Scene stealing

The life of a film production designer is often simply about creating a credible realm in which the action unfolds, as economically as possible. The studio’s focus is elsewhere/ on the story, genre and cast – the marketable elements of the picture.

But, a glance at the resumé of production designer Mark Friedberg (see box, page 17) confirms that he is one of the lucky ones – he’s the ‘go-to guy’ when a film calls for a physical space that is elevated far beyond its usual background role.

Take his latest collaboration with Wes Anderson, The Darjeeling Limited. Here, Friedberg turns his meticulous gaze upon the train of the film’s title, which transports three brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) on a journey of discovery across India. But, unlike his stationary sets for the submarine interiors in Anderson’s earlier The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, this time the designs needed to be in a vehicle that was actually moving. ‘Having previously made a film in India, my first instinct was not to go there and get that bureaucracy to lend us a train,’ Friedberg explains. ‘Much has changed, I have subsequently learned. Wes had set his sights, and, once that happens, it’s hard to get him to rethink. Then, Wes and I looked at a number of films set on trains, and I agreed it was, in fact, imperative to shoot on a moving train, rather than a stage set.’

Research began with Friedberg and Anderson taking a cross-Rajasthan train trip. Taking his cue from Anderson’s signature retro design fetish – ‘I don’t want to do things that will make my films dated, so I just pre-date them,’ the director says – Friedberg cross-pollinated the trains of India’s imperial past with the Orient Express and New York’s classic Art Deco-era service, the 20th Century Limited. But, the principal colour palette of dark and light blue is ‹ specifically Indian, as are the elephants that are stencilled throughout the corridors and on objects such as tea cups. Attention to detail is every bit as precise as you would expect in a film that includes a separate credit for the matching luggage carried by the three brothers – ‘François Voltaire suitcases by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton’.

Friedberg’s design challenge on this occasion extended way beyond the decorative. ‘The train also needed to be a self-sufficient film facility,’ he explains. ‘There were all the sets you see in the film, but there’s also holding space for the cast of extras, two galleys, equipment storage and other crew-support elements. All the lights had to be built in. We created a track on the ceiling for the camera. The windows were very complicated, as they needed to house lighting gels and soundproofing. Wes wanted all the elements to be changeable in seconds. His motto was “no waiting”, to keep the actors’ energy up and engender pure performances.’

As the son of a landscape architect who did drafting for his father throughout school, Friedberg ‘had no intention of ever becoming any kind of designer’, he says. He studied art and American history at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, and then ‘pursued life as a fine artist and general bohemian’. He got his first movie break as assistant to the wardrobe department on the 1988 Woody Allen film Another Woman, and has never looked back. Now, he has reached the top of his profession, at least in terms of the creative assignments he’s scooped up in recent years.

‘Of course, it’s fun when the look of the film is a character in itself,’ Friedberg says. ‘Film departments are like orchestral sections. Usually, you play in harmony. Sometimes, it’s your turn to stand up and play solo. Once in a while, you work on a concerto where your work is the soloist of the piece. But, in the end, it’s best just to work on a good film. So many stars need to align for that to happen. It’s very rare, and I have been extremely lucky in that regard.’ l

The Darjeeling Limited opens on 23 November

Friedberg on film


Highlights from the production designer’s CV:


The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Friedberg’s previous collaboration with Wes Anderson. Its piece-de-resistance was oceanographer Bill Murray’s submarine interior – kitted out with sauna, science lab, kitchen, research library, observation bubble and engine room – built at Italy’s Cinecittà studios.


Across The Universe Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical extravaganza. The designer let his imagination run riot, dreaming up a 1960s Greenwich Village bohemia, anachronistically filtered through the graffiti sensibility of Jean-Michel Basquiat.


Far From Heaven Todd Haynes’ ravishing homage to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Friedberg created the beautiful interiors that co-ordinated with Sandy Powell’s rich-hued costumes and the autumn reds of the Connecticut exteriors.


The Ice Storm More upscale Connecticut suburbia, this time from 1973, in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s elegiac coming-of-age novel.

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