Picture the most visually powerful films of the last three decades: Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood, The Thin Red Line. All three were helmed by an auteur director—David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick—and each case the director turned to production designer Jack Fisk to create their authoritative vision. With the Cannes Palme D'Or winner The Tree of Life opening in theaters, the soft-spoken Midwesterner opens up to BOXOFFICE about how he interprets, shapes and satisfies today's most visual filmmakers and gives clues to how to interpret Malick's latest maddening masterpiece.
What's your process like with Malick when it comes to bouncing ideas back and forth and coming up with the look of a film?
Terry likes to look at locations and he gets ideas for writing from looking at locations. So we spend a lot of time looking at locations—it may be a period over three years. I went to Texas on this particular film at least three times. We looked at small towns around Austin. Terry lives in Austin and early on we found this town of Smithville, where we ended up shooting. It also helps if you're writing for a specific place to work with your tight budgets. We spend a lot of time, looking at photographs and stuff also. Terry and I both came from small towns—he grew up at a school in Austin, I grew up in a little town in Illinois-so the script really resonated with me. When I read about the family in Tree of Life, it seemed very familiar to my own childhood so those memories gave a lot of inspiration for the film—recreating things that I remembered kind of from a kid's point of view.
Does it feel like a very personal work to you? Because it sounds like you had a hand in helping him figure out what his story was.
The film seems like something from your memory. I mean, I believe it was that way for me. That it has a universal appeal and that the images and stuff make you come back to your own childhood. I mean, it did that for me and that made it real easy to become a part of the film.
But you're also designing for people who grew up in cities-how do you design a small town so it feels universal?
The way that I've always found stuff as universal is by not being too specific. You'll notice in most the films I do, there is very little in the way of graphics and in telling you the names of things, but even if you grew up in a larger town there are things that are familiar in neighborhoods: the curiosity about neighbors, the play that you do with your friends when you don't have television or video games. It's when you just work naturally with the environment. So you could be walking down the streets of New York or you could be walking down the street in Smithville with your friends and find a cardboard box and do the same things. We actually have a scene in the film where the kids find a wooden box and set it on fire in the middle of the street—it sounds very familiar to something that you might see kids doing in New York City. Or breaking a window in somebody's garage-that's not limited to small towns. It's a part of growing up and I think that that by not being too specific as to where we are, it seems to work on a much larger scale.
When nature and location are so important, what to you bring to the film as a production designer when you're working with a scene that's trees and grass and biological materials-not things you can build?
Some of that I don't bring anything to: they're discovered on the moment. Terry as a director is always open and aware of the stuff that's around him. Sometimes we'll be shooting a film and an interesting bird will fly by and he'll start crawling on a tree and directing the cameras toward that bird. Or we cast dogs for this film and then he would let the dogs play outside and shoot a lot of footage of them interacting with the kids—he'd catch a lot of that. Some of it is just playing in the grass. And a lot of it is the river, the Colorado, which went around the location. We were always going down to the river. For Terry, it's an important symbol of life, I think, rivers and any kind flowing water. I think one of my biggest contributions as a designer on films like this is finding the locations. And often we would meet in the morning at 9 o'clock and Terry would say, "I want to shoot something by the water. Can you find a location you haven't seen yet?" And we're shooting in a very small town. We don't have trucks and stuff, we're doing everything on foot. And three hours later the company would show up to shoot it. I used almost all local sources for set dressing and work that I needed done. There was a carpenter that worked in town and he became our carpenter on the film. And because we had such a good rapport with the town, we could do things on the spur of the moment. The police department would close down a street with 15 minutes notice because with Terry, you never exactly know where he will shoot. We took the center of this old town and this residential area and the neighbors would park their cars three blocks away and walk home so that we wouldn't have modern cars on the street. And we had a small budget, so we had about 15 '50s cars and we would just move those around and park them in exchange back and forth. We had so much cooperation from the town and the people there. I remember the city manager told me that even in pre-production when it was just the art department working there, that their sales had gone up 17 percent and he was looking at the tax dollars it was bringing in. And I go, "There's like five of us here—how can it go up 17 percent?!" The town was so excited about having the film film there. They were so appreciative of it. A lot of us moved to the town, rented houses, lived in the town, got bicycles and rode everywhere on our bike, and lived—you know, actually lived—where we were shooting. It was an ideal situation. It was kind of magical that, you know, you could just walk home after it got too dark to shoot.
