By Michael Sragow in the March-April 2016 Issue
It’s easy to see what hands-on genius Jack Fisk brings to his Oscar-nominated production design in The Revenant: he provides that extreme adventure with a visual skin that breathes. Choosing locations so vast that they seem to stretch to infinity, and building sets that feel authentic down to the grain of the wood, he supplies Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film with rough-hewn physical poetry. He worked similar wonders for Terrence Malick’s Jamestown Colony film The New World (05).
In Malick’s spiritual reveries, The Tree of Life (11), To the Wonder (13), and now Knight of Cups, Fisk’s craft is more elusive, and perhaps even more impressive. He performs like a quick-change artist of time, space, and mood. Malick’s portrait of a screenwriter (Christian Bale) who drifts from marriage with a heroic doctor (Cate Blanchett) into liaisons with a succession of insubstantial beauties, is like an impressionistic L.A./Vegas version of Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita. Fisk himself compares it to the abstract art of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert.
When he explains what makes working with Malick so satisfying, Fisk reveals that he is not just, as he says, a “compatriot or a partner” to his directors (who also include David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Brian De Palma) but also their champion and interpreter.
How do you prepare when you work with Malick? How do you adjust to knowing that a lot of your work—including, on some pictures, a lot of painstaking period reconstruction—is not going into the final cut?
Working with Terry is challenging because we shoot so much footage. I’ve calculated that only 10 percent of it ever makes it to the film. You know, I learned in art school when I was young not to fall in love with the stuff you do. I sort of feel that as a designer you’re a facilitator for the filmmaker, the artist, as he tells a story and creates a world. I give him as much as I can and don’t worry about what he uses because it would be so frustrating. When I watched Knight of Cups, it really reminded me of an expressionistic painting. I didn’t completely understand all of it, but it reached me and touched me with feelings. I really think it’s a new kind of filmmaking, and I love it. It reminds me of the time I was in art school and I went to see Red Desert. It was a kind of art I hadn’t seen yet. I found Knight of Cups very powerful and interesting. I don’t know how this movie competes in a world of filmmaking as it’s popularly thought of today, but I think it’s a powerful film that will affect people many years from now. You’re just bombarded with images and no one puts them together better than Terry.
Do you work from a script?
Tree of Life did have a script. But I haven’t read a script on the last three films. Jackie [costume designer Jacqueline West] did read one on To the Wonder—she read it, and I think it was 300 pages long. I find the best thing is just talking with Terry. He tells me about the characters and what he needs. And he wants to be a little surprised—it excites him not to know. It’s just like the way he works with actors, giving them a little bit of dialogue at a time. You know, he’ll take people off the street and just throw them into a scene. That haphazard sort of “found” quality is exhilarating to him. It’s the same thing with the sets. He’ll show up to an area that he hasn’t seen. And somehow, just dealing with that informs and invigorates the scene that he wants to shoot there. The unknown is sometimes more exciting than the known. If it’s too well planned, sometimes you don’t respond the same and you don’t take advantage of what you’re given. You go with preconceived ideas and it leaves out a certain amount of life—it may bring in life in another way, but you lose that spontaneity.
Was Knight of Cups a quick shoot, or did it stretch over time? And how much of this was done like “guerrilla filmmaking?”
It stretched over time, but not real long, maybe six weeks. We would get the location department to secure an area—like in Santa Monica, around a five-square-block area — so we could shoot anywhere within it from 9 to 12 or whatever time of day it was. We were in these little vans and we didn’t look like a movie company, so we didn’t draw much attention to ourselves. The props were in one van, the wardrobe in another, the actors in another. And when we got where we were going, Terry would just pull people off the street and make them part of a scene. The idea was that if there got to be too many people, if it got too crazy or distracting, we’d just get in the van and go to another location. I don’t remember that happening. It was really like guerrilla filmmaking. It reminded me of the early days, when we were stealing shots and we didn’t have permits. We had permits, but they were kind of private permits. We didn’t know specifically what we were going to shoot and that left us open to finding stuff.
You’ve worked with Malick since his beginnings. How has he changed as a filmmaker?
