Production designer Philip Messina on creating the world of ‘mother!’

by W. Andrew Powell
Jennifer Lawrence in mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is nothing short of incredible. The polarizing, controversial film left audiences talking when it debuted last fall. What was the meaning of the story? Was mother! allegory for a Biblical tale, or did it reflect Aronofsky’s views on fame and Hollywood? And who did Jennifer Lawrence’s character represent? No matter how you look at it, the film is an artful rarity that inspires debate, and the powerful work of production designer Philip Messina was central to bringing one of the main characters to life: the house.

Messina’s previous work includes The Hunger Games franchise, and the three Ocean’s films, and in mother! he may have met his biggest challenge to date. Messina had to craft a free-flowing house that not only evolved throughout the film, but also allowed filming to organically move from room to room.

Read the interview with Philip Messina below as he explains the evolution of the project. mother! is out on Blu-ray now and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Philip MessinaAndrew Powell: What did you first explore when you started thinking about the production design for this film?

Philip Messina: “When I first came on, since this was a fairly modestly budgeted film, we were going to shoot in New York. We ended up shooting in Montreal, but we were going to shoot in New York. And Darren and the producers had an idea that maybe we would find a house, and stage the whole thing within a real house. And, you know, amend it, and build parts within it, which I thought was a really cool idea. They were talking about buying it, and then they would sell it at the end. I’m not sure if any of us knew how much would be left of it at the end, but we weren’t fully down that road yet.”

“So, I went to New York, and we started looking at these houses. And, for one reason or another, it was just, you know, it wasn’t ideal. But budget was such that we never kind of believed we would build a full house. In the meantime, just because I’d been down this road before, I started scribbling designs for a house. And I’d done a lot of research. In the script it does say Victorian house, and that’s literally the only hint of what the house is. It doesn’t say octagonal house–it says, a Victorian house in the middle of a field. So, that’s where we started.”

“I started scribbling down different plans and then kind of came across these weird octagonal houses from the Victorian era, and on the side, I would show Darren, ‘oh I’m looking at this thing,’ but we were still searching for our perfect location.”

“Because of the budget, the film went to Montreal and I started going up there and scouting, and it just soon became clear as the script got more and more polished that, what we wanted to do within this house, there was no way we were going to stage it within a real house.”

“So, I had the beginnings of my design ready to go, which Darren loved, and I laid out this octagonal house. And what the octagon enabled us to do was make very kind of oblique-angled spaces. And weird entries into spaces, and weird exits. And I sort of designed the house as essentially a labyrinth, as a bit of a maze. All the walls are similar colors. It’s not like you know you’re going into one room or the other because one room’s green and one room’s blue. We decided to make it sort of confusing, somewhat visually confusing, purposely. Especially at the beginning when you just feel like you’re in some weird real place. So, that was sort of the impetus of that.”

Powell: It’s amazing the progression of thought, especially because I read you had quite a few months of prep before you actually got down to shooting, which is not always the case as I understand it.

Messina: “Well, what’s funny, because I actually had a more common amount of preparation. What was very unusual was that Darren rehearsed with the actors for so long.”

“You know, I was up in Montreal designing and then starting to build the house, and Darren was in Brooklyn with the actors. So as I would make design changes, or now I’ve figured out what the second-storey bedroom looks like, I would come down to Brooklyn and take them out on a warehouse tour, and they would rehearse with it.”

“So it was sort of like what I would expect a theater experience to be like, and he would give me notes about, like, ‘oh can this doorway move to this way? Can the bedroom be more on this side?’ It was great to have that real-time experience with him with the real actors playing in this space.”

“The thing that was scary for me is, I had never worked with Darren before. I sort of knew what his standards were, and he was in Brooklyn, I was in Montreal, so we didn’t get to spend a lot of time together kind of hashing it through. But with him working with the actors, me working with the space, we sort of did develop a weird little communication, that was really just about the house, and the set, and it was really fun, you know. Like, at the end of every day, I’d get the notes from the first [assistant director] about what they had done, what worked, what didn’t work, and it didn’t change radically, but it was sort of like, how can we really make the choreography of this all work in the best way possible?”

“They were filming it down there with video cameras and I was able to see… there were lines on the floor, so a lot of times all I’m looking at is warehouse walls. I don’t even know which room they’re in. I had to ask the cameraman to look down every once in a while so I could see, physically, what space they were in. It was a really interesting and unusual preparation experience. But I think it worked out really well.”

