Kihekah Avenue cuts through the town of Pawhuska, Okla., roughly north to south, forming the only corridor you might call a “business district” in the town of 2,900. Standing in the middle is a small TV-and-appliance store called Hometown, which occupies a two-story brick building and hasn’t changed much in decades. Boards cover its second-story windows, and part of the sign above its awning is broken, leaving half the lettering intact, spelling “Home.” The space inside, in the language of the plains, is “humble”: Its ceilings are low, its walls wood-paneled, its floors carpeted in tight-woven grids. If it weren’t for the giant inflatable University of Oklahoma Sooners mascot in its front-window display, the store would be easy to miss completely.
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One winter day in February 2021, Jack Fisk stood before Hometown with Martin Scorsese, explaining how beautiful it could be. For much of the last week, he and Scorsese had been walking around Pawhuska, scouting set locations for the director’s 28th feature film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The film, which is based on David Grann’s best-selling book, chronicles the so-called 1920s Reign of Terror, when the Osage Nation’s discovery of oil made them some of the richest people in the world but also the target of a conspiracy among whites seeking to kill them for their shares of the mineral rights. To render the events as accurately as possible, Scorsese had decided to film the movie in Osage County. It would be a sprawling, technically complicated shoot, with much of the undertaking falling to Fisk. Unlike production designers who use soundstages or computer-generated imagery, he prefers to build from scratch or to remodel period buildings, and even more than most of his peers, he aspires to exacting historical detail. His task would be to create a full-scale replica of a 1920s boom town atop what remains of 2020s Pawhuska.
The concern for the two men that day was where to build a pool hall, a set critical to the film, as several pivotal scenes between the antagonists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, unfold there. A nearby vacant building, formerly a hotel, appeared to capture the exact scale and mood Scorsese imagined: a vaulted space with columns and tile flooring. But Fisk voiced hesitations. He’d already spent several months in Osage County, touring buildings and studying land surveys, and he thought the hotel wouldn’t look right. For one thing, the columns suggested a multistory building of a type then rare to small towns. He also wanted the space to evoke a conspiratorial mood. A pool hall full of plotting, power-hungry men should have windows facing the other proposed sets on Kihekah Avenue, which would be transformed into a period thoroughfare; they would want “eyes on the town.”
Robert De Niro, left, and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” on a set Fisk built in Oklahoma.Credit…Apple TV+
Fisk made the case that Hometown’s space and location gave them exactly that: an atmosphere of menace. A former painter and sculptor, Fisk considers his job not merely the designing of authentic period backdrops but the creation of a film’s visual language, a series of subliminal whispers to thematic elements: a character’s taste in home décor, the personal history that selects a bedside photo, the temperament that informs a paint choice. He thinks of his art as one of believability: a nearly invisible composition of landscapes, buildings, paint and props that, when projected onscreen, absorbs the audience in a world that they know — instantly, intimately — is real, though they’ve never seen it before.
Transforming Hometown would be ambitious, but Fisk suspected that the building concealed a few helpful surprises. Based on its height, he figured the ceiling was a drop, hiding a more soaring space. Another tell was the plastic sign, which signaled there might be a hidden clerestory that, once exposed, would bathe the room in natural light. After discovering that both hunches were true, Fisk laid out for Scorsese his vision for the space: He would uncover the original hardwood floor and plaster the walls in an aged olive green before filling the room with a dozen 1900s Brunswick pool tables. As much as possible, the room would be dressed with furniture and fixtures sourced from antique stores and museums, rather than more conventional prop warehouses, and constructed with period materials, like the slotted screws more commonly used at the time. Even the dirt in the street outside would be carefully mixed to be appropriate to pre-Dust Bowl Oklahoma.
But the strangest and most imaginative aspect of Fisk’s plan involved integrating yet another set inside the pool hall. As Fisk explained to Scorsese, he wanted to make one side of the hall a barbershop, installing half-inch hex tile and a line of chairs and mirrors. The script called for two sets, but Fisk immediately pictured combining them when he read it. It was an idea that came not from research but something more personal: a memory. When Fisk was growing up in rural Illinois, his mother took him to get his hair cut in a pool hall, he said, a curious wrinkle of small-town life that conjured for him the “mysterious and fascinating” province of men. Especially in period films, Fisk likes to find ways to rekindle historical backgrounds, gone cold from familiarity, into the warmed textures of human life. “People pay more attention if they’re seeing something new,” he says, “seeing a facet of reality they haven’t seen before.” (Fisk later pulled up the fire maps from Osage County and discovered that of the three pool halls in the area at the time, two had barbershops.)