When I worked with Terry on Badlands , it was his first feature film. We had a script, and he was a little more cautious, and he paid attention more to rules. He described filmmaking to me at that time as war: he was battling all the elements. Now it’s gotten very exciting for him, he has so much energy, it’s more like an explosion, as I said, of an expressionist painting. He keeps throwing stuff out there. His films are completed in the cutting room, so I sort of feel that as we shoot, we’re spending most of the day collecting pictures for his palette that he can use to make the film. It’s very exciting. You know, I do like working on character-driven pieces, I like building a home and finding the character that lives in it. Here we did a couple: Christian Bale’s father’s home, and Cate Blanchett’s. So there we had a couple of specific homes, but so much was caught on the street, and on the beaches. So when I was seeing the film for the first time, I was really seeing it for the first time—there was no way to predict what it was going to be from what we shot. A lot of times we chose locations because of the light. Partly because Terry just likes to shoot that way, partly because it was part of the sensibility of this movie, we wouldn’t carry around any light fixtures. We shot everything with natural light and we found locations—homes, hospitals, stores—with big expanses of glass, facing south by southwest, so from the east in the morning, from the west later, we could keep getting that natural light.
Often we’d pop into a store—and in 20 minutes we’d be on another location. Every day we were roaming around to four or five locations in Los Angeles. I don’t remember ever spending too much time in a single place. Sometimes I’d just be running 50 feet ahead to look outside or to simplify a showroom or a window, just to make a more minimal look. Even with physical locations, we took the approach of simplifying things, to make for a colder, emptier world. This movie wasn’t meant to be warm and homey! In the lives of these people you didn’t find someone tucked in a comfortable chair by a light reading a book. There were all these possessions and spaces that they claimed, but the furnishings never looked like anything made by hand or passed down by your aunt or your grandmother. We kept it all crisp and simple, which is why, when I saw the film for the first time just a couple of days ago, life in L.A., as it was represented, seemed so cold to me. A life filled with possessions.
For me the point is illustrated in that art piece you see at the L.A. County Museum: the artist is Chris Burden and the piece is called Metropolis II. It’s a lot of cars racing around, up and down hills, and it’s all contained in one room. It’s kind of like “L.A. Illustrated”—like we’re all racing around and don’t have time for anything else. Terry shot a scene in a car at night and the road is going by so fast you feel as if you’re in that sculpture.
We’re all racing around, we think what we were doing is so important, we take chances, we’re going to pass that person no matter what. We shot another piece of Chris Burden’s, Temple of Light [official name: Urban Light] which is neat in a way, it’s not explained in the film, it’s sort of like a temple to electricity, to modernization. It’s in the shape of a Greek temple, but it’s just a beautiful piece, put together from street lamps as found objects. Somebody had a contract to take down these old street lamps and put up more modern ones, and he bought them and put together this sculpture. And now it’s right up in front of LACMA and it’s become a big landmark in Los Angeles. That’s from the same artist as the car piece. The same artist, when he was younger, he had someone shoot him with a gun. In a theatrical piece in a gallery, he had a friend shoot him in the arm. He became very famous with that piece. He went on to do more conventional art, but he always makes a statement about people.
The challenge of designing a film in L.A. is that so many films have been made in Los Angeles and you don’t want it to look like any other film. I was so happy, first, that it didn’t, and second, that we got depth with the natural lighting. We weren’t trying to pull out landmarks, that would be confusing. We shot two clubs in Hollywood. I did re-dress them because one was completely white, so we brought in backings to put on the wall, and we brought in draperies, and we built some props. There’s a moment when a guy is in an orange electric chair, so we built an electric chair, and there were more scenes shot in it, but there’s just a moment of that in there. A lot of times we don’t like the color white too much, so we put up some kind of drape or backing to tone it down to grey or another color. We all like bright color, but we try to avoid white as much as possible, and those clubs were all white.
A few of the locations are immediately recognizable.
We shot right outside the CAA building, which is just an impressive building in Century City, and there’s that restaurant where all the deals are made, we shot in there for about 10 minutes, we just walked through it. We shot a lot of the back lot of Warner Bros. And that back lot represents, I think, how phony life can be—these are not real buildings, they’re just imitations of buildings. Terry’s always been attracted to stuff like that. On Tree of Life we went and shot a little bit on the sets of The Alamo. That movie had some sets that were falling apart and Terry wanted to shoot in them. He loves that stuff: the decay of the world. We carried that theme as much as we could, the decay of the back lot.
