Mark Friedberg on Amazing Spider-Man 2 production design

During our recent Amazing Spider-Man 2 set visit, we spoke to production designer Mark Friedberg about his work on the forthcoming sequel...

It’s the law of nature that any sequel has to be bigger, louder and more expensive than the movie that came before it. But in the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, its makers have taken the adventurous step of filming the movie entirely in the state of New York, with the production making extensive use of locations in and around Manhattan, while trickier stunts and scenes were shot on sound stages outside the city.

It is, we’re told, the largest production ever to take place in New York, and Sony clearly has high hopes for its Spidey sequel. As part of our June set visit, we spoke to production designer Mark Friedberg about the specific challenges he’s faced while designing the look of the film, from expansive sets to characters that inhabit them. And as the roundtable interview begins, we catch up with Friedberg as he compares the production of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with another of his projects, Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming biblical epic, Noah

Mark Friedberg: I’ve actually been building the ark for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. But that film’s all about the past, and this one [Amazing Spider-Man 2] is more about the future. One chunk of the design of the story is centred around Oscorp, the company that Norman Osborne works for, where Gwen works and the place in the last movie where Peter Parker became Spider-Man.

It’s the place where science and things exciting and things nefarious happen, so that was probably the design challenge. A lot of times, when we create the past, we make things that are inspired. On this one, we’re inventing things. It’s sort of real science, but it’s also a comic story, so you have to find a balance between believable science and entertaining science.

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What was the biggest challenge? Maybe there was one set that was really hard, or…

We had to make a genomics lab. That was a big deal. It had to have some very specific blocking requirements for the action. And it was elemental, so [working with] water is really complicated.

Is this in Oscorp?

It’s in Oscorp. The idea behind Oscorp is that, they are really developing the future of biogenetics, in the field where Spider-Man became Spider-Man. But they’re also at the fore of energy. That’s obviously a hot topic these days, so we also have an upcoming set that’s a power grid, that has to again be believably a place where electricity is produced, but also…

Suitable for an action scene?

Every scene is an action scene! [Laughs] In fact, ironically – and we’ve made sets that are acres big – but one of the hardest sets was Peter Parker’s room.

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Because it has to spin. He doesn’t believe in gravity the same way we do. He doesn’t have to adhere to its rules.

So it’s a rotating set?

A little bit of Fred Astaire in there. It wasn’t on a gimbal. It was on a rotisserie. But he can walk on walls. In fact every set has wires. 

There’s a lot of location shooting on this movie…

Well, there is. The thing for me, as a New York person, is that Spider-Man has always been in New York, ever since it was a comic book. However, while all the Spider-Man movies had scenes in New York, they’d never been shot here – maybe they’d only come for two weeks or whatever.

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When you come for two weeks, you can’t just go to any street. You have to show how big New York is, to get your money’s worth and so on. But that isn’t how New Yorkers experience New York. We don’t go and stand under the Empire State Building – it’s somewhere over the top of the tenement there.

So we were trying to have our locations be off in the distance, and have New York be everyday. For example, even this scene, which is a graduation sequence, we’re in a park on the East River, overlooking Brooklyn. It was actually scripted to be in the school yard, the way the other film was, so I think that’s going to turn out to be a nice part of the design of this movie, where New York is actually a character now. It’s not Culver City, it’s not Toronto, it’s not a stage.

Did you watch the earlier films and think, “Ah, they got the architecture wrong there, and the geography wrong there”?

They don’t tend to get the geography right in those films, because a lot of what happens up high is in CG, because humans can’t do that. In fact, I did watch all the films in a row when this came up, and listened to all the commentaries, and realised how much the digital technology has changed. But then, in those laboratories where that happens, they basically cut and paste, so it broke my head trying to work out where those movies took place, before I realised they don’t take place anywhere in the real world – they’d been constructed.

Did you have to become a fan of the comic books when you began work on this movie, and did you take anything from them?