Scorsese required no convincing. Though the filmmaker, now 80, had never worked with Fisk before, he handpicked the designer, granting him extensive creative latitude, for expressly this sense of vision. Since the 1970s, Fisk has been one of Hollywood’s most sought-after collaborators — legendary among auteur writer-directors for his ability to help them realize their most ambitious projects. He has built boundless, intricately conceived worlds for Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”), Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”), David Lynch (“Mulholland Drive”), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“The Revenant”) and others. He is the artist filmmakers hire to bring the American past to the screen at the impossible human scale it once existed. “Jack belongs to one of these now rare species of filmmakers who understand film from an almost Renaissance-like tradition,” Iñárritu says — he knows photography, nature, architecture, drama. When Scorsese began planning “Killers of the Flower Moon” — a lengthy process in which the director radically revised the script from a story centered on the murder investigators to one following the victims — Paul Thomas Anderson told him, “You have to get Jack.”
But Fisk, who is 77, can be notoriously difficult to entice to a film. Since 1970, he has designed relatively few; at one point, he took nearly 20 years off. When Scorsese approached him, Fisk was excited by the opportunity to collaborate with the director, but also by the chance to excavate a world rarely depicted onscreen: The film takes place in a sliver of lost time, one wedged between more familiar depictions of Native Americans in the 19th century and the well-worn imagery of the Roaring ’20s. Bringing this moment of cultural collision back to life would represent as sweeping a challenge as Fisk had ever faced. The story unfolds in about 40 sets, as varied as Masonic lodges, Osage funerals and federal courtrooms, spread over a million acres and costing about $15 million of the film’s $200 million budget. The sets would represent a kind of culmination of Fisk’s careerlong obsession with reclaiming the rough contours of American history. More than any one aesthetic vision, he has sought over a half century to scour away the visual clichés that mar films, seeking beneath them the vivid woodgrain and forgotten colors of the past.
If Fisk’s name isn’t recognizable to most Americans, his imagery has shaped our collective understanding of what a modern historical epic looks and feels like. His signature is the 360-degree construction of the outdoor set, believably inhabited and painstakingly aged, marrying an anthropological eye for period detail with a rough-hewed naturalism that can edge, at times, into the slippery atmosphere of a dreamscape. For “There Will Be Blood,” he erected a 100-foot oil derrick, following turn-of-the-century blueprints so that it might take on a more ragged, credible shape, planting it atop a barren hillside that framed it against the sunset with painterly flair. In “The Revenant,” Iñárritu’s drifting, magic-inflected survival epic about a 19th-century fur trapper, Fisk scouted snow-buried valleys deep in the Canadian Rockies, throwing up post-and-beam forts in settings so sublime that the film exudes the mind-silencing cold of the characters’ icy journey.
But Fisk’s work is perhaps most unmistakable as the backdrop behind the films of Terrence Malick, whose swirling, voice-over-driven narratives find grounding in Fisk’s elemental settings: oceanlike wheat fields, serene jungle villages, a mother’s kitchen at twilight. It’s a fusion of styles the two filmmakers began exploring in “Badlands” (1973) — the open-road thriller where Fisk met his wife, the actress Sissy Spacek — and have continued over four decades. As interested as Fisk is in historical authenticity, his work with Malick and others is driven by a desire to build “for character and through character,” designing sets that manage to convey, in the manner of poetic compression, a film’s emotional core. Malick rarely writes a conventional script, and Fisk never shows the director any designs, an improvisational partnership that seeks to capture fleeting aspects of human existence otherwise hard to render through conventional narrative: grace, transcendence, communion with nature. On set, Malick refers to Fisk as “my eyes.”
Fisk has a background in the fine arts, but he considers himself more strictly speaking a “worker” — the conduit of someone else’s vision. As a production designer, he is in charge of manifesting a film’s reality, interpreting the fluid laws set by the director and script, in order to bring its world into physical existence. A designer must not only come up with all the textures, colors and moods of this world but also figure out how to engineer it all on budget, marshaling a machinery of illustrators, prop makers, location scouts and set decorators. A movie’s magic often comes down to how well a designer can trim a script’s price tag in labor and materials without sacrificing its aesthetic. (Noirs of the 1940s are crosshatched with shadows partly to conceal threadbare sets.) It is a vast undertaking of dramatic invention — one that aspires to be seen, though never noticed. When people say they love a film’s cinematography, what they often mean is its design: what they see within the frame, rather than the way it was captured.
