The Master Builder:
An Interview with Jack Fisk
By Nick Pinkerton

See It Big! Jack Fisk, a series co-programmed by Reverse Shot and Museum of the Moving Image, runs from March 11 to April 1 at Museum of the Moving Image.

Jack Fisk’s list of collaborators is something like a roll call of major North American filmmakers of the last fifty odd years. The production designer and filmmaker has worked with David Lynch, his classmate from high school and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Terrence Malick, on whose Badlands set Fisk met wife Sissy Spacek; Brian De Palma, who like Fisk was coming up through the scrappy world of exploitation filmmaking; and now contemporary cause célèbre directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Two Fisk-designed films are currently in theaters—Malick’s Knight of Cups and Iñárritu’s The Revenant—and he is the subject of a retrospective at Museum of the Moving Image: See it Big! Jack Fisk. For the occasion, he spoke to me for Reverse Shot by phone from Los Angeles, where he emphatically does not live.

Reverse Shot: Your last couple of films with Terrence Malick have been, for a change, placed in recognizable contemporary settings—Sonic drive-thrus, supermarkets, Las Vegas casinos. These are environments where the hand of an art director is going to be a little less evident. Did you build any complete environments in Knight of Cups, or was it more a matter of accenting existing environments?

Jack Fisk: You know my work on this film and the last film we did in Texas [the upcoming Weightless] is mostly finding locations or places to shoot in. There was no construction. I didn’t even have a construction department. Sometimes we would augment interiors with set dressing and props that we would make, paint a few walls, but generally the work become more design of locations. And the locations… Terry wanted to shoot everything. We worked so fast on that film [Knight of Cups]. We were in a little van driving around Los Angeles, it was reminiscent of films schools, the way we all started out, when you had no money and you were sneaking shots. We would say: “We want to be in Santa Monica between Ocean Ave. and 4th St. between 9 and 12.” And they would give us a little pocket of space, and we would go in there like a commando unit. The props would be in one van, the actors would be in a van, and the camera would be in a van. And we’d pull up to a street, when Terry saw something that struck his fancy, or that we had pre-planned. Usually we had something pre-planned, but a lot of the time an image would just strike Terry and we would hop out and start shooting on the street. And then if too many people noticed that there was a film company there—we didn’t look like a film company—we’d get back in the vans and drive around the corner and attack some other location.

Terry wanted to show Los Angeles. I was excited to show Los Angeles in a much different light than I’ve seen it represented in films. The way I did it in Mulholland Dr., for example, was much different than this film. Generally it was more like I was just a searcher, I was bringing stuff to Terry all the time. But he knew so much of Los Angeles. His film career began in Los Angeles, working as a writer, and then as a student at the American Film Institute, as a filmmaker. So he was familiar with a lot of the town. And some of it was reminiscent of things that had been in his life that seemed important to him. I think the image of the ocean was important: We all came out of the sea at one time, or at least that’s the way I think of it. And it’s so pleasant to shoot on the west side. So we filmed a lot of it in Santa Monica, Venice area. Then we would go to the Case Study Houses in Hollywood, some of the other locations that stand out in the film. We went as far west as Pasadena where we shot the Japanese gardens at Huntington Gardens, and then later we went out to the desert, all the way out to Las Vegas to shoot some desert stuff. Las Vegas is kind of the epitome of an artificial world. By the time we got there we were shooting in buildings that had their own painted ceilings, they didn’t need any work. And then we shot a lot of scenes in the desert between Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

RS: The Las Vegas stuff almost registers as an Old Hollywood–style Biblical epic.

JF: The way Terry’s shooting now, I think of it as expressionistic painting, there are so many quickly moving images, you have to kind of let it wash over you and you get a feeling for the story. He shoots so much footage, so much film, he was like a hungry being that just needed to be fed locations, and we were continually trying to find enough to feed him.

RS: It's fascinating how the film actively engages with the visual language of advertising, the world of image-making.