You must be an honorary Texan because you've worked so much in the small towns of Texas.
I've actually got an award as an honorary Texan.
Yeah. You know, an honorary Texan award. I've shot more films in Texas than anywhere else. You know, I've worked in Martin, I've worked in Dallas, Denton, and Austin, and Maxwell, Taylor, and Lockhart. It's been a lot of films. I've directed two films in Texas. My wife [Sissy Spacek] is in Texas and my daughters [Schuyler Fisk and Madison Fisk] now live in Austin, so we get down there a lot. We have a lot of family there.
As a Daughter of the Republic of Texas, you are welcome in our state. Your wife and your daughter are actors. I've read you say before that you like to work with actors to help develop the character and the set—that you think of them when you're thinking of what elements to put in their world to help them feel like the character.
That's exactly how I like to work. Most of my work is character-based when I can do it that way. Some films you can't-you know, the actors aren't accessible or somebody has another idea that takes you away from that. But working early with Terry and Sissy [for Badlands], I got working from an actor's point of view. It's a great way to create a set: thinking about who lives there and what they would like, what kind of drapes they would put up, what color walls they would want. And you can work with the character or completely against the character because sometimes they shock you. I mean, in my work, I get to go to millions of people and hundreds of people's houses and sometimes it's such a surprise to see the way they live, it'ss different than you would suspect.
So that, say, a person that comes off orderly has dishes all over the sink?
Oh, you see that often. [Laughs] But you find all kinds of things. Sometimes you find six or seven people living in two room apartment, or a whole apartment or house full of clocks. Or there a painter and everything is either a prop or part of his paintings. Or, they're older and they're just got things from everywhere they've gone, they just never throw out anything. I remember going in one house in Texas and the guy had several bathrooms and as they broke down, he would close them off and just use them for storage. There was one bathroom left that would work and the others were full of books. He collected books so the house was like a big book store. And he wasn't into cleaning. But I find all of that just fascinating—the study of characters is really fun. I wish I could do more of it.
Malick creates these films that are very intellectual and emotional, but leave it to the audience to interpret. You're almost the intermediary in helping them translate.
Yeah, I think that we both like that sort of universal stuff, and we also like minimalism. In locations, like even Smithville, I was always pulling stuff away-not adding stuff-but I think it started when we were doing low budget films. We didn't have any money to dress the set, so we'd set a few things in it and thought that looked great. Sometimes when you don't have money, then you choose your dressing more carefully. So one piece has to represent a room full of pieces and sometimes you can do that with a piece of furniture, a piece of clothing or a color of a wall. I really look to the painter Edward Hopper a lot because his paintings have that same minimal quality. They tell a great story and they evoke a neat feeling for the characters in it, but he doesn't give you anymore than you need. So as a designer, I'm just trying to figure out the minimal amount that I need to put in there to tell a story for that scene.
And how do you know when you have it right?
Sometimes it just clicks and it feels right. For me, I never give up on a set until it's shot. I'll be in there when the actors are rehearsing, fiddling around, messing with stuff, and sometimes it just works. If you're working with character, if you have a reason for doing the things that you're doing to a location it's gonna be right. Unless you're completely off-base.
What were some of the biggest challenges on Tree of Life?
Well, the biggest challenge on working with Terry is that he doesn't use artificial light. We had some interior lights at night and we'd rewire lamps so they'd take bigger bulbs. But in the day time, I was actually cutting and adding windows to houses to let more light in and then some houses, like our main house, were represented by three different houses because you get light on the south side all day long. So, if we went into the first house and it had great light in the south-facing dining room and kitchen, but the bedroom had north light, then we'd get another house that had a bedroom on the south side so that we'd have more light during the day. Or something that had less light, we'd shoot there in the afternoon and just shoot this light in the morning. It's complicated because we're using real light, we always have to have a location that's getting light from the sun. But it makes it look so beautiful.
The film's been so secret—
Yeah! [Laughs] I remember seeing a review of the trailer in the New York Times.
What's it like to work on a film with that much attention?
