For The Revenant production designer Jack Fisk, mother nature’s war against the production could have been worse. Sure, there were below zero temperatures and a complete extinction of snow in Canada, but for the native Virginian, there’s nothing like the outdoors. That talent for wrangling exteriors in the wild has made Fisk the go-to production designer for such auteurs as Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and now Alejandro Inarritu in his 20th Century Fox/New Regency wilderness western. The spoils of being recognized with his second Oscar nomination in art direction following 2007’s There Will Be Blood couldn’t be sweeter for Fisk who not only battled the weather, but had to contend with The Revenant production relocating from Calgary, Canada to Patagonia, Argentina just so that they could find snow. For Revenant set decorator Hamish Purdy, it’s his first time at the Oscars. Fisk recently received an Art Directors Guild nomination for his work on The Revenant. He spoke with us about his process, executing Inarritu’s epic vision as well as reuniting with his Malick co-worker, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, for the fifth time.
How did you get involved with The Revenant, which is your first film working with Alejandro Inarritu?
I met with Alejandro in his office in Venice, California a couple years before we started the film, and he described this story to me. A very passionate artist, Alejandro is. And I got excited. I love working outside, and I love this period project, so we got involved. He sent me a film, Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky that I loved and I got an idea of the scale that he was thinking of. And also Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki), was working on the film, and Chivo and I, at that point, had done five films together, so it seemed like a good combination. But then the greenlight didn’t happen and Alejandro went off and did Birdman. So I waited, hoping that he wouldn’t fall in love with another designer, and a couple years later, he called me, ready to go.
You’ve worked on a number of films with these gorgeous, sweeping landscapes—your collaborations with Terrence Malick obviously come to mind.
I live in Virginia, on a farm, and it seems that since I first started—well, since Days of Heaven in 1976—I’ve been attracted and working on a lot of films that are outside, and most of the sets I build are on locations, rather than soundstages. I prefer being outside, rather than in a windowless box in Hollywood. But this was a perfect example. Working with Chivo, the way we’ve been shooting with Terrence Malick, it’s just to create as much depth as possible in our locations and settings, and that’s exactly what we looked for on this film—to create a scale for the northwest United States at that time. It was all new territory and we wanted to show just how big it was. So we found locations that were large, that had great depth, and that faced in a south or southwesterly direction so that we could back light everything.
Alejandro had the intention to go way out into the wilderness for this film, even beyond civilization, to create a sense that this really was “new territory.” What were some of the challenges that preference created for you?
I think we knew from the beginning that it was going to be difficult if we were going to find locations that were as wild as Alejandro wanted. And one of the difficulties or challenges for the art department was to find locations that showed a sense of progression—that you can be out in the wilderness and it can all look the same. You can kind of get lost. But we worked to try and find a difference in one setting to the next so that you felt that (Leonardo DiCarpio’s character Hugh) Glass was making some progress; and before Glass, that the trappers were making some progress in their journey. That was the biggest challenge and then the second was getting the crews into those locations and finding a place for them. A lot of times, we were on the edge of a cliff looking out many miles.
The cast and crew have been very open about how the climate and environment posed challenges for their work. How did it impact you?
Our biggest problem with the climate was that our last snow was November 28, and by January 20, the snow was melting rapidly and we were then creating snowy scenes by moving snow from the mountains down to whatever location we were shooting in. We had a couple of very cold days, shooting, and I know it was difficult for carpenters building the Indian villages and the forts because of the severe cold. We did a lot of chinking of buildings with mud that would freeze up, so we were continually thawing out mud and dirt so that we could use it for the set. It’s always difficult to work when it’s cold, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I was expecting worse.
You’re a hands-on designer and often use your very particular set of skills to build structures from scratch. What was your process like in designing the world of The Revenant, and what kinds of materials were used?
