getting technical

Veteran Production Designer Jack Fisk on the Wilderness of The Revenant and the Decadence of Knight of Cups

Oscar Nominee Luncheon 2016
Feb. 8, 2016 - Beverly Hills, California, U.S. - Jack Fisk arrives for the Oscar Nominee Luncheon 2016 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. (Credit Image: © Lisa O’Connor via ZUMA Wire) Photo: Lisa O’Connor/Corbis

It’s hard to think of two films more different than Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups, out this week in limited release. But for Jack Fisk, the legendary Oscar-nominated production designer and art director who worked on both, the underlying idea is the same: to find real-life locations that can help bring these otherworldly stories to life.

Fisk has worked with some of the most important directors of our time: He designed Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story, and he has worked on every single one of Malick’s films. (It was on the director’s first film, Badlands, that Fisk met his wife, Sissy Spacek.) Indeed, Fisk is such a major figure that there will be a fifteen-film retrospective dedicated to him at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image, starting March 11. Here, he talks with us about working with Malick, the differences between the filmmakers he’s collaborated with, and that now-legendary Revenant shoot. (For the record, he enjoyed it.)

So, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch. These are some of the most fascinating, distinctive filmmakers in the world, and you’ve worked with all of them. They must be so different as collaborators.
They’re all a little different, but I consider them all artists. That’s the common denominator. Alejandro’s the most physical. I always picture him as muddy and dirty — he’s right in there. Paul has more humor when he’s working. He always realizes the irony of what we’re doing. Terrence is like a poet. It’s almost magical the way he can so effortlessly create images. Of course, he does it by shooting millions of feet of film, which most directors don’t have the privilege to do. David, on the other hand, has the whole film worked out in his head before we begin. With other directors, you’re showing them options — sort of enticing them with something more, or trying to. When designing with David, you’re creating his world; you’re giving him exactly what he wants.

They’re all exciting for different reasons. It’s sort of refreshing to go from one to the other. I’ve been very lucky. I started working with Terry [Malick] back in 1972 on Badlands. I’d been doing some Roger Corman films up to that time, and what I realized with Badlands was that filmmaking could be an art form, as valid as painting or sculpture. That got me excited, so I’ve been drawn to filmmakers that have a similar approach.

Knight of Cups might be the most amazing L.A. real-estate porn I’ve ever seen in my life.
[Laughs] I didn’t have a construction department on that film, so it was all locations. We were shooting in Los Angeles, sometimes three or four locations a day. No one ever thought Terry would be able to shoot in L.A. because of the way he likes to work, and there are so many rules and regulations there. But he was seduced by these spectacular locations because they told him something about the lives of the people living in them. So it was great fun for me, because I’ve been in and out of L.A. for forty years and I got to see interiors and places I’d never seen before. This Los Angeles world is one that, even though I was there, I could never have afforded at the time. I got to see how the other people lived.

While scouting for locations for Knight of Cups, what were you looking for?
Excess. Decadence in the scale and in the representation of home life. I remember the great fun for me was studying all the clubs in L.A., and seeing women coming out of the ceiling with bottles of champagne that cost 1200 dollars. There is a certain decadence, and Terry in a strange way is fascinated by it. We were also guided by our need for natural light. We were always looking for locations with a lot of window light, and a lot of window light looking to the south and southwest. The contemporary-architecture houses tend to have more scale and glass, so those were always our first choice.

With Terrence, I never quite know what he’s going to shoot. I provide him environments. He likes to come to them often not knowing what they are, because it puts the pressure on him — it scares him a little bit, and it excites him. A lot of times with this film, there’d be no script to look at. I had an idea of what was going to take place, but no one really knew. But I always give him more set than he asks for, and more than he needs. I did the same thing with Alejandro. We built a fort for The Revenant that we could have shot a whole film in. You could shoot in 360 degrees, it had butcher shops and blacksmith shops and water wells. It had everything you needed.

How did you come to work with Iñárritu?
I met Alejandro about two years before shooting The Revenant. He went off to do Birdman, and I was involved in other projects so I couldn’t do that one with him. He called me shortly before we started The Revenant in April of 2014, and I went up to Canada a few days later and started seeing locations. I worked with Robin Mounsey, a fantastic location scout, doing an extensive search in both British Columbia and Alberta for locations that could match the scope of this film. Alejandro had given me this film, Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky, about the icon-painter. He said it was his favorite movie ever. So I knew I had to give him something of scale.

When you’re out in the wilderness, locations become more important than sets because they become the sets, so all our energy went into finding locations that had the scale to minimize man in the environment, but also had a progression, so you could understand movement. My fear as a designer is that you’re shooting a location and somebody walks around a corner and says, “Why didn’t we shoot here? This is much better.” I’m always pushing myself to find every possible location or set.

I imagine you had to take lighting into consideration here, too.
The problem we had in finding locations is that [cinematographer] Chivo [Lubezki], who I’ve worked with on six films now, wanted to shoot everything with natural light. I love that, because it makes the settings look better. So we had to find locations where the main vista was looking south-southwest, because otherwise they wouldn’t be backlit when we shot in the afternoon. We could never shoot in the morning because we couldn’t get ready in the dark to be able to pull the trigger at first light. So it was easier for us to prepare during the day and be ready to shoot as the sun was setting.

One of the important aspects of backlight I realized is that we shot with such wide cameras and often Chivo was inches from the actors’ faces. If it was frontlit, you would’ve had a shadow of Chivo all over the actors. But a lot of it was a style we’re used to working with  with Malick, because Terrence, even on Days of Heaven, stressed the importance of backlight on all his films. His father was an avid amateur photographer, and Terry grew up really aware of light. His father taught Terry so much about light, and Terry embraced it and took it to new heights. Chivo often credits Terry for teaching him so much about light.