You know, we had no attention when we were shooting. Like I said, we were all living in this town. We're walking to work. We're riding our bicycles. The actors were completely protected. Brad Pitt was in the film and at first the paparazzi were coming around, but the local police just closed off the street. If anybody came to take pictures, they'd send them away. So we were completely undisturbed and Terry is so humble and he treats everyone as an equal and that just permeates the set, so that no one feels more special than anyone else and it makes it a real pleasant environment to work in.
How did you work on two time periods at once: Sean Penn as a kid and as a grown up?
It was not that difficult because we moved to Houston for the later stuff with Sean. We shot a house in Austin for his residence and for his business in Houston. So, it was like the world had changed and it was magical, actually a very simple idea for creating the time change. We shot the first part of the film in a town that hadn't evolved in the last 70 years and then we went to one that was at the top of its game with all the Houston skyscrapers. When you go to Houston you'll see trees inside the buildings—in the lobbies and stuff. It's so weird that this very natural thing has been transported from a natural setting into a very unnatural setting. And that's kind of what's happening with people. You know, we started out living in the country farming and working hard, and now we're in concrete and plastic and chemicals. It's remnants of what our life used to be.
And then in Smithville, you have this one particular tree. What was it? 50,000 pounds?
It was about 60,000 pounds. You know I ... I didn't have enough to do on this film. [Laughs] We rented a house and were minimizing the stuff around it. There were ugly trees and there were swing sets and we got rid of that. I wanted to put an oak tree in there—I liked an oak tree because it keeps the leaves year around and it's such a strange, wrong, interesting looking tree. So I start looking around for a tree and right around Smithville I found a couple, but one of them was too much in the sand and we couldn't dig it out because the sand would just fall in the roots and it would never live. We wanted to find one that had more of a clay-based soil and we found her right outside of town about five miles inside this ranch and under a power line. They already had to start cutting into it because it was gonna affect the power line and just be completely distorted, so they sold it to us for a nominal sum and I found this Australian in the next town and he thought he could move it. I talked to a moving company about moving it and they wanted like $150,000, but that was more than we had. This guy did it with gardening people. He hand cut the root base and it was just as big as the tree: 30 feet in diameter and 30 feet down and the tree went about 30 feet up. We cut that very carefully then we fired a crane to come and pick the whole thing up. He wrapped it with burlap, pinned it, and the crane had a scale on it and that's what told us it weighed 60,000 pounds. We got it up and then laid it out flat on the trailer and started to haul it into town, but we ran into a lot of problems because of a bridge, an underpass that the tree didn't fit under. The state troopers let us go on the wrong way on the freeway so we could get this past. We were only going five miles, but it took us two days to go five miles. Every power line, every TV line, every internet line, had to be cut to get this tree down the street. But the people were so great. They would sit down in their lawn chairs and watch this thing go by at about one mile an hour. We couldn't make it all the way the first day because it took too long to pick it up out of the hole and get it set and because we had to have so many technicians cutting the wires so the tree could pass and then they would hook them back up. The first night when we realized that there was no way we would make it to our destination, our main house, we set it there by the side of the road and the local fire department came and watered the tree. At 6 o'clock the next morning, everyone was there to see what was happening and AT&T sent several crews. And that night we got to the main house and we dug a hole that was the same size as the root ball and the crane came back and lifted it up and put it down in the hole. And then I read everything I could about watering these trees and then University of Texas put in a couple reports because there had been a lot of tree moves, but some of them successful, some of them not. After everything, I decided we would water outside the root ball, not water the root ball itself, and cut the roots to come into the new soil. And we did that, but frighteningly all the leaves started to fall off. And, I don't know if you know live oaks in Texas, but in February, when we moved it, they generally lose their leaves, and also if they go into shock they lose their leaves. Well, this one lost its leaves and it was early in pre-production. It was one of the first things we did and I remember just feeling, "I moved this poor tree all this way and it's gonna be dead." Two weeks later I started seeing little sprouts coming out, and by the time we shot six weeks later, it's full of leaves and it turned out to be great. The kids played on it. I know it scared Terry to think we were moving a tree that would become identified with the film and then die.
It's a bad omen.