As a designer, I steal regularly – that’s what we’re paid to do. Marc [Webb] knows a great deal about it. He had a background in it before he even did the first movie. His version of the Spider-Man world is something he invented, so there are key places and key elements along the way. Sometimes they’re quotes – times on a clock can refer to a number on a comic book.

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Specifically, I think our version of the future is a lot different. What technology meant in the comic book and what it means now – what technology meant five years ago and what it means now – [are different]. I don’t think we stole much, but we were always inspired by it. There’s always a sense of Spider-Man’s world or Peter Parker’s world, which is in the boroughs where people live. People who have jobs, people who work every day. The contrast between that and Manhattan, where the big buildings are, and even though there’s people still going to work, they’re not necessarily working people.

I’m particularly sensitive about that subject, because I was born on Manhattan, and lived there most of my life. In the last three years, we’ve moved to [location inaudible] as has everyone else. In a way, it feels like moving back to New York, because something weird is happening in Manhattan. 

What about Electro’s costume? Why didn’t you choose that classic costume with the yellow mask and stuff?

Well, again, maybe it’s to my advantage that I’m not an expert on all these characters. But I don’t think that’s what they wanted. This is another incarnation of the character. Excuse me – I talk with my hands a lot. I work in LA, and everybody’s like, “Why are you so upset?” And I say, “What are you talking about? This is the way I talk?” [Waves arms about]

If you live in New York, you have the space, you know? That’s why we talk with our hands.

He [Electro] was an interesting character. I think, in general, even though there’s so much digital going on, we try to make everything as practically as we can. So his costume is also born of an Oscorp issue, that the costume has to do with the fact that the people working on him had to deal with an electrical thing, so it’s supposed to be a vulcanised rubber. We didn’t want him to look as though he’d gone to the superhero costume shop, which is sometimes what it looks like. We tried to have it have a story as well as look cool and strong.

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Speaking on the Oscorp labs you were talking about, do they have something to do with Max Dillon and how he becomes Electro?

Well, he’s an Oscorp employee. So yes, absolutely. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to give away, and I don’t know if you want me to. But yes, it does impact him. And Oscorp is ever present. And I think part of the story is that it’s present in places that aren’t even Oscorp, which is something we’re finding out with some of our own corporations.

I think one thing that’s to Marc’s credit is that nothing is arbitrary. Nothing’s taken from the comic just because it was drawn that way, but we try to weave it into the story and define its origins. So yes is the answer to your question.

You said that some of the science is real and some of it is not so real. Did you talk to real scientists for the film?

Ari Handel, one of the writers who was a collaborator on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, was a neuro biologist. That was his career before. He’s someone who was uniquely helpful to us, because he understood science and drama. He was helpful because he could say this was believable, that this would make sense. So yes, there is some basis in real science, and they even talked to Marc and the writers, so they could figure out what these issues of electricity are and some other biology issues.

Biology’s a big part of Oscorp. These villains always have something to do with gene manipulation, and always playing with the way humans and animals can take on each other’s traits. Which I think that’s what’s fun about these comics, and why they appeal to young people. My kids tend to identify with animals. “I’m a lion, I’m a horse”. 

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Was there an attempt, even if it didn’t have anything to do with the plot, at least make a visual reference to The Avengers?

Never. Not as far as I was concerned. The issue of The Avengers was never mentioned – except that it did really well, and that we had to do better. But no, it was not an issue.

Because there was talk that the Oscorp building was going to appear in The Avengers or something.

It was not brought to my attention, so I don’t think so.

In the first Amazing Spider-Man, the Lizard was all CG. So in this one, is there a move towards more physical villains that don’t use so much computer assistance?

There’s plenty of computer graphics in this, and more, perhaps, than in many, many movies. But, this is a big movie, so in proportion, we’re trying to do as much practically as we can. I think for the most part, where we can be practical – where we’re on the ground – we keep the interactions practical. It’s still better – it’s probably not always going to be, but for now, it’s easier and looks as it’s supposed to.

