AS: How did you first get into production design? Did you study the arts in college?
MF: I did. I went to Brown University where I was a contemporary American history major and a sculpture major. My thesis was Martin Luther King and Viet Nam. While I was at Brown my mom died. She was sick with cancer. She was 40. Up to that point I figured I’m young, I’m a nice Jewish boy, an American History major. I’ll get some dumb job and then by the time I’m 40 I’ll switch over and be the artist I really want to be. But she got sick and it inspired me to say, You know, maybe I’m going to reverse that. I’m going to try to be more of what I want to be now. My mom had given everything to be a mom and was just starting to do the things she wanted to do. I’m not waiting. I always in my heart of hearts wanted to be an artist and I thought I’d give it a shot after that. Making art also helped me process a lot of confusion and grief. Still does.
AS: This is when you were at Brown?
MF: At Brown and RISD. When you go to one of the schools you can study at the other. I spent a lot of my time at RISD.
AS: Did you start studying painting?
MF: At RISD I was mostly doing photo and at Brown I ended up being a studio arts sculpture major as well as an American history major, a dual major. But my dad’s a landscape architect and I worked for him forever. In fact, that’s why I didn’t want to be an architect. Because that wasn’t for me. The technical design part of design is less interesting to me. The storytelling part, the visual storytelling part, the art part of it is what I love. Totally different worlds. I’m in the process of redoing my own house and I’m terrible at it. No story.
After Brown I spent years aimlessly living in the back of my pickup truck trying to be a beat poet. Any time someone would call me I’d drive to California and then drive back. It didn’t make me wealthy but I had very little overhead. Getting that lost was the way I found myself in this work. If I hadn’t done that I never would have even known that this world existed. Driving aimlessly is still a big part of how I find the movie now. So yeah my first year out of school was about getting lost.
AS: Just roving around or doing something related to the industry?
MF: Manual labor. Striving. I guess it was a gap year from life. But it was also what people did once, before everything became corporate and before Americans forgot how to read. I wanted to be a beat poet, I just wasn’t a good poet! My model was those guys who’d say, Let’s drive to Denver! and off they’d go. But I landed in Cape Cod and ended up working for Ralph Nader. Canvassing door to door, then being promoted to campaign manager. A lot of it was learning about leadership. Mostly trying to keep people from quitting! And figuring out ways to inspire them.