Interview: Production Designer of ‘The Artist’ Discusses ‘Wizard of Lies’

Over the past few years, the global financial crash of 2008 has become an interest for dozens of filmmakers. From “Margin Call” to “The Big Short” and now HBO’s “Wizard of Lies,” it feels like Hollywood has only just cracked the surface. Production Designer Laurence Bennett is no stranger to the Awards Circuit Community for his work. In fact, he received an ACCA nomination for his work as a production designer on “The Artist” in ACCA 2011. Bennett has also worked with Paul Haggis on the popular “Show Me A Hero” mini-series, and the Best Picture winner “Crash” in 2004. I sat down with Laurence to discuss working with Haggis, designing for black and white in “The Artist,” and how to bring the workplace of a financial scandal unlike any other to life.

A: How did you get into production design?

L: I did a lot of things before I went to Hollywood. I did a lot in architecture, theater, and worked in graphic design and photography. I was even a painter. All of those skills added up to art director without my realizing it. I had always loved movies, but trying to figure out which art form would be my main pursuit took a long time.

A: Which films inspired you to go toward the production design side?

L: I think initially it was older films like film noir. What really struck me about film design was mood and tone. The stuff that derived from the European impressionist movement in the ’30s and ’40s. I’ve always enjoyed film of all kinds.

A: I wanted to go through some of your other work before we get to “Wizard of Lies.” Now, you’ve worked with Paul Haggis on several occasions. 

L: A lot, I’ve designed all his movies.

A: Most recently you worked with him on “Show Me a Hero.” How did working with Paul on “Crash” differ from something like “Show Me a Hero”?

L: Some of the challenges were parallel. Something I find about Paul, designing for him, is finding some of the emotion in very specific moments in the drama. “Show Me a Hero” is not unlike that. Bridging from the ’70s into the ’80s and glancing in and out across a lot of characters, you are forced to tell a lot about the characters in very short scenes. I think there are actually some very strong parallels.

A: I found them to be strong “sister” projects. How do you design for large ensemble casts, films or shows? 

L: Well one of the things is you have very few opportunities, you don’t have a ton of screen time to say much about the characters, so you have to be very specific and accurate about your choices.

A: On “The Artist,” you were nominated for an Oscar. How did you approach making a film in the style of classic cinema? How do you design for a film in black and white?

L: What I particularly love about it is that the people working in the industry from the teens to the ’30s were really inventing the language of cinema and the business of making movies. I’ve always loved films from that period, and it was an opportunity to study those films in great depth and look at works by individual directors. What struck me was that they were having a wonderful time. It seemed like they were kids in a new playground and were making up new games. I love visual storytelling, I think it’s my favorite aspect of cinema. I really feel like it was an opportunity for myself and for all the departments to work in the spirit of those people, and what they had made. And we studied the films really closely and tried to do it technically and mechanically very much like they had, in terms of the scenery. I kind of felt like we were, we were sort of paying homage. And we were having a lot of fun doing it.

A: How much did you work with the costume designers on “The Artist”?

L: Well, I had a general understanding with them because without color to help design space, I tried to keep the backgrounds very simple. That’s also an accurate reflection of how it was done at the time. We were on the sort of twin track because we had the “as real life story to tell” and we had the films within the film. So I did two things. Having talked to some people that worked in black in white back in the ’50s, mostly designers, I found out that some people painted sets in black and white, and others painted them in color even though they were being filmed in black and white.

So I chose to do the films, the scene works for the primary story, the story capturing George and Pepe and everyone, their real world environments were rendered in color. And the sets within the films were done in black and white. I kind of felt that would help actors and crew and everybody keep in the spirit of making those films. Mark Bridges, the costumer, used some simple but strong approaches to highlighting the characters. I think by keeping the backgrounds simple and letting them recede, we let the figures come forward. There was some experimentation involved.

A: Obviously you’ve done a handful of period pieces. It’s been almost a decade since the Bernie Madoff scandal broke. Would you consider “Wizard of Lies” a period piece? 