Until recently, no tidy educational pipeline existed to produce this skill set; designers tended to emerge from whatever field corresponded to the demands of filmmaking at the time. In early Hollywood, most were painters, hired to illustrate literal backdrops on massive rolls of canvas hung behind the actors. As camera movements became more dynamic, so did the artwork, expanding to include full-scale replicas and miniature models, the provinces of architects and sculptors. During the studio era, backlots and prop shops supplied an interchangeable conveyor belt of artifice, with each studio employing a head designer to curate a kind of house style. Once the French New Wave and others pushed production outdoors, embracing unvarnished cityscapes, designers also became anthropologists, hunting for spaces that evoked the right reality. Even the title “production designer” itself is an expression of one designer’s ever-expanding duties on one film: David O. Selznick gave it to William Cameron Menzies after he conceived and constructed several groundbreaking set pieces in “Gone with the Wind.”
Much of this history Fisk only learned recently, when Scorsese gave him a copy of Menzies’ biography, “The Shape of Films to Come.” Unlike many of his contemporaries, who worked their way up through the art department, Fisk doesn’t describe himself as a film obsessive, and he’s careful not to watch movies while he’s designing. “I always thought of a film as an original piece,” he says. The same way an actor metabolizes dialogue and stage directions, Fisk aspires to render a director’s vision into what he thinks of as a vast environmental sculpture. What draws him to a project, he says, is a frightening sense of scale, the chance to lose himself in the impossible.
Fisk’s extreme commitment has endeared him to directors and crew alike. Nearly every filmmaker I spoke with emphasized the sheer range of his physical talents: landscape architecture, finish carpentry and portraiture, often executed in the same set. But equally important are his imaginative depths. “There is something spiritual in the essence of Jack,” Iñárritu says. Part of his job is to serve as a medium between what a director can’t quite articulate and what a crew needs to build, a gap he often bridges by simply doing it himself. As Lynch told me: “He will do all the research and make sure it’s this and this and this and then build the thing. And if they sawed the wood this way, he would go saw the wood that way.” Jacqueline West, an Oscar-nominated costume designer who has worked with Fisk on nine films, including “Killers of the Flower Moon,” recalls that when she met him, he was hammering square nails into a set by himself on a weekend. “He’s very Method,” she says.
When Scorsese began developing “Killers of the Flower Moon,” he’d long admired Fisk’s work from afar. But initially, he hired another designer, Dante Ferretti, with whom he made “Gangs of New York,” “The Aviator” and several other films. Then Covid shut down production, and Scorsese began brooding over the direction of the film. In early drafts, it followed Tom White, an F.B.I. agent then slated to be played by DiCaprio, but Scorsese and DiCaprio worried that the framing privileged the wrong vantage. So Scorsese rewrote the script, moving the film into the perspective of the Osage, but also that of their killers, with DiCaprio switching to play a key conspirator. It was a shift that transformed the film from a murder mystery into something less familiar, a narrative that tracks the deepening grief of the victims right alongside the manifest deceptions of their supposed friends and family, forming an agonizing portrait of complicity and greed and white supremacy.
For Scorsese, Fisk now seemed like the natural choice to guide the film to its historical reality. “Jack has a deep sense of the American past, the way things looked and felt,” he told me. “In a way, he was the only possible choice for this picture.” But when the two men met, Fisk stopped short of proposing any ideas. He prefers that his vision of a film be sparked by a director’s, he says, which in this case turned out to be relatively straightforward. “Marty wanted to have it historically correct,” Fisk says. “That’s how we connected.” With both men nearing 80, the film represented as rigorous a project as either had ever taken on. For Fisk, it meant not just excavating a historical period but also the most minute details of real people’s lives. “I didn’t want to reinvent the Osage,” he told me.
Fisk grew up moving between worlds. His father, a pilot in the Pacific theater in World War II, died in a crash when he was 3, and after that, his mother married an engineer who ran foundries all over the world. The family moved nearly every year — Illinois, Michigan, Virginia, Pakistan. Often isolated in a new place, he channeled his inquisitive energies into art projects and building elaborate multistory forts. In Alexandria, Va., Fisk fell in with another artsy student at his high school, a boy named David Lynch. Like Fisk, Lynch had moved a lot, and the young men bonded. “Jack and I ended up being really the only two guys in that whole school that were interested in being painters,” Lynch told me. They enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts together, but they were happy to paint all day and avoid Vietnam, renting a dilapidated house across from the city morgue. “I had one floor; David had a floor,” Fisk said. “We took an old coffee pot and made a water heater out of it so we could wash our hands and face.”
