Production designer Jack Fisk is not only one of Terrence Malick’s oldest and most trusted collaborators (they’ve been together since “Badlands,” the director’s first film from 1973), he’s also the architect of his cinematic playground.
Thus, when Malick tells Fisk, “You get it together and we’ll come and shoot,” it’s the equivalent of saying, “Let’s put on a show.” Only with the metaphysical Malick, it’s like no other picture show ever produced or experienced.
And although Fisk won’t go so far as to suggest that “The Tree of Life” represents a summary statement for Malick about the coalescing of nature and grace, he admits it’s very personal. In fact, he recalls the first time that Malick told him about the impressionistic memory film about growing up in Austin, Texas, in the ’50s.
“When I was working on ‘Mulholland Drive’ [in 2001], we met for lunch at Hamburger Hamlet and he gave me 20 pages of script and asked me to read it in the restaurant,” Fisk describes. “I remember it being hard to sit and read in the restaurant, but it was just so personal and he was so excited about it.”
A couple of years later, Malick asked Fisk to accompany him on a scouting trip to check out some small towns around Austin. Joined by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, they soaked up the region on and off for the next three years. But this wasn’t Guadalcanal (“The Thin Red Line”) or the Chickahominy River (“The New World”); this was Malick country, where he grew up, so it was a challenge finding a place that he had never seen or heard of. Still, Fisk managed to find just the timeless town they were searching for: Smithville, 40 miles outside of Austin.
“It was a great little town,” Fisk adds. “There weren’t as many houses in a block that you find today and, with taking out some fencing, we could really open up one yard to the next and make it feel like I remember places back in the early ’50s in Illinois. And Terry and I had similar childhoods so we were working from the same reference point. It was easy because I knew exactly what he wanted to achieve: a small town with 500 people.”
Most important, it helped evoke childhood memories of playing outside at dusk and between yards and seeing lives through windows, as Fisk suggests. “My wife [Sissy Spacek, who starred in ‘Badlands’] is from Texas and she told me so much about her childhood that it also became part of my research. It went into the big stewpot. Like Terry, she also had been chasing DDT trucks in the ’50s. She knew all her neighbors and the local phone operator. And like Terry she also lost her brother when he was a teenager and it just tugged at her emotionally. I was more fortunate: I lost my father at an early age but didn’t lose any brothers or sisters, so I saw it differently as I immersed myself in the period.”
So Fisk and the art department covered up the metal buildings with wood and painted harsher colors; took out modern play sets; removed trees that didn’t belong and brought in others; planted gardens; and hid modern windows with chicken coops and anything else they could find.
“This gave Terry a playground of about five square blocks where he could pick up a camera and just walk down the street and shoot,” Fisk continues. “There wasn’t anything glaringly wrong for 1957. Terry doesn’t use storyboards and he doesn’t even plan shots that far ahead. He’s always looking for spontaneity. He loves to be surprised; he says he likes to approach it like a documentary. He delights in not being locked into a plan and is always trying to find something fresh and real in the environment. He’ll throw a little chaos into a scene just to get a reaction that nobody planned. He’ll put a kid into a scene or a dog.”
And with a rich ensemble cast (including New York Film Critics Circle winners Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as well as Sean Penn and newcomer Hunter McCracken), Malick had plenty to play with. Indeed, the philosophically-minded director writes scenes that can be shot anywhere: a moment crafted for a living room could just as easily be shot in front of a restaurant downtown or in a field out in the country, according to Fisk. “We all know things are going to change, which is why I try to be on set all the time,” the production designer says. “I remember talking to a set decorator [Jeanette Scott] and discussing that Terry wanted a location on the Colorado River that he hadn’t seen yet. She wanted to know when he wanted to see it and I told her not until after lunch. ‘Oh, no problem,’ she said. We had gotten so used to moving so quickly that three or four hours seemed like a luxury.”
In contrast to the soft and colorful childhood memories, the modern section set in Houston featuring Penn is architecturally cold and claustrophobic with glass and stone. “There were trees in their yard that the kids would climb on, but in Houston there were trees inside the glass lobbies of buildings so the contrast was not only remarkable but wonderful for the story,” Fisk offers. “We’ve worked since the first days of ‘Badlands’ with minimal augmentation of the locations or sets, because we found it was so powerful to just choose a few things to represent the place we were telling about. ”
Fisk has since completed another film with Malick, which he describes as “‘Tree of Life’ on steroids.” The untitled love story stars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams about a man who reconnects with a woman from his hometown while struggling with his marriage. Of course, it’s deeply personal, but this one’s shot in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (Rachel Weisz talks about making that film here.)
“One morning Terry showed up and said he needed a location with some water and we pretty much had scoured the town,” Fisk relates. “But John Patterson, the location manager, and I went down some back roads where the city was digging a culvert and it had been flooded by a lot of rain. And it became a magical location in the backyards of a neighborhood. We went running back and told Terry and John called the city manager asking for permission to shoot there and the construction people said they would shut off their equipment for three hours. And the whole company rushed over in vans and we shot a scene.
“Terry’s found a way of working that’s much more spontaneous and I’ve never seen him so happy making films. And we’re about to start another one in June, this time in Los Angeles, followed by another one, so he’s not only more excited and passionate about working but he’s doing it more often.”
Meanwhile, to help stir some more Oscar heat, Fox Searchlight will bring back “The Tree of Life” to LA (December 9th-December 15th at the Music Hall). There will be Q&A discussions with producers Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Nic Gonda, cinematographer Lubezki (who also took NYFCC honors), editor Mark Yoshikawa, costume designer Jacquie West, and supervising sound editors Craig Berkey & Erik Aadhl. These will occur after each 8:00 pm screening and on the 10th after the 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm screenings.