We shot some stuff in nightclubs downtown, and that was fun to go and search for those locations because I hadn’t been in a lot of them. They would drop these girls out of the ceiling with champagne bottles with firecrackers or sparklers in them. People would be paying $1,200 for a bottle of Dom Perignon, brought down to the table by a girl out of the ceiling. That might be the lifestyle of a Saudi prince or something, but it’s so weird and decadent, a $100 bottle of champagne selling for $1,200. A lot of it was such a strange thing.
We shot the scenes outside with people in downtown Los Angeles about 5th Street. Shot people as we found them. The medical center we shot was on Sunset Blvd., where Cate Blanchett worked. It was a real central place. I asked them if they had any machinery we could use, and they had one light, which we shot, like a surgeon’s light; and the only other machine they had was something that removed tattoos. We brought these extras in that were—I don’t know exactly what their problems are, but we called them lepers. It kind of reminded me of that, could have been diabetes or some skin diseases. You saw when Cate was touching them, she wasn’t scared of them, she was trying to understand them—it was like a human touch where she was caring about somebody else. Elsewhere in the film, you didn’t see anyone caring about anybody else. You didn’t see Christian caring about any of the women he was with, even when he finds out Natalie Portman is pregnant. None of the girls he was with, or his agents. I think his life’s regret is losing Cate. It’s so powerful seeing Cate in a situation where she could help people, and then physically touching them. I kept thinking there were actors who wouldn’t want to touch those people—we’re all repulsed by any kind of deformity or sores. Remember the Pope touched that person whose face was so disgustingly deformed or diseased? He had probably never been touched like that before. Cate kind of reminded me of the Pope’s generosity.
We shot two mansions. One on top of Beechwood Canyon, one on Sunset Blvd. They were just so sort of disgustingly overdone. They were wonderful. They’re supposed to be [Antonio] Banderas’s homes. You know he talks about changing women like changing flavors of ice cream. “You don’t like chocolate, you get strawberry.” And the people were walking around in the yards, but there was never real conversation. “Do you like my pink fingernails?” Christian walking like a dog. They had reached a pinnacle of opulence. But there’s no satisfaction in it.
Christian Bale’s character, he’s a comedy writer, but he’s never funny. In two or three scenes, he’s got these agents trying to seduce him with fame and money, shoving an envelope filled with money in it, telling him how famous he can be and what credits he can have. And I think that’s some of the temptations that we’re all faced with, that can lead us off our path from having a complete life, or a life that makes us happy.
I can’t speak for Terry and what his thoughts were, but in watching the film, that’s what came across to me. Even the most personal spaces were striking in their beauty, but cold, like marble, like what you’d see in a magazine.
Terry always wanted to destroy the expected. When we were shooting in Christian Bale’s father’s house, it looked conventional, so we pushed the sofa against the fireplace. It’s not something you normally would do, but we just wanted to disrupt the expected.
What was the meaning of that one-off scene when Bale gets robbed and there seem to be no consequences or follow-ups?
That robbery is the most bizarre robbery I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s no emotional content to it—they couldn’t find anything to steal! Here’s a wealthy person, who’s seduced by these agents, at the back lot or at the agency, for fame and wealth, and he doesn’t have anything he really wants, or that anyone would want. Nothing seemed to be important.
I saw those images Terry has of babies crawling out of the sea, and I thought of how we all kind of emerged from the sea, with fish turning into a salamander or something and on to man or something, and we saw them coming out with so much promise into the world, and they reach this sort of pinnacle of human existence and environment, and they seem kind of lost. Whatever they were searching for in the beginning, they got distracted. It gave me so much to think about. But I don’t know if what I got out of the film is what Terry planned on putting in there. It’s kind of like you go into a gallery and to each painting you look at you bring your own life, so it changes the painting. Everybody sees it a little differently. It’s really a beautiful, powerful film. To me it was about how you get lost, you get confused with all the possessions of life. It’s a different kind of film to watch.
Was part of the idea to catch natural light in an unnatural place?
There’s a great contrast between the scene with Peter Matthiessen in this Japanese garden and every other scene. There was a beauty and a humanism to that setting.
