From acclaimed, Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, HBO’s television movie The Wizard of Lies is a case study of the way in which the external shadings of production design can reflect the interior. Approaching the project, Oscar-nominated production designer Laurence Bennett was of course attracted by the opportunity to collaborate with Levinson for the first time, alongside Robert De Niro; equally compelling, though, was the prospect of a distressing deep dive into the psychology of Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi schemer who committed the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, bankrupting thousands, right under the nose of his loving, unsuspecting family.
Speaking with Deadline, Bennett discusses challenges in recreating the recent past, visual inspiration taken from 1960s New York photographers and a potent scene that made him excited to come on board.
What sparked you to The Wizard of Lies?
The affair of Madoff was such a bizarre, iconic event, just a disastrous scam. Obviously, I was attracted to working with Barry and Bobby De Niro. It was just sort of a perfect storm of exciting things for me.
You were nominated for an Oscar for your work on the French, black-and-white silent film The Artist—there’s a great diversity to the projects you take on. Is there a through line there, artistically?
I’m drawn to good stories—it all begins on the page for me. In truth, my greatest interest is in stories about social justice and mysteries. This one happens to hit sort of a sweet spot. When I talked to Barry about it initially, we both sort of agreed that it needed to be treated as a mystery. While we all know a lot of the objective facts about what happened, there’s so much that’s enigmatic about what and how Madoff did what he did. I think Barry’s take, going really intimately into the man and his family, and how he could compartmentalize—even to the extent of being duplicitous with the people closest to him—was pretty remarkable.
When you’re recreating the recent past, does that take any of the burden off of you, as a production designer?
No. I think in fact it’s a little trickier, because technological changes and some style changes, though subtle, are significant, even in the space of the eight or nine years since. You really have to be constantly on the lookout for those differences. When we needed to recreate Bernie’s offices and the trading floor and dozens upon dozens of screens, those all need to be period correct. That was a challenge. Fortunately, all that stuff was sourced, and it was right.
I was lucky in having a couple of remarkable things available to me in being able to research the events. Diana Henriques, who wrote the book—the primary source for the screenplay—is really a wonderful reporter. I had the opportunity to actually get her into my office and interview her about the experience of interviewing Bernie in prison. Being able to talk about the very emotional, very subjective, the very sensory things about those meetings was really key to me. When we were in the trading floor, being able to work there, being able to meet the FBI agent who led the team that took over the offices and began the investigation on site—those are really great insights into the events.
This film marks your first collaboration with Barry Levinson. Walk me through your initial conversations with regard to design contrasts and the aesthetic you were going for.
For me, the prison, the Madoff penthouse, and Bernie’s offices form the emotional core of the story. Collaborating with Barry is really fantastic; he was consistently surprising me. Eigil Bryld, the DP, had fresh, really exciting ideas about how he wanted to dig into Bernie’s psyche. It begins almost more objectively, and takes a slow arc then towards the subjective and the dark, as it progresses. Pitching it to Barry as a mystery, I relied, for visuals, on a couple of things. Some 1950s and ‘60s photography by people like Saul Leiter, who worked in New York, who did color photography that was really simple and a little stark, very dramatic, with selective use of some saturated color and just really dark, rich, velvety blacks. That was sort of a template for the way we’d look at it.
Thematically, I certainly tried to keep in mind throughout the things that I was sensing in the script, about exposure and concealment. There were always light and dark elements in what was going on, and aspects of fragmentation, both in the way that the story was being told, and fragmented existence, compartmentalized existence. Those were themes that I continually touched back when I needed to make design decisions.
Could you touch on some of the symbolism seen in the film, pertaining to those themes? There’s discussion of a sort of life inside the “fishbowl,” and drawn blinds become a potent recurring symbol, as well.
We talked about glass and reflection and refraction. There are a lot of very shattered images, images seen through glass, and combined reflection and refraction and transparency. We knew that those were going to be available to us, and we were able to use them in the prison, in the office, mirrors in the penthouse.
Also, in terms of really strong visuals, we kept calling back to hallways. Hallways are always interesting—hallways, doors, and windows are transitional spaces. They’re more dynamic than just rooms. I felt there was a strong resonance between the hallways of the prison, when we see Bernie walking, the hallways in the penthouse, the hallways in the FBI offices. There were a couple visual touchstones.
One of the film’s most intense moments takes place in a nightmarish hallway fever dream, as photographers charge at Bernie in a narrow space with their flashing bulbs.
