A “born and bred New York person,” production designer Mark Friedberg was a natural fit to design Todd Hayne’s latest, Wonderstruck. Having worked with Haynes on Far from Heaven and Mildred Pierce, Friedberg considers it his mission to tell New York stories. “I love the city. It’s in my blood,” the production designer says. “I am of it.”
Wonderstruck gave Friedberg the opportunity to explore New York in two periods—the ’20s and the ’70s—while pursuing other artistic inclinations. While each of the film’s two interwoven stories presented its own challenges, perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the project came in its final 10 minutes, when the film goes from live-action to a diorama sequence that is hard to forget.
Composed of models which took four months to prepare, this remarkable sequence rose out of both financial realities and sharp artistic impulse. Though the sequence is, in some sense, a grand stylistic departure from the rest of the film, it is—per Friedberg—of the same cinematic language experienced throughout. Below, the production designer gives the full account of how Wonderstruck‘s miniatures sequence came to be.
The film concludes with a remarkable sequence told with miniatures. What inspired this artistic choice?
[Todd]’s original conceit was to make the film in not just two different eras, but in two different cinematic styles. One was in the style of the last of the great silent films, and the other was a ’70s film, wanting to be in the language of the films that were taking place in that era.
That was the original stylistic conceit, and we still weren’t quite sure what we were going to do about the last act, or the last part of the last act, which we ultimately decided to make in miniatures.
But that wasn’t the idea originally. We knew we didn’t want to play it just as a straight-up narrative conversation, and sometimes flashbacks can be tricky. I had presented an idea originally of maybe trying to link it into some of our cinematic language in the previous sections by taking photographs of sets and rear-projecting them behind actors for flashbacks, which was an early clue, but didn’t end up being what we were doing.
As it turned out, the idea of even shooting it live-action became an expense issue for this little movie, and we had to come up with an alternative solution that did not involve first unit and actors. Todd, in the financing of the film, came up with the idea of animating that last section so that as [Ben] reads Rose’s story of how he came to be, we would see these animated moments. The logic was that the book was part graphic novel, and maybe this would speak to that.
That’s how the movie got green lit—under those auspices—but I wasn’t happy with it as a solution. My reasons were that we’ve already been in two different styles of the movie, so to add a third style where the characters weren’t even themselves but were made out of clay or something seemed emotionally vacant, to me. We would lose the emotion at the most pivotal emotional moment of the story, and it really needed to not only be in the language of either of the two sections; ideally, it could somehow unify the language of the two sections.
In the black-and-white section, there’s a couple of times where we look out the window and use miniatures as background, in the style of films of that time. In the black-and-white film that Julie [Moore]’s in, we even used a miniature for the cabin blowing away. That idea was already instilled in the story. Plus, it’s a movie that has taken place in the Natural History Museum for a good part of the last hour, so the idea of depicting scenes in diorama was not totally foreign to us. In fact, the ideas of dioramas were inspiration in general to the telling of the story because even though they feel very much like slices or frozen moments, they’re really very short, little scenes. They’re as much about what happens before and after them as they are about what’s happening in that exact split second.
On top of all of that, we saw in Ben’s home that Ben was a curator of sorts. He reads in the Wonderstruck book about what curation means, about the power of objects and selecting those important things—how they can be displayed and juxtaposed, and how that has meaning. As he does that in the beginning of the story, we pan off into his home and see that he’s been making these little constructions his whole life—this is part of who he is.
All of that added up to the idea of trying to put these scenes in the context of museum language, but ultimately, Ben’s language. For this to be powerful, we have to see it as Ben does. This is basically the moment he’s been waiting for. The mystery is being unfurled for him—how is he seeing that? We tried to come up with a way that felt like a way that Ben would see it, and that was what led to the decision to try and tell the story in dioramas.
We then decided to do that work in New York with our own team. My argument was that we could then cross-pollinate what’s happening at the end back into the front of the story. Some of the elements of the dioramas in the miniature are live-action elements. For example, the whale in the whale exhibit at the funeral of the father in miniature is the same whale that his mother puts away on the shelf while she’s putting him to bed; or, the pickup truck that Danny arrived in when he first meets Ben’s mother is a toy pickup truck that’s by his bedside in the beginning.
