AS: People always say that a set is like a character in a movie, like for example, the Ark is a character. Do you ever feel that? And how do you feel about production design in general being invisible vs visible?
MF: I don’t have a rule about that stuff. You could say that of anything, “that’s a character in the story”. I don’t know what that means. In the case of Joker, our Gotham is either an extension of Arthur- something that literally came out of him, or it is the thing that is bearing down on him and causing him on some level to act the way he acts. Being hit and beaten up and running through the streets and almost being hit by cabs. Lying there panting in the muck and the mire he’s breathing it. He’s tasting the city.
AS: In contrast to Joker, your work on Far From Heaven with Todd Haynes was highly stylized.
MF: It was meant to be. Todd Haynes is very conceptual director. He’s one of my dear friends. We wanted to design it as if Douglas Sirk made that movie. Which means that to be a proper melodrama that movie was meant to look like it was shot here in Brentwood, trying to be Connecticut. It’s a story about artifice. About the difference between what we see and what is true. The melodrama heightens feelings until they end up hiding the real feelings. You have to get under the stylized skin to find that. You have to look inside yourself.
AS: How involved are you with visual effects?
MF: Very. I’m designing the movie. The way it looks is my responsibility. In the old days before we knew what visual effects were or could be, you’d hand the movie off and some other concept artist somewhere would do it. But it’s gotta all work. In the case of Joker the visual effects were in the set design. It’s just about how much I build and how much Edwin [Rivera, VFX Supervisor] builds. Most of them were extensions. It’s just adding more city or making it more period. So we design the entire world and then divide up what is built practically and what is virtual.
AS: Adding more seedy theaters…
MF: I built a lot of the porn theater marquees. Most of Gotham Square was practical below 20 feet, 30 feet. Very proud of my porn theaters.
AS: And you shot Gotham Square in Newark?
MF: We were having a hard time finding Gotham Square. Because in the beginning Todd was saying it doesn’t have to be Times Square. I said, Yeah it does! And then every time we showed him something he said, Yeah, but it doesn’t look like Times Square!
Wait, but you said it doesn’t have to be Times Square! He’d say, Yeah, it doesn’t have to be exactly Times Square! But there’s nothing really like it left. Not in the Northeast. Not in this country. I grew up on the border of Harlem as a kid and I wasn’t nervous about going up there but I was terrified about going to Times Square. Seedy fucking shit. And finally I looked at the producers and said, I know where it is! And they’re like, Where? Jersey. For the last ten years [Chris] Christie was the governor of New Jersey and we weren’t allowed to film there because he got rid of the tax incentive. I’m in Georgia right now, my home away from home, because that’s where the economics of cinema happens. Thirty percent of fifty million dollars is a lot of money. But just as I’m starting to say that Jersey is where Gotham Square is, the new governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, put the tax incentive back in and we got it!