The difficulty or the excitement about this film is that first, Alejandro wanted it very real, and second, that they were using very wide lenses and putting them close to the actors and the sets, so they needed to look real. They needed to hold up under tight scrutiny. So I built with real materials, and materials that could be found in the locations where we were shooting so that the colors and the textures didn’t look manufactured, or brought in. I was given a lot of wood by the park services in Canada—piles of trees that they had cut for power lines— and we used those for constructing the fort, for doing the palisades and the buildings. In regards, to the Indian villages, we were able to harvest mud and water where we were, and sometimes the wood we needed. If we couldn’t get the wood there, we had a great greensman who had a cutting permit in some of the forest areas of Canada where we were, and he would bring us truckloads of branches or trees, whatever we needed for construction.
The painters that we had were great, and they aged and painted anything that was done with real, milled wood. They were able to degrade it to the point that it looked like it’d been there for a few years or it was rotted. So that happened on the boat—the boat was built with new wood, but the aging was spectacular, and I wanted that feeling because when I studied the history of the construction of that period, forts would only last a few years. They would deteriorate in the climate. And the boat was good for one season.
I read that the Indian moccasins that the trappers wore would only last for about three days, because they were going in and out of the water continually, and everything would stretch and shrink and fall apart. Their own clothes that they brought from the East Coast, or from St. Louis—boots and stuff— they’d be gone after a month or so and they’d have to rely on a lot of Indian clothing to continue working out there.
What was the extent of your involvement with the film, time-wise?
I started this film in April of 2014 and I finished at the end of August 2015, so I was on about 16 months, total. We didn’t shoot all that time, but there were a lot of locations to find and we had to find the locations before we could start construction, and we were trying to get the construction done before the weather turned very cold, but we were unable to do that. The carpenters up there in Canada were able to deal with the weather, and we worked right through it, no matter how cold it was. A lot of times, when they were constructing, it would be twenty below zero Celsius, and they just kept going. We had little trailers that they could go in to warm up at lunchtime, and we’d build fires to keep them warm, but it was difficult for them. And it was also difficult for the painters because the paint would freeze up. We did a trick painting all the trees dark, making them almost like silhouettes, and we did that with a mixture of black or brown dry color mixed with water, so that it wasn’t a permanent painting of the trees, but it was a temporary that helped, thematically, by simplifying the trees and making them darker.
Were you there with the location scouts from the very first outings?
Yeah. I worked with Robin Mounsey, who’s just the greatest scout I’ve ever worked with. I’d worked with him about four years earlier—I think I told Alejandro about him at our first meeting. Then Alejandro went up to Alberta to see what it would look like. When I started the film in April, they had a new producer and they were hoping to shoot the whole film in Vancouver. But Vancouver is a little more tropical and doesn’t have the wide vistas, and when you look at the mountains in British Columbia, you’re looking east, and we needed to look west, so it kind of naturally pushed us into Alberta, looking back to the west and also to get the great scale. Some of that scale, I remember from shooting Days of Heaven out there in 1976. We were out in Alberta before they had a film industry in Alberta. But they had these same great, wild areas. We found prairie and mountains that I remembered and loved, but Robin and I, it was almost like a marriage—I mean, we were together all the time, until we started shooting. And then we looked for locations until the last day of shooting. We were always trying to find something that was better, or adjusting what we’d already found. But we worked side by side. We hiked, literally hiked, hundreds of miles, and drove thousands of miles, exploring every nook and cranny we could of Alberta and British Columbia.
As production designer, how do you interact with actors?
It depends on the actors and the project. On this project, we started rehearsals without the actors—we rehearsed with stuntmen and extras. So there wasn’t that same closeness. But what we did was we set up a training facility. We were working with a great historian, Clay Landry, who came in to teach the actors how to fire black powder muskets, and throw tomahawks and start fires. We also had a survivalist who was great in survival techniques the trappers could use. So, indirectly, things were getting done. The art department worked closely with the AD department in training extras how to work with the trappers’ possessions, and how to walk around the fort like they belonged there. My biggest contribution to the actors was to make the settings as complete and as real as possible so that they could relate to any construction that we did as if it were real— to make it as real as what Mother Nature had put there on location.