A break for both artists arrived when Lynch was invited to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in 1970. Fisk had little interest in filmmaking but hitched a ride anyway, figuring he’d find work painting billboards. “I always sort of thought I would be an artist, you know, with no money and struggling,” he said. “I remember thinking, I’m going to try this for a year.” He arrived in Hollywood at a fruitful time for outsiders. The waning power of the studios was making way for the so-called New Hollywood, a young generation of filmmakers influenced by foreign cinema and eager to experiment. “ ‘Easy Rider’ had been made, and studios realized they didn’t know what the public wanted,” Fisk says.
Through Lynch and his classmates, Fisk soon found work on sets, often because he was the only guy around with a truck full of tools. Eventually, Jonathan Demme — who would later direct “The Silence of the Lambs” — hired him as an art director, a job unfamiliar to Fisk. But it didn’t matter: The stripped-down vibe of independent filmmaking suited Fisk, who found he knew just enough carpentry to teach himself whatever a director needed. “They would say, ‘We need a church,’” Fisk said. “And then you either find it or build it.” The simplicity of these directives was energizing for Fisk, not unlike the clarifying terror of standing before a blank canvas. He had few film references to draw on, and didn’t know about conventional film infrastructure, like soundstages, prop warehouses and theater flats. So he relied on what he knew: realist painting, modern sculpture, building forts.
Union rules often make film sets workplaces of strict hierarchy, with each person tending to a narrow scope of duties, but as an outsider Fisk was indiscriminately hands-on, doing whatever needed fixing, an industriousness that quickly endeared him to young directors with tight budgets and ambitious visions. During the 1970s, he worked on films for several established filmmakers, like Roger Corman and Stanley Donen, and designed classics from emerging auteurs, like Brian De Palma’s “Carrie.” When he learned that an A.F.I. student named Terrence Malick was prepping a ’50s thriller about lovers on the lam — what would become “Badlands” — Fisk took it upon himself to compile reference images. “Terry heard about this guy who was researching his film who he’d never met,” Fisk says, “and we had a meeting, and it went kind of like this: Could you start July 10th?”
Perhaps no set in Fisk’s career more vividly expresses the lyricism of his craftsmanship than the house he built for Malick’s next film, “Days of Heaven.” The plan was simple enough: Find a house surrounded by wheat fields, where Malick could stage a love triangle among a farmer and two workers in 1916 Texas. But as Fisk scouted, he learned that many fields had already been harvested, and that many modern varieties of wheat were too short for the atmosphere Malick envisioned, with the characters buried to their chests. Some of the only farmers still cultivating the tall varieties that late in the season were Hutterites — a small Anabaptist sect — in Alberta. But when Fisk approached them late in the summer of 1976, he learned they’d be harvesting in six weeks. The shoot would last two weeks, so to give Malick what he wanted, Fisk needed to build a house in a month. He thought it feasible, if he could erect only a facade, with the interior shots filmed elsewhere. But Malick insisted he wanted the wheat fields visible through the windows. All told, Fisk would have about $100,000 and maybe a handful of crew to build it.
“I was too dumb to know it was impossible,” he told me. “The Hutterite elders were taking bets that we couldn’t finish.”
Earlier, Malick showed Fisk a photograph of a Victorian, an image that reminded him of Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting “House by the Railroad.” He knew a little drafting from art school, but “the carpenters couldn’t read blueprints anyway.” So he relied on models, bending history and architecture to fit the emotional framework of the character. Many houses in 1910s Texas would’ve been plain and single-story, as Fisk explains, but you look outside and “you’re looking at a wheat field, and it’s like an ocean.” To accentuate that loneliness, he made the house slender, ornate, with high windows, like a ship. He used telephone poles to anchor the structure against high winds, covering the exterior in plywood. Hutterite teenagers pitched in, along with a few friends, and Fisk furnished the interior with antiques driven all the way up from Los Angeles.