That was sort of central to my excitement about the whole piece. When that sequence was being conceived and discussed, I put together a photo storyboard of some imagery that I thought could be really powerful and shared it with Barry and Eigil. While we didn’t follow it frame by frame, I think it became a visual guide for what the imagery would look like in that sequence. It was a tremendously exciting sequence to do.
What is your reaction when given nightmare or fantasy sequences to design, with the visual opportunities they present?
As the emotional arc of the story gets darker and visually gets darker, it seemed to be crying out for a much more interior look at Bernie. Trying to portray psychological states—whether it’s a drug state or a hallucination or recollection—to me, it became an opportunity to do 21st century Dickensian; it’s Scrooge.
It’s really someone approached and assailed by his karma. Things become sort of visual shorthand, and also they don’t need to make literal sense. The symbolism of specific imagery can be haunting; if the juxtapositions are more absurd, they become more dreamlike.
At several moments in the film, you depart from heavy darkness. What was the approach in designing the beautiful, celebratory sequence in Montauk?
When Ruth and Bernie are outside the penthouse, that’s when they’re out in the world and showing the public side of themselves to the world in social situations, like the party in Montauk. It seemed to be an opportunity to do something that was much airier and lighter. It’s very white, obviously. It’s spring/summer clothing. It’s very preppy, on the beach. For budget, but mostly scheduling reasons, we couldn’t go to Montauk so we shot it on Long Island.
There was no house there, so because of environmental concerns on the dunes, we needed to CG the house in. For me, the tent became a great way to anchor the party and give it an ambience. From the beginning, my thought was to do a white tent, and just let it glow. Let it be a basis for the light, and also let it be this sort of lantern on the beach. Then Heather Loeffler, my decorator, came up with these glowing white balls to put in the sand.
We did some sort of auxiliary tents around for changing, and just tried to make a little bit more of a presence on the beach. The luncheon, the banquet, I thought even the dancing sequence, the nice conversations with the son, the setting of that just worked really beautifully. It’s a beautiful innocent, open-appearing kind of event. It turns really dark. He lies, right to his boys’ faces, and shuts them out, remarkably forcefully.
What was the biggest creative challenge you faced on this project?
I think probably just curating all the decisions that needed to be made, to make sure they all fit together and worked well. In every project, every choice matters. In this instance, it really just seemed to be a balancing act of getting the right combination of environments. For me, it was wonderful that we had such a range of environments to portray.
Obviously, it was a challenge that, because the fallout from Madoff’s crimes is so widespread, and still so deeply felt in New York, it was going to be none of the original, actual historic places where these events took place. For me to get the right tone to reflect Bernie and Ruth’s lifestyle—to get the penthouse right, to get the office right—so that it wasn’t even a question. “Yes, these are the floors of the building in which these crimes went down—totally above board, where the sons worked; then the 17th floor, where Hank Azaria’s character is literally cooking the books, literally just making up the trades, generating reams and reams of documentation from an ancient IBM computer, so out of date that it had to be kept in a Plexiglas case and cooled.”
I think the challenge really was just to get the balance of everything right. There’s a chiaroscuro about the best scenes in the piece, and it builds to beautifully dramatic scenes. They aren’t as effective if the daylight scenes aren’t there—the beach scene, and the lighter stuff. Similarly, the environments needed to have the same sorts of contrasts and balances.
Recently, you also designed the pilot for the Amazon original series Sneaky Pete. What is it like to go in and set the visual template for a series, and then pass the baton on to someone else?
I’ve done that a few times. The responsibility of the production designer is probably parallel to that of the director on the pilot. There’s a lot to tell, and a lot to leave open. The director and screenwriters need to tell you enough about the lead characters that you get a very strong sense of who they are and what they might be capable of, but there’s very limited time to spool that out, so you’ve got to be very judicious in what you tell. Similarly, in creating the world, you don’t want to be limiting, by any means, but at the same time, you want to hint at all of the exciting places you might go in the future.
Sneaky Pete was great because the conceit of Marius’ stealing someone’s identity, and being so brazen as to move into his family’s life, is wonderful—and the nature of their business, the fact that they were in the bond business…For me, the bail bonds office was sort of the fun one. Then, doing the set itself, I wanted it to have a certain sweetness and innocence, so I based it as literally as possible on the Edward Hopper painting, Early Sunday Morning, so that the actual façade of the bail bonds shop is as close to Hopper as I can make it—grounded in Americana.