In 2008, financial guru Bernie Madoff was arrested for operating a vast Ponzi scheme, swindling clients out of $65 billion. It is considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, and Madoff was ultimately sentenced to 150 years in prison. Madoff's prison conversations with NY Times journalist Diana B. Henriques became the book The Wizard of Lies, which has now been turned into an HBO movie from Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, with Robert De Niro portraying Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer playing Ruth Madoff.
The film—which tries to puncture Madoff's teflon personality in search of any sort of remorse on his part, starting from the day he was arrested—premiered on HBO this weekend. We got the chance to talk to Laurence Bennett, the production designer on the film, about what it was like recreating Madoff's life, how much his family knew about the scheme, and which current politician most resembles Madoff.
How did you get involved in this project to begin with? It was just one of those great, random connections.[Laughs] I'm trying to remember. I think my name and my work was in front of Barry [Levinson], he responded to it, and we talked. We seemed to both have very similar takes on how to approach the material.
What was your take? I was looking at some late '50s, early '60s color photography. People like Saul Leiter and Ernst Haas. He had some really beautiful stuff in New York. He used selective saturated color and some really rich, velvety deep blacks, some really rich imagery. And [director Bernardo] Bertolucci's The Conformist, that was a touchstone.
Barry and I talked and agreed that it seemed to call for a mystery take on the material. In other words, even at the end of the day, so much about the Madoff affair remains enigmatic, and we wanted to tell the story in fragments. Those fragments formed a visual arc through the story that began very objectively, and the take on everything became much more subjective, I think, as we went along through the piece.
So the mystery is: who is the real Madoff, and what's going on in his head? Yeah. I think there are a couple of basic questions. How could he have gotten away with it for so very long on such a staggering scale? How could he do it while apparently he kept so many people in the dark, including his family—especially his sons, who worked with him for twenty years, who at the end of the day seemed to not have been part of it.
When this was all happening in 2008/2009, were you watching the case closely? Were you, or anyone you know, affected by it? No, I wasn't. I didn't know anyone directly. I think I watched it with the same sort of fascination that most people not involved, and not affected, did. But I didn't look closely at it until this project came up that I really got sucked into [Wizard Of Lies author Diana B. Henriques's] book and got a much clearer picture of the financial workings of it. Which is not part of my world, it's not something that I gravitate towards or understand usually. But the trades he was generating were pure fiction. And it really turned out to be a very simple Ponzi scheme. I get that.
There's a lot of talk in the movie about how many people assumed that he was a genius, that he was brilliant with money. But, at the end of the day, he seemed very lucky more than anything. There seems to have been a tremendous amount of luck in it. Also, his explanation to Diana of how he'd get out of it was he just sort of hoped the world would end. He didn't have an exit strategy, you know?
He also seemed to feel that even at the end, that just with a little more luck, he could have kept all the balls in the air.
One of the things I took away from the film is just how much he compartmentalized his life. How did that affect how you approached various scenes—let's say, looking at those lavish parties on Long Island versus the Manhattan scenes where reality starts crashing down on him? I really feel that there's this point at which he and Ruth are clearly under siege, and the boys, as well. The compartmentalization, thematically, it comes down to exposure and concealment. And so, those were thematically used for the visuals in terms of the window-dressing, and how we viewed spaces, and how they were lit in the end.
Their penthouse takes on quite a transformation just because of lighting. At the beginning, it's open and more modest than you would expect from a billionaire. If possible, there's a certain kind of dignity about it which just evaporates when they're huddled inside with all the curtains closed. It's dark, even during the day and Ruth is stuck with a glass of wine and a cigarette. Make sense?
Yeah. The tension and anxiety builds up as the film goes along. Even when we flash back to the time before he was arrested, it is building up and getting worse and worse. Yeah. The pace that Barry gave the story, I think, was pretty remarkably effective. The first time I watched it, I have to say, I don't think I've ever been so anxious watching something. I knew the material really well, but the construction was really beautiful.
We tried to differentiate in the way we portrayed the private life, when he's at home with the family, versus the social occasions. The penthouse is sort of draped in red tones, discreet patterns. The social occasions are just very monochromatic, they're very black and white. Light also plays a really important part in those: the lit tent of the Montauk party and the lit canopied ceiling in the Palm Beach sequence in the nightclub, when he's doing a sales pitch.
Did you get to see any of Madoff's actual belongings, or did you have to work off photos because everything had been auctioned off already? Yeah, we were using FBI and police evidence photographs. Everything was long gone. And the auction photographs tell quite a story by themselves. Multiple, multiple pairs of the monogrammed slippers. The robes, and the ties, and watches.
The watch collection definitely took me aback, because up to that moment, he didn't seem ostentatious initially. He was very conservative in the way he presented himself. And frankly, their lifestyle, while they obviously went through a whole lot of money, the kinds of things they had—their residences and their vehicles, even his boat—his taste level was not great...taste is a funny thing, I don't want to criticize, but it was modest by billionaire's standards.
As the movie goes along, there are a couple more surreal sequences [like when Bernie and Ruth attempt suicide by Ambien, only for Bernie to hallucinate] that start to come in. What were you and Barry trying to get across with those scenes? Before I ever read the passages, he and [writer Sam Levinson] were sort of conceiving it, he basically spoke the passage and told me what was going ot happen. And I went, "Wow, that's totally Dickensian."
So, I went back to the office and thought about it for a bit and put together a photo board of images. I won't say it was a storyboard, but it was drawing from Fellini and painting and street photography, heavy emphasis on the paparazzi, obviously. Just looking for ways to build the tension within that sequence. I shared it with him and [cinematographer Eigil Bryld]. We sort of agreed that those were the kind of images that worked. And when it came to do that sequence, I kind of pitched in and figured out how it should be. I think it was very effective.