Today, “Days of Heaven” remains a very personal film for Fisk, in part because it showed him that a simple, handmade set could also be the most cinematically elegant. He realized that building an entire structure, instead of a facade, gave a director the freedom to explore and shoot from any angle — which helped pre-empt costly, time-consuming modifications — while the open windows also saturated the photography with natural light and a sense of depth. At the same time, the relative simplicity of the house showed Fisk that a set’s emotional core had less to do with beautiful design than with connecting to the character. Without a single line of dialogue, Fisk had managed to evoke the very heart of the story: a man adrift, searching. Everything Fisk loved about realism in painting, he realized — not just its observational eye but also the stark modesty of its subjects — could be suffused into a set.
When he’s not working, Fisk lives far from Hollywood, on an expansive farm in the mountains of central Virginia. It’s a country of sloping hayfields veined with low stone walls and forested creeks. When I visited in early June, the weather was breezeless and humid, the mountain outlines shaded by wildfire smoke from Canada, and after buzzing through a gate and bumping down a rocky trail, I found Fisk standing in the dirt before his and Spacek’s two-story Civil War-era farmhouse. He had just finished the summer’s first hay baling, and the rolls lay atop the pastures, like beetles stranded on their backs.
Now in his late 70s, Fisk cuts the figure of a carpenter a few decades younger. He is tall and broad-shouldered, with a center-part shag of brown hair and a smile that erupts suddenly across his creased, goateed face, revealing a boyish gap in his teeth. His hands are thick, and the pointer finger on his left is severed at the knuckle, a result of a construction accident, when he injected paint into his finger with a spray gun. “It was just like a sponge full of gray paint,” he said, laughing.
He and Spacek purchased the farm in 1978 — a “wonderful, crazy” decision, Fisk said. Though both of their careers were taking off, they loved the miles of fence and roads, the privacy, the quiet beauty. The couple have now lived on the property for so long, tending to its growing seasons and shifts in landscape, that it has seemed to attune Fisk to the slower, more methodical rhythms of nature. As we walked through pastures, he ambled with his hands interlocked behind his back, often interrupting himself to recount a story about some feature of the terrain. He told me that much of the farm was once part of a land grant belonging to the colonial explorer Thomas Walker. He pointed to the horizon: “You can’t see it right now, but through the mountains there — that was considered the edge of the wilderness.”
Fisk tends to seek out films set in natural environments, then push the production as deep as he can into the story’s harshest elements. He described how, during the scouting for “The Thin Red Line,” producers argued for shooting in Central America, instead of Guadalcanal, the South Pacific island where the film is set; there were limitations to a far-flung jungle, not to mention malaria. But Fisk was adamant: An immersive sense of place about an environment so exotic couldn’t be faked. During a visit to Guadalcanal, Fisk noticed unexploded grenades painted yellow rather than the more familiar green; it was a vestige of an earlier design he’d read about, and one he had already planned to include in the film — a historical detail that didn’t seem real. When he saw it in person, he loved the unexpected vividness, the human messiness it suggested about the war effort. It was a visual confirmation to him of history’s peculiarity.
It is these sensitivities to a film’s natural setting, even more than his craftsmanship, that his contemporaries view with a measure of awe. Peers told me stories of Fisk plucking sagebrush for a paint swatch and kneeling beside an elephant to coat its leg in a believable smear of mud. Nearly everyone I spoke with mentioned the austere splendor of Fisk’s Marfa, Texas, set for “There Will Be Blood.” When the director of photography Robert Elswit arrived on set, he was impressed by the scale, but also by how Fisk integrated the set into the landscape. He’d laid out all the buildings in such a way that made it easier for Elswit to control the natural sunlight, both for interior and exterior shots, while also orienting them so they were visible in physical and figurative relationship to one another — especially the derrick, which loomed over it all. “His work finding locations, finding the places to set work, and his sensitivity to lighting, to time of day and weather — a lot of production designers aren’t interested in the same way,” Elswit told me. He credited Fisk with “90 percent” of the Oscar he won.
Fisk says that he’s attracted to working on historical films because like working outdoors, it provides him the opportunity to unearth discoveries that bring life back to him replenished of its strangeness. “When I grew up, period films often looked like costume dramas,” he told me. “Nobody was dirty.” This manicured unreality was compounded by his boredom in school and disbelief watching the news. He was a teenager when the United States invaded Vietnam, and his 20s were shaped by watching General Westmoreland say one thing and hearing another from his friends. It gave Fisk the uncanny sense that beneath this smooth veneer lay another, craggier history. He felt drawn to construction materials and paint colors in particular as tactile remnants. He could remember how, the first time he visited nearby Monticello, the dining room was Wedgwood blue, but that they later “found that that same dining room was previously chrome yellow.” This was the sort of history that truly interested Fisk — the mess of past lives, the mysteries that lay hidden within walls.