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What there is a lot of is a lot of handing off, where if Spider-Man’s going off into a place where we can’t go, we don’t just shoot him on a plate. We actually send the actor off to begin the shot, and at some point in the shot, he becomes digital. I think Marc and his team has decided that’s the best, most effective way to work.

Can you tell us anything about The Rhino and his suit?

Rhino is Alexei, a Soviet. And I think one of the ideas was to contrast the futuristic titanium or polycarbonate materials of some of the other Oscorp technology, and the fact that a lot of these costumes are involved with your body – the systems of your body. I’m not just putting on armour, it’s part of my body. Rhino is kind of a throwback character, in a way, almost a period character, which isn’t meant to be a knock on Russia, but rather quoting the sort of bulky, massiveness of the Soviet Union.

That’s his character. Rhino likes to bust through walls – that’s what he does. He smashes right through the wall of a bank. That’s how he robs it. He’s a little bit weirdly playful in that way. It’s fun. So yes, he’s very different from Oscorp. 

How about the evolution of Spider-Man’s suit?

For that, I’d refer you to Deborah Lynn Scott. She did the work on the Spider-Man costume. There was a lot of work done. It seems to have turned back in time a little bit. You may have seen him here. That’s for you to decide. For specifics, I’d refer you to her, because she spent a lot of time working on it.

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I’ve heard it’s a little more traditional? That’s what they say.

Yes, it is. It’s a little more like the ones in the earlier films. He has the ability to wear headphones, and he has a little more tack in his wrists than he used to have. He can do a little bit more. The funny thing is he always ends up in his garage, tinkering. He’s a science student.

Is there anything in this movie that you’ve never done before?

I’ve never built so much stuff. I’ve never built sets. More than I could imagine. What would be a piece de resistance for a normal movie, we’re building every week. There’s certainly a desire for a sense of scale in this story, and also, you can’t just go into a lobby and blow out the windows and asking people not to go to work that day. So you do end up building a bunch.

My hope for Oscorp was that it wasn’t just the evil empire, that it wasn’t just the dark side, but it actually had a sense of Apple – some of the power of these giant corporations, but also that it would have credibility. For example, the setting for the Oscorp exterior in the last film was the Hearst Tower, which is a fantastic building. And it’s also an old building with a brand new top on it. So the idea was that Norman Osborne would buy this old building, and hire an amazing architect – I was able to refer to some great architects for inspiration. So we were able to invent real architecture to make Oscorp look, believably, a great place, a powerful place.

Was there a lot of matching real locations on sound stages?

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Oh, a lot. For example, Times Square. There’s a very big sequence in Times Square. You couldn’t do what we did in Times Square. We were there for weeks. We did a few days down there [on the real location]. In general, we’d like to be on location if we can be, we like the way it looks, and we came to New York for that reason. But for economics and practical reasons, being on a stage for certain parts of sequences makes more sense. So there are cases where we go through a door from a location and on to a stage.

Are there any difficult scenes left that you haven’t shot yet?

I live a month ahead of these guys [motions to the crew]. I have to be ready for them. And because these are complicated, big sets, it takes time to make them. So there’s a few big sets left to go, and there are degrees of finished, not finished, should be finished, wish they were finished, and please finish. [Laughs] But I think we have two more very big sets to go. On the weekends we go on the streets, basically, because you can’t close streets in the week.

The story is mostly set in spring and summer, so we were on stage a lot through the winter, but now we’re in the nice weather, we’re outdoors on the weekends. Then there are two more stage parts of this to go. About three weeks.

This movie is the biggest movie ever made in the state of New York. So I would say the studio has been very generous. And they have high expectations off the back of that.

Mark Friedberg, thank you very much.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens on the 14th April in the UK. You can read our set report here.

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