Having cut his teeth on one hand by the chaotic poetry of Terrence Malick and David Lynch’s first films, and the other by gonzo ‘70s exploitation efforts like “Terminal Island,” and “Darktown Strutters,” production designer Jack Fisk knows how to complement a film’s tone and story. His expertise has established Fisk as a creative draw for cinephiles on par with the work of a celebrated actor or director. “Badlands,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Tree of Life,” “There Will Be Blood” are just a few examples of his oeuvre in which the environments are just as memorable as the events that take place within them.
So it’s fitting that Fisk’s most recent project is “The Revenant,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination this morning. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy has become notorious for its physically demanding shoots in Canada, Argentina and the U.S.. The film is his sixth collaboration with DP Emmanuel Lubezki and his first with Iñárritu, in which he oftentimes allowed for full 360-degree coverage of a variety of detailed sets —including a keelboat, fur trapper fort and Indian villages.
Recently, Fisk discussed highlights of his nearly 45 year career, going nearly film-by-film, with the Playlist. He called from his Virginia home, where he lives with his wife, actress Sissy Spacek (whom he met on “Badlands”).
The Playlist: You’re known for making four-wall, 360-degree sets on both low-budget and larger studio productions. How does your process change with each of these instances?
Jack Fisk: I can build sets a lot cheaper than most art directors, mostly because I have experience in construction, and I have a passion to do so. When you can create a complete environment, it’s so much more exciting for the actors, since they don’t walk around the corner and see a bunch of jacks holding up a plywood wall painted to look like a real one. What I also like to do is build models; it helps me think about them. When I started working in film, the carpenters weren’t real carpenters and couldn’t read blueprints. So I would take the blueprints, cut them up and make a model. And when they saw that, they’d know exactly what we were building.
I did that for a couple of the Indian villages in “The Revenant.” I would put my little GoPro camera in and just walk it around “set” and send Alejandro a little film. He always looks at those things with real interest, and he signs off on sets based on real models. I remember when I was younger, working on “Phantom of the Paradise,” that I was so upset with the cinematographer because I thought the sets were too brightly lit. And when I’d start to criticize them, they’d say, “Well, on film we’ve got the f-stops and a larger depth of field. When we print, it’ll be darker.” But sometimes it isn’t, and you go, “Oh my god, you’ve wrecked this set.” Another time, I was working on a film where I would sneak around, turn out lights and stuff. And one day, the cinematographer threw his light meter at me and goes, “You light it.” But now I work really well with cinematographers.
You grew up in small town Illinois. Has that upbringing influenced your work?
I think it probably has —that and Edward Hopper, whose simplicity I love. In the Midwest, with those flat lands, everything is monoculture. For me, it was just corn, and then when the corn was harvested, it was just dirt and soybeans. Terry Malick and I were both raised on the monocultures and simplicity. He grew up in Waco, but is actually from Illinois. In “Tree of Life,” we took all the fences out in the neighborhood and we could run from one yard to the next. Where you spend your early years can really affect your aesthetic going forward, especially if you have fond memories of it.
Is there any time period that you’d like to cover that you haven’t already?
Someone was noting the other day that I’ve done a lot of Americana, from the 1600s to present day. I love doing period films, because I like the magic of trying to recreate the world the way it was. However, I’d be just as happy to do a futuristic film, and to create our lives 100 or 200 years from now —like what this piece of land I live on right now would look like.
On the following pages, Fisk takes us through select highlights of his career, from Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” to Terrence Malick’s two latest films, “Knight of Cups” and the Austin-set drama “Weightless”.
“Phantom Of The Paradise” (1974)
Jack Fisk: When I finished “Badlands,” the producer asked me to come work with De Palma on “Phantom of the Paradise.” I’d been doing some stuff with Roger and Gene Corman, but I hadn’t done that many films at that point. But I got so excited about doing a musical with Faustian themes, and I loved “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” so I wanted to do a set influenced by that.
We shot a lot in Los Angeles, in Dallas and in New York. I had a minimal budget and no crew, really. I did most of the building myself. One day, the company went to lunch and there was this scene where Winslow breaks out of jail through a brick wall. I was there while everyone was eating lunch, putting brick and mortar on. When the crew came back and I hadn’t quite finished, one of the grips started going on about how inexperienced I was and how stupid I was to be doing this at lunch. Suddenly, Brian snapped at him to shut up and said, “Jack’s making this film look great.” To this day, that was one of the major affirmations that what I was doing was having an effect on the director, that Brian —who could be kind of dour— was suddenly taken with this sort of approach.
