Growing up there at around the same time as Joker director Todd Phillips, and presenting distinct portraits of New York in such films as Wonderstruck and If Beale Street Could Talk, Friedberg most recently transformed the city into a gritty Gotham City of the 1980s, for a standalone origin story of an iconic DC villain.
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To Friedberg, transforming New York repeatedly for different films has been a manageable task, due to his relationship with the city, but also the essential nature of the place. “New York is in my blood; I’m made of it, and I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of my life driving around it, knowing every corner,” the production designer says. “But New York is also a city you could make any version of a world out of—upscale, downscale, ethnic, architectural, suburban.”
For Joker, Friedberg was looking not only at the NYC of his youth, but also at the cinema coming out of the city at that time. This included the early films of Martin Scorsese, as well as dramas like Network, The French Connection and Midnight Cowboy, “movies that are strangely beautiful, even though they’re stripped down, unadorned, and depicting a crumbling world,” the designer explains.
“There’s something about the decay or dysfunction that is poetic. Rather than shooting pristine architecture, which just reflects back at you, there’s something about a world where the buildings are falling down, and people are writing all over them, that’s human, and I think that was one of the things we were successful in, that there’s a nihilism to the world of Joker, but there’s also a humanity to it,” Friedberg adds. “It’s really a story of opposing extremes—comedy, tragedy, life and death, decay or beauty, rich or poor, imagined and real. So, I think we were curious about exploring those themes. Ultimately, it’s a story about Arthur, so the version of the world we made for him was both something that reflected him and maybe, in a weird way, came out of him.”
Transforming a “corner of the Bronx that was urine-covered and garbage-covered”—including the instantly iconic set of steps Joker dances down—into a place now regularly visited by buses full of tourists, Friedberg has mixed feelings.
“The people who live there were happy to have us come, as a distraction to some of the hardships. Like, they have to walk up those steps every day. Now, there’s bus tours going to these steps, they’re sanitized, and I got a note from [screenwriter] Scott Silver saying, ‘Mark, you broke the Bronx.’ I’m a little anxious about all that,” Friedberg laughs. “You know, the South Bronx used to be the butt of jokes. In the ’70s, it was the punch line for decaying urban life, although when it was built, it was a very special place. Those stairs are a few blocks from Yankee Stadium; that block is an architectural masterpiece that’s just fallen apart.”
Below, the production designer further describes his take on the “rough and tumble city,” his initial reluctance to be a part of Joker, and what it was that ultimately sold him on the project.
DEADLINE: What excited you about the prospect of designing Joker?
MARK FRIEDBERG: I wasn’t excited about it. I didn’t want to do it, because without paying much attention—without knowing much more than who was directing it—I just figured it was the next in line of whatever the next DC franchise would be.
That’s just not my world, or the kind of film that I like to see—and nothing against those films. I’m not in any way looking down on them; in fact, they are the reason we still have a film industry. It’s just not my taste. I had done a Spider-Man, and on that particular movie, there were so many rules of engagement, because it was part of something that had already been established, and it was really a financial cornerstone for the studio. It just didn’t feel like cinema, in the way that I’m used to it.
But ultimately, I was persuaded to read the script. I was friends with Emma Tillinger [Koskoff, producer], I was friends with Randy Poster, the music supervisor, and the minute I read the first five pages, I was hooked. I’d proved myself wrong on every front. It was a film, it was a really strong script, and I was surprised. I kind of couldn’t figure out how that could happen.
I think it took someone like Todd Phillips to make it, not just because of his talent, but because of his clout, at a place where he’s been one of the most successful directors, and it was clear in our meeting that he was going for it. He wasn’t hedging; he wasn’t trying to make a popular film. He was trying to make a good film, and in fact, willing to risk it not being popular, to make it true to an idea.
That hooked me, and the irony is, for being a rather big studio film, it was, in a way, more independent than some of my favorite independent films that I’ve gotten to work on. Zero interference from the studio, zero concern for anything beyond adherence to the credo that we established. So, I was in.
And it was hard. It’s tough material; it’s not the world’s most uplifting story. Obviously, we got criticized early on. I feel like maybe whoever that was misunderstood our intentions, but it was like throwing a live grenade around the room. It’s intense stuff, and I think that’s partly why it’s been successful. It’s not so often that cinema on this level, with these kinds of stakes, does take these kinds of risks, and does challenge the audience in this way—and the audience has proved that they not only are up to the challenge, but that they are interested or identify with these themes.
And, you know, it’s not a didactic story. We’re not saying what the outcome is; we’re not even saying what happened, really. You could interpret this story a lot of different ways. But it’s a tough story about a tough world, and by the way, open the window, look outside. It’s a tough world out there.