That was the Japanese garden at the Huntington Library [in San Marino]. That might be, as you say, a much warmer place, but it’s a place people visit and look at, even that’s not a place that people live in. It’s almost like you’re looking at postcards, or something from another time. But compared to the homes and businesses that have expensive possessions and aren’t human…. Again, that robbery. Whatever he had in that apartment—the sofa was expensive, the television was expensive—but there was nothing in it anyone wanted to steal. And then we went from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and that was even stranger because there the buildings look like Greek temples and the sky was painted. We shot in a shopping center with a painted sky, so nothing was “real.”
Matthiessen was one of the few people who was in the moment, making an observation, where everyone else was searching .… I think Cate’s character, a doctor, also, was trying to hang on to humanity in a cold world. You see her touching the lepers or whoever those people were in the hospital. But Christian’s character left that, and then his relationships were meaningless. Women were throwing themselves at him, and there was stuff that looked like fun, but it was in no way satisfying to him. You know, he left what was probably the best relationship for him—which we all do, especially when we’re young, and we don’t know enough to tell what’s good and what’s not good. I remember, when you’re a kid, you go to a party, and you’re afraid you’re missing a better party somewhere else. And you go there, and it isn’t as good as the one you were at. You go home and you think, “What happened that night?”
It’s just a powerful film. I got to see it in a quiet screening room all by myself, and I just loved it. It just washed over me and engulfed me. I thought at the beginning, “I’m not going to try to understand Terry, I’m just going to try to enjoy the film,” and I found myself getting so much out of it, I had no idea if it was intended that way, I can only respond the way I felt. And I felt that Christian Bale’s character had started out with promise, that he and his brothers had been disappointments to their father, because he had had a life that was unfulfilled. And the father wanted his sons to be different, but they were distracted by the same things in life.
So they lose their way. Terry does include that parable of a prince going off to get a pearl, and he drinks some drink that causes him to fall asleep, and to me, hearing that, I had to think, “Wow, a lot of us sleep through life—we don’t enjoy the moment, we’re not really grasping what’s around us, we’re just walking through it.” I think in Terry’s own life, he had stuff with his brothers, and his father was an important figure in his life, and then there was his time in L.A.
Terry as a screenwriter and filmmaker lived in Los Angeles, and he doesn’t live in Los Angeles any more. And I’m sure people tried to seduce him. And the important part of his history is that he disappeared for 15 years; that was his going to the desert, to find out what’s important in life. Then when he came back he… changed. And now he does it the way he wants to do it and it seems to be more fulfilling, and he’s so energized, he doesn’t want to take any time off, he works continuously. And he seems very happy doing it. And he has a very happy home life, and he’s got something like 15 grandchildren. His life is so different than Bale’s.
The Vegas scenes were actually quite beautiful.
Las Vegas is beautiful. It’s seductive. Models are beautiful. Money is beautiful. All stuff that’s seductive is beautiful. Con-men are sometimes the sweetest people in the world—that’s how they get your money. Las Vegas was designed to take people’s money away from them. If you’ve seen that show, American Greed, it’s about all these people that do Ponzi schemes. All these people live in huge mansions, they drive Ferraris, they do all these things to impress people with how successful they are, although they’re living off other people’s money and it’s all false. Las Vegas works better because it is beautiful and it is seductive. You know Terry has all these recurring images of people always returning to water. It’s as if we flirt with beginnings coming out of the sea. I don’t know if we really came out of the sea but that’s what I always understood. We walked out of the water and became humans. He keeps going back to the beach. And at the end of the film, I know it’s at the end of the trailer, Christian Bale is going into the water, and you see pike and debris in it. It’s just as primal as dinosaurs to me, or one-celled animals. It’s seemed to me like the beginning, like whence we came.
You know, I keep thinking of a couple of scenes we did in the water—I don’t know if it was Banderas or someone else, walking on the tiles on the bottom of the pool. And then we did a great shot of all the dogs jumping in the pool, and all the people in the pool—I think it was sort of like trying to find our way back to our beginnings. We’re attracted to where we came from. I kept seeing water, like we were trying to find ourselves again.
Before, did you mean “babies” going into the water, or “babes”?
I meant babies, but it’s great that there can be that double meaning! There were a couple of images of kids, a girl walking with a stick, making marks on the beach. The beach itself was powerful, because it’s as if we were coming out of the sea and merging into this other world that was Babylon or something.
