26.6.14

The Production Design of Lynch, Malick & Anderson

An interview with Jack Fisk
Jack Fisk
Jack Fisk is a production designer perhaps best known for his work with David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson. Fisk agreed to share rare sketches and photographs with Trevor Hogg, who interviewed him back in 2012. Their conversation reveals some interesting insights into Fisk's working processes, and into what it's like to collaborate with some of Hollywood's most revered filmmakers.

On David Lynch

David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999)
Jack Fisk appears as Man in the Planet in Eraserhead (1977)
David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001)
From Trevor Hogg (Flickering Myth):
“David [Lynch], I have known since 9th grade, and he is a complete original in a world of his own design – as much a painter and furniture maker as a filmmaker. I know that David cannot stop creating and if he is not making a film, he is painting, drawing, printmaking, making furniture, composing music, or writing. To work with David you need to embrace his style, but he is a kind and fun to be around.” A break in the routine was to make a movie with Lynch which was grounded more in reality. “It was fun to watch David take a real story like the one of Alvin Straight and make it his own. I think he was able to draw from his real life to find quirky original moments for Alvin and the film. Working together on The Straight Story [1999] was fun as David would often paint and build on the sets; he loves to work.”

[...]

“It seems that it was completely by accident that I became a production designer, but now after 40 years in film I see how everything I learned and experienced before working in film has helped me be a better film designer,” says Jack Fisk. “I moved to Los Angeles with David Lynch who came to attend the first classes at the American Film Institute. Having seen an impressive show of James Rosenquist’s paintings at the Met in New York, I was looking for work as a billboard painter. There were no jobs available painting billboards, but I learned of a small biker film hiring assistants and signed on to that for $100 a week. I remember on my first day I was holding traffic on Topanga Blvd about a quarter of a mile from filming. I became curious about filmmaking and met a network of young people working on non-union films around Hollywood; that’s how I first started working on films. On each film following I worked to get closer to the action and began working in what became the Art Department. At that time there were few film schools, however, we worked for Roger and Gene Corman and learned a lot about making films.”

[...]

I am very familiar with David’s style as I have been around him since we shared a painting studio in high school. I work with David by designing in the ‘style of’ Lynch. It can be fun and refreshing to work in someone’s style, especially a style as unique as David’s. [Read More]

On Terrence Malick

Fisk's photographs of set construction for Malick's Days of Heaven (1978)
Fisk's photographs of set construction for Malick's Days of Heaven (1978)
Fisk's photographs of set construction for Malick's Days of Heaven (1978)
A still from Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998)
A still from Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (2011)
A still from Terrence Malick's Tree of Life (2011)
From Trevor Hogg (Flickering Myth):
Terry Malick and I have been working together for 40 years, since his first feature Badlands, and we have developed a style together. The minimal style first started because we had tight budgets and I started choosing dressing carefully because we could only afford a few things. This led me to an appreciation of painters like Edward Hopper who has a great economy to his images and to minimalist artists. Now, having worked with Terry so long we can communicate pretty well as we have many reference points in our history together.”

[...]

When we finally found the location for Days of Heaven [1978], I learned that because the Hutterite farmers were going to harvest the wheat in 6 weeks I would only have four weeks to design, build and dress the house and buildings around it. We were too young to know it couldn’t be done! We did it with some great carpenters, design shortcuts and a lot of luck. I hired a lot of young Hutterite boys to work every Sunday after church to help in construction. Other challenges that come to me are: the ships in The New World [2005], the airplanes and landing craft in The Thin Red Line [1998], the whole film Phantom of the Paradise [1974] was a challenge, and the fires in Badlands [1973] and Days of Heaven. Building a village in Guadalcanal with native women was a fun challenge; they are hard workers, but the men chewed betel nut and watched.”

[...]

For Terrence Malick, Jack Fisk has always been his production designer of choice. “His films are made today with his select crew, which he describes as like a jazz band, or fingers of the same hand. Of course he is the only one with the music; we all contribute the best we can.” As for what has led Malick to make three films in two years, the resident of Charlottesville, Virginia remarks, “Two things have propelled Terry into making so many films in the past few years. First he has found an enjoyable way, for him, to make films, with a crew that is in synch with his new methods. Secondly, I think Terry has ideas that he wants to put into film and doesn’t know how much time he will have to do it. He works constantly. I asked him why he didn’t take a day or week off once in a while and Terry answered, ‘I took fifteen years off.’” [Read More]

On Paul Thomas Anderson

Jack Fisk's draft design for the oil derrick in Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007)
A still from Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007)
A still from Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007)
A still from Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012)
From Trevor Hogg (Flickering Myth):
“I search to find the challenges in each film I do,” reveals Fisk. “As much as designing settings solving problems is an important part of the job of a production designer. Sometimes it’s the miniscule budget and sometime it is the scope of the film. Each challenge has a solution and finding it is one of the fun parts of film design. I remember PTA [Paul Thomas Anderson] asking me how I was going to build the derrick in There Will Be Blood [2007] and me replying, ‘I have no idea.’ He seemed to like the honesty of my answer but I needed to figure it out. My solution was to build it real just like they would have in 1916. I found plans for an 1896 wooden derrick at the oil museum in Taft, California which I purchased for $3. I added a staircase and put it on the side of a hill, but it was the 1896 derrick.

[...]

After working on There Will Be Blood for about two months, Paul asked me one day, ‘Why are you picking all of the colours?’ I gave him a new Benjamin Moore paint swatch book and said, ‘Okay, you pick ’em.’ I watched him carry that colour book around for a few days. When finally he came up and handed me back the swatch book, Paul said, ‘You pick ’em.’ When Paul called me to work on There Will Be Blood we started an interesting creative journey; his first design related comment on that film was, ‘Let’s not have any signs.’ I liked that idea; it fit well with my minimal approach and the design evolved from that. We didn’t look for easy solutions choosing to shoot in West Texas because it was so inhospitable and rough. We worked to keep it real but a stylized real eliminating all the clutter of the actual world. Paul shared his writing research so our sources for the visuals of the film were the same.

[...]

“The strength of the design of There Will Be Blood is that every part of it was designed and constructed. We rented a 50,000 acre ranch in West Texas and created our world there. Paul and I would walk around dreaming and designing where we would put the church, the town, and the derrick. It is easier to design everything and can make for a more cohesive film.” In regards to the visual research he conducts, Fisk remarks, “I usually try to find photographs and writings of the subject and the time period when researching a film. Much like a detective I approach writing skeptically taking in account the human factor. I love to see period drawings, paintings, photographs and documentary films, if they exist. I usually avoid looking at commercial films for research. I don’t want to be confused by other designers and directors take on a story. By the time we start building the sets I have a feeling for the time and place; I have left the research, and work on instinct and gut feelings.”[Read More]
Jack Fisk has also spoken to the Paul Thomas Anderson site, Cigarettes & Red Vines, on his experience of working on The Master [Read More]

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