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The Authentic Production Design Of “The Revenant”: An Interview With Jack Fisk

By Marjorie Galas

Jack Fisk likes to ensure the directors and cinematographers he works with have options. While creating the fort where the trappers in director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revanant” are traveling to, the production designer ensured every amenity was present and functional.  In addition to the mess hall and commander’s office seen in the film, the fort contained a series of streets, dormitories, a butcher shop, a black smith, and even hand-built canoes.

“I built the other boats for the campsite and fort,” said Fisk. “This film had so much to tell.  I wanted them to have options if they felt they could use them.”

Attention to period detail was a thrilling part of the process for Fisk. Having captured the spirit of the quest for oil in the 1900’s in his Oscar nominated work on “There Will Be Blood,” Fisk dove into the research stage of the 1800’s trapping industry highlighted in “The Revenant.” He had some insight on the period from research he’d initiated for a canceled feature on explorers Lewis and Clark.  Adding to this background (of a period roughly 15 years prior to Hugh Glass’s ordeal), he studied trappers journals, such as  one chronicling Osborne Russell’s experience in the Rocky Mountains from 1834-1843, and other texts including one written by Washington Irving who wrote about his experience with trappers.   Despite the absence of photography in this period, Fisk found the base he needed through period illustration and journal’s descriptions to aid in authentic construction techniques.

Just as important as any built set, however, was capturing the best design for Glass’s journey through virgin wilderness. In August 2014, Fisk set out on expeditions with Canadian location scouts.  They hiked for months, climbing rocky terrain and stumbling upon majestic wildlife.  Sometimes their coordinates resulted in open fields similar in appearance to California state parks.  Undeterred, they’d continue several more miles until they found settings that visually served the story.

“We never gave up. Sometimes we’d walk around the corner and find something that worked even better,” said Fisk. “Every few weeks Alejandro and Chivo (cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) would join us and the film began to take shape.”

Noting the story’s continuity would be kept intact as closely as possible, Fisk and the location scouts had to be mindful of potential weather patterns and lighting conditions. Every location had a back-up in case snow fall or flooding from snow melts prevented its use.  Fisk was also mindful of how the sun’s coordinates worked with the locations to aid Lubezki’s lighting needs.

“The camera was so close and shadows would appear. We had to make sure the backlighting would not reveal the camera,” recalled Fisk. “In rehearsing scenes you’d see the camera, but by four the sun would be in the right spot and it all came together.”

Detailed for-thought went into preparing material need the sets, particularly the Indian village. Recognizing the shoot would occur with temperatures dipping below negative twenty, sod was cut in the fall and stored in a heated barn to keep it from freezing into a rock-solid mass.   Not all material could be prepared in advance however.  Fisk and his team had to heat mud in order to apply it to the structure. Despite the unforgiving conditions, this was one of Fisk’s favorite sets to work on.

“They had such smart architecture. They used everything, and it could withstand everything. They could fit 500 people in one, creating flaps that came down around them like train cars.  Their horses were also brought inside to avoid theft,” said Fisk.  “I’d always wanted to build an Indian lodge.  It made me feel good to complete it.”

Fisk replicated the keel boat to appear as authentic as possible, with a few contemporary provisions  added for the production’s benefit. Noting the flat bed barges often took on water rising as high as the edge of a bed and generally only lasted a season, Fisk constructed an aluminum hull that not only protected the barge against rocks but housed a horsepower engine.  While authentic keel boats were crafted in St. Louis out of oak, Fisk and his team constructed theirs in Vancouver, doctoring the locally available cedar to match oak.  As a finishing touch, Fisk added a broken mask – a fate masks generally had for those who tried to power keel boats through a sail.

While Fisk and his Canadian based crew devoted attention and energy to the many other location builds in “The Revenant” – the effort in building the authentic period fort was as grand as its scale. Period nails and bolts were created, and these were used along with wooden pegs to hold the planks of wood in place.  Clinching – fastening two pieces of work together with a seven inch nail – was also employed.  Cracks in the wood around doorways were filed in with a mud mix that included bits of cloth then sealed with a hot wax which helped block out the wind.  Keenly aware every detail would be picked up in camera, from the aging of a buffalo hide to hand-carved arrow heads, Fisk worked closely with set decorator Hamish Purdy and property master Dean Eilertson who both proved eager adversaries in cementing authenticity.

The location of the fort did require a bit of travel time. Noting this dug into the shooting schedule, Fisk and his team created a few walls that could quickly be switched to accommodate backlighting, a method Fisk and Lubezki first used to great affect when they worked together on “Tree of Life.”

Generally, Fisk has no regrets when a location is dismantled at the end of a production. At the conclusion of “The Revenant”, however, he was game to help preserve the fort per the request of a man from Montana.

“A historian and trapper re-enactor wanted to move the fort to Montana to be re-assembled at their museum, but we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t (move the wood) between territories.  The fort was chopped down and became a lot of firewood,” said Fisk.  “I don’t mind when the sets are destroyed because they have been recorded on film.”

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