Another thing that I thought came across as a more surreal, fantastical moment, was that you were able to incorporate the victims into the story in a way that maybe would not have been as smooth otherwise. Was there a lot of discussion about how much to include their voices and their perspective? Yeah. Obviously you can't tell that story without them. I don't know that I would describe this film as balanced in its approach because it has a particular point of view. You can't not talk about the tens of thousands of victims.
And how do you do that? Because I think that personalizing it by taking it right back to the family and the toll it took on the family physically and mentally, it was more effective in some ways than trying to tell bits and pieces of thousands of people's stories. It just personalizes it in a way I don't think has been done before.
Then of course, the other thing is Madoff the person really seems impenetrable. It seemed like some of these sequences were trying to draw out his true self, whether he has any sort of conscience. The movie ends on the big question: is he a sociopath? I think he clearly is. But there's something about where I think his sociopathy and megalomania end, and where his dislocation from reality manifests itself, in some of the ways he responded to Diane's questions. It was really great being able to talk to Diana about the experience of interviewing him. I wanted to get at not just what he said, but the sensory feelings she had about the environment, because that helps me in designing the prison set. During those interviews he very often just made incredible disconnects and left turns. He didn't respond to some questions at all, he just would start speaking about something else.
So, even now, even in his moments of self-reflection, he might just be a bullshit artist. Was the production tempted or interested at all in talking to him directly? I knew that that was never going to be a possibility...the damage from the affair is still relatively fresh in New York.
This is a very New York story, in a lot of ways. There were places that were just going to be totally out of bounds for us. In terms of shooting locations, there were very few actual places we could use. It's not like we were ever going to get anywhere near the building with the penthouse. Or the Lipstick Building. And even the salon we shot in, the one where Ruth goes to get her hair done and is spurned—that was not her main place that she went. But, after we talked to them and figured out how we could work there for half a day without totally destroying the business, somebody at the shop admitted that yeah, Ruth did come in there sometimes. Which was a little spooky.
The only actual location we were able to utilize, strangely, was the Federal Building. My friend, Andy Cook, the location manager, worked with them for a couple months and finally convinced them. While we didn't shoot on the floor that the FBI is on, we shot a couple floors down. Same architecture, same room layout, so we were able to design it just like the offices. It was a very strange feeling being able to drive De Niro in the car down into the underground car park, just like Bernie had been walking through the hallway into the elevator up to the FBI floor.
Another thing that really struck me—having watched the coverage back when it was all coming out and seeing photos and the news reports—was how much you were able to capture the accuracy of that with the recreation of the photos with De Niro. Some of those very particular moments, particularly coming from the court and one afternoon when he was trying to get back into his building, those are iconic Bernie moments that I think stick in people's minds. Part of it's his sort of bull-like attitude just walking through the situation. So, we took great pains to replicate those as closely as possible. And, in the end, it's De Niro. [Laughs]
Ultimately, the other thing I came away with is how much of a familial tragedy this was for everyone around him. How unexpected it was for them, how hard it was for them to believe it was as bad as it was. I think it clearly is a tragedy. [Madoff's sons] Mark and Andy, their characters in the film, both admit to their privilege and their having been shielded from a lot of stuff by him over the years—in a positive way, in some weird, beneficial way, as well as the harmful, really brutal way he smacks them down every time they try to get closer in business terms, or indicate that they're ready to move forward with the business.
But I think they both would have admitted that they were kids of enormous privilege. When you're sitting at lunch trying to talk your dad into coming to look at a six million dollar place—you know, your third residence that you want him to buy you. That's not part of my world. I don't understand that. But, what befell them, just on a human level, is incredible.
I was just reading the other week, with the movie coming out, there's a new wave of articles about what Ruth is up to now, living relatively anonymously in Connecticut. And funny enough, in this New York Post article, they bring up the hairdresser as well, and how she's still banned from there. They talked to them and they were like, "Unfortunately, many of the clients were victims ...While those at the salon are forgiving people, and do not wish more hardships on Ruth Madoff, they have to put their clients first." Do you feel sympathy for her? I do, I do.
I don't know the truth in any of this. But, certainly the point of view that Sam in the script, and Barry in directing, have taken shows someone who totally put her trust in her partner, her husband of 50+ years. Their relationship in the picture is so interesting. It's this weird balance of joking, familiar affection, and still this brittle treatment of her by him.
I guess he treated everyone that way, it seems. It's controlling. Yeah. Absolutely.
So much of it comes across in the film as a weird defense mechanism. And yet he was so calm on the outside despite being completely in over his head for years and years. Yeah. Well, did you like the film?
I did. When I first sat down to watch it, I was a little nervous because I didn't know structurally how it was going to go. I assumed that it was going to be linear, and that it was going to start before he was arrested and everything. That caught me off-guard. Basically it starts off with his confession to the family. Like, wow, just dives right in.
I really like the fact that the film empathized with how fucked up the family unit was. I did not walk away with any more sympathy for him. No. No.
It seemed like he was trying to keep the family distanced, maybe to protect them. But the more overwhelming thing, to me, was that he was a narcissist, and he thought that he could get away with it. The release of this film comes at an interesting time in our country.
Were there moments on the set where you found reflections of what was going on politically now? We wrapped photography before the election began in earnest. So the finished piece has resonances that I was not expecting. I see a portrayal of vanity, megalomania, and narcissism; and a controlling, conniving, small-minded person. I find that very interesting. Who else do we know that's like that?
I think that's a good, important reflection right there. Capitalism without sufficient restraint and oversight opens the door to the likelihood of tremendous abuse. And terrible damage.