When the possibilities for a film’s locations are both picturesque and sprawling to the extreme, the only way forward is to scope out every option. Or at least that was the approach for legendary production designer Jack Fisk (“Tree of Life,” “The Master”) when, in April 2014, he signed on to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s frontier revenge drama “The Revenant.”
“I always feared that we'd be shooting a location and someone would walk around the corner and say, ‘Well, why aren't we shooting over here? It's so much better than the one you picked,’ ” Fisk said, speaking over the phone recently about his early Canadian scouts with Robin Mounsey, supervising location manager. “So basically I wanted to systematically cover every inch of Alberta.”
With gargantuan mountains, wide rivers, and billowing prairies, the province of Alberta proved the perfect backdrop to shoot the majority of the film, alongside extra work in British Columbia and Argentina. Marking Iñárritu’s first collaboration with Fisk (but Fisk’s sixth with DP Emmanuel Lubezki), the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as fur trapper Hugh Glass, left for dead by his party after a bear attack and forced to survive in the brutal environment. Building off previous period research for an unrealized Lewis and Clark project, Fisk explained the world that these fur trappers lived in wasn't much sunnier than Glass’ hellish circumstances.
“A lot of fur trappers were on contract, a lot were being paid per skin, so depending on your deal with the company you stood to make money or not,” Fisk said. “The problem was that the trappers usually spent more money than they made buying supplies from the company that hired them, and at the end of the year they'd usually zero out. Very few of them made money, but the people who hired them made a fortune.”
Often utilizing materials from the environment around them, Fisk and his skilled art department worked under intense conditions to deliver incredible sets matched only by Lubezki’s signature cinematography. Below, he explains how his team brought three of the meticulously rendered sets in “The Revenant” to life: the Pawnee Indian village, the mountain of buffalo skulls, and a dilapidated church.
Mountain Of Skulls
FISK: Alejandro first mentioned that he wanted a mountain of skulls. The first time he mentioned it he was thinking of human skulls, as a way of speaking on the demise of the Indians, almost like looking into the future. But I showed him a picture with a couple men standing on this giant hill of buffalo skulls. The U.S. Government had made an effort to kill buffalo, because they wanted to control and move the population of Indians. As long as the Indians had a food source they couldn't do that, so they encouraged people to go out and kill buffalo. So the initial idea came from Alejandro, and then we found this horrible photograph and tried to recreate that.
I looked around with the set dec Hamish Purdy trying to find about 10,000 buffalo skulls, but they're expensive and hard to find. So we got a few skulls, made rubber casts of them, and then we banked them into casts of five different skulls. Then we had a company come in and inject those rubber molds with Styrofoam, a spray foam, and in one day we made about 100 of those things. We then mounted them on a frame that was made of wire and lightweight wood, because we needed to be able to assemble this mountain in less than a day.
Although we shot in continuity, these dream sequences could be shot out of continuity. So we had to find a moment in our schedule where the environment looked right and the company would have time to shoot. One morning Alejandro signed off on the location, and that same day we assembled the mountain of skulls there. The next morning at sunrise we shot Leo on the mountain of skulls. That same day we shot Leo riding his horse off a cliff, and then we came back and shot the same mountain of skulls in the evening. So it was real important that the trick of putting them together was quick.
FISK: The Indian villages were all based on research I had done reading journals from anthropological reports, and studying paintings from the period. There weren't any photographs before about 1860, so I had to rely on paintings. Sometimes when I would read about paintings from a certain period the writer would be criticizing a painter.
One I remember is [George] Catlin, who made the Indian houses too round and too perfect. And I realized they weren’t at all — they were made from mud, misshapen, and kind of ugly on the outside but real warm. The research was so valuable. My process normally is to read as much as possible and then try to forget that and work from what seems right.
FISK: Alejandro wanted something that had really disintegrated. When I started looking at research I saw that these church roofs had fallen in, the trees had grown up and nature sort of taken over. This was a dream sequence though, and I wasn't totally taken to reality — the church was more of an impression. I looked at Romanesque churches, sort of like the European influence coming to America. It was also inspired by [Andrei Tarkovsky’s] “Andrei Rublev,” a film about the Russian icon painter that Alejandro gave me to watch. We didn't know where we were going to set it up. We knew we wanted it amongst trees, so we couldn't build a church and then move it. And we couldn't build on location because we wouldn't have time enough once we found the setting. So we started building it out of Styrofoam blocks, huge blocks, in a warehouse where we had our offices.
It was all done in bits and pieces, and then our art department printed full scale images from Russian frescoes that were on a Russian website and translated to us by our coordinator, who was from the Ukraine. We assembled those images into a design that we used on the back wall. Alejandro also wanted to incorporated images of the Spanish torturing Indians, cutting off limbs and such. There were priests that made etchings of these atrocities, and I translated those into full size frescoes that we mixed in with the Russian paintings.
When it came to shooting, we found a location and put that church up in three days. Two days before assembly Alejandro said, “I'd like to have a bell in that church.” Well, the church was disintegrated… So I did a little sketch of an add-on, and we had a great sculptor who sculpted a bell out of Styrofoam and built this little arch board connected to the rubble. Then, we connected a piece of monofilament to it so someone could stand behind the church and make the bell ring.
“The Revenant” opens in wide release today, January 8th. Stay tuned for more of our chat with Jack Fisk.