“It really feels like we made eight features,” admits Emmy winner Mark Friedberg, the production designer on Barry Jenkins‘ 10-episode limited series “The Underground Railroad,” which is based on Colson Whitehead‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. In our exclusive video interview (watch above), Friedberg sheds light on his collaboration with writer-creator-director Jenkins, on how this show isn’t thematically exclusive to its 1850 period setting, and on two of the story’s most consequential set pieces.
“The Underground Railroad” is just the second limited series Friedberg has worked on in his career, the first being HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” (2011), which earned him his inaugural and only Emmy to date. Even though he first collaborated with Jenkins on the latter’s 2018 feature film “If Beale Street Could Talk,” Friedberg divulges that they didn’t perceive they were “making TV versus cinema” when working on “The Underground Railroad.” At the same time, however, he acknowledges that a limited series, as opposed to a feature film, can be structurally similar to a novel and therefore be “chapter-oriented.” In this regard, he underlines that the creative team was, in fact, eager to distinguish each chapter in order “to make each place feel like a stop along the way of the African-American experience.”
One of the central set pieces is the Randall plantation, on which protagonist Cora (Thuso Mbedu) was born into slavery. While there are certainly valid analogies to be made between concentration camps and plantations, Friedberg explains with respect to the Randall plantation, “I didn’t want it to be Auschwitz.” Instead, he wanted to find “beauty and horror at the same time” by also highlighting the fact that enslaved people, even under their monstrously horrific circumstances, had families and “also maintained a semblance of a culture that they were ripped away from.” Plus, the plantation and is “where Cora got her strength,” Friedberg expounds. Expanding on this, he emphasizes that her friendships, familial connections and the fact that they were broken, “helped break her down, but also gave her the fire she needed to persevere.”
Another central set piece is the railroad itself, which metaphorically depicts the “underpinnings of our society that were constructed by those we enslaved” as well as the fact “that from the inception, there has always been a burning desire for freedom” for slaves, so Friedberg. In light of Jenkins aiming for the use of “real trains, real actors and real tunnels,” Friedberg partnered with a train museum in Savannah, Georgia, and ultimately built a tunnel on their track. Concerning the tunnel, he elucidates that he and his team tried to make it look as though it was carved by hand tools and wanted to ensure that there was “emotion in the surfaces themselves.”
Ultimately, Friedberg accentuates that Jenkins leaned into the structure of the novel, which highlights that the story, despite being set in 1850, is “very much about the world we live in now.” This is also mirrored in the production design in the sense that, among other things, skyscrapers, elevators and underground trains didn’t, of course, exist at the time. In this regard, Friedberg concludes, “If we think we’re living in a post-racial society, if we think that there is not a systemic racism built into the way that we live, that is genetic, that is encrusted into the inception of this great nation and all the things it stands for, then we’re missing the point.”
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