You also shot Days of Heaven in Alberta, right?
Yeah, we shot it in 1976, in southern Alberta, near Lethbridge. I went through Lethbridge for The Revenant as well, because I remembered at that time there was some big open prairie. There was a park there, a big wild park. We went there. But then we worked up to the mountains, going north toward Canmore. I couldn’t even begin to think about sets and Indian villages and campsites until I knew the locations, because we had to know where we were building it.

But this is my favorite type of film to do. I love working outside. The challenges to finding areas that were unspoiled in this day and age are great, and so much fun, to find. But then the scale of shooting it, because we had a crew of about 200 people. You could find a perfect location, but by the time everybody’s come and had their coffee you have to clean it up so it looks untouched. Alejandro likes to work in continuity — that’s the only way he says he can work. I remember telling my crew, “Just enjoy it, because they’ll never let anyone do a shoot like this ever again.”

When you’re out in nature like that, how much power do you have over the location itself?
We often would go into locations — it’s the same thing I do on any film — and minimize and simplify it. If there’s a confusing item, we get rid of it. The other thing I did was we painted most of the trees in the film with a dark wash of water that we could clean off later. It separated the actors a little bit because it darkened the trees behind them. Our painting crew got used to going into every location and darkening the immediate environment.

We also had a great greens crew. Tommy Armanca, who was from Canada, could move fifty-foot trees with a certain ease. The crew was so good that they would bring the trees in and bury them in the snow and then freeze them in place on steel pins. Once Alejandro found that out, he was having us move everything. Sometimes a location might be lacking a place for Glass to hide, or for Tom Hardy’s character to hide. Alejandro would say, “Let’s put a forest up here!” It seems crazy to be working on that scale, but we would be moving fifty-foot trees all over the place.

We’ve heard a lot about how difficult The Revenant shoot was.
Every location has a challenge. We kept busy. It was definitely the most tired I’ve ever been. But Alejandro was always fun to work with, because he’s so passionate. He’s like a wrestler. He really gets in there. I’d watch him from behind a monitor during the fight scene, and he would be personally taking every blow and grunting and emoting with the scene as it played out. And Chivo, I’ve never seen him as exhausted as he was at the end of this film, from just the physicality of it. He and Alejandro’s collaboration was so tight — the camera was such an important part of the immersion into the lives of these trappers. Chivo had to be on the camera almost every moment. I never saw him rest. I don’t think any of us rested, but he had more responsibility than anybody else.

How important is research and authenticity to you?
It’s very important, particularly on a film like The Revenant. I like to build environments that sort of transport you to a different place. I read all the Lewis and Clark journals a few years ago when I was working on a Lewis and Clark project that was never done, so I had some idea of the time period. But then I’d look at these paintings by people like Karl Bodmer, who had painted the Indians and the trappers of the 1830s, and I started reading journals of trappers like Osborne Russell, a wonderful writer who was also a trapper. Another one called Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri, by a clerk at one of the forts. There are a lot of short stories and things written in the period. Criticism, too: For example, painters of the time painted the Indian mud homes very round and organized, and I read in a journal of the same period criticizing these paintings saying they were too round, not misshapen and awkward. If I had just looked at the paintings, I wouldn’t have had the full picture. Criticism of the paintings from the 1830s told me more about the houses than just the paintings did.

I’ve worked with [costume designer] Jacqui West on eight films now, she’s just so passionate about the Indian culture, especially of that period. We always share research on movies, but on this one if I found something of interest I’d zip it over to her or vice versa. We were often buying skins or furs from the same sources. I worked with Hamish Purdy, a Canadian set decorator, whom I met through Jim Erickson, whom I’d worked with on Tree of Life and The New World. He was just great. We had to build everything from that period. Because either it doesn’t exist or the props aren’t up to our standard. Or sometimes we’d buy props from recreators and age the heck out of them. The challenge was to create a world for each of the trappers. And so much of the world to them was just things they could carry with them. They were almost like portable sets. We’d create an environment and build up a campsite from what was available in the immediate area. Everybody got hatchets early on — all the set-dressing crew got hatchets and knives.

There are some similarities between The Revenant and some of Malick’s films — but I feel like Iñárritu’s and Malick’s visions of nature are very different.
I think Alejandro perceives nature as being against you, and Terrence sees nature as being with you. It’s a different approach. It’s really about being in reality. Nature is how you perceive it. Terry is a philosopher and he’s a birder, and he loves nature, and he gets out in it whenever he can. Alejandro comes from Mexico City, and it was a challenge for him. The excitement for him was doing a manly film about survival in nature, so it’s a very different approach than what Terry has. But it’s interesting that they use the same cinematographer and some of the same techniques. There’s quite a difference in their work.

You’ve obviously worked with some living legends. Is there one director from history you wish you could have worked with?
I’m not actually a big film buff, so I’m kind of an anomaly in this business. I don’t look to old films, or use them as research or anything like that. But I was really touched by the films that John Box designed, in particular Lawrence of Arabia. Box worked a lot with David Lean, who was a director of scale and scope, so that was a collaboration that was very special. When I saw Lawrence of Arabia, that got me excited about working on films — just the scale and the beauty of it. You’re just transported into another world. I’m not as familiar with the Russian directors, but after seeing Andrei Rublev I got excited by some of their visions. Among modern directors, Ridley Scott is a great director but sort of inconsistent — some of his films I love and some of them don’t work. But I love that he experiments and is not scared to tackle anything.

Jack Fisk on Designing Revenant, Knight of Cups