Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” is a blistering look at a relationship’s end, and the film’s production design becomes a way to understand the characters’ angst and individuality. We first meet our characters through voiceover as they recite the things they love about each other; the traits, the quirks, the strengths and all the things that made them Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) and their happy family. It’s a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage.
The family lives in New York, something Charlie keeps insisting upon. Charlie is a theater director. It’s his home. Nicole hails from Los Angeles but moved to New York. She’s never settled in there, and L.A. beckons with the promise of a TV pilot.
Baumbach shoots between New York and Los Angeles, but he maintained the same color palette for both cities while keeping the lighting distinct.
Production designer Jade Healy says, “I knew the colors that come with New York, and I know the colors and feelings that come with L.A. We wanted to elevate the story without distracting from it.”
Healy adds, “We had browns and grays, and we used muted reds and muted greens.” For the interiors, “Their New York home is full of books and art. It’s filled with things that they have collected through their time there.”
When the story moves to Los Angeles, the palette of the film changes to paler green, yellow and pinks. “Nicole’s stuff is more feminine. There are blues in the kitchen, and it’s more her,” Healy says.
As the movie progresses and Charlie is forced to live in L.A., Healy and Baumbach looked at the use of space. “We talked about negative space and how that would accentuate the separation between the two of them.” Healy says, “I wanted to get the feeling of isolation, especially when it comes to L.A. What we see is Charlie drowning in the space and you see it when he lands at the airport.”
In contrast, when Charlie is in New York, he’s surrounded by people, whether he’s at the theater or in a restaurant.
Charlie has to find a rental in Los Angeles, and it’s the last thing he wants to do, especially when he has a play opening. The circumstances that arise force him to set up home in L.A. “It’s so tempting to make things beautiful. We were both on the same page of wanting to find this rental that is so boring. It’s this place where you don’t want to spend much time there. We wanted something that felt empty of any kind of layers of light or history of memories,” Healy says.
“We spent a lot of time looking for that apartment. We found this one apartment we liked, and we brought as much beige on beige as we could. We wanted to make it empty and we wanted it to feel temporary. He’s not spending time on finding his couch and coffee table.”
The one area where Charlie is trying is with his son Henry’s room. There’s color on the bed and art on the wall. “He’s trying with Henry’s room because it’s the one place that has life in it,” says Healy.
Healy reveals that her favorite set was the lawyer’s office. Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Laura Dern all play aggressive divorce lawyers. After meeting with one, Charlie ends up waiting in a room. “I love that room so much. There’s something about that bare room. We wanted this sad, almost awkwardly angular room. I just love that. That to me said where Charlie was at in that moment,” Healy says, “It’s a simple room but it ended up being a favorite. I love that scene and that set.”