JF: I think you’re exactly right, I think what you find is the emptiness in that. We chose a lot of locations because they were minimal, but they were very beautiful. And they were very expensive, they were status symbols. The houses, the properties, the cars, people’s dress. It’s a world that’s all about presentation, and you find sometimes very little personal comfort in this quest for perfection. And I think that was Hollywood, then you go to Las Vegas and it’s even a notch further. But we’ve all become a product of advertising, we aspire to things we see in magazines, we all want to be Photoshopped before we go out in public.

RS: And the film muddies the water between yearning inspired by spiritual aspiration and yearning inspired by advertisements, eternal life or eternal youth. It’s very . . . disturbing.

JF: To me, L.A. represented all of the temptations and seductions we all face every day, everything that keeps us from living in the moment, from being satisfied, from giving ourselves time. We’re chasing something that’s really elusive and created, it’s not real in a certain sense. That’s why those images of the backlot with the fake buildings are always important. You walk behind a big building and it’s nothing but sticks and plaster.

RS: Do you live in Los Angeles?

JF: I live on the east coast now on a farm, but we keep a place here for when we’re working. It’s made me appreciate L.A. more in a certain way, when you’re here you kind of get lost in it, but when you come back you kind of marvel at just what it is, the excitement. But it’s the kind of excitement I used to have as a kid when we’d go to an amusement park. The whole thing is just bigger and brighter and more beautiful than anywhere else.

RS: Were there any discoveries that you made while canvasing the city that you were particularly excited by?

JF: A couple of things excited me. One was the artwork that I would see in people’s houses, the paintings and neon and stuff. A lot of it we couldn’t shoot because of issues with permission, but the wealth that is conserved in a small area of the world is astonishing. Another location we saw was the home of a photographer in downtown Venice, which is in the film, it’s kind of a spiritual place. His house was surrounded by a wall blocking out Venice, and being there it was so calm and tranquil, with water running, and his taste was exquisite. It was a weird little oasis, so beautifully designed and decorated, it had a big effect on all of us when we went in there. That’s the thing about L.A., you find these juxtapositions, something that looks like a Southern mansion next to a Disney bungalow, the houses, the cars, everything is so different, put together without anyone controlling the picture.

RS: And you shot downtown in what’s left of the Skid Row area, too?

We shot downtown, which has changed quite a bit. There were a couple of scenes we shot in hotels, a couple of party scenes there. There was one scene in a pool that was up there by one of the hotels, we shot in the party rooms that restaurants would have up on the top floor. And then we shot Skid Row, and you find all of these shocking things right next to each other. You go out of this expensive hotel where everybody’s in gorgeous gowns and Armani suits and then you go downstairs and there’s just people sleeping on the sidewalk in filth. And, at least for me, in watching the film, it’s seeing the people who are the throwaway of all of this. Some people are able to partake of it for a certain amount of their time, then some people are just cast aside, like flotsam and jetsam.

RS: I’m surprised to hear that you did so little touching up of locations. I thought the strip club at the very least must have been improved on.

JF: No, I think you’re referring to a strip club that’s down on Pico Blvd., and I don’t think we did much of anything in there. We might have added some lights. Generally in a situation like that we take away stuff rather than add. We take away signage, we take away stuff that’s too specific, anything that would pull you away from what’s happening there. We shot some other clubs, one of them was down on Sunset Blvd., and I’d never been in clubs like that, where you see the girls come down from the ceiling. You go to these clubs and… I don’t know that I could have improved on them much. We did build a prop of an electric chair, and we did add some draperies to the walls, which were just too white, but generally… People would be paying $12,000 for a bottle of Dom Pérignon that an underdressed woman would deliver from the ceiling, she would drop down with a bottle of champagne with sparklers on it for a Saudi prince or whatever. How do you top that?

RS: There are so many simulacra of other places and things, so many totally artificial environments, I suppose it was just a matter of looking around.

JF: Duchamp did his whole series of pieces that were found art, a shovel or a bicycle wheel. This is kind of “found” Los Angeles. It all exists. We didn’t do much more than bring some furniture to the houses or add some paint. There’s so much here. And we were exhausted because we shot so much. If you notice the way Terry shoots, it’s so quick. There are no scenes, really, more a bunch of brushstrokes. The thing that excited me about this particular one is… It seemed like a new way of making films. It wasn’t like any film I had seen, even different than Terry’s other films. When I watched it, I got to see it in a screening room by myself, with no distraction. I just let it wash over me, and I think I understood it. We all bring so much to a film when we watch it, it will affect different people differently.

