Interview: Mark Friedberg

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 production designer talks about making the film.

With the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on Wednesday April 16th we have an exclusive interview with production designer Mark Friedberg.

As well as his work on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Friedberg has recently worked on the blockbuster Noah and several Wes Anderson productions such as The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) must confront a foe more powerful than he in the form of Electro (Jamie Foxx). His old friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns but soon Peter realises that his enemies have one thing in common; OsCorp.

You have a very impressive resume, but you don’t typically do a lot of big action films. What drew you to The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
Normally I probably would not be so drawn to super hero movies, even though I’ve always liked Spider-Man and I’ve always enjoyed the Spider-Man films. But then I met Marc Webb—he was really impressive and the script was really good. It seemed like they were interested in making a New York story, which is something I’m always up for. Being attracted to the material was good, and I think I had a nice connection with the director right off the bat. Plus it seemed like a challenge; this is the biggest movie that’s ever been done in New York. It was exciting for us because we’re a real New York crew. We’re used to doing movies that come for two weeks and blow up Times Square or blow up some big avenue in New York. So this was a chance to not just be in the most glamorous parts of New York, but the real New York, the parts that those of us who live there all know, because Spider-Man has always been a New York hero.

You’d seen the first Amazing Spider-Man. Did you consciously try to give this film a different look?
I saw it in a theater in Iceland while we were filming Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. We kept some level of continuity in terms of Aunt May and Peter Parker’s house, and Peter Parker’s room, but for the most part everything else was new. So it was pretty much uncharted territory. The filmmakers said that they were really interested in technology, and they were concerned that being artsy and being able to deliver something on that level were mutually exclusive. And it is a new kind of world for me. It’s fun, you get to express yourself, you can really go to the extreme. I wasn’t trying to be different; I was just trying to design it the way I would design it.

Do you go to the Marvel comics as a reference?
Yes, we did. Did we use them? No. If you look at those comic books, it’s a whole different world. The level of technology that exists now, as opposed to when those stories were written—there’s more technology in your phone than there was in any of those comics. Every once in awhile we would include a reference to the comics, whether it’s the time on the clock to refer to a volume number, or something else. But for the most part it was about making the most fun and intense, exciting places I could come up with in the amount of time we had.

So when it came to the technology stuff, like Oscorp and all of that super-high technology, what did you draw on there?
I think we wanted Oscorp to be on some level the place where the height of technology was being explored, and that is borne out in some of the biomilitary stuff. We wanted them to be not just evil but compelling at the same time. There is something about Oscorp that attracts us and scares us at the same time, in the way that some of our huger corporations do. The place should be interesting to look at. So even if perhaps there’s evil intent in there, they’re also possibly at the center of culture at the same time. And so we looked at good architecture.

New York, which historically had resisted change, has in the last 30 years really blossomed architecturally. So I wanted to try to come up with an Oscorp that didn’t stand out from New York but is completely a part of today’s New York. So we used locations that would both show the classic pre-war New York that everybody thinks about when they think about the city, and we also tried to use locations that showcased the newer New York. The Highline, places like that. I think that’s also part of the reason why they were interested in working with me, because I’m homegrown. I think they were interested in what someone on the inside might bring to it. I could give it a level of trueness since it’s a New York story. Not that anybody else would do less well, they might just do it different.

For me it was a chance to bring the filmmakers to my favorite places, and those aren’t the most glamorous, but parts of Chinatown and parts of the Lower East Side. Also places that most other movies can’t get to because they couldn’t afford it. But we had a big 100-day shoot, so we had a lot of opportunity to explore all parts of the city. Maritime Fort up in the Bronx, or a tea parlor in Chinatown, or Times Square, or Lincoln Center—a lot of New York is in this movie. There are also a lot of giant car chases, which in two minutes will take you the whole length of the city.

Did you grow up in New York?
Yes, born and bred. I was raised on the upper West Side, it was basically a barrio, a very tough neighborhood that with the economic explosion and gentrification became a very nice neighborhood.

Do you still live up there?
No, I live in Brooklyn. We kept moving south. We ended up living 20 years in Tribeca, and the last three years we’ve been living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which to me feels like I moved back to New York again.

Did Marc Webb give you an overall direction about the look of the film?
He talked about wanting to express the divide between the world of Oscorp—the halls of power—and the blue-collar world that Aunt May and Peter Parker live in. He was very interested in it not being a tourist-guide version of New York City. He wanted a dynamic, real New York. Marc is character driven, so we talked about the kinds of worlds these characters might live in and how textured they would be. And I think Marc embraced his original instincts from independent film and what he did very well was to be able to allow that kind of interesting artistic texture and have it mixed against the graphic-novel or comic quality of some the other stuff. It’s not like all the super heroes come and fight all the bad guys and then everything’s fine. It’s actually a real drama where some things that are very hard happen. To support real emotion there was also the desire to have some real texture, which was great. We didn’t have to dumb any sets down or make it look less interesting. My sensibility really embraced that—or maybe Marc already embraced that and that’s why he hired me, knowing that it was my sensibility. At any rate, we were really in sync.

I understand that film was shot in film and the first one was shot in digital. Does that make a difference from your perspective?
Less and less. On the highest level there are cinematographers who firmly believe in the subtleties of film over the dynamic range of video, but at the end of the day it’s all going to a digital file in a movie like this. It’s digitally altered and leveled by the time it’s seen. I think film is probably gathering more information and more subtle and more beautiful information. I know Dan was very committed to wanting to work on film. For me personally the main differences are technical, not aesthetic. Film is limiting as far as putting digital material on a TV screen. You’ve got to be careful about calibrating the image so that you don’t get flicker, things like that. I’m more used to working on film. It’s kind of ironic, I think that because this is the last moment, or the last gasp of film, more and more of the high-end cinematographers are getting to shoot on film; they consider it their last chance. But it doesn’t dramatically affect the way we in the art department work.

What was the most challenging day of the shoot?
It depends on who you’re asking. Each department probably had their own tough days. We shot two weeks of nights in Times Square that we built in frigid weather. That was tough for everybody. They were swinging cars off of cranes, and hanging people in the air and Electro was fighting Spider-Man, so that was pretty intense for a number of days. That was in a back-lot set we built out in the old Grumman facility in Nassau County, which is where we had a lot of our stage work. It was a pretty complicated day. We had to build the power plant for the final battle between Electro and Spider-Man, and it was a big set. It was kind of a panic getting that done. It was near the end of the schedule.

Tough days are usually when things don’t go well. There are very complicated days, but sometimes those aren’t the hardest days because you’ve prepared the most for them. And sometimes days that are seemingly simple are the ones that don’t get as much attention because there’s less of an expectation of things going wrong, and then when surprises come and those things happen, it can get very tough. So my toughest day might be a day when it was a last-minute script idea, and we were in a panic trying to find something, rather than days when there were big giant complex events going on, like Rhino and Spider-Man fighting and closing Park Avenue, and throwing cars around in front of the Seagrams building. Those are very complicated things to do in New York, but we were well prepared for them because we knew they would be complicated.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is in cinemas and IMAX on Wednesday April 16th 2014 from Sony Pictures.