Few talents in cinema have built up a finer bevy of collaborators than production designer Jack Fisk. Over the last four decades, he’s crafted detailed worlds for Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, and Stanley Donen, to name but a handful. Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s The Revenant earned him his second Oscar nomination and marked his sixth collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki — but as often happens with the workflow of Malick, we’re just now getting their the fourth collaboration, Knight of Cups, which arrives in theaters this Friday.
I had the chance to speak with Fisk about his work on the feature, how Terrence Malick has evolved over the years, a seminal experience in getting him into filmmaking, what “bad” production design means, the aspect of letting go of his work, working with Lubezki, the differences between Malick and Iñárritu, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
You’ve worked with Terrence Malick since his first films, and now he’s evolving to tell stories in the modern day. Can you talk about how that shift changes your approach to production design and the unexpected things that have come from it?
Well, my work with Terry has changed a lot since To the Wonder, since we’re shooting present-day and we’re also working without a script. I mean, Terry has a script, I think, in his mind, but we’re working almost like jazz musicians. He plays something and we try to pick up on it; the camera tries to pick up on it. So it’s an exciting way to work. Generally, I love to build environments and worlds, but, in films like Knight of Cups, the medium that I use to put the sets together are locations.
So it’s different. I was telling somebody the other day — it was like a found Los Angeles. It was to try and find an LA that was different from what you see on television every day, because this is the most-shot city in the world. I worked in L.A. when I was younger, and I did Mulholland Dr. here, and I wanted to do something that was completely different. This film is really not about the sets. It’s about the ensemble that tells Terry’s story. So we provided Terry with a lot of locations, and he shot all of them.
He never not shot them. He just always wanted more. So it was like this hungry beast that we were feeding. [Laughs] He’d eat them so quickly and we’d have to shovel more food in there. I saw the film a few weeks ago and it just blew my mind. It’s such a beautiful film. I found it so powerful. It’s like an impressionistic painting. It represented all of the temptations and seductions that we face every day in life through advertising and television and expensive cars, whatever — anything that would take us from being in the moment to lusting over something else. I thought L.A. was represented well in that; through the models, through the locations. It was like an expensive, beautiful world that never gave you a satisfaction.
I just found it to be really powerful. You see people that have everything that they wanted and they weren’t happy. Cate Blanchett was such a caring woman. You saw her with the lepers in the clinic and Christian wasn’t satisfied, and he went looking for something else, but everything he found was so hollow in comparison. I used to think, as a kid, you’re at a party and you keep thinking the next party might be better. You leave and then you get there and you go, “This is not as good as the one I was at.” You’re never in the moment. You’re always looking for something. You’re always tempted by something else. That’s what I sort of got when I watched the film.
Definitely. There’s a line in the movie where Christian Bale’s character is getting robbed and the robber says, “Your house is empty.” From a production designer’s standpoint, how do you make something that “looks empty” but still has to define the character and have some life to it? What’s your approach to making a space look empty?
I love that scene, by the way. We put possessions in there that didn’t mean anything to him. You saw the way he treated his sofa, his television. The place wasn’t really decorated. It didn’t represent him. There wasn’t anything in there that told you much about Christian’s character. In that way, I think it became empty. It’s a great question. It just was an empty place. You think about what you have to think about in twenty years or when you’re on your deathbed; you’re not going to be thinking about television set or a piece of furniture, probably.
Or how expensive your apartment was or how big the view was. You might think about the view, but you don’t think about the apartment you have to work for every week.
I read in an interview that seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert as a teen had a huge impact on you. I think this is the first Terrence Malick movie where the world almost feels oppressive, in the view of Christian Bale’s character. I drew a few parallels, as it feels the world is closing in on him, such as when the airplanes goes by. Can you talk about your experience of seeing Red Desert and what that movie meant to you?
I think it was about 1965 and I was going to Cooper Union in New York, an art school, and walking home. I walked by this theater and it just said Red Desert, and it was Antonioni’s first color film and I had decided to go in there and watch it. I loved it. I remember I sat through it twice, because I had never seen a film like that. My film experience had been very shallow. I mean, I moved around in my life, but I was never into films. I saw this and it just reminded me of a painting. I didn’t think about it a lot until I was watching Knight of Cups. When I got out of the theater, I started thinking back about the power that that film had had on me, and kind of in an abstract way. This film of Terry’s I really think of as an impressionistic painting and kind of a jazz piece, in that everybody was contributing in certain ways, but not programmed at all. Terry works to make things spontaneous. I mean, he’ll throw non-actors into a scene with Christian Bale, or he’ll shoot something that no one has planned to shoot. He’ll give the actor a camera to go shoot. It’s a very exciting way to work.
I think what he’s come up with in this film — which seems very new to me, that I hadn’t seen exactly before — we used to talk when we started on The Tree of Life: he was talking about vertical editing as something he wanted to do. On this, I think he’s really found a new way of telling a story that I found very powerful and complete, without being linear. Sometimes you get bored, and that’s what I think happened to Terry. You watch films and there’s a master and an over-the-shoulder and a close-up and an insert. Then you go on to the next scene. He didn’t want to do that. His stuff is more like our mind. We’re continually bombarded with thoughts and sometimes completely unrelated thoughts, but a mood comes out of it. You’re either happy or you’re depressed or you’re curious or you’re confused. Our mind is just going so fast, continually, and we’re reacting to different things, and that’s kind of the way that I felt while watching the film.
