Inside The Enduring Movie Homes Of Jack Fisk, Production Design Legend

Jack Fisk poses for a portrait during the 96th Academy Awards Oscar nominees luncheon on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Jack Fisk poses for a portrait during the 96th Academy Awards Oscar nominees luncheon on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Jack Fisk, the legendary production designer, has been down a lot of roads in his life. He goes looking down back roads for movie locations and hillsides on which to plop down mock houses. He’s been to the Solomon Islands for “The Thin Red Line” and the Canadian Rockies for “The Revenant.” But America, really, is his territory.

Fisk, 78, has for half a century been building some of the most indelible homes and structures of movies. He crafted the grand Victorian that peers down from above the wheat fields in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven" (1978). He erected the oil derrick of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” (2007). And he built Mollie Burkhardt's Osage home for Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” which entailed recreating the circa-1919 Oklahoma town of Fairfax, expands the wide swath of American ground, and history, that Fisk has covered. And it’s earned Fisk his third Oscar nomination, a capstone to a career crafting rough-hewn on-screen worlds with such fine-grained dimensionality that you feel as though you walked through them.

That’s partly because you — or at least the actors — actually could. Though much set design is done piecemeal, with a few facades just for the camera, Fisk prefers to build entire houses on location to give filmmakers and actors the ability to cross in and out of them. To see out the windows.

“We build everything so it can be shot from 360 degrees,” Fisk said in a recent interview from his home, a 210-acre horse farm where he and his wife, Sissy Spacek, live in Albemarle County, Virginia. “And directors take advantage of it. I love not narrowing down their options too early. They can move. And when the actors get involved, it’s much more organic.”

“It’s something I’ve always liked to do just because I like to build,” Fisk added, smiling.

In winter, work around their house in Virginia had slowed, though Fisk had spent that morning tiling a bathroom for his daughter. Work on the house moves at a crawl, he says, compared to on set. On “There Will Be Blood,” he had some 50 carpenters nailing away. “When you do it yourself, everything slows down to molasses,” he says.

Fisk first set out as a painter and sculptor. He attended art school and initially came to Hollywood only with an idea of painting billboards. After latching onto filmmaking, he’s helped designed all kinds of movies. “Carrie” (1976). “Eraserhead” (1977). “Mulholland Drive” (2001). He’s worked on nearly every Malick movie. But what he’s best known for are his homes.

“Where are you going to put all these sculptures? You’re going to lug ‘em around or put ’em in a storage area,” Fisk says. “When I got involved in films, it was so exciting because I would build it and then they would film it. So there was a record of it. I was just as happy to never see it again. It always looks better when they filmed it. The lighting is there, the set dressing is there, the actors are performing in it. So you’re remembering it in the best possible light. Now, I build my sculptures to look like houses.”

Ahead of the Oscars, Fisk recounted the stories behind a few of his most enduring constructions.

“DAYS OF HEAVEN”

For Malick’s 1916-set tale of a love triangle on a Texas farm at harvest time, timing brought Fisk to Alberta, Canada. The season was late and more southern farms had already harvested their wheat. In Alberta, Fisk had six weeks until harvest time, and four until cameras rolled to build Malick the house the director envisioned dominating Ed Hopper-like landscapes.

Fisk, wanting to please Malick, decided to build the whole thing.

“I think a lot of it is just I was new to the business. I didn’t know you could not build the whole thing,” says Fisk. “Also, I had done one other film with Terry at the time, ‘Badlands,’ and I realized how fluid he was and uncommitted. He never uses storyboards. He doesn’t even really look at drawings. He likes to show up and just feel it. More than any director I’ve worked with, he’s concerned about the light.”

“Days of Heaven” remains one of the most lushly realized settings in American cinema, soaked in sunset hues and seas of wheat fields broken only by the workers thrashing in them and the mansion that looms above.

“Everyone thought it was all shot at magic hour, which we soon called ‘tragic hour’ because it was so short,” says Fisk. “But it wasn’t. He’d shoot east in the morning and west in the afternoon.”

“THE NEW WORLD”

Fisk’s father built foundries, and, as a 10- or 11-year-old, Fisk began to build forts of his own while growing up in rural Illinois. (For “Badlands,” he made a three-story fort in the woods in a single day. “Terry shot the heck out of it,” Fisk says.) But Malick’s 2005 film “The New World,” about the founding of Jamestown, demanded a fortress of a far greater scale.

Fisk has been called a Method-style production designer for his fidelity to authenticity, often building period sets with period-appropriate tools.