On that film, I had an art director who wasn’t getting sets done, so Sissy came in and started sewing sheets for Swan’s bedroom, the satin sheets that look like records. She did it overnight on a tiny little sewing machine that we had at home. We were doing things like that for the whole shoot. I was so exhausted around that time —I remember flying to Dallas and thinking, “God, if I’m ever going to die in an airplane, make it now.” But, you know, I didn’t die. [laughs]
[Because of ‘Phantom’] Brian actually thought of Sissy as a set dresser. When I got together with Brian on “Carrie,” Sissy called him and said, “Brian, I’m coming in for a test for “Carrie,” but I’ve also got an audition for a Vanquish commercial where I can make $10,000. Should I do that or come in?’ ” She thought he’d say, “Oh, please come in. I gotta see you.” But what he actually said was, “Well Sissy, I think you ought to do the commercial.” She got so upset that she sat down in our living room in Topanga Canyon and read the book of “Carrie” from cover to cover. She didn’t sleep, got up the next morning, put Vaseline in her hair, and put on a little sailor dress that her mother had made her in seventh grade. Then she went into where they were testing, only wanting to test for one part, for Carrie.
The next day, I met Brian and the producers and cinematographer at the lab where they were looking at the tests. Her test came on, and she just killed it. You looked at her and it was Carrie, but it was a Carrie that you cared about. The lights went up, and everyone turned to Brian, who said, “She’s Carrie.” He didn’t expect to cast her though, so much so that they never negotiated a deal with her. Sissy was waiting in the car outside to hear what happened, and I ran out saying, “You got the part, you can ask whatever you want!” And then a few days later, Sissy, Piper Laurie and Brian started rehearsing, and the rest is history. We just love Brian. He became such a good friend.
Later on, when we were filming the scene where Carrie menstruates for the first time, Sissy was looking for some direction on how to play the scene. And Brian, in a very sort of male way, said, “It’s like you’re being hit by a truck.” And I said, “Well I was run over by a car once!” So Sissy asked me to describe to her how I felt. And I started telling her about the whole thing, and then that turned into me in the shower right beside her in the scene, telling her about getting hit by a car when I was 14. They had me hold in my hand the fake blood that she reaches down into, so it was kind of ridiculous. The bad thing about that was that I was wet the entire time; the good thing was that we finished the scene. I just think Brian was relieved that he didn’t have to give her any more description.
“Days of Heaven” (1978)
We couldn’t have physically [shot the film twice, as Richard Gere once suggested], because we decided on a location for the house that we rented from some Hutterites in Alberta. They told us they were cutting their wheat fields in six weeks, which was basically their whole livelihood. So I went to Terry and said, “Well, we gotta shoot in six weeks.” And he said, “Actually, I want to shoot for the two weeks before they cut the field.” I go, “Okay, well you won’t see the house, will you?” And he said, “I want to see the house in the background.” I said, “You won’t see the inside though, right?” He said, “No, I want to shoot from the inside looking out as well.” So I thought, “Oh, shit. We gotta build this house, this barn, everything in four weeks time, and here I am in Canada.”
I flew to L.A. to pack up a suitcase, and got some friends of mine there to come up and build the house. On the airplane coming back, I did sketches of what it was going to be. We started building it, and because there were no roads to the location, the guy who owned the land next to the Hutterite wheat fields loaned us a D5 CAT bulldozer that we used to put a little road in going around the pond. However, the first load of lumber that came to that house went on our road, which was built by film people, and it just flipped over. We had to get a crane to come in and lift all the wood out.
We were working day and night, and so we ended up hiring Hutterite kids to help on Sundays. They’d get out of church and we’d meet them on the corner, bring them to the set and they’d work as carpenters Illegally —they were paid $5 an hour. In the end after we were done working, they used that money to buy television sets, which was a big no-no [laughs]. They put it up in one of their houses and they’d watch baseball games on it. The elders of the church would graciously stay away on the weekends so as not to catch the kids working, and they’d bring the dandelion wines during the week and make bets that we couldn’t get done in time. I had a great time, but it was probably the hardest film I’ve ever worked on, including “The Revenant.” It was just trying to design and build the entire set in four weeks. I brought people up to build the house, but I didn’t think about the other stuff.
