Mark Hofeling, 53: Creativity, Kindness and Humor

Mark Hofeling’s creative mind is what got him through the immense challenges of growing up gay in a Mormon culture and an unstable home, and is what led him to the life of his dreams. The production designer discusses those early years, his creative process, meeting and marrying the love of his life, creating a like-minded community in Salt Lake City, and the importance of kindness and humor.

Every step we take forward is built upon the steps we have taken in the past. We are an ever changing, ever growing mosaic of attributes, achievements, and ambitions, of which some we choose to show and others people choose to see. It is some combination of this very complicated and dynamic mix that makes us humans. To define any one of us at this age, or any age, by a single piece of this mosaic is to shortchange all involved. As the never subtle Nietzsche allegedly wrote, the will to systematize indicates a lack of integrity. 

Some of us face daunting challenges; some of us faced them when we were young. Growing up gay in a very not-gay-friendly Mormon culture has been known to lead to some tragic outcomes. Mark made it out. His creative drive and spirit of positivity led him to a new life, a lifelong career as a production designer of films that he very much enjoys, a loving husband, and a deep sense of community back in his home state of Utah. Age gives us permission to be the people we were meant to be. Whatever your dream, your calling, now is the time to be that person. Because, if not now, when? Let’s do this thing, together.

How has your relationship to creativity changed over time?
As luck would have it, I came into this world with a madly creative mind. It’s that creative horsepower that helped me survive a less than happy childhood in a family and culture where I never felt safe. Being able to escape inside my own head and then later to fully inhabit the dreamworld of film and television narratives provided enough stepping stones in the turbulent river of my young life to get me across alive. When I started in film as a very young designer, money and time were so tight my creativity was expended just trying to make the least bad decision with what meager labor and material resources I had. It wasn’t until I began to work with Disney that I had the luxury of stepping back a bit and looking at my work as something more than the crisis of the moment. 

“It’s that creative horsepower that helped me survive a less than happy childhood in a family and culture where I never felt safe”

What is your creative process once you have an assignment?
It all starts with the script. Scripts are usually very bare-bones, dialogue-centered documents with very sparse stage direction and even fewer descriptions of setting and space. Despite this lack, I usually start to see the world unfold in my head with the first reading. Then begins the collaboration with my most direct boss (there are many), the director, to begin to understand their vision of the project. From there I begin pitching images from research, sketching some of the potential builds, we send YouTube clips of various other movies back and forth, etc. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, that initial spit-balling not only with the director but other creative and technical collaborators as they begin to join the project. Then after that initial creative honeymoon, all I’ve got to do is make it all happen. 

One of the features of running a film production department is having to build a team very quickly in far-flung locations. How do you select the people you want to work with?
I often tell people that the film business is basically a combination of the circus and the United States Marines. It’s an incredibly creative, collaborative, social work environment where we literally make magic happen. But behind all the dreaming and scheming is an extremely rigid hierarchy in which everyone knows their rank without having to wear it on their lapel. This makes it a pretty unusual space to work in, which is not for everybody. So when I’m hiring, I’ve learned to look beyond the (often very impressive) resumes and try to get a sense of the person. How will they handle a crisis? Are they cool and calm when everything falls apart? Do I want to spend 12+ hours a day with this person for 6 months? With time you learn to trust your gut in these interviews. Happily, I’ve had a fantastic success rate with hiring in the last 15 years. It’s a joy and a gift to have met so many amazing, talented, fascinating people all over the world and to have benefited from their big brains and big hearts. 

You have described your career as a building block career. Help me to understand what you mean by that.
Filmmaking is the most expensive art form in the world. The system is designed as an apprenticeship program so that over time as one works one’s way up to production designer, and then perhaps from smaller to larger projects, one can learn to make wise creative decisions that serve the vision and hopefully don’t blow the budget to smithereens. Working one’s way up the ladder over time also helps prevent the paralysis of panic that can overcome you when big decisions have to be made on the fly in front of the whole crew. 

“You have to trust your experience, your team, and your gut and make the best decision you can”

When I have been on film sets, I have always been struck by the flexibility and problem solving required in a very tight time window. How do you keep yourself centered in what can be a pretty intense work environment?
Who says I keep myself centered? Seriously though, production can be a very stressful, high-stakes pressure cooker where things can go wrong in an instant. In fact, there is so much that can go wrong I’m always amazed at how often things go right. But inevitably you’ll be faced with having to make some huge decision or change of direction in front of a hundred or so people with maybe 30 seconds to think about it. It can be a withering experience. I’ve watched people turn white as sheets under those circumstances. After having turned a ghostly white myself a couple of times, I’ve learned it’s all part of the process, and that panic is the worst possible headspace in which to make good decisions. You have to trust your experience, your team, and your gut and make the best decision you can. And weirdly enough, it’s out of these moments of pressure and intensity that some strokes of real genius happen.

“Our home…became a hub of Salt Lake’s wild and much-needed counter-culture for years”

Why do you live in SLC rather than LA?
I lived in LA for a few years in my early 20s, when I was just starting out. For a broke, closeted kid from Utah with few connections, it was a tough time. I came back to Salt Lake when I heard there was a little indy film company getting started and marched in and presented myself as a production designer, because I was too stupid to know any better. So I started building my career here, doing something like 40 movies before the work dried up. During that time I met my husband Jesse (a DJ and well-respected fixture in the global house music scene), and we built a life together and an amazing friend group here. Our home, a converted auto body shop next to a junkyard, became a hub of Salt Lake’s wild and much-needed counter-culture for years. Salt Lake is a lovely, progressive, affordable place to live overall. Frankly, at this point in my career, it kind of doesn’t matter where I live, as I travel for work sometimes 10 months out of the year. The road is as much my home as Salt Lake is. 