The scenes with the models, we did in this great Case Study house, and there again you had people jumping in the pool, and in Las Vegas, in the desert, there were people jumping in the pool. Getting Christian Bale out in the desert—I don’t really understand all the biblical references but I know sometimes it reminded me of when Jesus went through the desert—and was tempted—and went back. And that’s what Las Vegas is, temptation in the desert. Leave your family home along with everything you’ve worked for in 50 years.
So Christian Bale has gone from playing Moses for Ridley Scott to playing Jesus for Terry Malick?
[Laughter] I think he’s really playing Everyman. We all get lost. I don’t think at the end of the film he found his way, but maybe the next one he will. Or maybe he did.
Terry’s always found importance in people that are suffering and I think that’s part of the spiritual side of him. I think this film is very spiritual. Probably a lot more than Exodus was.
Does Bale complete his journey and find peace at the end?
I think the scenes at the end were shot in Texas, because I recognized the oak trees. Maybe he did find himself. The horrible part for me before that were the scenes with Natalie Portman, who was pregnant, and she didn’t know who the father was. She’s throwing her life away; she’s as lost as he was. It’s like, “What have I done?” It’s like we’re always waking up after this horrible drunk. Malick cut to those children several times at the end; I didn’t know if he was showing the innocence of children, that they still had promise, or that Christian himself had gone there—I hope that’s it. I didn’t feel bad at the end of the film.
How did you find Bale’s bachelor pad in Venice?
The first thing I thought about was that we had to have a place that had large windows, and that when you looked out the windows you’d have some vista—that’s why we had him on the top floor, so you could look out over Venice. They’re building thousands of new apartment buildings with units like that, they call them “lofts,” and they have these big open spaces. For that we actually rented two of them because there wasn’t enough room in only one. The bedroom was separate, in one, and the robbery was in another, but they were right next to each other. One was facing more easterly, so we could shoot in the morning, and one was facing more westerly, so we could shoot in the afternoon.
The earthquake—we had so much fun with that. That was all done with monofilaments and pieces of dowling and stuff. It was so much fun doing effects without money. Monofilaments—like fish line. We hooked up stuff and just shook it. We couldn’t spend a fortune on effects. It was all engineered to be done like puppeteering.
We wanted something sort of empty so we wouldn’t have to move much. Those apartments were just completed, so we just went and painted. There was no furniture or anything to move out, it was for sale at the time. One apartment was like looking across the courtyard at the other apartments; sometimes you’d look over and it was empty, and sometimes there’d be people. It reminded me of those Edward Hopper images of offices at night. You kind of peer into other peoples’ lives and it keeps changing—there’s someone there and then there isn’t. I just love those locations because they’re fun to shoot. We were shooting handheld, with Steadicam, and to have that much light gave us a few more hours to shoot every day. L.A. is changing quickly.
There seems to be no barrier between Bale’s personal and professional life.
He’s not into a home. That’s why he and his wife never built a great home together. He wants something else, something bigger. He doesn’t care about anything. That’s why that robbery just blew my mind, because he didn’t care whether they stole his stuff or didn’t steal it, nothing seemed important to him. His car didn’t seem important, the women he took up with didn’t seem important. When Natalie Portman was pregnant, that didn’t seem too emotional to him. His confusion seemed to be why he couldn’t find something he’d be interested in. His work wasn’t fulfilling, his relationships weren’t fulfilling, certainly his environment, as beautiful as it was, wasn’t fulfilling.
Do you design the scenes partly for the faces of the actors, their flesh, to stand out?
We were looking for windows that were 10 feet tall because natural light, if you have a big enough source, it just wraps around the face. And if the background is dark, it looks like a Vermeer painting or a Caravaggio. With the darker backgrounds it really shows off the human face.
How would you compare working with Malick to working with David Lynch?
They’re both great artists. But David he writes the script and he visualizes it as he writes. Working with David I am trying to make that a reality. The discovery has already been made: it’s in his head. It’s about trying to get that into a physical form where we can shoot it. With Terry it’s more like an abstract painting. He has ideas in his head, but they’re not a location or a wall surface, but they’re a feeling. Terry will shoot the same scene in three or four different locations just to see what works best, or sometimes he’ll even give a line to a different actor. David has got it more in his mind, so it’s about visualizing his mind. With Terry he’s creating it as it goes. He has the idea, the foundation, the genesis for it, but I don’t think he even knows what it’s going to look like until it’s done. And that I think is real exciting for him. With David it’s exciting to realize these world that he’s imagined. I’ve known him since high school. Sometimes his reference points are things that we experienced in Philadelphia or Los Angeles, and it gives me a clue to where his thought process started for a particular image. Both were in AFI its first year, but they’re completely different filmmakers. I think they’re great artists. Twenty years from now, long after we’re gone, people will be studying these films, like we look at Old Masters paintings. And it doesn’t matter how commercial they are today, or even how well received they are, but I think they’ll stand up. I’m always reminded of these great artists who in their lifetime could never sell a painting but became appreciated later.