RS: In The Revenant, you’re working on something that’s maybe nearer to your work on Malick’s The New World, building a Jamestown from the ground up. Here you’re building a frontier fort from the ground up. And the period of The Revenant, like that of The New World, is generally neglected by the Western, which usually focuses on America during or after the Civil War. What points of reference were you looking at when you were trying to find visual guidelines for the Jacksonian West?

JF: About five years ago I got involved with a project at HBO on Lewis and Clark. I ended up not doing it because they just needed more time, but it got me excited. I was reading the journals of Lewis and Clark, and then I started looking at paintings by Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, and he’d done beautiful paintings of the Mandan Indians that Lewis and Clark had visited in South Dakota. And I got more excited about that period, and when I was searching for locations for that film, I went to some recreated forts that were made in Oregon and different parts of St. Louis… And I just didn’t believe them. I didn’t believe that those men would’ve built those forts at that time with those materials. And what I would read in the journals is that actually Fort Clatsop, that Lewis and Clark had built, was made with wood they stole from Indian fishing camps. It wasn’t represented in the telling that everybody sees as history. So I got excited to show that they were really survivalists; they weren’t carpenters, they weren’t architects, but they were building stuff that was familiar to what they knew and they had more building abilities than most of us today. It’s a period that I like. There weren’t photographs, so you don’t have any real photographic reference. So I work mostly from journals. The Lewis and Clark journals, and Osborne Russell wrote a long journal about his life as a trapper. And I look at paintings of other people that are working in that period. And then I read a lot of anthropologists who were studying just a little bit after that, studying the American Indian and their housing, writing reports.

I think in films we have an opportunity, a responsibility to present history, because for a lot of people that’s the only time they’re going to see 1823. They will look at a movie. I got excited about history, especially when I was working on The New World and I started reading the journals of Jamestown residents, the chronicles by all the settlers. And some of them I believed and some of them I didn’t and some of them I believed parts of, and sometimes I thought they were writing about stuff they didn’t really understand. And then I researched it further and—Jamestown was a company, they were founded to make money. And they were actually editing everything that was written because they didn’t want anything bad to be said, they wanted to attract people to come in and invest in Jamestown and help them colonize the New World. So I started working with this anthropologist, Dr. Bill Kelso, who discovered the Jamestown fort in 1994, a fort that was built in 1607, and then they lost it, nobody knew where it was. He found it underneath a Civil War fort on the James River. Until that time everybody thought that the river had changed and it was out in the middle of the river. But Dr. Kelso read the journals of Thomas Spillman, a young man who was given to the Indians to learn their language—this is something they did a lot in those times, they would leave a child with the Indians and the Indians would send a child to the English and they would grow up and learn the language so in a year or so they could come back and those kids could translate.

A few years ago I read the journal 12 Years a Slave and I believe that was heavily edited by the publisher. I’ve read journals by Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, lots of journals, and this stuff didn’t ring true to me. I think somebody came in and doctored it up. And it changes history, it changes the way we look at things, it changes the way we think people talked. There was stuff about the trappers that we couldn’t use in The Revenant because it was just too crazy. An affectionate term that they had for each other was “Nigger.” Even Washington Irving went out to visit a fort in about 1850 and he recorded a lot of dialogue, and that was in his writing. I talked to Alejandro [Iñárritu] about it and he said there’s no way we can put it in. And I understand that. But I hate to see us lose history through editing. I think we would all be much better off if we weren’t trying to hold up to some ideals that didn’t exist. Everybody is human and struggles and makes mistakes, and that’s what I’m trying to do in my portrayal of sets, illustrate all the mistakes.

RS: So there’s a lot of peeling back layers of aestheticization, looking for ulterior editorial motives, trying to get as close as possible to original sources without leaving anything that intervenes. You’ve mentioned Duchamp and looking at paintings, and I know you have a fine arts background, starting at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, doing sculpture.