We finally got the set dressed and wallpapered —I also think we made the mistake of putting the Texas flag upside down on the flagpole, which drove Terry crazy. One day in July, it snowed, and we said, “What should we do?” Terry decided that if he saw the workers in the snow, it would look more like they were suffering. So we got the actors back in the afternoon and filmed them on a pile of wheat eating and talking with snow all around them. Then the next day we got John Scott, our wrangler, to bring a sleigh in for the horse, and we shot a winter scene. John ended up as a wrangler on “The Revenant”.
“The Straight Story” (1999) / “Mulholland Drive” (2001)
David Lynch and I grew up together, and he’s a wonderful designer in his own right —he built all the sets for “Eraserhead.” It’s so fun to work with him because he understands design and construction, so you only exchange a few words with him and he will know all the difficulties. More than any other director, he writes a script and he’s visualized the whole thing in his mind. He’s not looking for anything, and he wants to develop it in his mind. Having spent so much time with David over the years, it’s a fun change for me, where you go into a film and you’re creating a world that he’s already created on paper. So you just find those elements.
The diner scene at Winkie’s [in “Mulholland Drive”] was a location. That came from a real experience of David’s, when he was in a restaurant down on Sunset Boulevard, maybe Bob’s Big Boy or Denny’s. I think he was scared by someone going through the trash as he was coming out one night, and when you’re an artist and putting together stories, there’s certain things that have impacted you that become reference points. Because we have a lot of those same reference points from growing up together in Virginia, Philadelphia and LA, I know the things that he’s going to respond to. He’s real appreciative of that. When we worked on “The Straight Story,” we gave him a paint kit and designated him the on-set painter, because I’d be doing a set like Alvin Straight’s house, and he’d be outside sweeping with a broom, or helping me cover things with duct tape. He gets so excited with sets.
Right now, he’s doing the new version of “Twin Peaks,” which my art director Ruth De Jong is designing with him. He actually called me up when I was doing “The Revenant,” like, “Come on Jack, we’ll build all the sets ourselves, and we’ll paint them too.” I had to say, “David, I’m working. In Canada.” But I knew that he couldn’t work with a normal art director, because normal art directors aren’t so hands on. So Ruth, who was a painter before she started working with me, is doing that and I think they’re getting along great. Every director’s a little different —when you start working with them, you figure out what they need, what you can contribute, and then you start touching on ideas of design.
”There Will Be Blood” (2007)/“The Master” (2012)
With Paul Thomas Anderson, one thing is we’re working with a script. Terry Malick uses a script, but it’s so long that you can’t read it [laughs]. I love them both, but they are very different. I’ve done two pictures with Paul and we pretty much plan out everything before we shoot. Terry spends a lot of time planning, but he tries to keep so much unknown so that he doesn’t get predictable. And Paul’s not worried about that.
[“The Master”] was the era of Technicolor in the ’50s, so that was why we went with the bright colors in something like the department store scene. And I sent out an assistant to get paper backdrops, and that’s what they came back with only three colors, so I said, “Let’s go with that one.” Meanwhile, Paul has said that’s the greatest decision we ever made. It’s funny: what you try to do in film, whether it’s the weather or location, is to take advantage of the things that are given to you and somehow select what works best. You concentrate on a little scene, but you really have to think about the whole picture.
I felt as comfortable with Paul on day one of “There Will Be Blood” as I did Day 30 on “The Master.” It never really changed. He’s brilliant and has a wicked sense of humor. I think I got a pass with him —maybe I remind him of someone in another life, because on all of those films, we only had one disagreement, which of course he won. That was the direction of Daniel Plainview’s office in Texas. I had it set up facing the oil derrick. And Paul said that Plainview would never have the church facing behind him. So we turned it around —it was up on posts, so we turned it around one Sunday.
The other note I got from Paul on “There Will Be Blood” was “Let’s not have any signs.” And I thought about it for a sec and said, “That’s great.” First of all, if you look at period pictures, the streets are just filled with signs, and if you had to paint all the signs, the budget would just go toward that. Secondly, it’s kind of nice to simplify it by not having a bunch of jumbled signs to read. And third, you kind of want to make films timeless. I want to make period films where you don’t know exactly what year it is. Right now, you look in someone’s backyard and they have a swing set from 20 years ago, or they have a new plastic toy that their grandchild left there last week. Their house was built 40 years ago, and their neighbors’ house was built two days ago. It’s nice creating a sense of history, and never pinpointing that you are in 1947 or 1968. With respect to design, the films that I’m most critical of look like they all took place that hour of that year.