“I sort of approach these films like I’m making a documentary in a way,” Fisk says.

An obsessive researcher, Fisk dug into the methods that Jamestown was constructed with in the early 17th century. That led him to be dubious of some depictions of a more polished Jamestown with smooth-cut planks. Fisk suspected something grubbier. And sometimes — like in Fisk’s selection of a saw pit location — his deductions were proven right by the simultaneous research of archeologist Bill Kelso, who directed the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

“He came back to set and he said, ‘I found evidence of a saw pit in almost the exact same location at Jamestown,” Fisk says. “So we knew we were on the right track. A lot of history is common sense and people doing stuff as efficiently as possible. A lot of my work is doing a lot of research and kind of leaving it and working from your gut.”

“THERE WILL BE BLOOD”

Fisk has compared the work of a production designer to be a little like playing God, and a little like being a kid. For Anderson’s 2007 mad epic, he walked ranches around Marfa, Texas, before deciding on the knoll where the 90-foot oil derrick would go. For a film where commerce and religion clash with a common frenzy, the church went on an opposing hillside.

“I love it when you’re on foot with a director-writer and the story starts to visualize for him,” Fisk says. “We suddenly know how many steps it is to get to the church from the derrick. It starts to become real.”

An inherent part of production design for Fisk is building in service of the characters. He first connected with Spacek on Malick’s “Badlands” after he had sensitively filled drawers on set with knickknacks that related to Spacek’s character.

“Daniel-Day Lewis, as he found wardrobe things he liked, he wore them always. He found a hat in ‘There Will Be Blood’ and he just wore it,” Fisk says. “He asked us to make him a room behind his house in Marfa that had nothing but the furnishings from the period so he could go in there and just zone out into the time zone.”

“TREE OF LIFE”

Fisk didn’t need to build any of the homes for Malick’s 2011 cosmic coming-of-age drama, based loosely on the director’s own childhood memories growing up in ’50s Texas. He located a community of the right kind of period homes in Smithville, about 40 miles southeast of Austin.

“I added windows and skylights for lighting purposes. But they were houses that existed,” Fisk says. "I blocked off about five square blocks of houses and took out air conditioning units and metal sheds and put up fences to cover things that weren’t right so that Terry could walk into that five-acre backlot and shoot pretty much anything.”

One dramatic exception: the giant live oak tree that Fisk brought in. Malick hadn’t requested it. "But it seemed important — you know, ‘Tree of Life’ — that there was a tree in his yard,” says Fisk. He found one on a ranch outside of town. Then came the stressful and complicated job of moving it — all while, Fisk remembers, Malick, kept a nervous distance, fearful that a movie titled “Tree of Life” would fell a great oak.

“The highway department in Texas shut down a freeway so we could drive on the wrong side of a freeway to avoid a bridge," recalls Fisk. "Then when we got into town, the phone company and the cable TV company and the power company all sent crews out. They would cut the lines, we’d send the tree through and there’d be another crew putting them back up. People would be out in their yards in lawn chairs watching this two-mile-an-hour parade going by.”

“KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON”

Recreating Fairfax wasn’t Fisk’s greatest challenge on his first film with Scorsese. There were photographs from the time period and plenty of historical documents. (One personal tweak he made, though, was housing a pool hall and barbershop in one location, as he remembered from growing up in the Midwest.)

More complicated was tracing the home of Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). Old court documents suggested she hadn’t owned her home but lived with her mother, Lizzie. That led him to a possibility on the Osage reservation that Fisk took as inspiration but extended with a second floor and a wrap-around porch. Again, he built it in full, with a few holes carved out for places Scorsese wanted to put a camera.

“I love building houses like we did in Marty’s film out in the open,” Fisk says. “They’re in the house. They walk outside on the steps. The weather affects them. If there’s rain they can hear it. They know to get any breeze you’ve got to open a window.”

“When you look out in 360 degrees, you’re not seeing anything that pulls you out of that period,” he adds. “In those houses, we built them so far out into the prairie that we had to build roads to get into them. The only thing that would tell you that you’re not in the period is the camera equipment.”

Watching “Killers of the Flower Moon” again, it’s striking how much of the film lives in and around Mollie’s home. Her house wasn’t flimsy, either. It had to last through bad weather and a lengthy production.

“The sets on that film were built to last the entire shoot,” Fisk says. “They were built strong because we were in a hurricane alley and had to build to withstand strong winds. It just made it doubly fun to build it like a real house.”

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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