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HomeAwardsContender-Mark Friedberg-Prod Designer-Universe, Darjeeling

Contender-Mark Friedberg-Prod Designer-Universe, Darjeeling

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Art-school-trained Mark Friedberg has carved a career for himself among visionary independent filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Ang Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Mira Nair. As production designer on Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, this native New Yorker says that working on this bold, colorful, musical extravaganza was a “production designer’s dream.”
“Across the Universe was uniquely a pure creative experience. I felt like Harold with The Purple Crayon,” says Friedberg. “I was following my pencil and my imagination. The world of the film seemed to build itself after a while. We were making puppets and throwing paint. It was great. It felt like art school on steroids. And with a budget.”
The production was also a lot of work–it called for 70 sets on a 60-day shoot. “Everything is euphoric in retrospect,” says Friedberg. “But, actually, it was an incredibly tough schedule. Julie is fearless. She is always pushing. She trusts the way she feels about things. She had sequences that originated as actual dreams that we then created. But she was very open to my ideas. It was a true collaboration. If you’re working with Julie, the job you want to have is my job.”
Friedberg, who also production-designed The Darjeeling Limited, previously collaborated with its director, Wes Anderson, on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. “I have learned what Wes absolutely needs to have and what is open for interpretation,” says Friedberg. “Sometimes what Wes is asking for is so logistically complex that it takes everything I have to be able to deliver it.”
Friedberg relies on physical, visual steps during the designing process. “I always try to communicate as much information as possible. Wes prefers sketches to Photoshopped pictures. But as was the case with Darjeeling, there were so many versions of the train over the five months we spent designing that I ended up using a combination of Photoshop and sketching to communicate ideas to him.”
The common thread of boldness of color and vision in both Across the Universe and The Darjeeling Limited has to do as much with each film’s director as it does with Friedberg’s visual style. “I am very close to the directors I work with,” says Friedberg. “I share all my work with them. Boldness is essential to true success. I am all about risk.”
Friedberg used his reflexes to design and realize the visuals for Across the Universe. “The way I think is abstract. Across the Universe was unique in allowing me to create abstractly. At heart, I am still a painter; abstract expression is the way I naturally express myself.”
The opportunity to design a whole neighborhood to look like the Lower East Side in the 1960s had a certain very special appeal for Friedberg. Willamsburg in Brooklyn was considered but they finally decided on Rivington Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “We spent months painting that street,” says Friedberg, “The local residents loved it. It made people engage. Folks came wanting to talk about the ’60s or just about public art and expression. To be able to go out with crayons and buckets of paint with other New Yorkers was a lot of fun.” He says that the giant dragon they painted on the side of a building for a scene is still there. Don Nace, the scenic artist, was a particularly irreplaceable crewmember, says Friedberg.
Friedberg again drew on his artistic background for the Merry Pranksters’ Magic Bus in Universe. “We ended up in a very Basquiat-like place. Mix Basquiat and flower power and you get a lot of energy, which is what made the bus ride such a trip.”
For the scenes in Liverpool they decided that the production would have to jump the pond. “We looked around in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nothing was like Liverpool. You feel the Beatles there,” says Friedberg.
Friedberg points out that Across the Universe had three distinct color palettes that corresponded to the three distinct social eras of the 1960s. For the innocent part of the era, the late 1950s to early ’60s, the color schemes he used were mostly pastels. When the story progresses into the time of euphoria and self-discovery, he used lots of bold color. Finally, for the era Friedberg and Taymor referred to as the helter-skelter period of youths killed at rock concerts and antiwar protests, he used black, white and red as the primary color scheme to illustrate the severity of the times. “It was a brave way to look at the 60s,” says Friedberg. “And a very responsible one.”
– Paige Donner

2007 wins
Gotham Award – Lifetime Achievement

Hamilton Behind the Camera Award, Across the Universe

2007 nomination

Satellite Award, Across the Universe

2005 win

Excellence in Production Design Award, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

2003 win

Phoenix Film Critics Society Award, Far From Heaven

Written by Paige Donner

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