You can’t put Production Designer Mark Friedberg in a box but he can build one. He has one of the most diverse lineups of films that consistently transcends genre and time period that includes Ang Lee’s early 70s-set family drama The Ice Storm, Lee’s 1999 Civil War era Ride with the Devil, Todd Haynes’ luxurious 1950s-set Far From Heaven, the romantic comedies Kate & Leopold and Runaway Bride and 2019’s Joker.
Friedberg had previously collaborated with director Barry Jenkins on his feature, If Beale Street Could Talk before embarking on the expansive 10-episode limited series The Underground Railroad, based on the Colson Whitehead novel of the same name.
In my conversation with Friedberg, we talked at length about working with Jenkins, collaborating with cinematographer James Laxton and costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer on the color story of the limited series and translating the page to the screen.
Erik Anderson: Mark, thank you so much for taking some time to talk about The Underground Railroad. You first worked with Barry Jenkins on 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk but when did discussions for this project begin?
MF: When we started Beale, Barry was also working with the writers on The Underground Railroad, so it was in the air from the start. My focus was Beale and this new talented director in my life, but by the end of Beale there was definitely talk about UGR.
EA: How did you envision the physical look of the show from Colson Whitehead’s text? What was the process of translating the historical with the non-historical fantasy elements?
MF: We knew we wanted each chapter, each state to be distinct. It’s a journey. If it all looked the same it would seem like Cora was standing still. Some of the differentiation is in the story, is it urban or rural etc. Then we tried to create a LOOK for each chapter. That was comprised of the physical space but also the narrative space. The way we looked at the physical space. We started by parsing out the meaning of each chapter, the visual language needs to underscore the narrative themes. Georgia was the most realistic and historically accurate. It’s the baseline. But in South Carolina there were skyscrapers and elevators in the story already. That episode is more about other moments in our darker history, the Tuskegee experiments for example, or the Separate but Equal doctrine, so that episode really alludes to another time. We set North Carolina in the 1830’s but its theme harkens back to Salem etc. The story overall is about a particular perspective of the American experience. Our job was to decode those allusions and build worlds out of them.
EA: Can you talk a bit about working with Barry Jenkins and what that relationship is like?
MF: Barry has the best combination of talent and decency of almost anyone I have ever known. He encourages camaraderie and collaboration. He listens, he adapts and ultimately he inspires. This was one of the toughest years of my life, but could have been so much worse if our leader was a lesser person. Most of us feel that way. It also engenders very special bonds on the team. This group is the most collaborative that I have worked with and that is a testament to the one who formed them.
EA: You’re no stranger to designing trains, having done so for Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, but what were the biggest challenges with the trains and train systems for UGR?
MF: In India we shot on Indian Railway trains, on Indian Railway track, above ground. Back then it was the hardest set id ever had to make. Looking back it seems easy. Barry wanted real trains to run on real tracks in a real tunnel with real actors. In the end, I decided to find the track and train together then build the tunnel over them. We partnered with the Savannah Train museum, an amazing non-profit facility run by dedicated train enthusiasts and educators. They not only closed down and worked with us, but they also helped us modify their trains and ran the safety on set. In the end I made one long tunnel and swapped out the stations.
EA: How operational were the components in the show from the trains to the blacksmith equipment used by Peter Mullan’s character?
MF: There were many different rigs for the Smiths. And there were many blacksmiths, on the Plantation, at Valentine in Tennessee etc. In most cases those background artists were real blacksmiths who knew what they were doing. In some cases they were the teachers for the key actors in those scenes so they could also act as safety during those scenes. For the real smiths, in the background, we used real fire in real forges and real molten steel. But for the actors, who had gone through cursory training, we made pretend coals, gas controlled fire and made it look real even though it was made movie safe.
EA: How many separate full set pieces were created for the show vs altering or adding to existing locations? What pieces are you most proud of?
MF: I’m not sure of the count. We shot a lot of North Carolina on the same stage we built the Ghost Tunnel, many smaller one room sets, hotel rooms, judge’s chambers, doctor’s offices etc were all on stage. But the bulk of the show was shot on altered locations. Those were the sets with scope and in many ways the ones I preferred. The Slave Quarter is one of the sets I am most proud of in my over 30 years of designing for film. It was made board by board. Crafted with both love and hate. Meant to be a community, an art piece and a work camp. We wove our structures beneath 150 year old live oaks. We planted a cotton field, sugar cane, built barns and presses and mills, had livestock and really tried to make a place rather than a set.
EA: What were the emotional difficulties in working on a story with such an embedded history of American violence?
MF: There was rarely a day when something awful was not happening, especially to Cora. We were friends with Thuso but also with Cora and it was impossible to see her have to withstand what she did. Some days were unbearable; the Big Anthony day stands out. For me the hardest part was when the Randall’s summon the field hands to come watch the brutal horror. All the background actors and the leads stood there as that fire was lit. And on their faces was the history of racial pain in America. We had a grief counselor work with us and there were days when I needed a chat. But mostly we had each other, an amazing crew. A family.
EA: What were the most significant things you learned about yourself from being a part of The Underground Railroad?
MF: I’m not so sure about that big picture, but there is one thing I overcame. I went down to Georgia, in the age of Trump, ready to hate the people who live there for their support of his regime. For their support of institutional racism in this country. But those were no all of the people of Georgia. In fact most of the folks I met and worked with were of exceptional moral character, were proud and excited to be making this art with this purpose. Our crew was multiracial, diverse of gender and age and to a person we all pulled for one another. In the end I left Georgia humbled to have overcome my own regional prejudice. After the election I realized that it was the direct descendants of the Cora’s of Georgia who knocked on doors, registered voters and ultimately fought to bring democracy back into our national process. Who builds anything in this country?
EA: Various structures in the series meet a fiery fate. Is there ever a twinge of sadness to see something you created be destroyed or is it simply a part of the process?
MF: Not at all. These sets were designed to burn, so they were just living out their mandates. Plus burning to dust is better than the chainsaw to dumpster program, which is usually the end for most scenery. But even though it looked like all was burning it was all very controlled and resettable and in the end still required chainsaws and dumpsters.
EA: Can you talk a bit about the collaboration between you and cinematographer James Laxton and costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer on creating the color stories of UGR from state to state?
MF: James and I worked together from the start. Ours is a special partnership born of trust and a shared aesthetic. Caroline is also a key partner and while she started a little after us and was in LA longer, we coordinated on all palette and conceptual decisions, ranging from historical detail to episodic style. If it is at all possible that the three of us could be a team forever, nothing would make me happier.
EA: You’ve worked on an incredibly wide variety of films and shows with ranges of era, style and tone. What is it that initially draws you to a Joker or a Kate & Leopold or a Synecdoche, New York?
MF: I am made from New York. It’s not only where I’m from its what I am. It’s a part of me in every way. So telling its stories becomes personal.
The Underground Railroad is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. Mark Friedberg is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period or Fantasy Program (One Hour or More).
Photos: Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock; Amazon Prime Video