Fisk’s interest in restoring the original colors of history often first requires chipping away the layers that conceal it. When Malick approached him about designing “The New World,” his 2004 drama about Pocahontas, Fisk was excited about building a Jamestown replica, partly because he’d long nursed a curiosity about its construction. Some accounts — including “Jamestown Narratives” and the site replica Fisk remembered seeing — suggested a fortress made of sawed planks. “You’d have to take a log and cut it,” Fisk said. “Nobody has that kind of time.” He refused to believe that a fort built by ship-weary settlers was anything but an improvised ruin. And so rather than rebuild previous renderings, he endeavored to recreate the conditions in which the fort was originally built. He picked a site just upriver from the historical one, laid out on a similar estuary, then labored as he imagined a settler might have — quickly, crudely — erecting 15-foot vertical posts in a timesaving triangle shape.
In the end, it was an awful, irregular structure — one no carpenter would lay claim to — but when archaeologists from Preservation Virginia toured it, they were floored. Beyond how authentically “bad” the fort looked, they noticed designs that conformed to ongoing archaeological discoveries, including Fisk’s mixture of daub, a kind of primitive mortar. Like a lot of Fisk’s sets, the fort embodied a visual paradox: It was historically familiar, but rendered otherworldly by a nuts-and-bolts attention to detail. When we see it onscreen, it greets us like a gaunt, muddy giant, standing in sharp contrast to miles of clear tidewater channels and mossy glens beyond its gates. And as the plot unfolds, it reveals itself as something closer to a jail cell, curdling the settlers’ bravado into a muted dread that builds into violence. It’s an accumulation of granular detail that speaks to the spiritual undercurrents of Malick’s narrative — a fallen Eden — but also to the ghastliness of being thrust, in bodices and plate armor, into the muggy wilds of 17th-century Virginia.
Fisk described the film to me as a turning point in his career. Though he’d aspired to total veracity, the effort itself didn’t feel like cold recreation; it felt intuitive, imaginative. Over his next few films, he experimented with ways to more fully envelop the audience in the same sense of discovery he felt while working, a Method-like approach to construction that necessitated a setwide commitment. On “There Will Be Blood,” he threw out every level. Another time, while erecting Indigenous lodges for “The Revenant,” he instructed his crew to find a stick of the right size instead of using a tape measure. “They start out thinking Jack’s kind of weird,” he told me. “Then they get into it. They’re becoming part of the performance, part of the character.”
As we walked, Fisk told me that it was hard to know if audiences picked up on such details, but that he rarely thought about it. “Worrying about the audience is like a painter thinking about who might buy a painting,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is create something that looks real to myself.” He once told me how, while building the gate for Jamestown — a massive swinging structure 12 feet tall and eight feet wide — he ran into a problem. “I couldn’t figure out a way to do the door, because it’s too heavy. You couldn’t make a hinge big enough.” But then he remembered an ancient gate he once saw in Morocco — built into rock, the doors swung on vertical pegs stuck into the ground and above. Fisk had no idea if the settlers solved the problem this way, but using the method felt right, as if he were tapping into lost knowledge.
An audience might not notice every detail, Fisk says, but their presence becomes part of a larger immersive effect, like those subtle tics of an actor that, taken together, bring a performance convincingly alive. “We think we know the way things are,” he says. “Then we see something that’s different — and we think we’re seeing it for real for the first time.”
Later that evening, Fisk and Spacek asked me to dinner, and we drove down a tangle of country roads to a restaurant overlooking a meadow. So far during the visit, I’d seen little of Spacek, as she had made herself graciously if warmly scarce. At one point, after returning from a walk, Fisk and I found an artful spread of charcuterie waiting for us; another time, as Fisk and I talked on the back porch, she hung her head out the screen door, asking if we “might want a little sustenance,” in her breezy Texas drawl, before returning with sandwiches. Now at dinner, she slid into the booth, next to Fisk, and asked to be caught up on our conversations, exchanging teasing banter with her husband. “He’s a deep well, isn’t he?” she said.