How concrete are Malick’s directions to you?
Sometimes Terry gives me notes on a 3 x 5 card, or dialogue, or he’ll know a location; he’ll want to shoot at a beach, or he’ll want to shoot—like the Japanese garden, he knew about that, he wanted to shoot there. USC has one that they closed down. Terry and I work largely non-verbal, although we spend a lot of time together—I suggest stuff and he responds to it, he suggests stuff and I respond to that.
With Terry, in a strange way, I talk about sets less than I do with any other directors I work with. I’ve known Terry since 1972, David since 1960. With a history of being together you can sometimes communicate without talking. A lot of what I do will suggest things, and he’ll respond or he won’t. Couple of times we’ve disagreed—you know, the director always wins, but sometimes you think you’ve won. We had this wonderful character, Sean Penn’s character in Tree of Life, he’s an architect, and Terry loved this house we found, one of the most expensive houses in Austin, beautifully designed, fit for an architect, and then he would go into this place in Houston, this big and open and exquisite office, glass around everything, but Terry wanted him to drive a Honda Accord, because Terry drives a Honda Accord. I said no, he wouldn’t do that, he’s not wearing a thousand dollar suit and driving a Honda Accord. So we compromised. I got him an X5 BMW. But when you saw him in the movie, he was never in his car. He kind of let me have my way but he did have final say.
Terry has thousands of suggestions. It was great when we were looking at the nightclubs he was kind of kidding me, like, “I didn’t ever have that kind of life”—then I found these Arts Weeks, these New York Times articles about L.A. clubs, and I kind of got back at him. He’s always exploring—he wanted to find the most decadent nightclub, not the most horrible stuff, just stuff that’s a waste of time, something that appealed to our worst pleasures, something that’s distracting. Like you start watching television and you realize, “I’ve been here for three hours, and I haven’t got any exercise.” I think that life can be a real distraction.
That’s why people become monks or have a simple life or watch birds or tend gardens—and I think that’s what Peter Matthiessen represents—Peter is a Buddhist, he’s dead now, and Terry had so much respect for Peter. And Terry came and looked at the set we built. Any kind of Buddhist stuff, he wanted to make sure it was right. He didn’t want anything that would embarrass Peter. He wanted him to be comfortable, and he wanted a place that could be lit by the sun and work with the rest of the film.
How would you compare Knight of Cups to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (01) as L.A. movies?
One of David’s favorite films is Sunset Boulevard. And that contributes to the way he sees Los Angeles. It’s the old Hollywood. It’s a much darker story. They’re like opposites, it would be good to see them together. David’s film also is just a wonderful story—at one time I figured it out, but I forgot. [Laughs] I have so much respect for David and the intelligence of that script. Because it started as a TV series for ABC—it was going to be an ongoing TV series and they saw the first part that was edited together, and they said, no way, we don’t want it. And then Canal Plus approached David and said, “David, do you have any films?” And he said, “Well, I’ve done this thing, but it’s not finished.” They were able to buy it from ABC and he wrote a whole other ending, which we shot, much later, and made it into a complete film. The approach was so different. We weren’t doing the sort of superficial world of Terry’s film. We were doing the dark and troubling world of Hollywood, with people being used and stuff. I think the world we created in Knight of Cups was more the superficial world, where people are victims, or they’re lost until they go somewhere else, maybe that’s what all those airplanes are about, either people getting out or people coming in to be lost. Completely different style of painting.
Go to those great apartment buildings down in Hollywood, and there are still some beautiful buildings built in the ’20s and ’30s, just great old Hollywood.
Was working on The Revenant at all like working with Terry on The New World?
