Problem solving is one of the most important duties of a movie production designer.
"You are creating a world, and then you have to figure out how to do it," said Jack Fisk, an athletic and youthful 70, in Brentwood. "Sometimes it is designing a set. Sometimes it's finding locations. Sometimes it's supervising props. You have to keep the ball rolling so there is something to shoot every day."
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And sometimes a production designer has to construct a set in just a few hours.
One of Fisk's most memorable sets in Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant," for which Fisk is nominated for an Academy Award, is the mountain of skulls Leonardo DiCaprio's frontiersman Hugh Glass comes upon in a fevered dream sequence.
"We put together the skulls in about five hours," noted the laid-back Fisk, who has been married to Sissy Spacek since 1974 — the two met on Terrence Malick's 1973 film "Badlands."
"Alejandro just said he wanted [DiCaprio] to come upon a pile of skulls," said Fisk, who recently won the Art Directors Guild Award for the film. "We found a picture online of a time when the United States government encouraged people to kill buffalo. If they killed the buffalo, the Indians wouldn't have a food source, so they could control the Indians. Alejandro got very excited about the buffalo skulls."
So Fisk and his crew set out to secure skulls. "We found a shop that butchered buffalo. They would sell us skulls, but we would have to clean them, and I didn't want to have that much death around. We took five skulls we brought and made casts of them."
The skulls were sprayed with plastic foam and a pyramid shape frame was built of wood and chicken wire to stack the skulls. The night before they shot the scene, Inarritu told Fisk he wanted DiCaprio to be able to climb the hill of skulls.
"The next morning we built some steps and put in a platform," said Fisk.
It's rare that a filmmaker works with Fisk only one time. Since "Badlands," Fisk has designed every film Malick has directed. He's collaborated with his good friend David Lynch on such films as 2001's "Mulholland Drive" — he even played the Man in the Planet in Lynch's landmark 1977 "Eraserhead" — and has designed Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 "There Will Be Blood," for which he earned his first Oscar nomination, and 2012's "The Master.""
"The Revenant," nominated for 12 Academy Awards, marks the first time he's worked with the Mexican filmmaker.
"I think that I am attracted to filmmakers who are artists," Fisk explained. "That is the one thing they all have in common. Actually working on 'Badlands' was the first time I realized that a film could be a fine art. I think film is as valuable as painting or sculpture."
"Revenant" producer Mary Parent noted Fisk is himself an artist. "I think what makes him so special is he is just about the work and the artistry," said Parent. "His attention to detail is unparalleled. It takes an immense amount of dedication to be able to see through all of those small details. He really tapped into Alejandro's vision."
Ironically, when he and Lynch, whom he has known since high school in Virginia, drove out to Los Angeles in 1970 — Lynch was attending the American Film Institute — Fisk thought he may try to paint billboards. (Fisk and Lynch attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.)
But he soon got work as an art director on such low-budget films as 1971's "Angels Hard as They Come."
Fisk met Malick because he and Lynch were both fellows at AFI. When he heard Malick was going to make a period film, "I started researching the film and then we met. He introduced me to Sissy. They were working on the script. I rented a truck, filled it up with my tools, drove it to Colorado and started looking for locations and getting sets together."
(It was the start of something big in many ways. Fisk and Spacek have been married for 42 years and have two grown daughters. They live on a farm in Virginia).
Locations were probably the most important element of the design of the "Revenant," noted Fisk. "The challenge was if you put together a film that is primarily on location, you have to feel like [DiCaprio's] moving and traveling. So you have to find locations that are distinct from another. When you start looking at mountains, they all look alike. So you have to search to find stuff that pops out."
"The Revenant," which shot in continuity, was mainly filmed in the wilds of Alberta, Canada. Fisk and the location scout drove hundreds of miles and then hiked miles to get to rivers and mountains "because there was no way else to find locations. I loved it because I was outside and getting exercise."
After they chose about 10 locations, Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki would fly up to check out the locations. "Riding in the car for six days, you got to talk about the film, life and you find there is a kind of bonding," noted Fisk. "You get more insight into what they want to do."
"Revenant" also reunited Fisk with Lubezki, with whom he has worked on six films. Lubezki has won the Academy Award the past two years for "Gravity" and "Birdman" and is favored to win a third consecutive Oscar for "The Revenant."
"I love working with him," said Fisk. "In a way, knowing what he needs to do with his work makes it easier for me to do my work."
Because Lubezki would be using only natural light, Fisk had to adjust his sets accordingly. In fact, he built two identical structures in the massive fort set. "One faced east and one faced west, so that in the morning if you wanted to shoot, they would use the east facing one. And in the afternoon they would shoot the other one. You couldn't tell the difference because they looked exactly alike."