As we ate, the couple took turns telling me the story of how they fell in love on the set of “Badlands.” To prepare for the film, Fisk browsed thrift stores, imagining himself as Holly Sargis, Spacek’s character, letting his hand alight on objects that spoke to the wounded woman’s past. “I had this little cigar box,” he said. “And there was a tin soldier with a broken leg — maybe from childhood — and this clay mold of a horny toad.” It was a form of imaginative inquiry he’d undertaken partly thanks to a limited budget, but one he now saw as vital to his process. For him, this psychological profiling is at the core of his work, and no question is too trivial: “What did I do last night? Where’s my comfortable chair?” Even if objects never appear onscreen, finding them helps Fisk sketch the first faint outlines of his designs.
When Spacek arrived on set, she was shocked and delighted to find the drawers full of objects. “It was the first time I’d encountered a designer as character-driven as that,” she said. Repressing a smile, Fisk admitted that it was an approach cultivated partly out of a desire to get close to Spacek. He’d badly wanted to speak to her, but was shy and didn’t think he had a chance. “That was a way of communicating with her,” he said.
In the years since, the couple have worked hard to balance their careers, often finding ways to work together. Early on, when Fisk needed help on a job, he’d occasionally hire Spacek to work on set. (When Spacek auditioned for “Carrie,” she worried that Brian De Palma only knew her as “a bad set dresser” from “Phantom of the Paradise.”) Once the couple had kids, they tried to arrange their schedules so one of them was always at the farm. During the ’80s and most of the ’90s, perhaps the most productive period of Spacek’s Oscar-winning career, Fisk barely worked at all. He directed a few films, casting Spacek in two of them, but found the enlarged responsibilities frustrating. He was content filling his days fixing up the farm and raising horses. “It was like a second childhood,” he said.
The farm soon became a refuge — both for the couple and others. Fisk built homes for their two daughters, and Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange moved close by for a while, as did David Lynch, when he was married to Fisk’s younger sister, Mary. Maintaining it all had become a daily meditation for Fisk, one he likened to the Japanese surrealist film “Woman in the Dunes” — in which a woman is forced to sweep sand unceasingly. “I’m cutting down a dead tree, and I’m like: Didn’t I plant this 50 years ago? I remember carrying it out in my hands,” he said. It was as if the farm had become a living thing, one the couple continued to feed through an ever-growing list of projects. “We’ve created a little world,” Fisk said.
When Fisk began designing “Killers of the Flower Moon,” one of the biggest questions he had to wrestle with was also one of its simplest: Who was Mollie Burkhart? Burkhart, in a literal sense, was an Osage woman (played by Lily Gladstone) whose life was upended by a series of suspicious deaths in her family. One of the first times we see her, she is being ogled, for her money and tenuous health, by her eventual husband, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), who is in every way her opposite: rambling, suggestible, greedy. But she remained a cipher to Fisk, a woman straddling two worlds and two time periods, tethered to her Osage roots by her mother and yanked into a boom town’s luxuries by her husband. If Fisk was going to illustrate her background truthfully, he felt he needed to find her emotional core.
Because Burkhart was a real woman, Fisk was greeted by an unusually dense amount of research material. In addition to the source book itself, he was granted access to many of David Grann’s research files, including court records, photographs and interviews. But Fisk also endeavored to unearth his own primary materials, conscious that he and Grann were sometimes motivated by different imperatives. While Grann had turned up a wealth of the most minute details about day-to-day Osage life, Fisk was often arranging those details in different spaces or figuring out how to render a one-sentence description into a three-dimensional building. When Grann later visited the set, he was shocked by Fisk’s attention to the most easy-to-miss surfaces. In the pool hall, Grann noticed a wire of wooden beads above the tables — a scoring system for straight pool, which was the popular style before eight-ball. “That’s the type of detail I never knew — how they kept score,” Grann told me.
One of the most important things Fisk had to discover and build was Burkhart’s house. As well documented as her history was, the exact details of its location and architecture seemed lost. Many in the production staff — and among the Osage themselves — assumed she lived in a huge house, since one of the most publicized details about the Osage was their brick-and-terra-cotta mansions. But Fisk was wary of casting Burkhart’s story in generalizations. “If you don’t know where they lived,” he says, “how do you know what kind of people they were?” Determined to find something more definite, he pulled up court records, zeroing in on testimony that described Burkhart as having never owned a house at all — instead living with her mother, Lizzie. Following the lead to Lizzie’s probate records, he tracked down a five-bedroom home on the reservation.