JF: I started as a painter and then I did sculpture. My sculptures were primarily big, simple shapes. They were big enough that I would have to climb on them to complete them. My studio was a big loft above an auto body shop, so I was inhaling lacquer thinner all of the time, and the paint on the cars below. But I was using their equipment to make my sculptures. Then I saw a Rosenquist show at the Metropolitan that got me very excited about painting in the large scale; he was doing paintings that were 80 feet long. He’d been working as a sign painter, and was doing these paintings that were like billboards. So I thought I would love to work as a sign painter for a while. And that’s when I first came to L.A.

RS: Did you have any influence over the fact that Warren Oates’s character in Badlands is a sign painter?

JF: No, that came from Terry, but we had fun doing that billboard. I’d worked with Joan Mocine on Messiah of Evil, which was all murals and stuff; she worked with me on that and then she painted that billboard on Badlands. I remember the day that we went out to shoot it Terry said “Can you open it up a little bit?” and I took out that panel—if you watch the film, Warren Oates is sitting on the ledge painting the billboard and there’s a section of the billboard taken out and laying to the side. I learned so much from Terry on that—instead of shooting against a flat wall, suddenly you have this perspective of the land, the desert, going out forever. Since then I’ve always tried to avoid putting actors in a place where it’s just a flat wall, I do that continually. Terry’s just brilliant; he knows so much stuff, it’s exciting.

RS: I’m glad you mentioned Messiah of Evil. How did you transition from sign painting into these art directing jobs, initially around what we’ll call the exploitation circuit?

JF: I started art school when I was about five years old. We moved around a lot, but everywhere we went my mother would find an art school and put me in it. I think she had wanted to be an artist when she was young, and so I got exposed to art at an early age. And then when I came to L.A. and I couldn’t get a job painting billboards I got offered a job for $100 a week working on a film, and the first day they were shooting in Topanga Canyon and they had me about a quarter-mile up the road holding traffic while they were shooting. It was very low budget. I was curious as to what was going on down there—what were they shooting?—and I kept working my way closer and closer to the set, and got to know a group of people who were all working non-union films and we would help each other out. Somebody would hear about a film and we’d all go work on the film, and then on to another one. So I got a job working in the art department, and I’d done a lot of building because I’d done these sculptures, so I had tools, and I traded my motorcycle for a truck, and I sort of advertised myself as being able to design sets and build them. I was like a one-man-band, I’d dress ’em and do all that stuff.

But I got my first job, as art director, when Jonathan Demme was producing a film, I think it was called Angels Hard as They Come, Joe Viola was directing. And I went up to meet on that film and the competition for the job was the art director I’d just worked for, and it was between the two of us. I remember going into an office the next day and Jonathan said, “Well, we’d like you to be the art director but we can only pay $375 a week.” Now, I’d been making $100 a week. So I said, “Well, I really love the script, I’ll do it for that.” My salary and my responsibilities quadrupled, and suddenly I was involved in stuff that I didn’t really understand. I called Steven Katz, who was the cinematographer, and I said, “Now, what does an art director do?” I didn’t know. And his answer was, “I don’t know.” So I started doing everything. Now, I knew I was going to have to build the sets—there weren’t a lot of sets, but there was a hippie commune and a Western town. There was an artist, Edward Kienholz—an L.A. artist, but I saw a piece of his at a museum in Boston where he’d recreated the interior of Barney’s Beanery. And I got so excited about creating these environments that looked kind of real. And so I started doing that, just one thing led to another. I was here at a time, 1970, when no one else was thinking about being an art director. There were three of us in town, but I got plenty of work because no one else wanted to do it or thought about doing it. And I was assured, if they said they needed an oil tank I would just build it, I thought I could do anything. It was crazy.

RS: Messiah of Evil is interesting because you’re tasked with the problem of taking everyday environments and making them into something a little uncanny, a little sinister. And along with To the Wonder it has your best supermarket scene.

