Production values: Jack Fisk finds days of heaven

Cismont resident Jack Fisk has a charmed career. Few movie production designers have worked on so many critically acclaimed films or as consistently with extraordinary directors, such as Terrence Malick and David Lynch. Like them, Fisk favors art over commerce.

Yet versatility is a hallmark of Fisk’s designs. He recreated a hauntingly accurate 1950s America in his breakout film, Malick’s Badlands (1973) and more recently in The Tree of Life (2011). He built the prom that Carrie White incinerated in Carrie (1976). For Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), he earned an Academy Award nomination for replicating California’s ragged early oil towns and rigs. 

With boyish enthusiasm, the utterly unpretentious Fisk, 65, says his love of building artificial worlds began in childhood when living in a wooded area in Richmond.

"I built a lot of forts.” As an adult, he says, “They turned into sets.”

After Fisk graduated from art school, director Jonathan Demme gave him his first production design assignment for $100 a week on the 1971 biker movie Angels Hard As They Come. Bewildered, Fisk called cinematographer Stephen Katz to find out what an art director does.

“And he said, ‘I don’t know,’” Fisk laughs. “So, to cover my a**, I did everything: I did costumes and props and went crazy, but I loved it.”

Since they met in ninth grade David Lynch has figured heavily in Fisk’s life. "We went to art school together, we went to Europe together, we moved to L.A. together.”

Fisk worked on one of Lynch’s 1960s student films, acted in his Eraserhead in 1977, and designed his The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch was once even married to Fisk’s sister.

Lynch is “like Jimmy Stewart from Mars," according to Fisk. "He's not strange."

It was through Lynch that Fisk first met Malick in the early ’70s, when the two directors were studying at the American Film Institute. Fisk discovered that Malick was making a film about the ’50s. Intrigued, Fisk researched the era.

“Terry heard that this guy was researching his film,” laughs Fisk, recalling how they immediately bonded and how he got hired. “It was never a question like ‘Do you want the job?’ or ‘Are you qualified?’”

He and Malick are “like brothers,” Fisk says. He describes Malick as more cerebral and himself as more intuitive. “And it works well with his approach because it complements mine,” he says.

Malick’s film was Badlands, starring then-unknown Sissy Spacek as a character based on serial killer Charles Starkweather’s girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Malick introduced them, and Fisk remembers thinking, "She doesn’t look anything like Caril Ann Fugate.” He laughs. “She was the cutest thing, and she had red hair and painter’s bib overalls.”

Badlands would turn out to be a milestone for nearly everyone involved, particularly Fisk and Spacek, who fell in love on it, married the following year, and have been together ever since. Daughters Schuyler and Madison have each worked in film. 

Projects like Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976), which starred Spacek, and Days of Heaven (1978) won Fisk his Art Directors’ Union card. But what he calls "absurd" union restrictions and the “absence of passion” on those productions appalled him so much that he abandoned production design for 15 years. He briefly directed films, including Raggedy Man in 1981.           

Around that time, the couple invested in a horse farm that Fisk's mother had discovered. Spacek and Fisk gradually began to envy their farm employees’ pastoral lives, so in 1982, after their first daughter’s birth, they moved here to enjoy Central Virginia landscape and history. And privacy.

“I think that’s something that even Thomas Jefferson might have noted: nobody investigates you– they leave you alone," says Fisk. “And I know, married to Sissy, it’s such a pleasure to come here where she doesn’t have paparazzi taking her picture and people asking you for autographs," he says. “So we’ve felt a little bit like we’re cheating because we’re getting to have a regular life and work in the film business.”

Meanwhile, career-wise, Fisk collaborates exclusively with friends, including Paul Thomas Anderson. “Paul has become a dear friend,” Fisk says. “I talk to him regularly. He just had his third child [who's] named Jack. I told him, ‘That’s a great name.’ We just finished a film together, The Master.”

Fisk shows no desire to stop swinging hammers and wielding paintbrushes. “When I worked on There Will Be Blood, at the end of the shoot, the construction coordinator gave me a hammer as a going-away gift,” he laughs. “He always said, ‘I have to give you something to do so you’ll be happy.’”

He delights in being an art director as much, or more, than ever: “That’s what our job is," he says, "solving problems and having fun.”
Jack Fisk and Sissy Spacek will host a screening of
Badlands, moderated by Ben Mankiewicz, at the Paramount Theater at 5 pm Saturday, November 5.