Dressing Up Shakespeare: Mark Friedberg Designs The Tempest

Mark Friedberg has a knack for creating worlds. As a production designer, it is his responsibility to imagine and create the environments in which characters live and interact, including everything from how a location is dressed to the props the characters use.

Friedberg has worked on some of the most visually striking films to come out in recent years, among them Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Julie Taymor’s Beatles-infused musical Across the Universe. With his recent work on Taymor’s The Tempest, Friedberg faced the challenge of rendering the magical island that serves as the locale for Shakespeare’s strangest play using natural settings and locations. To celebrate the recent home video release of The Tempest, now available on DVD, Blu-ray and via digital download, MM spoke with Friedberg about working with Taymor and creating a magical setting from a barren landscape.

Ryan Bradford (MM): How familiar with The Tempest were you before beginning this project?

Mark Friedberg (MF): I was pretty familiar with it. It’s Shakespeare’s last play. It’s a little bit of a comment on his career, being a comedy and a romance but having action in it, too. In that way, it’s a little more contemporary.

MM: It’s definitely one of his strangest plays. Like you mentioned, there’s comedy, drama and politics. Did that affect your plan of attack?

MF: It did to some degree, but Julie came in with a pretty clear vision of where she was headed. She directed The Tempest on Broadway and has had a lot of experience in the world of Shakespeare. There was this nod to the idea of being timeless, of not being totally caught up in the particular technology of an era. It’s roughly set in the past, but there are certainly more contemporary elements [in the] architecture. For the most part, though, I think [the look] was more influenced by the ubiquitous quality of this being a classic play and not wanting to change it to a particular time and a particular place.

Photograph Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

Photograph Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures

MM: The Tempest uses many natural settings and locations. How were you involved in fusing the natural world with the more fantastical elements?

MF: My job is to make the movie look as good as possible. Period. For some people, that means building tremendous sets or tremendous things. For others, it means taking things away.

In this case, shooting on [the Hawaiian island of] Lanai was an idea that Julie had. I think going to Lanai made her want to shoot The Tempest. The location sparked the idea. It’s a very unique-looking place. In this case, Julie said, “I want to shoot in Hawaii. I have an idea. Will you come there with me and look at it?”

As the production designer, my job is to organize the look of the movie. Not just create it, but to find it and put it together. With Julie, we figured out which themes played where, how the island unfolded, where Prospero lived, where the ship wrecked, what were the different treks of the different parties and where they would be—kind of this imaginary treasure map of what this island was. It’s a process. By walking around those locations, we figured out what our sets look like. Hopefully you can’t tell what was built and what was [already] there.

MM: Lanai is definitely a much different version of Hawaii that what you’re used to seeing on TV and in movies.

MF: It’s lunar. It’s kind of wild.

MM: There’s a certain feel to the movie that’s characteristically Shakespearean. With shows like “Mad Men” bringing production design more into the public consciousness, do find that it’s more of a challenge to get the time and setting right? Does that put more pressure on the production designer?

MF: It’s so much easier to do research these days than it was a couple years ago. I can do the same amount of research on my phone in an hour as it took 10 research assistants a week to do a couple years ago.

I don’t look at it as a “Got You!” game. Sometimes production design doesn’t mean historically depicting what [a] place looked like. Sometimes, by making things anachronistic, you can make a movie feel more of a particular time… you’re living in the story, rather than watching the story. MM

Ryan Bradford’s writing has appeared in Vice, San Diego CityBeat and Salt Lake City Weekly, and his pictures of vicious dogs have been featured by NPR, USA Today and MSNBC. You can find him at RyanCBradford.com or on Twitter (@theryanbradford).

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