Working behind the scenes on a film can is a job that's often overlooked by moviegoers. But for those who do it well, a special place is reserved in our hearts for the sheer amount of work they put into bringing our entertainment to life. For HBO's upcoming biopic, #TheWizardOfLies, Hollywood once again came looking for the tragic story of one of America's most hated men, this time Bernie Madoff.
There's a skill and an art in being able to recreate settings exactly as they were in real life. The people who do so are the unsung heroes of a biopic genre that's in regular rotation in Emmy and Oscar nominations.
Recently, I got the chance to interview Oscar-nominated production designer Laurence Bennett, who worked with director #BarryLevinson to recreate the tattered world of the infamous Madoff scandal. We talked about everything from his first steps into film to his inspiration for the biopic and how even today, 10 years later, the scandal still resonates heavily on the streets of New York City.
Start with a little bit about yourself, what motivated you to get into this kind of work?
"Well, I did a whole variety of things when I was younger, never realizing they were going to add up to art direction. I was a painter, I lived in Ireland, showed my paintings and had a design practice and worked in fringe theater and graphic design. I went to Hollywood when I was 30 or so and had fallen in love with movies, done a little work with some friends, I was trying to figure out what my place would be in the business and how to get into it. I was working as a prop maker, not a very good one, but I got all the fun custom props in this little shop and an art director was talking to me and said, 'Let me get this straight, you do photography and graphic design and architecture. Have you ever thought about art direction?' I said, 'Tell me about it!' I sort of worked my way in."
It just sort of fell into your lap.
"If you talk to many production designers, art directors, everybody in the film business, they've all come in by their own unique path. And so when I'm asked for advice, I don't know what to say because I think everyone's experience is so unique and particular. It's difficult to generalize it."
What was your first experience in film?
"The first thing I did was I was doing miniatures on a television program for PBS, 'Cosmos'—the original one with Carl Sagan. That was my introduction to the film business. We got a technical Emmy for that and that seemed to be the encouragement. So I moved to LA and just began finding out more about it. I always loved movies. It was the way in."
Was there any sort of hesitation to jump on board The Wizard Of Lies?
"None, whatsoever. With all the people involved, between DeNiro and Barry Levinson, I've always admired Barry's work tremendously. It seemed like a great opportunity."
What was it like to be asked to come and do this film?
"That was great news. Barry and I decided to get together and I went back to New York and began working on it. As my ideas for it began to develop, he and I both felt that it needed to be handled like a mystery. Have you seen the piece?"
Not yet, no.
"It comes out in 10 days, I think. Despite the fact the financial crisis created by the meltdown of Bernie's scheme and all the damage it did, it's pretty well-known, a lot of the highlights are well-known publicly from a civilian perspective. It wasn't until I began doing research on it that you realize that the real tragedy seemed to be with the family. How this man could've been so successful at compartmentalizing his secrets, that he could've kept his family in the dark—his sons who worked with him and his wife of 50 plus years. There seemed to be a huge enigma around that family. My job was to develop the environment in a way that would allow them to be photographed and used to help develop the tension in the story. So I presented my ideas for the visuals to Barry [Levinson], and he liked them, so we got busy and tried to build something that connects with the emotion of the story."
Michelle Pfeiffer was able to sit down with Ruth Madoff; were you able to talk with any of the family?
"No, not at all. Bernie is in prison for the rest of his life and their sons are both gone. So, the best source for me was Diana Henriques, who wrote the book that the script was largely based on. Being able to talk to her about her experiences with Bernie, interviewing him in the prison, being able to tap into her sensory memories of those meetings was really key to me in designing that part of the film."
Were you able to visit any of the locations where this all took place?
"No. The fallout from the Madoff scandal is so severe and in New York it's so present, there was never any chance we were going to get anywhere near either their penthouse or the building where Bernie's offices would be. So, I did a lot of visual research online; the police and the F.B.I. did a great job documenting aspects of those places. We had to piece it together and then find places to use. For example, the offices, it really would've been too crazy with the amount of work you needed to do in the offices to try to do it in Manhattan, so we realized we needed to use the suburbs. We found an empty floor of an executive park up in Westchester County and built that up as the trading floors, the 17th floor where all the behind the scenes stuff went on. We could sort of work undisturbed out in the suburbs.
The penthouse, though, we looked at tons and tons of apartments. We found a building that had a lot going for it in practical terms and in terms of logistics. It made it capable of being shot with green screens out the windows; we built an elevator into the apartment. It's a nice deluxe two-story apartment and it lent itself very well to replicating the Madoff apartment."
You mentioned how it's still pretty prevalent in New York. Was it difficult in any way to recreate this thing that resonates with pain for so many people?
"There are a couple things. It's not that long ago, such a dangerously close time in 2008. Lots of things change around New York City, both in terms of style and decor, so you have to watch out for that. I believe the location department, when they were scouting the places for me to look at, to consider, might have come across some places that they wouldn't even scout because there was a Madoff connection and there were such bad feelings about it. It's still very present here in the city."
How much of the production was influenced by Bernie himself and what did you look to for inspiration?
"We try to replicate most of the places as accurately as we could. A big driving force in the piece is because it's such a psychological portrait of Bernie, there's a point in the story at which he becomes increasingly more subjective and then we began to take a little more license in how we treated things visually.
Besides the influences of the story behind the film, the early 1950s and '60s color photography of Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas, it's just beautiful color photography. It had really rich, saturated colors and deep, velvety blacks. It goes with the whole thematic basis of the story, which is light and dark.
I felt as though thematically in the piece, you're dealing with issues of exposure versus concealment, fragmentation, cause that goes to the nearest possible state of mind and contrast. We used a lot of gloss and occasionally mirrors, all of those things with increasingly more high-key, more noirish lighting style as the piece goes on to get into a more psychological state."
The film was shot on location. Do you think that the real environment works better for actors than being on a set or in front of a green screen?
"Anything I can do, whether it's a set or physical location, to help actors get in and stay in that place is tremendously important. Part of it was done on stage; we did the prison sequences on stage. The conversations that Bernie was having with Diana Henriques when she interviewed him and the one visit that Ruth made to him. For the intensity of those scenes, it was controlled and quiet and it just really made sense to build it on a set.
On the other hand, the location we used for the wider stuff, the bigger pieces of the hospital, were at the Orange County Correctional Facility. You get different kind of attributes from being on the practical location versus a set."
What works best when showing the contrast between when the family is living this blissful party life and then when it all starts to fall apart?
"A large part of that is compositional and lighting because some of the same spaces that were part of family gatherings in the apartment take on a completely different character in the midst of Ruth and Bernie feeling completely under siege as he's being arrested and indicted and under house arrest. As things begin to go very sideways psychologically for him, we're able to take the same spaces and just handle them completely differently. There's an artifice about the way their social presentations are handled."
You've worked on big studio films like Crash and The Artist; did you find it more difficult or easier because this was based on a true story?
"I've done other fact-based, real life projects like the miniseries 'Show Me a Hero.' I also just did a film based on a true story of an FBI agent found guilty of murder back 20 years ago. Doing real life events, I feel there's sort of a responsibility to honor the truth and the facts as closely as one can. But in the end, because we're making narrative film, you end up doing the best you can on a conceptual and emotional basis. The environments are not a dead match, but do they feel like it? Do they support the feeling of the story and what you're trying to say? Every project has its own challenges. Every project is unique."
So, what's next for you?
"I'm talking to people about a couple things—I can't really say anything about them at the moment. I'm pretty excited about what's going to happen within the next couple of weeks, though."