Production designer Philip Messina talks staging mother!

Philip MessinaDarren Aronofsky‘s mother! is a thriller that features a strange octagonal house at the center of the story. It’s almost a central character in itself. We chatted with the film’s production designer, Philip Messina, who worked with Darren to stage the house, which resembled the human brain. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

How did Darren describe the film to you when you came on board?
Initially, he described it as a Victorian house in the film. I said, “Why Victorian?” and he said, “I like the idea of a Victorian house.” I did some research and we came across these strange octagonal Victorian houses. The way they came about was through the science of phrenology, which is early mapping of the human brain. Architects believed that an eight-sided house was the most harmonious shape in which to live. It felt like the right framework. As I started designing the house, I started realizing that fitting these rooms inside an octagon is really kind of cool. It helped me make decisions that I couldn’t have made if I started from the inside out, just designing rooms.

When Jen was in motion, the camera was always following her. I knew had to design the layout as a labyrinth maze. There were no dead ends in the floor plan. Every room leads into another room. You never had to turn around and go the other way. As the ripple effects of the design were explored, we embraced all of that. It was kind of amazing to have the set have such an effect, like a theater. It was very satisfying.

What sort of inspiration did you look for when designing?
At the beginning I wanted it to be large and voluminous, not creepy, but filled with light. We started in an idyllic place. It almost had an inherent creepiness as she walks around the house by herself. But I didn’t want it to feel like a “haunted house.” I had the palette of the inside very neutral: earth-like without being very hippie. All the materials in the house show what they really are. I wanted as pure an interpretation of the structure as possible.

How did you actually build the octagonal house?
The house was built from the ground up in a couple of different locations. There was no real house. We built one with the first floor in the field for the first act and part of the second act. We built a duplicate interior on stage, knowing that a lot of the “Fever Dream” and a lot of other scenes were in the night.

How was the “Fever Dream” staged?
One thing that was important to Darren was that we stage a lot of different aspects of humanity. He wanted the chaos and messiness of man to be on display. We talked a lot about the connotations of that and the sequencing as well — from a home invasion to a rave to people starting to destroy the house. He had a Rubik’s cube of parts that he wanted to play in there. So we were trying to decide how to stage it within the confines of the house. A lot of times the art department would be preparing one side of the house and they would be shooting on the other side.

mother! is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.  ~Marriska Fernandes

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