On Location: 'Tree of Life' production designer Jack Fisk
Veteran production designer Jack Fisk is a frequent collaborator with director Terrence Malick, joining him on such films as “Badlands,” “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line” before teaming up again for this year’s “The Tree of Life” from Fox Searchlight. The movie, a meditative and highly impressionistic story of a small-town family in the 1950s, was shot over several months in 2008 in a variety of locations — Smithville, Texas, as well as Houston, the Goblin Valley and the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Mono Valley and Death Valley in California and the shoreline of the Colorado River at the Gulf of Mexico — all of which Fisk had to adapt to Malick’s vision.
“The Tree of Life” deals with the formation of the universe, natural history and a small-town family. How did you get involved in such an unusual and ambitious project?
I was working on "Mulholland Dr." when I first heard about it. Terry [Malick] came in with about 20 pages of a script. He talked about it being a small film about a small Texas family — and it was some time before I realized how much it was going to involve special effects and extensive nature photography. But with the live-action portion, I had my hands full. I knew Terry wanted to shoot in an unconventional way, to be spontaneous and natural.
Most of the action took place in Smithville, about 40 miles southeast of Austin. Why did you select this town?
I was looking for a town that was not specifically a Texas town but more a universal town that would fit for most peoples’ memories. The goal was to make the story more accessible to people. Smithville seemed like it stopped growing in the 1950s. The yards were big and connected, and the town was on a scale that gave us a nice contrast to what we shot in Houston.
Terry’s approach is more like it’s a documentary. He didn’t want to be restricted in any way. We took a five-block area of the town so Terry could shoot everything in that one area. Residents moved out their modern cars, and we had a stable of period cars that were brought in.
What look were you striving for?
A big influence of mine has been Edward Hopper. I look at his paintings and the simplicity of them. What he puts in a room or a porch is very simple. It’s kind of the less-is-more approach. In the main house that we used, where the characters played by Brad [Pitt] and Jessica [Chastain] live, we took the trees out of their yards, we took away the fences, a metal building and gravel court. We added a garden, and we painted the house a cream color.
But you did import a giant live oak tree.
The tree weighed 60,000 pounds. It took us two days to move it five miles on a trailer. We had to get permission from the power company to cut all the phone and cable lines because the tree’s branches stuck up 30 feet in the air. We dug a big hole and planted it in the yard in front of the O’Brien house.
What was the toughest scene to film?
Building a room that was upside down in a swimming pool, for a scene where a baby swims out of the door and into the water. We had to build an underwater kid’s bedroom out of metal and plastic and put it into a swimming pool in Austin.
Terry worked hard to not make things look manufactured. That’s the way he approaches locations. He doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them beforehand. He loves finding them and shooting them in a documentary style. There are times he’ll just show up and start shooting stuff. He likes mixing things up and testing them.
Did you have problems with the locals?
The city manager became a great fan of the film. They had a casting party for dogs used in the film, and the town manager showed up with a wig on. The town even passed a law that said no paparazzi were allowed. They wouldn’t allow anyone with a camera to enter our five-block area.
— Richard Verrier
Photo: Jack Fisk on the set of the movie "The Tree of Life." Credit: Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight