Jack Fisk: The Genius Behind Hollywood’s Most Indelible Sets


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.”


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