Art director and production designer Jack Fisk has created richly textured worlds of wonder for lauded filmmakers such as Terrence Malick and David Lynch. In anticipation of The Master, his second collaboration with auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, the Oscar nominee reflects on a few of his greatest hits.
BADLANDS (1973), Terrence Malick’s first feature film, is loosely inspired by the real-life murder spree committed by drifters Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958. Fisk met his wife, Academy Award–winning actor Sissy Spacek, on set.
“Working with Terry was unlike anything I’d done in the past. We all had much more experience than he did, but he stuck to his guns and disregarded the conventions of moviemaking. I remember one morning he came out of the hotel we were living in, and said, ‘I wanna shoot over here,’ and the production person said, ‘We can’t! We sent all the trucks over there!’ And he said, ‘I don’t care!’ I realized for the first time, while working with Terry, that you could be a filmmaker and an artist. It was also the first time I met Sissy, when Terry invited me over to his house five months before we started shooting Badlands. She was going to play the part inspired by Caril Ann Fugate, but Caril was a brunette—much different than Sissy. I remember what she was wearing: a pair of baby blue overalls and a little white shirt, and she made an impression on me. She was unknown as an actor and I never could have imagined what would transpire.”
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976) tells the story of a repressed, neglected schoolgirl who develops destructive psychic powers and takes vengeance on her town. Fisk had to convince Spacek, whom he’d married after Badlands, to audition for the now-iconic title role.
“Horror movies are fun to do. I’d read the book, of course, and I’d worked with Brian before [on Phantom of the Paradise], so I knew he would give me a lot of leeway with the sets. The main house in Carrie was modeled after the house where David Lynch lived in Philadelphia. The creation of the arrow-pierced statue of Saint Sebastian in Carrie’s home came after I’d walked around downtown Los Angeles looking for religious symbolism. It nicely reflected the end of the film, with all those knives going into Piper Laurie [Carrie’s mother in the film]. I remember when Sissy was doing the shower scene, when she discovers she’s menstruating for the first time. She said, ‘Brian, how should I play this?’ And he said, ‘It’s like you were just hit by a truck.’ I go, Well, I was run over by a car once, and I started telling her that story, and she was able to use that in her discovery. I was squatting down in the shower with fake blood in my hands and before every take I would tell her that story.”
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001) was the second film that Fisk worked on with longtime friend David Lynch, whom he’s known since high school. The story of a mysterious woman attempting to deduce her past, it’s perhaps Lynch’s most confusing film—which is saying a lot.
“In David’s worlds, he takes the ordinary and makes it very mysterious. He also likes to paint and build, so it’s easy to communicate with him. He loves to get involved with a piece. He doesn’t, however, really talk about what his films mean, and I didn’t really worry about it. I just wanted to create the world for it. I remember calling him because I saw a newspaper in Virginia, where somebody had written, ‘I’ve figured out the story in 10 minutes!’ David just started laughing. I have an idea, but the story is different for each person. I don’t think David wants to lock anyone into a definite ending.”
A generation later, Fisk was still working with Malick. THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) garnered considerable acclaim for its gorgeous natural imagery and dizzying philosophical musings. The plot, which centers on a man (Sean Penn) reflecting on his Midwestern childhood and his overbearing father (Brad Pitt), wasn’t easy to dissect, but it’s as emotional and autobiographical a film as Malick has ever made.
“I was working on Mulholland Drive, and Terry invited me to lunch at Hamburger Hamlet. He took out an envelope with about 20 pages of a script for me to read. I hate reading in front of people, but I kind of perused it and that was the beginning of The Tree of Life. Over the next five years, we’d meet and go looking for small-town locations in Texas, and he was always sending me information and pictures of things that he liked. I grew up in a small town in Illinois, so it was easy to understand that environment in order to create it. The town of Smithville, Texas, gave us so much. It seemed like it was lost in time.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, THE MASTER (2012), has become the subject of controversy for its rumored depiction of Scientology. In his first starring role since his self-imposed hiatus, Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Sutton, a vagabond who gets sucked into a mysterious, cult-like religion created by a charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
“Paul is one of those people I got along with instantly. What I try to do with Paul, and with all of my directors, is to never say no—I just try to figure out what they need and how to get it there so they can make the film. I just saw The Master, and it’s brilliant. Paul is so strong with characters, more than the other directors. Terry is a philosopher and David’s head is in his own world. Paul is dealing with real, gritty characters, and I love that. I love making a set for real characters. I first met Joaquin Phoenix when we were experimenting with how to make moonshine for his character, and I remember he was an enjoyable person to be around. He slowly evolved into his character, and one day I called him by his character’s name ‘Freddie,’ and he said, ‘I’m not there yet.’ By the time we started shooting, I did not recognize Joaquin, he had become someone else. Months later, we shot our last scenes in Hawaii, and we were on the same flight back to California. I ran into him at the airport and he’d sort of transformed. He had on normal clothes, and his smile was starting to come back. I said, Joaquin, you’re back! And he responded, ‘I’m not there yet.’”