The Revenant was unique. I never worked on anything quite like that. I’d never worked with Alejandro before so we didn’t have a history. But I knew when I met him that he was a passionate artist. I didn’t see Birdman yet, but I did see some of his other films. And he gave me a DVD of a movie, Andrei Rublev, and he said this was my favorite film. When I saw that it helped me understand Alejandro. Alejandro was making a spiritual film and Terry was making a spiritual film. But they’re completely different. Terry is probably the most brilliant person I know and also the humblest person I know and he treats everybody as if they’re as smart as he is, though only a fool would say he is. Terry’s just so kind and giving. Alejandro is more of a passionate artist: he’s strong, and he’s like wrestling with his films and his images. He works with a much heavier brush. Both have valid approaches to filmmaking and both have had success doing it their ways, and for me it’s more exciting to work with people that are different from the other people I work with. I appreciated every moment I was working with Alejandro. But Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] and I have worked on six films together, Revenant and every film Terry has made since 2005. We often joke about the differences. We spent a lot of time rehearsing on Alejandro’s film, and no time rehearsing on Terry’s films. Sometimes I feel like I’m being given a pass because of my relationship with Terry. Directors kind of trust me with whatever I’m going to come up with. I build the sets and they show up and shoot them, or I find the locations. I started using models a lot, because it’s easier for people to understand a 3-D representation of a set. With Terry I never show him anything.
I try to research films extensively, and I try to do it from material written before the time of the film, and to look at pictures or paintings that are right for that period. I try not to reference motion pictures. For me, it’s like dubbing a videotape—every generation down it becomes less clear. So I look for primary sources. But when I was reading The Jamestown Chronicles, or generally things written in the period, I realized sometimes people lie, sometimes they don’t understand what’s really happening, and sometimes their writings are translated or edited heavily. And then it becomes a challenge of reading between the lines and comparing sources. But after all that extensive research, there comes a point where I just stop and forget about it and then just work off the cuff, for what feels right. I just try to think like someone of that period. Sometimes anthropological studies or social commentaries on the way people lived, what their personal habits were—they help me make decisions on the spur of the moment. The history itself helps me a lot when I can tell a director, no, they wouldn’t have this. If I have something to back it up, if they ever question it, it maintains a trust if I have something backing it up. I don’t want anyone ever to think I’m just making stuff up. If it’s not real, especially on period films, then they start to question everything you do. You’re walking a tightrope!
And how does Paul Thomas Anderson fit into this continuum?
David is not into history—a lot of his images come from film or life, his fears or delights. Paul, because he writes differently than David, he does extensive research. When I started out on There Will Be Blood  he handed me so much research he had put together, we were working from the same sources. My challenge was to try to find something he didn’t already know! Just to preserve my own dream, my own pride. He had such knowledge of the period and he was so devoted to sharing it that we got in synch quickly. It was a great relationship. It was good fun. Paul’s got a wicked sense of humor and he loves filmmaking. He uses films as references all the time. I remember he gave me—he wanted me to watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I didn’t really like it, I thought it was terrible, and it just drove him crazy. I don’t like to look at films when I’m starting a film—when I’m starting a film I like to think I can do it better than anyone else has. And it just didn’t look very good to me. When a film’s done I get very humble. Then I’m real forgiving. But in the beginning I like to have the confidence to approach it like you’re doing something new, you don’t worship or even think about something that’s already been done. You’re trying to aim much higher. But by the end, you’ve had your own defeats and successes that you’re forgiving of anything that’s been done that’s connected to film, because you’re reminded of how difficult it is to make a movie.
Why haven’t you worked with Brian De Palma recently?
I’d love to work with De Palma again. When I finished Badlands, Ed Pressman the producer said come and work with Brian De Palma on this film I’m doing, Phantom of the Paradise. Brian can appear kind of gruff. I showed up, kind of assigned to the project, and he asked, “What have you done?” Well, I hadn’t done much. I had finished Badlands. I had done a lot of Roger Corman and Gene Corman films up to then. I started working on that film, and I don’t pretend to know everything but I started presenting ideas about the character. We were doing this great thing about the music industry. I came out of my house one morning and there was this dead bird lying on the side of the road. And I picked it up, and I got this idea for an image for Death Records. It was actually a sparrow, but I was thinking of it poetically as a songbird, and I thought it could be a logo for Death Records. I took a picture with a process camera and made an image of it. And I think Brian responded to that. Long story short, three years ago one of my daughters shows up with a shirt on with that bird on it, and someone’s marketing it on the Internet 40 years later. That was a fun thing.