Yeah, it was nothing that anyone asked for. It's just, I loved the idea. It just seemed right for the kids to have some tree they can play on and a yard where there wasn't any. We planted a garden. We planted a couple of gardens. We went through the town and all the aluminum buildings and the metal building we built wood covers to match the height. Literally, Terry could walk down any alley and any street within this five block radius and shoot anything.
Did the town keep any of it?
Oh, I think it looks pretty much like it did. Some stuff we put on buildings people liked and asked me if they could keep, but the lady in the main house wanted it back to the colors that it was. You know, she had a red porch and she had all these trinkets and stuff on it—she wanted it back the way it was. We completely gutted her kitchen and redid it for the period and I think she kept some of that.
You seem to be so particular in the directors that you choose to work with. You work rarely by your own choice. You'll work for Malick, you'll work for David Lynch—you actually moved to Los Angeles with David Lynch.
Yeah, David is one of my best friends. We grew up and went to high school together, so that was natural. Terry I met in 1972 and we just got along and I loved his films. I like to work with filmmakers that are artists because it just makes it that much more exciting to work on a film. It seems that the directors I like best give me the most freedom. They just trust you. Terry likes to be surprised a little bit; he'll just send me off and he'll show up later to start shooting. He's always looking for the unexpected. Sometimes not liking something is his surprise, but I'm pretty versatile. If something was way off of what he wanted, I could change it fairly quickly. I think over 40 years, we've kind of figured out this works pretty well for us.
Do you feel like you've almost created your own creative language?
It's not even a language because we don't talk that much! I mean, we talk, but we don't talk about a set specifically. We'll look at photographs or paintings and, you know, talk about dogs. Fun stuff. We never talk about the set because the set, I'm always trying to define. I can't sit down with a piece of paper and just draw what it should be. You have to get to know the people living in that set. You need to know the environment that it's in and the time period. So I sort of approach it as research: searching, physically searching. Just getting out. And then, you get the key and that leads to something else and that leads to something else and pretty soon you have a set. It's really a discovery and those are the most exciting sets for me to do. You know, just doing a hotel room wouldn't be that interesting. I like environments that people live in. They can be stylized—there are a lot of houses you see in Tree of Life are stylized, in that there's not enough stuff in them for people. But we painted the walls dark in the house because in the natural light they looked so beautiful like all these paintings by Vermeer. He painted people right close to the windows and the walls would fall all dark and the face would just glow. Malick was carrying a Vermeer book when he first showed up and he would then email us all the little pictures of somebody by a window with the light and this deep green background. Then when we started painting the walls, he'd come in and say, "Can you make that darker?" We were opening windows and darkening walls and looking for locations where the flow was good. We shot almost everything on a steady camera so the camera could get in and around, because these are small houses. It's not like a sound stage when you can pull away a wall so we had to find some extra way to get the camera in and out. I'm in the middle of another film right now so I'm trying to think of all the stuff we were doing on this. We're getting just as excited in discovering locations for this new film now.
So your brain is fully occupied?
Yeah. I'm working with Paul Thomas Anderson right now and he's also a wonderful director.
How is this process different?
It's a lot different because Terry and he just work differently. They work differently with the actors, they work differently with light and the way things look. But they both give me a amount of freedom which is something that attracts me to these directors. Not that I need freedom or I demand that-it's just the way I work. I first worked with Paul on There Will be Blood and he asked me about building an oil derrick and how was I going to do it and I said I had no idea. But, you know, he's like that. He'll figure out a way. And that's the way with Terry. I often say about Terry, "He asks for nothing, but expects everything," and that's the advice I give to new people working with him. Terry won't ask you for a lot but that's why he's exciting to work with—I love Terry's energy and passion and that's what I think I look for with any filmmakers or even in wardrobe or grips. I just love people with passion and when I started in film, there was so much passion. And then when I was working in Hollywood, it was just boring for 15 years. And when Terry came back to doing film, I just approached it differently and didn't fall into the traps about worrying about your home and your penalties and what you couldn't do, but just start thinking about all the stuff you could do. And I've had so much fun. I'm so excited about production design and I'm just beginning to appreciate how important it is to movies. It's hard to make a film because you have so many people involved and when you find people you work well with you want to keep working with them.