DEADLINE: What was the location scouting process like? What informed your choices, as far as environments that would define this film’s version of Gotham?
FRIEDBERG: We looked a long time, to map out our Gotham. Obviously, where Arthur lived was a key element in all of that, the location we returned to the most. It says a lot about him, because it’s where he gets to be. But we looked long and hard. We looked at public housing, city projects, many of the tougher neighborhoods, of which there are less and less, as the city gentrifies, and everybody’s pushed somewhere else. Where all those people are going is somewhat of a curiosity, but it ain’t happened in the South Bronx just yet.
Ultimately, we chose that area partly because it was very New York, but not something you think about, when you think about New York. I think that was the Gotham we were trying to make. Clearly, Gotham’s always related to New York, but we were trying to make some version of a mythologized city. We were also interested in the fact that even though that’s where he lived, Arthur is kind of homeless. He doesn’t have a room there; he’s sleeping on the couch. He may be in and out of institutions.
In a weird way, his home is the streets. He spends a lot of time out there, whether it’s working on the street, riding subways around, or buses. Also, his journey home is just arduous. Everything bears down on Arthur. The city’s falling down, people are punching him. There’s always trains over his head, garbage he has to navigate, and the stairs added the obvious stage for Joker to become Joker. Ultimately, there’s many of those sets of stairs in the Bronx. We chose the Shakespeare Avenue stairs because it was right next to the place that we chose to be the exterior of his residence.
The movie was shot all over the city. We shot in Chinatown, in Harlem, in Midtown, in Brooklyn, and in Newark, New Jersey. As much as you want to talk about how this is New York, it’s New York area, East Coast urban. But Gotham Square, in the beginning, and the big riot at the end, that was all shot on Market Street in Newark.
Todd is a very hands-on as a director, and was adamant that the process of prep started way early. I had a lot of prep, when I was the only guy on the movie with a couple of scouts, and we drove and drove. We looked at New York for months and months before prep even started.
I used to have a class that I taught called “My Best Design Tool Is My Car”—and it is, in a lot of ways. Because as much as we can sit at a drawing board and invent a world, that assumes that I know everything that I want to make. But the process of scouting is a process of discovery, and it’s not just discovering places. It’s discovering the world of the story. That time in the car is really when things congealed.
DEADLINE: How did you approach designing the set of The Murray Franklin Show?
FRIEDBERG: Well, it wasn’t just the set that we built. The stage we shot in was brand new, and we wanted it to be not just the thing that you saw on TV, but the thing that you saw when you were in the audience, or when you were backstage. So, we built an old stage inside the new stage, and dressing rooms and corridors. There was actually a lot more that we made than what was ultimately in the cut; you could have walked from Arthur’s dressing room all the way out to the stage. There was a dressing room for Murray himself, where actually De Niro hung out when he was off camera, and then there was the design of that set, which was as important as any in the movie.
That went through some fits and starts. It started as a more regional talk show, more like a Joe Franklin Show, and it evolved into more of a national, classic talk show look. The curtains were the only other burst of color beside the clown-ness of him, [evoking] a kind of vibrance for him, when he’s in that Joker state. But also, for me, the set offered a chance to have a backdrop of Gotham City, which was a big part of that set, the mural that you see through the window. And boy, did we labor over that. It was really science that got us there, as well as art—a lot of variations in the design, a lot of models, a lot of testing of colors.
DEADLINE: On Joker, you also shot on real subway cars from the ’70s and ’80s. Hauled out of the New York City Transit Museum, these were placed on New York transit lines, and operated by MTA personnel.
FRIEDBERG: Here’s to the MTA for being extraordinarily cooperative with us. They gave us a lot more help than they had to, and broke some of their own regulations to let us get shots we wanted, although they do have a lot of regulations—one of which is “No graffiti,” another of which is “No traveling between cars.” So, those were tricky things that we had to figure out how to do.
The ride at the end was shot practically, but the scene with the Wall Street guys was shot on stage. That car was not from the museum, but it was from a collector—a guy I knew, a car I used once before that we completely changed. We had to make it look more like the one or two old cars we could get from the MTA that we used in other moments, just to make the connection. The car on stage, we were able to graffiti, and then we put these giant video walls on either side of it, so what you see out the window was live plates that we shot.
It was a big, complicated set. One of the things I think we did well, though, was to knit the stage world and the real world, where it’s hard to tell what we did where. I really wanted the film to feel docu style—like we were out on the streets, always—and it’s hard to tell that that scene was all shot on a stage.
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