Though he couldn’t know for certain, Fisk thought the house’s modesty, its open floor plan and many bedrooms, reflected Burkhart’s restraint, her embrace of her family. Most important, he thought it captured something essential about the story: “Killers of the Flower Moon” examines a moment of staggering transformation, as the Osage process their newfound wealth and its consequences. The nation had only recently been dispossessed of its land and moved to Oklahoma; now, the Osage had oil revenues topping the equivalent of $400 million annually. A house that “wasn’t necessarily wealthy but was comfortable,” as Fisk saw it, embodied that transitional confusion — as well as the danger it attracted. “It was like they were playing a card game with somebody,” he says, “and didn’t know the rules.”
As Fisk began sketching, situating the house at a bend in a river, he drew in a low wraparound sleeping porch, where Mollie and Lizzie might host visitors for the annual dances. Outside, beside a brand-new Studebaker, he added a traditional lodge made of saplings and canvas, where many Osage liked to spend the summer months. Inside the house, Fisk selected a mottled green wallpaper, reminiscent of “grass or leaves — it was nature, trying to get back in,” as he put it. It was a subtle permeability he suffused elsewhere throughout the house: open windows and cluttered cookware from people passing through.
“You start looking at the character, and you just kind of build from the character,” Fisk told me. “What I try to do with the sets is just: Find the essence.”
We were seated in his office on the ground floor of his house. Like every other room, Fisk had meticulously remodeled it himself: The walls and carpet were matching Palace Arms red, a shade close to oxblood, illuminated dimly by recessed lighting in the crown molding. On opposite walls, over the couch and fireplace, hung the bust of a longhorn steer and an oil painting depicting sheep huddled in a storm. Fisk sat in a Finnish recliner and began explaining what he meant by essence. “Essence” was a function of simplifying a set down to a visually expressive core. “It’ll just confuse your eye too much if there’s too many things to look at,” he said. “A lot of design is taking things out of the frame.”
During the final stage of building Burkhart’s house, Fisk often waited until the crew left, then sat alone in the set, removing furniture and fixtures, night by night, until his interpretation of the character spoke clearly. “I’ve looked at Edward Hopper for a lot,” he said, “because in putting together paintings, realist painters kind of simplify the world. They pick out what’s important and what they want to make strong.”
If some designers worried about a set not looking full enough, Fisk felt such simplicity got to the very heart of production design: granting access to interior lives. As committed as his career had been to American history, he was open to designing other environments, so long as he could connect to its characters. Whatever expertise he’d amassed about paint colors or construction materials he understood as a tool for clearing away the visual noise that otherwise clutters our view of historical figures. This was the real reason to make a set like Burkhart’s house so accurate and yet also so simple: to create a surface compelling enough to draw the audience in, immersing them in the moment, but crystalline enough that, as they leaned closer, they caught a glimmer of their own reflection.
As Fisk and I talked, I found myself thinking of his set from “The Tree of Life”: a tree-shaded neighborhood of wide lawns and avenues. Earlier, Fisk told me that one of the few modifications he had made to the set was to remove its fences, and now it struck me why. Accurate or not, it reflected the film’s vision of childhood’s vast emotional landscape, with the just-wrongness of a memory or a dream. A set should be “as real as possible but also universal enough to allow people in,” Fisk says. “It allows you to visit — allows you to become a part of your own history.”
To Fisk, building a world was about bringing an audience “into a life,” regardless of setting. It was the sort of delicate attention to characterization that Fisk loved about cinema, but also felt was rarer nowadays. All you needed to do was look at the proliferation of fully digitized worlds; it sometimes made him feel as if his whole approach to filmmaking was endangered. His collaboration with Scorsese made it inevitable that “Killers of the Flower Moon” would be discussed as a naturalistic counterpoint to the creep of “an assembly line of manufactured ‘content,’” as Scorsese put it to me, but Fisk maintained that his objections were more personal. “I would really miss a human element,” he said.
He pointed out that he did see “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the Marvel movie “with the talking tree and raccoon and all that stuff, which I liked.” But then he paused, tilting his head skyward, as if in search.
“What would the raccoon’s bedroom look like?” he said. “I don’t know.”
Noah Gallagher Shannon is a writer based in Colorado. His first book is forthcoming from Random House. He last wrote for the magazine about Uruguay’s transition to renewable power.