Forging Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of

First published on December 23, 2010
James DeMartis, a sculptor and blacksmith who lives in Springs, designed and made props for Julie Taymor's latest film, "The Tempest." Morgan McGivern

As a designer and sculptor in metalworking on the South Fork, James DeMartis is unfazed by the special requests he receives from his pampered and exacting clients. From cast-iron baby gates to custom shelves for a Sub-Zero refrigerator and even hand-forged pallet knives for a painter, he is always ready to meet their vision.

Still, it was quite another story when the call came from the art director of Julie Taymor's latest film, "The Tempest." Mark Friedberg is a Springs resident who had worked with Ms. Taymor as art director on "Across the Universe" and on practically every other film in recent times with a distinct look and feel, such as "The Ice Storm," "Far From Heaven," "Pollock," "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," and many others. He first saw Mr. DeMartis three summers ago while he was demonstrating blacksmithing at Parsons Forge in East Hampton. It was a serendipitous meeting, according to Mr. Friedberg.

"He found me through a Google search of New York blacksmiths. They wanted a blacksmith's hand in the props," Mr. DeMartis recalled over posole and guacamole at D'Canela in Amagansett. "I was part of a small pool of potential prop makers. We had a conversation and it went well. He said he liked the way I worked." 

Then, it was up to Mr. DeMartis to prove that he could respond to Ms. Taymor's and Mr. Friedberg's vision and meet the stringent deadlines required in film production. "Every day they fall behind schedule costs $150,000." He said he dropped everything to be part of the project. "It was furious, round-the-clock work."

Mr. Friedberg said of choosing Mr. DeMartis, "I took a gamble on a guy I met and he got it. He did samples for us that were very careful and made it clear he was going in the right direction." The two got along so well and respected each other's vision so much that they became friends.

What Mr. DeMartis had to envision was the tools of a sorceress on a remote island several centuries ago. Ms. Taymor's re-imagining of the Shakespearean storyline replaces the exiled Duke of Milan and wizard Prospero with the female Prospera, played by Helen Mirren. While the exterior shots were filmed in the rugged terrain of Hawaii,  her lair was on a soundstage in Brooklyn. There she plots the storm that brings her usurping brother and the King of Naples to the island so she can exact her revenge.

For this cave, Mr. DeMartis designed three main pieces: a moonbeam distiller, a telescope, and a triangular forge. In addition, he was asked to make cantilevered poles that would hold glass beakers of various specimens. Andy Stenerson, a glass artist from Amagansett, made the orb-shaped beakers. "They made it abundantly clear that these would be featured pieces. It was stressful and exciting."

Part of the process of creation was taking on the Prospera character himself. "Contrary to most of my work, which is finely crafted with a sharp attention to detail, I had to dispense entirely of that conditioning for perfection, that training." Instead he had to take himself "out of that mind-set and pretend I was the character, to put myself in her head."

He had to imagine what tools she could have found on the island and what she could have salvaged. The pieces he made were rough and crude even in their intricacy. "I was fortunate to work with such creative, artistic, and spontaneous people." He noted that in choosing him, they also gave him the latitude to choose how to represent the ideas shown to him in their drawings. "They had to trust that the work I was doing would lend to the overall aesthetic and that I had a good understanding of the end result."

"I didn't want James to be limited by what we drew," Mr. Friedberg said last week. "I'm not an expert metallurgist. I tried to direct him, but wanted his sense of the history of his craft to direct me." It's a philosophy he brings to the set in general. "If I get involved in everyone's business, I get reasonable craft. If I want art, there has to more to it." 

Often Mr. DeMartis worked both in his studio and on the set. He found himself lashing pieces together or using rough rivets, believing that more complicated welding would have been beyond the character and her tools. The forge he made was used in many of the sorcery scenes, and he was allowed to keep the lower part of it after the film was completed. Ms. Taymor kept the moonbeam distiller, and Mr. Friedberg kept the specimen poles and the upper part of the forge.

Ms. Taymor's exacting vision and uncompromising perfectionism has been taken to task recently for the cost run-ups on her stage production of "Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark," expected to open in February. But Mr. Friedman and Mr. DeMartis said working for the director was one of the rare chances to be creative and be on a film. In Mr. DeMartis's case it may have made him "less of a neurotic perfectionist," given the need to let go of the exacting modern standards he is used to in his medium.

"It's pretty intense working on any movie," Mr. Friedberg said, "but particularly invigorating with Julie." He called Ms. Taymor a "fierce art warrior, a visionary who is insanely committed to what she does. It's so deep within her it comes from her subconscious. Even the boldest stuff is everyday to her. When I was working on 'Across the Universe,' I was trying to dazzle her, and she'd just say 'good work.' " And when it was not right,  he would find out about it.  "She's strong-willed and tough, but in a great way." 

When he's not working with Ms. Taymor, he chooses "movies where I have a creative connection as an art director. World-making is an important part of storytelling. The place that story takes place is part of the story. Even in a romantic comedy, it's not just a generic apartment. What I like to do is more stylized." 

Mr. Friedberg has been coming out to East Hampton since his father built a house on Springs-Fireplace Road in the mid-1960s. "It's my primary residence if I don't need to be in New York City to work. I don't like to have coffee if it's not at the Springs General Store." While he too studied art, he said he was not a good artist. Nonetheless, he keeps a painting studio here and finds most of his best creative inspirations come from this landscape.

At the time of this interview, Mr. DeMartis still had not seen the film, which had just opened in New York and Los Angeles. It is now in limited release. It was the closing film of the Venice Film Festival and the feature film at the New York Film Festival.

Mr. DeMartis made Prospera's moonbeam distiller, which is in the cave where she plots her revenge.