Mark at 11 years old.

You grew up Mormon and gay, what was that like?
Idyllic. Beautiful. Like a dream within a dream! Truthfully, it was terrible. Mormonism today is extremely homophobic. It was even more so when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s. The AIDS crisis was looked at as divine justice by nearly all the adults in my sphere. Tales of homophobic attacks were recounted approvingly by the top brass of the church in official, televised conferences. I could count the number of non-Mormons in my life on two hands. As you know at the time there were zero positive depictions of queer people on television or in the media, unlike today. Couple that with my family life being incredibly unstable and unsafe well before anyone knew I was queer, and I ended up facing fairly long odds of reaching adulthood somewhat intact if I reached it at all. I survived a serious suicide attempt at age 11, luckily. If only 11-year-old Mark could have glimpsed what an incredible life full of love and adventure and liberation lay ahead of him, he never would have climbed over that 6th-story railing. Sadly, self-harm and suicide are still huge problems among young Utahns. Not all of us survive that first attempt.

One of my side projects is a collection of short stories about being a closeted queer kid in the Cold War Mormondom of Salt Lake City. I’ve challenged myself to find the needle of humor in the haystack of misery and loneliness. It’s been a therapeutic exercise and, much to my astonishment, the stories are occasionally funny. If there are any publishers out there looking for this sort of square-state, queer memoir, call me!

How long have you been with Jesse?
24 years last April, I’m happy to say. April 19th is our anniversary as a couple, but we have a second one as well. We’d been together about 15 years when a federal judge overturned Utah’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. It was December 20th, 2013, the Friday before Christmas. We didn’t realize until later that afternoon that the order was effective immediately, and activists were at the county offices demanding to be married. I proposed to Jesse over text, and after the longest 5 minutes of my life he finally texted back “Let’s do it!” We arrived at the county complex which was in a state of joyous pandemonium. Hundreds of people were in line, all the news stations were there, and we nervously watched as countless sheriff’s deputies poured in. It was all so heady and surreal, but the moment snapped into focus when we found ourselves standing in front of the mayor of Salt Lake City in his blazing red Christmas sweater, with friends and strangers looking on with tears in their eyes, and he said: “By the power vested in me by the laws of the State of Utah, I now pronounce you husband and husband.” If you could have shown that 11-year-old Mark that moment in his future I don’t know if his brain could even have comprehended it. Late-40s Mark could hardly believe it and he was standing right there!

“We’d been together about 15 years when a federal judge overturned Utah’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage”

You travel a lot, how do you maintain your relationship?
We’re lucky that we’re both really independent people. The first few times apart seemed like forever, but we’ve grown accustomed to our alone time, which we both like as well. And we’ve turned my travels into opportunities. Wherever I go Jesse will come see me for a couple of weeks, and that gives us an excuse to book a long weekend someplace in the region we would never have had an excuse to go on its own, like Vieques, Birmingham, Savannah or Quebec City. We’ve made some decent lemonade out of the lemons of my extended deployments. And we send each other cat videos. Lots of cat videos.

You have a few older sort of cast-off tech props in your house. What attracts you to that style?
My work brings me into contact with loads of stuff. Every now and then I’ll keep some oddity that catches my eye. I’ve always loved mid-20th-century dead tech — vacuum tubes, oscilloscopes, World War II communications equipment, etc, so whenever I find something like that I’m bound to keep it. I’ve actually edited down my collection quite a bit, if you can believe it. 

When you look 5 years into the future, where do you see yourself?
I’m in a great position professionally to explore bigger and more challenging projects, which is exactly what I’ve been working towards for over 3 decades. So hopefully 5 years from now will find me neck-deep in something really juicy. I’ve recently secured my Canadian citizenship, so the near future includes getting my husband Canadian permanent residency and on the path to citizenship himself, as well as setting ourselves up to live and work freely in both countries. 

Top 5 favorite films?
Oh wow! Just 5? That’s a tough one, so here’s 5 off the top of my head — 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Rocketman, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Evil Dead 2.

Best art directed/production design film of all time?
2001: A Space Odyssey.

Favorite guilty pleasure streaming shows?
Happily, I feel no guilt whatsoever about any of my pleasures. But I do love all sorts of streaming stuff. We’re Here on HBO Max is glorious. It’s like if the Queer Eye guys were Seal Team 6. Speaking of Queer Eye, I love its rebirth. I miss Broad City terribly, as I do Kimmy Schmidt. It’s a few years old but anyone in need of some painfully hilarious cringing should check out Sally4Ever, long after the kids have gone to bed. 

“Being funny and seeing the humor in the most absurd of situations has gotten me through the worst times in my life”

What are your 3 non-negotiables in life?
#1 – Zero tolerance for abuse and bullying. I had it at home, in school, and at work as a younger man. It’s toxic and incredibly destructive. It disgusts me as it should everyone. I won’t permit it in my workplace or in my social group. 

#2 – A solid night’s sleep in as close to total darkness as I can create. If I can get that, I can conquer the world. Without it, I can’t be responsible for whatever calamity that will inevitably occur.

#3 – Laughter, as much of it as possible. Being funny and seeing the humor in the most absurd of situations has gotten me through the worst times in my life. I love to make people laugh, and I love people that can make me laugh even more. I honestly hope I die laughing.

See all of Mark’s incredible film work here.


  1. Thank you for this from-the-heart interview. It was one of the best I have ever read. Direct facts and stating exactly how things were, showing the injustice and bigoted attitudes but without drowning it in the victim stance, showing it just ‘as it was’ but the pain and suffering it caused still come across. I am glad life had a ‘Happy ending’ for Mark and long may it continue


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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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