TIFF 2021: Production Designer Diana Magnus On The Middle Man

DGC Ontario Feature Film The Middle Man, directed by Bent Hamer, recently screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. To celebrate the TIFF premiere of The Middle Man, we spoke to DGC Ontario Production Designer Diana Magnus about her work on the film, production designing a co-pro in two different countries, transforming Northern Ontario into the American Midwest, and more.

A Canadian-Norweigan-German-Danish co-production, The Middle Man is set in a small town in the American Midwest that’s so inexplicably plagued by accidents and disasters, it hires Frank Farrelli (Pål Sverre Hagen) as a “middle man” to deliver the constant onslaught of bad news to residents. Grateful for this morbid job after three years of unemployment, Frank also hits it off with one of his new coworkers, City Hall receptionist Blenda (Tuva Novotny). But Blenda’s ex-boyfriend – and Frank’s nemesis – Bob (Trond Fausa Aurvåg), angry over being dumped and being passed over for the middle man job, throws a wrench in Frank’s ambitions and sets tensions in the whole town ablaze.  

How does it feel to have your film premiere at TIFF 2021?

It feels absolutely amazing to have The Middle Man premiere at TIFF 2021. The magic of creatively zeroing in on a vision with Director Bent Hamer was a deeply artistic experience. Sharing this work of art with the world at TIFF feels appropriately special for this incredibly unique, moving and funny film.

Can you tell us about the experience of production designing this film in both Canada and Germany?

The trick was crawling into Bent’s brain early and often to continually fine-tune the visual world we were creating and being able to communicate that with everyone across the continents and time zones. When everyone is invited into the visual cocoon of what we’re trying to accomplish, everyone is on a mission! It was great! It was an honour to work with everyone involved in Canada and Germany. I loved working with the German crew, there was a palpable love of filmmaking and getting every detail just right.

A scene from The Middle Man

What was your creative relationship with the rest of the art department and Director Bent Hamer like?

Bent Hamer is an extremely generous Director. We spent hours looking at pictures of the towns, streets and people of small-town America. Street photography by the greats: Dorothea Lange, Robert Capa, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Vivian Meier and Saul Leiter were my inspiration. Bent took the time to share his thoughts and personal stories while we gazed at these photos, allowing me insights into the feelings and tender resonations behind his hopes and dreams for the film. This allowed me to hone the visual idea for broken America that was true, timeless and dignified, but drenched in detail and texture. This was so important to support and anchor the beautifully dark comedy of Bent’s storytelling.

Creative collaboration penultimate. My Canadian and German art department teams were stellar. Their dedication to understanding the vision and adding to it with layers of character, place, time, and texture was an unparalleled experience in my career. A production designer depends a lot on the talents, invocations and hard work of his/her team.

How did you make sure Sault Ste Marie looked like an average American Midwestern small town, albeit one with an unusual amount of accidents and disasters?

So many small but hugely important details go into transforming any street into small-town America. But the amazing city of Sault Ste Marie made it a beautifully smooth experience. Sault Ste Marie, Ontario is a border town (it is on the USA border, across from the city of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan) so it shares traits architecturally, socio-economically, and commercially with its American sister. With tremendous care, we resourced and aged U.S. flags, street signs, newspaper boxes, license plates, signs with popular American fonts, extras carrying American department store-looking bags, wearing American-looking t-shirts, and our American cars driving by. We went so far as to add weeds growing up through sidewalks and along buildings to evoke the economically strapped realities of municipal American towns. It’s all in the details! The funny thing is when you do it right, nobody even notices: it feels so natural, everything belongs and the viewer is transported.

What do you love most about working in Toronto/Ontario?

I love working in Toronto! This film was shot in Northern Ontario and this part of the world is my favourite. Surrounded by the Great Lakes with geographically diverse regions, with so many cities and towns shaped by a long history of immigration patterns, the landscapes and cultures of this part of the world are inspiring. Ontarians are special, and the beauty and history of this province can provide for many films. I think the thing I like the most though, is the untouched natural beauty of so much of this land.

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