Powell: Was there anything big that Darren said to you that helped shape some of the things that you were building, or the designs you were working with?

Messina: “Yeah, he said, kind of one interpretation of this is, you know, this is Earth. This is God’s creation. This is the embodiment of Jennifer’s character. It was definitely baked into the script.”

“When I first read it, I had never read anything where I knew that what I created and what our lead actress created would be so conjoined. And be able to riff off each other. I’d done four films previously with Jennifer, and I knew the intensity and the nuance and the subtlety. I knew all of [what] she was going to bring to the table.”

“Talk about pressure. It was a lot of pressure.”

“And the good thing is, we sort of all jumped in so quickly, and it was just such a free environment where there are ideas that get left on the table, but everybody feels free to kind of have their ideas heard.”

“You know, I knew I needed to kind of come up to her level. And Darren’s level especially. So that was the scary part. That was, to me, the biggest challenge. It was building the house, and then, what does the house turn into. And in the prep, often our discussions were about what the house looked like. And I kept saying to my art department, my team, this is only one piece. This is the easy part. It’s a house. It’s like, yes, we know what it had to do, vaguely, at that point.”

“As the process went further down the line, it got more and more clear. But it’s like, when we have to start staging riots, and we have to create a shrine, I mean, those are all things that are… that’s going to be the hard part. And that actually turned out to be the most fun.”

“So it was the house, but it was kind of a world. You know, I talked to a friend of mine about halfway through production, and he’s like, how’s it going? I said, ‘oh God I’m exhausted. This is crazy.’ And he’s like, ‘what, it’s just a house.’ I was like, ‘you have no idea.’ Because no one in Hollywood really knew. I just was like, ‘yeah, it all takes place in one house.’ It seems like that’s, you know, a simple domestic drama. But it was far from it, as you know.”

Jennifer Lawrence and Darren Aronofsky on the set of mother!

Powell: Well, really, that’s my next question. In terms of everything you’ve worked on, obviously production design is a cornerstone of building a film. But in this case, would you say that it’s a completely different type of pressure because you’re building something that is so integral to the story and the characters, and everything really does rely on this production design in a different way.

Messina: “Yeah, and it’s honestly, just from my ego talking, it’s exactly where I would want to be. You know, I knew it was a plum job if there ever was one, like, how many production designers get to look at the page and go, ‘God, my work is going to be as important as our lead actress’ performance’? It was amazing, and the only thing I was afraid of is not living up to that expectation.”

“But I remember the first day of shooting when Jennifer came into the house. We were out in a field in Montreal, and she had seen the house taped out, but, you know, tape on a warehouse floor is very different. And we had had mood boards and all that kind of stuff to show her where it was going. When she walked in, it felt like her character was complete. It’s like I’d been living to have Jennifer walk in the house. That was like the other half of the equation. It needed her presence in there to feel complete, and it was really emotionally satisfying.”

Powell: Was there anything that you’re especially proud of in terms of a feature or something that you did in that design that stood out for you?

Messina: “Well, you know, there were a couple things. I physically–with my set decorator–we built what we called was the altar, where she sees her child.”

“There’s just a quick funny story there [too]. When we decided what these elements, like what the stairwell turned into sort of this shrine, and what the altar was, we decided very early on, and I was adamant about this, that everything had to be created from the discarded parts of the house. So thank God we had two houses, [including] the one we had built on the location that we had already taken down. And I had the guy save all the windows, the doors, the balusters, the parts of the stairs, and we had them in this little warehouse shed. One day I had done some sketches of what the altar was going to look like, and I told Darren about the basic idea, which he was like, ‘yeah, yeah go for it.’

“So literally over the course of maybe two or three days, my set decorator and I would go in there with parts and just start making sculpture. And I’ve got to tell you, I felt like I was on a student film, and most people say that and it’s in a derogatory way. I’m saying it like, it was so invigorating. And it was so much fun that it’s like, literally, I got to build that myself, and design it as we were building it. I felt like I was the method designer. I was living through the arc of this film, and in a good way, not a heart-darkening way.”

“So I’m especially proud of that, and it’s a minor little piece of it, but every time I see it, it brings a smile to my face because I know what went into that.”

Powell: I really have to say good luck with the Academy Awards. There are lots of great production design out there, but for such an important aspect of the film, I don’t think there’s many films that can boast what you created.

Messina: “I appreciate it.”

Powell: Thank you very much for the time.

Messina: “Thank you very much.”

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