L: Yes, even though it’s only what, nine years ago? Doing recent period is something that is more distinctive and separated from modern times. It’s not heavily period, but it’s different enough where there are a lot of pitfalls.

A: How do you get into the mindset to design someone’s house life Madoff? Did you already have photographs of his residence? Or did you have to make it up yourself?

L: There were some law enforcement evidence photographs of his office and the penthouse when they took them over. The decor wasn’t intact, but there were enough elements there to tell what was there. And I tried to add a little more style, a slightly upgraded version of what they had in their house. You know it was very conservative decor. He didn’t try to draw attention to himself. We tried to add nicer textures and patterns.

A: So you’re saying he didn’t have more of an elegant house, even though he was a multimillionaire?

L: You know, it was nice, but it wasn’t what you’d expect from someone who had burned through $65 billion. You know, they had the penthouse in the upper east side. And they had a house in Montauk, a house in Palm Beach, a boat. But they were all nice but not as flashy as you might expect from a billionaire.

A: There is the montage where you go through all the properties. How did you feel you had to approach each different property?

L: Locale. For the Montauk scene with the beach party, it wasn’t feasible with the schedule to go to Montauk to shoot. We did it on the south shore of Long Island. There was no house there. We added it with CG. And we centered the energy of the party around the giant marquee, the giant tent. It was great because it gave us a lighting style for both day and night. Soft diffuse, warm light during the day, and beautiful kind of sexy glowing canvas at night with lights out on the beach. It really, I felt, anchored that in Montauk.

In Palm Beach, we didn’t really see their residence there. We saw a social event that they threw–a money-making event. They were trying to hustle people as things were beginning to turn bad. The jazz combo, where the jazz drummer is playing frenetically.

A: That’s a very memorable scene in the movie. 

L: Yeah, I loved that scene.

A: One thing I thought was striking was the way in which you portrayed the 17th floor. How did you approach those two different styles? Was it actually that grim downstairs? 

L: Evidently, based on what I heard. I was able to talk to the FBI agent who led the raid who was there the day they took over the offices. He said he had been there, and I could find no photographs whatsoever of the 17th floor. Bernie was very secretive about it honestly. He never even let the boys in there. But there was a contrast in dramatic terms and storytelling terms, the contrast between the BLMIS, his investing services, between the 18th and 19th floors, you know they were up to date and sort of showy.

They were decorator-designed environments with all the computing screens and the trading floor. They were very unsurprising, and a very professional and trustworthy face on that compared to the backstage vibe of the 17th floor. Word has it that it was just like that, that it was dark and cramped and more of everything the other floors were not. It was filing cabinets and paperwork, and Frank DiPascali was turning out reams of bogus financial reports from this ancient mainframe financial computer. So this paper versus digital contrast was there. It was also a mishmash of furniture, stuff that was just collected together and unmatched. I loved that contrast.

A: It felt like one area was the living space and the other was the basement. 

L: Yeah, it’s where you put the crazy cousin you don’t want anyone to pay attention to.

A: I found it memorable for that reason alone. 

L: That and Hank’s [Azaria] brilliant performance.

A: I was hoping he’d have more screen time because he’s Hank Azaria. That said, he doesn’t need that much screen time to leave his stamp on the movie. 

L: Absolutely.

A: How much freedom did Barry Levinson give you?

L: Once we had discussed the visual needs of the piece, I would kick around ideas with him, but I was free to do what I needed. I’d show him locations, and drawings for the handful of sets, and pretty much took it from there. Obviously, license needs to be taken because so much of it was undocumented. We were doing a massive amalgamation of incidents and characters in some cases.

A: Were there any telltale things to differentiate the Madoff family from one another? What were some of the subtle things you did to differentiate them?

L: With the penthouse, while it has normal sized windows to the world, which then get closed down when Ruth and Bernie are under siege when the case is cracked open and they close all the curtains down, in keeping with the themes of exposure and concealment that I thought we were working with. Mark’s apartment was a gorgeous floor through loft space, really elegant. Alessandro [Nivola] does this brilliant thing with the blinds and the opening and closing of them as he begins to lose it. Climbing into his own head.

