is the third of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, January 13, 2020. The 92nd Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 9, 2020, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.