The metaphorical roller coaster ride that director Darren Aronofsky dished up for unsuspecting audiences with mother! certainly birthed one of the most controversial films of the year. Whether the religious and artistic exploration worked is entirely subjective, but what isn't is the world that was created for the story to unfold.
The entire film plays out inside the walls of a beautiful yet incomplete home, nestled amongst the woods in a remote, but unnamed location. Jennifer Lawrence's beatific Mother roams the house, keeping it clean and cared for in a strangely symbiotic relationship that reflects harmony. It's her passionate artist husband (Javier Bardem), with his constant yearning to connect with his admirers, that brings chaos and discontent into the space, until it spirals into a cacophony of violence, death, and sins gone amuck.
**Spoiler Warning: spoilers for the movie Mother! linger below**
The house is a central character, and as such, Aronofsky needed a production designer who could construct a functional abode to serve as the only stage for the entire narrative. Enter veteran production designer, Philip Messina, who is known for his work on each of the Ocean's 11 films and The Hunger Games franchise. As a new collaborator in Aronofsky's creative circle, Messina says it was an intimidating but rewarding gauntlet to execute the director's singular vision.
During a recent phone call, SYFY WIRE spoke with Messina about how he got the gig, some unique features inherent to the design of the house, and some metaphorical themes core to the setting.
You hadn't worked with Darren Aronofsky before, so how did it come to you to build this house and the metaphorical world that it represents?
Philip Messina: I think the people that he had worked with in the past were not available. He had been talking to Jen Lawrence, and I'd been good friends with her, and she recommended me. Literally, that doesn't happen. She didn't know Darren. She knew me. I thanked her profusely many times. You know, we all think of actresses and actors in a certain way, and for her to consider me a friend and feel strong enough about our working relationship, that she knew that she could throw me in with Darren and he was going to be happy, that was super cool.
Aside from the recommendation, were there other requirements that Aronofsky had of you before you got the job?
I still had to go through this major vetting process. I've never had any experience like it. There were a couple of Skypes with him before I could even read the script. I had to read it in a little room in L.A. while he was in New York. There was a production assistant sitting there, so I couldn't take notes. I couldn't take any pictures of it. No one in town knew what it was about. Everybody was like, "Oh, it's about a house." I read it, and as I get to the last page, the kid gets up and gets his water and is like, "Alright, what do you think?" I said, "Oh no, I'm gonna read it again." We sat down, and I literally went through [it again] because at the beginning you're reading it and it sort of goes a certain way. But then by the end, your mind is blown. I'm like, "Wait a minute. Is this really what I think it is?"
What was the first talk with Darren after reading it like?
That night I got on the phone with Darren, and he said, "So, what'd you think?" And I said, "Dude, I've never read anything like this, I mean even remotely read anything like this." And then he asked me, "What do you think it was about?" And I told him, which I thought was very sly on his part.
How many versions of the house were there before you settled on one design?
The final film is not like my first iteration. It's more like my 50th iteration. A lot of times, I feel like ideas can get watered down the more you mess with them. But with this one, we all were refining our ideas together. I would see something the costume designer was doing, and I would riff off that. Or, I'd have a conversation with [cinematographer] Matty Libatique about lighting. And Darren had this eight week rehearsal process, which was informing the design. Once you let yourself go to the "group think" of it, and I mean that in the best possible way, we're all on board. It's like, "Yes, this is mine, but it's ours."
The cast rehearsed in Brooklyn, while you were building the actual house in Montreal, Canada. Was it difficult to wait so long for Jennifer to interact with the space you built?
I kept thinking, "Someday soon, Jennifer is going to walk into this house, and this is a part of her character, and goddamn, I hope she likes it, because we were going to shoot the next day."
When she was in the warehouse in Brooklyn, [the floorplan] was just taped out on the floor. You could see the rooms had odd shapes to them, but she only saw a couple of renderings. I think we started shooting on a Monday, and she walked in, and the look on her face! I could see that she was probably nervous about, "what's the physical manifestation of my character going to look like?" We'd showed her mood boards, and we certainly, intellectually, had it all down on paper, but it's a very unique position for a production designer to be in, to really develop a portion of the main character.
I read a Variety interview where Jennifer talked about how she didn't really know what this character was going to be until she walked on that set. Was that a unique experience to have an actor so dependent on your work?
Absolutely, I have a lot of costume designer friends that have, over the years, told me that they help build the character with costumes. I've intellectually known that, but I've never been blessed enough to feel it myself [until this]. When Jennifer walked in that house, the set was complete. I used to work with an old-school production designer that would say that the set should feel empty until the cast enters the set, and I've always thought about that.
If you know anything about my work, I would call it restrained. That sounds boring, but I feel that less is more. To solve a problem, I try not to add more to it. I try to decide what's on it that's not working. So the house itself is very simple and elegant, but it's the hardest thing in the world to create a mood with scenery that makes people feel a certain way, and that's what we do. We have to work with the staging, and this and that, but when people walk in they have to feel the way that the story is trying to make them feel, and that I think is the very ethereal challenge of what we do.
Where did the octagonal shape of the house come from?
It's funny because the initial idea about the octagonal house came up in some research that we were doing. We came across this group of scientist/architects called phrenologists, who study the human brain. Anyway, this weird offshoot of that was the octagonal house. They believed that living in an octagonal house was the true harmony shape. However, if you really had to live in an octagonal house you'd blow your brains out, but that's what they believed. (Laughs) Since we're trying to create a house that is, in some ways, God's manifestation of the world, it can't just be a house.
Darren didn't want it to look so odd that at the beginning it gave itself away. We were trying to find the right amount of oddity to put in it. The octagonal house took it out of a horror movie [look]. The Psycho is a Victorian gothic house, as well, but we knew we didn't want it to feel like a genre film.
What are some of the specific choices that helped make the final set land where it did?
What we ended up using was the emptiness of the house, the large spaces, the huge windows. There are no curtains. I think there's maybe a shutter on the window up in the back. There are no curtains in the house. One thing we decided early on, when we were looking at artwork and were playing with different artwork on the walls, Darren came in and said, "This doesn't feel right. The landscape outside, that's the art." I was like, "Yes! Half the windows are framing Eden!"
And then bringing the outside in was always obviously a big need. I wanted it to be a light Victorian, not a dark Victorian house. All the windows are over-sized. We had the ability to come to those conclusions together, and then it was like, "You're absolutely right. That's what we should do." That was the fun part of it, not being disappointed that I couldn't show all of this cool art, because it's like, who cares? We just made the right decision, you know?
The house also ended up welcoming a tremendous amount of people and chaos in the last act, which would have competed with an overly populated interior.
Well, exactly. If it was a house that was never going to change for the whole film, I would have probably approached it differently. But knowing what was to come, and erring on the side of having it be voluminous and empty and bright, knowing how dark it was going to get, that was absolutely built into the design of it.
What ended up being your favorite space in the house?
That's interesting. I loved the basement. Little known fact: There was an attic design. It got pitched in pre-production, but we never built it. They did the body of the house as if it was heaven, and the basement was kind of the gateway to hell, of sorts. When I had the attic as heaven, that was my tripartite idea. But then when we cut the attic, then it was just Earth and hell, which is an Aronofsky movie now. There's no heaven! (Laugh)
That's Aronofsky to the core.
Exactly. Why was I thinking of a heaven in Darren's mind? It just doesn't exist! (Laughs)
mother! is available Dec. 19, 2017 on Blu-ray and Digital.