In one scene when he’s meeting with his father-in-law, his brother, and the wives, the windows are wide open to the world and you see Chelsea out there. He begins to close it down, not unlike his parent’s reaction. When he begins to turn inward. Andrew, the other brother, the one scene we have in their place, they’ve just moved into their apartment, and his wife says to him, “we’ve got to get curtains, this is a fishbowl.” The paparazzi are outside on the sidewalk and literally look into their place with the long lenses. Architecturally, that was as close to their actual place as possible.

A: One of the scenes that was most striking was the hallucination scene. How did you go about trying to base it in some form of reality?

L: As Barry and Sam were writing that scene, the first I’d heard of it, Barry told me the story of the hallucinations. He told me the story of how it would unfold. There was some idea of shooting it on location at the offices because he wanted to touch back to the business side of it. While there is the one shot of all the screens in flame, and Bernie wandering through the flames in his nightgown, all the rest was shot in the apartment. It seemed to be a great opportunity to do something extremely theatrical. So I went and looked at a ton of film. Specifically Fellini and Bertolucci, and then put together a photo storyboard.

The storyboard was not specifically for any scene, as much for the tone, and I shared it with Barry and Eigil [Bryld] so that it could be a launching point for how to handle the visuals. You know we actually got in there and tried to light the sequence, and Barry had the notion of using Christmas lights. So Eigil and I sort of did a lot of the lighting with old fashioned large bulb Christmas tree lights. Odd thing for a Jewish family, but I felt like Barry was doing “A Christmas Carol” in that passage. So making it as odd and Dickensian in one way, and as offbeat, illogical, and surreal helped it as much as possible. The editing and cutting help a lot.

A: The Christmas Carol metaphor is apt. Which set was the most fun to create, and which was the most important to the overall movie?

L: Oh boy, dealing with the prison environment was critical to the movie, and trying to get the scope of the federal correction facility, and still accommodate some of the intimate scene work we had to do. We had to go way north to a state correctional facility for the wide stuff. For the large hallways and the cell block. But then I built the interview room. Because of the quiet and the focus needed on the scenes when Diana is interviewing him, and also for Ruth’s visit.

So it was built on set and it was largely based architecturally on the style of the practical location in Orange County. The layout was largely based on Diana Henriques‘ recollection of the times she interviewed Bernie there. The way it was lit, and the sterility of it, and the oddness of it. I think that was really important to the story. We meet him there at the prison and then we leave him there, where he will remain for another, what, 140 some odd years? As for most fun, the hallucinations were the most fun. It was visual playtime.

A: Speaking of Diana, how much did you rely on her to help as a research tool?

L: I mean, having someone who had actually met with Bernie and knew so much about the case was obviously invaluable. I read her book, which was a great grounding in everything that went on as I was working on the script. I met with her, she actually came to my office, and we sat for a couple hours and I interviewed her. It was great because it was an opportunity to listen to her and talk about things that weren’t really on the page.

We were talking about the first meeting with him, and I asked her what the lighting was like. She said she hadn’t thought about it: “Well, it’s odd because they didn’t turn the lights on in the room. They put us in this visiting room but didn’t turn the lights on.” I said, “funny, what light was there?” She said, “well there were the fluorescents out in the hallway, and there was light from the exterior space.” There was a little walled-in courtyard, and she said, “there was a light from the vending machines.” I was like, “the vending machines? That’s just great!” That was something I was able to share with Barry and Eigil and we used it as the basis for how to light those scenes.

A: There was a tonal shift when you got to the prison. It is a darker and grittier environment. So the last question is, what about the story of “Wizard of Lies” should be the biggest takeaway from the events?

L: Wow. I think it’s just a portrait of a very naturally adept con man. People are susceptible to believe stories that are too good to be true, and it doesn’t take too much encouragement from the right person to lead them down the wrong path.

A: Thank you very much for your time! 

L: Thank you so much!

How do you like “Wizard of Lies?” Do you think it has a shot at Emmy nominations? Let us know in the comments below!

“Wizard of Lies” is now streaming on HBO NOW and HBO GO.