Jack of all trades: Jack Fisk discusses his Oscar-nominated work on The Revenant

Jack Fisk is nominated for an Academy Award in production design for his work on The Revenant. The Oscars will be announced on February 28. Photo: Publicity image Jack Fisk is nominated for an Academy Award in production design for his work on The Revenant. The Oscars will be announced on February 28. Photo: Publicity image

The list of the most accomplished art directors working on Hollywood films is not exactly full of household names.

Around Charlottesville, though, Jack Fisk gets more name recognition than most because of his marriage to Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek. Once you start to notice and gauge his work—the simplicity, the clarity and the heightened but un-showy realism of it—you understand why he’s been nominated twice for an Academy Award. In 2008, he was nominated for the design of the Paul Thomas Anderson oil-boom psychodrama There Will Be Blood, and this year for his work on the harrowingly primal frontier revenge saga, The Revenant.

Known around Hollywood as a hands-on art director, Fisk is not a make-a-sketch-and-shop-for-swatches-and-direct-your-crew kind of guy. Instead, he’s a builder, and a collaborator, and a problem-solver on location.

It was one of the first things Spacek noticed about him when she met him on the set of Terrence Malick’s Badlands in 1972. She wrote about it in her 2012 memoir: “I knew he was supposed to be art director, but at first he looked to be pretty far down on the food chain, because he was doing all the work. He was always walking back and forth hauling wood and props and furniture and hammering and painting things, while his assistant art director was sitting in the shade smoking cigarettes.”

“I’m not sure that every production designer works that way,” says Fisk.

Fisk migrated to Hollywood when his lifelong friend and art school pal, David Lynch, made the move from studio art to filmmaking, and before long he was dabbling in film production himself.

When he was given his first assignment as art director, he asked a friend, “What does an art director do?” But the friend didn’t know either. That left a little room for interpretation.

“So I got this job,” says Fisk. “I didn’t really know where my responsibilities ended, so I did everything just to cover myself. I got involved in the props, the wardrobe, the set dressing…and it really helped. And I’ve been doing that since then—just doing everything I can for the film.”

The defining relationship of Fisk’s professional life is his career-long collaboration with art cinema giant Malick. Fisk has served as art director on almost all of the director’s films to date. Malick’s achievement in movies such as Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life (both of which won awards at the Cannes Film Festival) has everything to do with the visual aesthetic that he and Fisk and their cinematographers developed.

Fisk turns into an art student again when he talks about that visual style: “I took some guidance from the painter Edward Hopper,” he says. “He could tell a story with just a few objects. You’d see a woman in an office, and there’d be a file cabinet and a desk and that told you the whole story. Terrence Malick and I often talk about, in searching for locations, you look for monocultures. You know, if you’re looking out across a yard or field or something, you look for simplicity in it.”

The iconic image from Days of Heaven, the ornate Victorian mansion standing in an expansive field of grain, is a perfect example of what he’s talking about. Fisk and his crew built that house from scratch in the middle of an Alberta wheat field. It was built as a fully realized environment, complete with decorated rooms where the interior scenes could be filmed, as Malick wanted, with the wheat fields rolling away just outside the windows. “I like building worlds that are complete,” Fisk says.

That total approach to constructing sets on location is something he’s been called on to do repeatedly. In Badlands he built the treehouse encampment where Spacek and Martin Sheen hide out while on the lam. For Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood he designed and built the skeletal derrick and rough-hewn , raw-wood structures of church and offices in a 1915 oil boom town.  And The Revenant, whose location sets included a rustic frontier fort and a functioning 19th-century keelboat, was no exception. Given the raw natural environment of many of the scenes in the film, what does an art director find to do when shooting in the landscape?

“If you’re a holistic designer you find so much to do that you’re exhausted each day,” says Fisk. “We had to create a world. Somebody has to put these visual storytelling elements together. You find them, you choose them and you alter them to work for your story. Sometimes that’s simplifying the background, sometimes its building objects on the background.”

Because of his reputation as a builder of real houses and boats on location, it was striking to hear Fisk talk about how much traditional filmmaking illusion he used in designing The Revenant.

The mountain of buffalo skulls that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character encounters in a flashback is a series of foam rubber casts built on a wood and wire scaffolding that was erected in a few hours the day before shooting. The ruined church in the wilderness was constructed out of large foam blocks painted with religious frescos, which had to be secured invisibly on site against the winds that threatened to knock them over.Even seemingly natural elements, like the cave where the trappers stash their furs, had to be constructed.

“On that location, cantilevered off the cliff, I built a cave using these big rocks carved out of foam and given a cement coat and painted,” says Fisk. “For me, it’s real exciting when you put something into a natural environment and it doesn’t look like you put it there. I would say, in order to really succeed at what I do, no one should be aware of it.”

The stealth designer, whose work should be essential to the storytelling but also go unnoticed, is getting a lot of notice in the run-up to the Academy Awards ceremony. As to how the experience of being a nominee on Oscar night would be for Fisk, he points out that he’s only had one prior experience to go on. “I guess secretly when I’m sitting there I’m thinking, well, if I don’t get called up that will be much better,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.

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