“The Revenant” (2015)
Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki) and Alejandro have been friends since Mexico City, and they had talked about the film before I came on and had already decided that they wanted to shoot in natural light. That’s something that Chivo and I had been doing with Terry for many years, and I think Chivo actually started with natural light on “The New World.” When he came onto that picture, he had just finished “Lemony Snicket, which I believe was the biggest lighting package in the history of Hollywood. And he went from that cold turkey into working with Terry and no light, he saw how beautiful the film looked, and now he’s just a master of natural light.
With Terrence Malick, if we’re looking for interiors, we’re looking for locations with huge windows facing the south and southwest, because that’s our light source with Chivo. On “The Revenant,” we were looking for spectacular locations where the featured view was facing south or southwest. When the actors were put into the environment, the scenes were rehearsed in the day and shot in the afternoon or evening. Chivo was using digital cameras, so we had a little bit more time to shoot in the dark. My experience with Chivo was really a help on this, because I use an app called SunSeeker, where I can look at a location, dial in that we were shooting there mid-September, and see where the sun would be at a certain time and when it was going to set. I could record all that information.
We had to bring in snow, because in January it started getting warm, especially with most of the lower locations down from the mountains. We used CATS and dump trucks to haul in snow and redress the locations. But when we went up in the mountains, the snow was so deep you couldn’t walk in it and you’d sink down about six feet. We had to come in and put plywood boards down so that the men or horses wouldn’t fall in, which happened to me one time. There were also a couple locations where it would’ve been perfect to bring in trees, and in those instances, the greens crew headed up by Tom Yaremko could move trees up to fifty feet high. We’d stick those in the snow, pour water in and freeze them into position. Or we’d put them on pins and pack snow around them to make them look more natural.
We’d also simplify environments. If there were too many elements in the scene, we’d minimize some. We’d darken the trees, only because if the trees had lighter bark, your eye would settle on them. By making them dark, you’d look right past them, and it also worked to separate the actors from the background.
“Knight of Cups” (2016)
This shoot reminded me of the old days of filmmaking or of our student films in a way. We’d be working on the street, and Terry would see someone that he likes and ask him to be in the movie with Christian Bale. I was trying to see Los Angeles differently to how I’d seen it before, because it’s probably the most shot city in the history of the world. They have so many rules and regulations about shooting, so what we’d do is tell the city, “Okay, we want to be in this three-block area on Wednesday morning,” and we’d get a permit for everything in that three blocks. And then Christian would be walking down the street, shooting, and we’d zoom around in these little Mercedes vans. There was one for props, one for camera and one with actors, so we could shoot, get back in the vans and go to another location.
As a designer, you had some input in locations and environment, but man, a lot of it was like cinema verité. It was exciting, but I don’t know if any of us were in control of anything [laughs]. Including Terry, but I think he wanted that chaos, like the mansion up on the hill where the comedian had a party. We found that, and then all of a sudden Terry says he wants dogs swimming underwater there. A lot of it came from Terry’s story. He would relay a story, how he wanted to present the people, and we would do it. He’s always trying to disrupt the expected.
I haven’t seen it cut together, but we went right from “Knight of Cups,” drove to Texas and started shooting. I didn’t work really with any of the bands [during filming at Fun Fun Fun Fest and Austin City Limits]. For the onstage sets, we just put our actors in the existing environment, and went in and captured it. A lot of that stuff was better than what you likely could’ve created, just because it was natural and kinetic. Plus the way Terry shoots is so impassioned —you never know where he’s going to put the camera. He could put the camera inches away from a singer’s face, and then out in the audience. It would’ve been hard in a festival setting, where you’re intruding on real life and you only have a few hours.
I did build some props for the stage acts. There were a couple scenes where a guitar blew up, and then an amp was sawed in half. We shot so many locations in Austin that there was probably nowhere that we didn’t shoot. I go back to the city often because my girls live there, and it’s just like everything’s familiar. It’s a great way to know a town. But we shot a lot of expensive homes and hotels. We’d be shooting three or four locations a day. We went in and painted a few things, but basically it was almost like “The Revenant,” with a lot of location scouts. Terry liked to arrive at places that he’d never seen, and I think it was just the excitement or fear of shooting there that kept him going. I think right now, he’s just so excited about making films and he’s just panicked that he’s not getting enough done.
– Additional reporting by Abigail Childs.