JF: You know, I got onto that film when I was called by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Gloria Katz was the sister of cinematographer Steven Katz, who I’d called up for advice. He started working on that and said “Well, you gotta come over and work on this.” I said, “Okay, now I’m an art director, I’ve got to think of some interesting things to do.” I love painting murals, so I got that idea and presented it to them and they loved it. And because we were shooting out in Silver Lake in a boring, square room, by painting all the walls and making it seem like it wasn’t a house at all, it just made it more interesting. And then we started finding locations that were also interesting, like the gas station in Agoura. It was just putting things together, and I was learning stuff every day, trying to figure out what an art director does. Even today I’m trying to figure out what an art director does. I started early on approaching sets through character, that it made it easier.

RS: Can you explain what you mean by that?

JF: Well, you can design things that are beautiful or you can design things that are character-driven, and I’m always up to go more for the character than for something that’s just well-designed. I often tell people working for me that I don’t want the film to look art directed, I don’t want it to be perfect. And so, if I’m thinking of character—and you know I married an actress, so it’s gotten even more important to me—even if you’re building an ordinary apartment, you try to make it more about the character that’s in that environment. Wardrobe does it with clothing, I do it with possessions. A lot of time people won’t own their house, but the few things they have in a room could tell you something about them that the script can’t, because when you’re shooting you just have what you see. And I learned working on low-budget films that the fewer things you give people to see, the more they’ll see them. A big influence on me was Edward Hopper, because I look at his paintings and you have two or three objects in a room, but they combine to create a mood and a whole story. Suddenly a lamp become important, or a poster or a piano, and you choose more carefully. And when I started working on films that had more money, I found out that getting more stuff doesn’t make it better, so I kind of retained that minimalism.

RS: Often something that throws me when watching a period piece is that everything onscreen is absolutely perfect to the period when it’s set.

JF: That drives me crazy!

RS: One of the things that I love about Badlands is that you have a sense of the pioneer days still lingering in the Midwest of, say, 1960, the old Stereopticons and antique pieces. Just because it’s 1960 doesn’t mean everybody’s chucked their stuff from 1940 or 1930.

JF: That’s what I always say. If you go in somebody’s backyard you might see a swing-set that’s 40 years old and you might see a dog’s plastic toy that’s there from yesterday and everything in between. And houses are the same way. In the twenties they’d add on these new additions . . . That’s the thing I notice most in period films, when it looks like everything belongs to the same day and they put a nicotine wash on everything so it looks dusty. That’s what I tried to especially avoid in There Will Be Blood, we made a lot of stuff that was very new, all the wood, the derricks and so on. And the house, the Sunday ranch, we built that without any plan, I just sort of sketched it on the ground and worked with the carpenters for a few days getting it started. We bought piles of used wood and had it delivered there, and I just did a little sketch of a house that I once lived in in Vermont. And I said, “Let’s pretend this guy’s from Vermont and he doesn’t know about building but he wants to build a house that looks like the one he grew up in or that he knows. Something familiar.” And that’s how we put that house together. And it has a dog-trot in it, something that’s more East Coast than California, something that he might have remembered. What I try to do is have a reason for most things, and a lot of time they’re just invented or some kind of instinct, but it makes it fun. I have so much fun building stuff.

For Days of Heaven, we only had four weeks of prep when I had to build the house. I was pretty young then, like twenty-seven, and I hadn’t done that many films. We’d rented this land, and part of this land was in a wheat field owned by the Hutterites, then part of it belonged to a cattle rancher. It was in the middle of nowhere. And when we first found the location, Terry came out and I met him there and the Hutterites came in and said, “Well, this wheat, we’re going to cut it in six weeks.” And I loved this wheat, which wasn’t like the hybrid wheat today, which is short; it was tall wheat. And Terry said “Oh, I have to shoot it before you cut it.” And I was saying, “Well, you can be shooting the wheat and I’ll build the house.” And he said, “No, I want to see the house in the background.” I said, “Okay, we have to get that house, we have to get that exterior up in four weeks.” And he says, “Well, I also want to shoot from the interior looking out at the tall wheat fields.” I kid Terry about it now, but in that moment I realized in four weeks I was going to have to not only move to Canada but also design the house, build it, and have it ready to shoot with dressing and everything. So I got on a plane that day, went to L.A., got some friends who were builders, borrowed a bulldozer from the rancher and we started building the house. It was just crazy, and to this day it’s one of the toughest films I’ve ever done.

