request - Filmmaker Magazine
Jack Fisk looks back on his over 30 year career as a production designer.

As told to Alicia Van Couvering


From Days of Heaven to Mulholland Dr. to Badlands to The Thin Red Line to The Straight Story to Phantom of the Paradise to There Will Be Blood to several of your other favorite movies, Jack Fisk has created the physical worlds for some of cinema's most important films. He has tried directing (Raggedy Man, with Sissy Spacek, Eric Roberts and Sam Shepard), did well at it, but decided that he liked designing better and went back to it when he heard that Terrence Malick was returning to film after a 20-year break with The Thin Red Line. His touch is always simple and genuine, even when the look of the film is stylized or surreal; the product of a kid from the South with the mind and training of an artist who likes most of all to hit nails into wood and drive trucks around wheat fields.

Fisk's work will next be seen onscreen in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Below, in his own words, Jack Fisk talks about how he likes to work, how he became a designer, and why it's important to take care of sets.

I was studying fine arts in Pennsylvania with a good friend of mine - actually my best friend, David Lynch. They asked him to come out to go to the very first year of the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills. We rented a U-Haul with his brother John and put all his stuff in it and headed west.

When I got out here I had no idea what I was gonna do. David was working in the art department on an AFI picture called In Pursuit of Treasure, and he wanted to get off of it, so I got on it. My hotel room was the editing room, and I spent my day casting gold bricks out of plaster. Then I came back and I got a job working on a film that Jonathan Demme was producing at Roger Corman's company; it was called Vigilante, I believe. I was hired as the art director. I called one of my friends up and said, "What does an art director do?" but he had no idea. I knew you had to get the sets ready, so I knew how to start, but I didn't know where the job ended. So I was doing props, and set dressing, and costumes and graphics, just sort of doing everything I could think of to cover myself because I was so afraid that I wouldn't be doing what I was supposed to be doing. So I kind of figured out in that film that I liked doing everything, as much as possible. You know, you kind of fall into what you're doing and then you realize that everything in your life up to that point has really helped you. I learned so much in art school about color, composition and about getting the courage to start something.

I grew up outside the union, and really outside the industry, so I was continually reinventing the wheel, trying to figure out new ways to do it without any instruction. I remember my first union picture was a film called Movie Movie. I was on the lot, and the union kept filing grievances against me because I was painting and hammering things - it was because I was used to doing it that way. To me the sets were just like big sculptures. I just wanted to be involved with them and I liked climbing around on them. Designing was the easy part and you were sitting down; I like being more physical. I got a reputation as being more of a hands-on production designer. Even on There Will Be Blood, at the end of the film Bill Holmquist, the construction coordinator, gave me a hammer as a going-away present. They found out that I was always happiest if they gave me something to build.


When I was starting out there was a production designer named Leon Erickson, who did McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and I heard that all the carpenters were living on the McCabe sets. They were building the houses and then living in them and building more houses, and they built that whole town, which was just magnificent. To me, that was like the perfect way to build a set. He used a lot of real props and real construction waste instead of trying to create everything. It not only saved money but it looked great. I didn't know him personally but he had a big effect on my life. The other art director I loved was John Box - when I saw Lawrence of Arabia, that's when I seriously started thinking about becoming an art director.

In 1972 I heard that Terry Malick, who was at AFI, was going to make a film and that it was a period film that took place in the '50s; it was about Charlie Starkweather. I got so excited about doing a period film that I started researching his project. He heard from mutual friends that there was this art director in town that was researching his project on his own. [laughs] We met and got along and a few months later I got in a paneled truck with a bunch of tools and headed out to Colorado. They showed up six weeks later and we started making Badlands. So I've been working with him ever since; Terry's become like my brother.

I met Sissy working on Badlands, and it was like I was building the sets for her. I got so carried away in the details - I would be filling the drawers with stuff I wanted to share with her about the story. I've tried to continue that practice with all actors. I find that actors are a great resource for finding out about the characters because they spend so much time thinking about them. The more you learn about characters the more you can know about the environment they're living in; when stuff's in sync like that it makes for a stronger presentation and story.

Terry and I have developed a relationship where we just go and look at locations together, for weeks, and that way we kind of get in sync on a picture. And then he says, "Whatever you do will be fine." He's so trusting, but I've worked so hard to fall in line with what he's after. I think also over the years we've kind of developed similar tastes. Some of it came about because we never had any money, so we always had minimal set dressing and props, and we found out that we really like the way that looked. Even today, I spend most of my time taking stuff away rather than putting stuff onto a set. Just try to keep it simple, because if people aren't confused by the background, they pay attention to what's happening with the characters, I think. I try to create backgrounds that are easy to understand so they tell you in shorthand what you need to know about the place or the character and don't distract you by giving you too much to look at. [The balance between simplicity and authenticity] is a hard one.

I've developed a real love of Edward Hopper. His paintings have a simplicity and an essence of location, so he's probably who I reference the most - I think of him almost like an art director. You really feel the humans in those environments because there's not a lot of distraction; he paints just what you need. The other artist I like is completely different and that's Francis Bacon. The thing I really like about Francis Bacon is his passion. I look at his paintings and they're like falling apart. He'll put water-base paint on oils - whatever he does, he doesn't worry about preserving it, but he worries about the moment. If he needs a dash of purple up there, he'll put whatever purple he has. I appreciate that passion.

[Twenty years after Days of Heaven], this film critic came up to me and said, "Oh I heard Terry's making a new film." And I thought, "Oh my god he's making a film? I don't want him to do it without me." So I sent him a fax saying, "I just recovered from Days of Heaven, and I'd love to work with you again."

Days of Heaven was, I guess, 1976, and when Terry started telling me about the picture his idea originally was to build a house that we could pack up, put in the truck, and drive from wheat field to wheat field and shoot. But we had no money. The story took place in Texas, but Texans had already harvested all their wheat. So we started moving north because of the later harvests. By the time the picture got its cash flow, we were up scouting in Canada. They were going to harvest the wheat in six weeks, which meant we had four weeks to build everything if we wanted some time to shoot. Now this was a nonunion film at a time when Canada didn't have much of a film industry like they do now. So it was hard to find set dressing, hard to find construction people. We found these great old steam tractors, did the barracks around the house, built the house, the barn, all in four weeks. So now when everybody says, "We only have four weeks of prep!" I say, "Oh that's plenty of time." We broke so many rules to get that done.

When I started directing, I probably thought of Terry most of all. But you know, I think I'm a better designer than director. I think I enjoy it more. The thing I don't like about directing is dealing with studios and raising money. And the thing I like about art direction is they call you up when they usually have all the money already. And when it starts, you know that in six or nine months, you'll be free again. I like things that end. With directing, it never ends. You could work on prepping something for two or three years, and it could never get made. So I'd rather work on my own projects on the farm, be with my family and then go and do a film and work really hard for a while.

Once you realize that you're not only designing a film but you're designing the way it can be shot, the collaboration with the cinematographer becomes more important. If you give them something they can't shoot, it's like you're cutting off your own foot. On Terry's films, working with Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] - that's really fun - because we're trying to do it without lights. A lot of times I'll be cutting extra holes in buildings to create more windows: Holes in the ceiling and stuff like that, so he can shoot.

I never wanted to just design sets in an office and accept whatever is built. I keep working on a set until the crew arrives - until it's shot. I keep working until the actors push me out of the way. Because it's permanent. You have to take care of them and love them and not ignore them - be there every minute you can, while they're being built and shot. Because that is their life and they will be on film forever.


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