Some audiences might not pick up on the exact task a production designer has. In your opinion, what are some qualities in a film that has production design that doesn’t really work?
I think that production design is most successful when you don’t notice it. If you go to a film and you’re watching the movie and you’re starting to think about production design or sets or costumes and stuff and it doesn’t seem a part of the story that you’re watching, then it’s failed in a certain way. I’ve struggled to make things look undesigned, which is sometimes harder than it sounds. I know Chivo said the same thing. You don’t really want your work to stand out.
Hopefully the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that people aren’t picking out the parts while they are watching it, that they are seeing this conglomeration of contributions that really get you involved in the story. I saw Knight of Cups in a theater by myself and it was so wonderful because I didn’t know what to expect, even though I worked on it. I just sort of watched it and let it wash over me. I just had such a great experience and I loved the film so much. I thought it was very powerful. To me, it’s all about getting into the moment and not being distracted and tempted about things around us.
As a production designer — and this goes with every aspect of filmmaking — you put in all this work. Tangibly, it goes away, but it’s forever immortalized onscreen. Is there a letting-go process you have after a film is done? Do you revisit those films to revisit your worlds?
Usually my favorite part of a film is making it and, when it’s over, I’m satisfied and just want to get away from it as far as I can. [Laughs] I don’t usually revisit films and go back, but I think about them often. I don’t really want to replicate my work in the next thing I do, so I try not to develop a real style or a way of answering challenges. I’m so relieved that you can create something and then not have to carry it around with you. When I was doing sculptures, I would move to another house or something, and I’d go, “I don’t want to take all this.” I’d leave it in the basement of that house or throw it in a dumpster. I didn’t want to lug it around for three houses until it was so fallen apart that I would just get rid of it. With film, you create something and it’s preserved forever. You don’t have to lug it around. I love that.
I learned, early on, not to fall in love with the work so you can let it go. I remember I was in a sculpture class once and we’d all been sculpting these figures for a week, and then the teacher came in and started critiques. Then he’d say, “Okay, now tear it apart.” Well, some of the students would go and hide their pieces because they didn’t want to tear it apart. I thought, “If you’re going to create something, you also have to be able to let it go.” In the design process, I’ve had to let stuff go many times. You design something and then you throw it out and design it again. There would be certain elements that might come out, but you purposely try to explore every angle, so you’re doing things completely differently. And then there would be certain elements of that design that will stick or that will keep coming back, so you kind of embrace those and keep coming back. I think if you’re going to create stuff you also have to be able to destroy.
I also wanted to ask about The Revenant and your evolving relationship with Emmanuel Lubezki. Can you zero in on a distinct difference for working with both Iñárritu and Malick with Lubezki?
You know, Chivo and I have gotten closer. We’ve done six films together. We both love back light. He likes it because of the beauty of the light, and I like it because it takes away from the detail of the set. You’re not looking at screws and stuff. You see a suggestion of something, which is much more powerful because it opens it up to many people’s interpretations in their minds. I’m a big fan of back light, just for representation of the stuff that I contribute to a film. And Chivo is for the beauty of the light, so it’s a good combination. We’re both sort of searching for the same thing. I work to aid what he needs because it’s going to help me and it’s going to help the film. In that way, we’re not at odds with each other. It’s just a wonderful working relationship.
He’s just a genius with the light. For me, as a designer, there’s nobody I’d rather have shoot something that I’ve constructed or found. A lot of the work on The Revenant was finding locations, but one of the criteria for any location we found was that you’d be looking south or west because we’d be shooting in the afternoon / evening and you’d want that back light. Chivo knew I understood what he needed, and there’s a certain trust there and he could relax on that standpoint. He’s always bringing fresh eyes and a way of seeing things. As a designer, or just as a human being, you always love to hear people’s input. I’m not scared of people suggesting things because sometimes those contributions make what you do better. That works every way.
Alejandro, I was working with him for the first time, but he knew Chivo for a long time, and I think because Chivo and I had worked together, he trusted me initially. He liked the stuff I was doing. I think the first thing he saw physically was the finished boat. He got so excited because it looked so old and screwed up. I think it was what he imagined in his mind, but he didn’t see until that moment that it was real. I saw him relax and he got excited. The film was coming together and that was kind of the first clue of what it could look like, visually. Alejandro rehearses every scene and rehearses them extensively, sometimes for months before shooting them. Terry is like a jazz musician, as he doesn’t rehearse anything. He shoots sometimes the same scene or dialogue in many locations. He’s more like a jazz musician. Everything is fresh and he fights not to have things look planned. I fight for things to not look art-directed. He fights for things to not look planned.
Alejandro, his process of creation is rehearsal. I think he might come from a theater background or he’s influenced by the theater, so the rehearsal process is not something for the actors — it’s for him. He works with the actors, or sometimes we shoot with stand-ins, almost like they are little toys. “Let’s put this guy over here.” I see it as a really creative process, and it’s not an easy process. He wrestles with it until he gets it right. He wants to see the right thing. It’s exciting. For me, the exciting thing is how differently the directors I’ve worked with work. If everybody did it the same, it’d be so boring. [Laughs]
Knight of Cups enters a limited release on Friday, March 4. From March 11th through April 1st, NYC’s Museum of Moving Image will hold a retrospective of Jack Fisk’s work. See details here.