And then I had these ideas of Swan’s office desk being an old record, his bedroom being a turntable with gold record sheets. I never really knew what Brian thought but I was working like crazy. And we were about to do the scene when Finley [Winslow/The Phantom] breaks out of a brick wall—somebody has locked him in this office to write and fixed it so he’d never get out, and he does bust out. Well, I was new to film and I was making the bricks and mortaring them together during lunch. The grips came back, and they were ready to shoot, and I wasn’t quite finished. I was covered with mortar and sweat and stuff, and one of the grips started giving me hard time: “You’re not a professional: you should have done this a long time ago!” And I can’t tell you exactly what Brian said, but it was something like, “Shut up, he’s making the film look great.” It was the first time I knew he was excited with what we were doing, because it was really kind of out there—out there like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I called a friend of mine who was a costume designer, and said, “I’m doing this film with Brian De Palma, it’s about the Devil, Faust, and all that,” and she said, “You can’t use black and red, that’s for sure.” The way she said it, I just got it into me, “I’m going to use black and red” and so I did. Sometimes I just like to go against what everybody thinks. She was a woman of taste but I thought, I like black and red. Also, we didn’t have a lot of money, so you could black out something and not see it and it would work really well. Sometimes I wanted the sets to go black and the DP overlit them, and I get upset to this day when I see it, because there are things that were supposed to be black that are gray. All we had to do was just shut off a few lights. Working with Brian was great fun, and with Carrie, the same thing.
Brian called me afterwards to work with him, but our schedules just didn’t work out. I love Brian. He’s a wonderful filmmaker. He actually storyboarded every shot. At the time he would do it on 3 x 5 cards, with stick figures. You could go into his office and see the whole film laid out on the wall. Every scene. So I knew what he was going to shoot and it was easier to design the sets because I knew what he wanted and who the characters were and where the camera was going to be. And he stuck pretty much to that. And he would show up on set and he would get so bored waiting for lighting and waiting for people to get made up, because he’d already made the film in his mind. He really took advantage of the sets; probably more than anyone I worked with, he would use them and took a certain delight in them. He was a fun director.
You know, someone did a remake of Carrie. I know Brian knows the director who directed it. And someone was talking to him and to her about how they did the bucket of blood that gets dumped on her. And the new one, they engineered with effects and levers and stuff like that. And I think it cost them about $200,000 to dump the blood on Carrie. And someone was talking to him and her about the new dump, engineered with effects and levers. And they asked Brian how he did it, and he said, “Jack Fisk just climbed up a ladder and dumped a bucket of blood on her.” That low-tech thing we did in the ’70s because we didn’t have much money. Sometimes it works just as well or better.
You’ve directed several films yourself, including one that has some critical following, Raggedy Man (81). Do you miss it?
I like building worlds. Directing is a hard profession because you’re always trying to get money and you have to satisfy a lot of people to be able to make a film. Just for my own temperament, I like people calling me and saying: “We’ve got a film, can you start Wednesday.” And you work like crazy, building this world. It’s a little different each time, with different people involved. And then when it finishes you say, “Goodbye,” and you leave, and you have another life. I live on a farm in Virginia and I treasure my time off. To me it worked much better to go and work and do something I enjoy and then leave and not get involved with the politics. I hardly ever deal with producers. And the directors I work with, we’re kind of like compatriots or partners. You do what you can to make the best film you can and then it’s over.
I’m probably a better production designer than I was a director, and I just couldn’t deal with the politics of getting films set up. If I was writing films, that might be something. But I’m not a writer. I like people bringing me scripts that set challenges for me. It’s a fun life building worlds. No regrets. I make enough money to do all the stuff we want to do and I get to work with great people. Sometimes I feel like the guy on the dais: the guy who sits next to Mozart. You get to be around these exceptional artists, and you’re contributing to their work. I find great satisfaction in that. I know some art directors get frustrated. But I had enough of a taste of directing to know I wasn’t more happy directing. If I wanted to do something completely independent, I’d build a sculpture, or paint a painting, or build a chair. I didn’t want to be dealing with studios, budgets and all that.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to FILM COMMENT and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates The Moviegoer at the Library of America website.