My logic was that the palate of information that Ben can create this fantasy out of is things that we’ve seen, as well, because we’ve seen what Ben’s seen, and I don’t think people really invent dreams. I think they just regurgitate things into different juxtapositions. That’s, to me, what dreams are. That’s what surrealism is. That’s what this was, Ben taking the elements that we’ve experienced with him and regurgitating them into a way of understanding these very profound things that are being told to him by Rose.
What was the process in getting the sequences’ models made?
One of the great things about working in New York is not just the quality of craft, but the artistry of craft. New York has a terrific tradition of fine art. For many years, it’s been the place in America where people have come to find their way as artists, and it’s in the core of our culture. A lot of our scenic artists come to us from that discipline, and I’ve been doing this in New York for a long time.
Todd is an artist himself and trusts us, understands that if we took a little bit of a chance here or there, it was the way that these things would be good. It wasn’t going to ruin them. The only way they could be good is if we took some risks and if we went for it a little bit.
We put together a team of modelers. These are guys I’ve been working with forever, who have built models for sets that we’ve made to help demonstrate them, but have also built models for things in sets. They’re just fine craftspeople. There was a team of them set up in Bushwick, and they worked almost as long—longer really—on these sets than any other [crew members] on the movie. They started at the beginning of prep, and we shot this [sequence] after principal photography. That’s how long it took to make these models: Four months.
What materials were employed when it came to the models?
As far as the materials, one thing that I really didn’t want to do was to go away from the faces of these people. That was important, and that was a challenge, trying to figure out how to reimagine the characters in the miniatures. I was inspired by the work of [Edward] Kienholz, a California sculptor and artist who did life-size three-dimensional environments—a lot of them, in the time of this story.
The story is set in the early ’70s, around the time that George Segal was also making full-size cast figure sculptures, even though his were white and eerie. Kienholz had this idea of putting faces in frames and putting them on full-life mannequins that he had made of characters for his kind of creepy, very surreal, and utterly beautiful constructions. That was the influence in figuring out a way to have this be handmade but also photographically real.
The other materials are pretty standard model-building materials. They were made out of wood, or metal, or cardboard, or foam. Everything is painted. Some of them, as I mentioned, had elements that were toys. Some of them had elements that were the wrong elements. We tried not to make perfect dioramas. We tried to make things that captured the feeling and the emotion perfectly, where the handmade quality was still somewhat apparent. That also kept it a little bit in a kid vernacular and not too professional, too slick.
How much actual animation was involved in finishing the sequence?
We call this the “miniature sequence.” It’s a bit semantic. “Animated” usually implies some sort of controlled motion. There are a few bits of that in there, and there are a few bits of puppetry in there, but mostly what’s animated is the camera. That was the idea—the camera was animated through still environments so that there is movement, but the camera is what’s moving.
The other argument for that was, again, from the narrative. At the beginning, we see Ben having a nightmare about being chased by wolves. Neither he nor we understand why that’s the case. Midway through the story, he sees those very wolves, and he has a catharsis. Those wolves in the diorama are set in his hometown, so he’s like, “What’s going on here? I’m a part of something bigger than me. What is it?”
Originally, the plan was to CG-generate wolves chasing him in the snow. I was very against that because what’s causing his nightmares is the fact that he saw those wolves when we went to bury his father, sort of understanding that his father had something to do with those wolves, but really not understanding any of it to the point where he can remember it.
We shot that wolf sequence by animating the camera—our suggestion from the art department—animating the camera around the static diorama. That creates a pretty intense mood, and it feels like wolves are chasing him, even though there’s not an image of him with the wolves. Not only is it therefore emotional and connected to Ben’s dream, but it’s also the power of what dioramas are. They are animated, they just don’t move. We add the motion.
I think that was something that we were trying to find in our miniature sequence, this similar kind of experience that you have, except maybe even more pointed because now, it’s about your life, rather than about some animals in the wild. But you join the diorama. You add the movement in yourself, and to some degree maybe the emotion. That’s the idea. I’m not saying whether it works or not for anybody else, but for me, the reason I know that that sequence worked is because that’s when I start crying. That’s when it’s emotional. If dollying through some static little constructions can make you cry, you’re probably onto something.