RS: By then you’d gotten well out of the ranks of the low-budget pictures. I’d be remiss not to ask about Terminal Island, Stephanie Rothman’s movie, which is a proper piece of world-building.

JF: Oh, yeah! Wow, you know, I shot that after Badlands. I really liked her, but I don’t remember too much about it, except the cast was very attractive. When I was working on Badlands, the effects man, Roger George, came up to do the fire effects, and he hired a local assistant. Anyways, they put too much rubber cement in the building and it exploded, he was burned over a large part of his body and was evacuated by aircraft. I ended up rebuilding the set and doing the burning myself.

RS: I’m a great fan of Vigilante Force as well, with the climactic shoot-out in the Corriganville Ranch.

JF: That was 45 years ago! I saw parts of Darktown Strutters the other day.

RS: Yeah, that’s a fascinating, funhouse movie, with those incredible tricked-out bikes.

JF: Right after Badlands I went and worked with Brian De Palma on Phantom of the Paradise, which I had a lot of fun on. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz had told me about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when I was painting the sets for Messiah of Evil, they told me I had to see it. So I watched that and fell in love with it, and when I was doing Phantom of the Paradise I did one of the stage sets all hand-painted like Caligari. I had so much fun because I had never done theater sets before and suddenly I’ve got these 40-foot paintings on the ground and I’m walking in my stocking feet with a paintbrush with a five-foot handle, painting the backgrounds.

RS: What’s are some of the considerations when dealing with someone like De Palma, who’s working from storyboards, and someone like, say, Malick or Iñárritu, who is more free-flowing in his cinematographic approach and needs environments that can be moved in freely? What are some of the distinct challenges that different filmmakers brought to you?

JF: Brian storyboarded everything. At the time I worked with him they were on 3” x 5” cards. You can go into his office, and after you’ve been there a couple of weeks the whole office wall is lined with these cards. So you can say, “What do you need on that scene with the prom?” and he’d look up there and he’d show you a close-up of Carrie and the bucket in the background; everything was pretty much explained, to the point that when Brian was shooting he’d get bored waiting for the lighting set-ups because he’d already made the film in his mind. But he gave me a lot of freedom to work. I think he liked what I did with Phantom of the Paradise and then when it came to Carrie I just had fun with it. David Lynch and I lived in Philadelphia, and we lived in the house, they used to refer to this kind of house as a “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost House,” it was like one room on top of another with a staircase going up. And I used that kind of design for Carrie’s house, because I just like the name, and her mother was kind of a religious nut, so I thought “Well, Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

Working with Alejandro was interesting. He reminded me of a wrestler, he really fights with the scenes to get them right; he works hard and he’s emotional, he’s passionate about what he’s doing and everything seems important. I think he sort of accepted everything I came up with. Sometimes he’d say, “Well, why are you doing this?” and I would tell him and it made sense to him. Or he would tell me something that he wanted and it would make sense. And I think we got along very well at that level.

With David Lynch, he’s an artist who can also build and design anything, and he has the whole film in his mind, so the trick with working with David is to get into his mind and find out the imagery that he likes and help him create that world. I’ve known David since we were in high school, so it’s probably easier for me than some people because I know images that affect him, things he’s seen in his life, some of which I’ve also seen, figure out where the imagery is coming from and make good use of that. Paul Thomas Anderson is just a great researcher, and he shares all his research. When I started working with him on There Will Be Blood, he gave me like 100 pages of photographs and research, so he’d already done a big part of my work, so the goal became to find something he didn’t know about. A lot of time it’s just seeing what you’re given and responding to it. I think going to art school my whole life I was given such confidence in what I could do that I was able to tell Paul, when he asked “How are you gonna build this derrick?” and I could tell him, “Well, I don’t know that.” And he kind of accepted that. And a couple months later we started building a derrick. Outside L.A. there’s an oil derrick; they have a museum in town, and they were selling these blueprints of an old derrick that was built in 1893. For like two dollars I got the drawings I needed, did a little research, and found some time-lapse photography of derricks going together and stuff, and we just figured it out. It’s a little detective work, a little adjusting what you need to what you’re given, and trying not to do things that will draw attention to themselves but things that are physical that will help the story.