Interview: Production Designer Michael Fitzgerald on ‘Rare Objects’

Awards Radar got to chat with Michael Fitzgerald, the production designer behind the unique vintage artifacts and spectacular setting of Katie Holmes’ most recent project, Rare Objects

Rare Objects follows a young woman seeking to rebuild her life while taking a job at an antique store. The film is an adaptation of Kathleen Tessaro’s novel of the same name, with the novel’s depression-era setting transformed into a modern-day telling of the story.

In this interview, Michael speaks how he transformed the story into its new modern environment, the antiques found in the film, and his collaboration with director Katie Holmes.

Can you tell us about your background?

I am a UCLA School Of Theater, Film, & TV grad.  My career spans over 70 films (No Man of God, The Last Five Years, GBF All We Had, Flora & Ulysses), documentaries (Stutz, Vishniac), and TV series (Run the World, Medal of Honor, Faking It).

How did you get involved in Rare Objects, and what about the project drew you to it?

In Rare Objects, I worked with director Katie Holmes over several years to find the voice of the characters through the locations, art, props and set dressing. I focused on identifying pieces to tell the story of female friendship, and the fragility of the human heart. At the core of Rare Objects is the concept that what is broken in an object or human is actually what makes you more valuable.  The thrilling task required that the art direction delivered each piece of Murano glass, Kentshire jewelry, Cuban cigars, Commedia dell’arte masks, Cruet vases, a Tennyson novel, 19th century Mozart Sister’s desk rosewood/ pearl inlaid cabinet (Newel) and broken or put together teacups accurately and authentically.

How did you turn the film’s source material’s Depression-era setting into a modern environment?

As an opportunity, we were able to take the essence of Kathleen Tessaro’s wonderful book Rare Objects, extract historical objects and Kintsugi methods, and then merge and infiltrate modern-day curated art and the pulse of New York.  The book allowed a sense of nostalgia, but updating and changing from Boston to NYC allowed a new influence of culture, diversity and embracing the time and place in NYC in the aftermath of the pandemic.

What are some of your favorite antiques that you sourced for this film?

Since we updated the film, I think my favorite acquisition was Rebecca Greene’s cardboard art. Rebecca had worked as a set decorator for a film I designed called Space Oddity directed by Kyra Sedgwick,  where among the many sets, she also created a cardboard space shuttle.  Rebecca is the same artist who also created the original iconic Knives Out sculpture for that film. For Rare Objects, she lent us her colorful cardboard parrot, which became the first piece Benita (Julia Mayorga) is able to showcase her storytelling skills and quick wit to land the job with Kessler (Alan Cumming).

Can you tell me about the “classic” painting you created? Why was it important for this project?

The classic Painting referenced in two scenes was a daunting task. Luckily, my nephew Travis Fitzgerald is an incredible Brooklyn-based painter and was involved from the early brainstorming.  We first fabricated a “study” for the painting. I was very inspired to have “rare” pieces in the shop, and the idea that the end painting would also result in an artist study to pair with the painting was special.  Then, the task of the actual painting took several weeks of research, sweat, color, tests and samples.  The end result felt authentic, placed below two paintings: one being an original from the 17th century and the other being Stephen Posen’s beautiful painting on loan from his son, Zach.  Comically, Travis and I though we made sure to have all the elements needed in the painting per the dialogue (oysters, wine, bletting “pomegranates”), but Winshaw (actor Derek Luke, who is a frequent collaborator with me) let me know that we had forgotten the bread. Luckily, we had time to quickly paint in the loaf before filming!

What is something viewers wouldn’t know about Rare Objects’ production design just by watching the film?

The first floor apartment for Benita and her Mom came from collaborating with Spencer Martin, our Location Manager, finding an incredible spot and working with Katie to adapt the script to the location.   The found location served as an opportunity to have Benita’s friend, Angie (Olivia Gilliatt), able to pop in her window for a couple scenes, and for there to be a communal component in the backyard with neighbors and a special spot for mom to have a cigar!  To find a location that flushes out and embellishes the story was very rewarding.  Another bonus creatively was that both the antique store and the apartment were completely empty white pallets that myself and decorators Beth Kushnick and Grace Bilbao filled, sceniced, wallpapered, designed, dressed, and curated to the needs of the film.

What was your collaboration process with Katie Holmes and the other crew members?

One scene written in the final script incorporates masks and the circus.  This idea came from Katie and I brainstorming several years before, when I had invited Katie to see my talented friend’s, Aurelia Thieree, incredible one person show “Aurelia’s Oratorio,” which was inspired by the magic of music hall, variety, and circus, and conjures a concoction of theatrical mystery and dream-bound delirium. When we got to filming several years later, Stanley Masks rented us leather clown noses, an actual trick umbrella from the French circus, and authentic Commedia Dell’arte masks for the scene, allowing Winshaw and Benita to have both a bonding moment and sweet comical connection using these incredible objects.

What was the biggest challenge on the project?

For Winshaw & Kessler’s Rare Objects shop, Director of Photography Lisa Rinzler and I worked on a creative way to handle time changes and the sun, as the location presented large windows at the front of the shop, looking out onto the real time bustling Lafayette in NYC.  By collaborating with Newel Props, I obtained a pair of gorgeous, very heavy, authentic Victorian Gothic Revival Oak Doors and Renaissance Revival Leaded Glass Windows. With my construction (Danny Rovira) and scenic team (Faridih Bolognini) using truss and skinning, we were able to create an effortless sliding system.  The doors allowed Kessler (Alan Cumming) to climb our French antique library stairs and to slide open the doors at days end and beginning. This allowed Lisa and the gaffer to control the light and time of day in the store, and also allowed Kessler to showcase his theatrical flair.

Do you have any other projects coming up that we should keep an eye out for?

Out of My Mind for Disney+ will be out in January 2024. This project is based on the book, about a young girl with CP who finds her voice. I also worked on season two of Run the World, which drops on Starz on May 26, and am in pre-prep for some films with other previous collaborators of mine: one directed by Amber Sealey, another directed by Lena Khan, and another project with Katie and Alan. 


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Written by Betty Ginette

Oscar Sunday is my personal Super Bowl.

I cover behind the camera artisans, and love to hear about filmmaking magic behind the scenes.

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