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Thompson on Hollywood

Immersed in Movies: Jack Fisk Climbs The Tree of Life, Making Of Video

Production designer Jack Fisk is not only one of Terrence Malick's oldest and most trusted collaborators (they've been together since "Badlands," the director's first film from 1973), he's also the architect of his cinematic playground. Thus, when Malick tells Fisk, "You get it together and we'll come and shoot," it's the equivalent of saying, "Let's put on a show." Only with the metaphysical Malick, it's like no other picture show ever produced or experienced. And although Fisk won't go so far as to suggest that "The Tree of Life" represents a summary statement for Malick about the coalescing of nature and grace, he admits it's very personal. In fact, he recalls the first time that Malick told him about the impressionistic memory film about growing up in Austin, Texas, in the '50s. "When I was working on 'Mulholland Drive' [in 2001], we met for lunch at Hamburger Hamlet and he gave me 20 pages of script and asked me to read it in the restaurant," Fisk describes. "I remember it being hard to sit and read in the restaurant, but it was just so personal and he was so excited about it." A couple of years later, Malick asked Fisk to accompany him on a scouting trip to check out some small towns around Austin. Joined by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, they soaked up the region on and off for the next three years. But this wasn't Guadalcanal ("The Thin Red Line") or the Chickahominy River ("The New World"); this was Malick country, where he grew up, so it was a challenge finding a place that he had never seen or heard of. Still, Fisk managed to find just the timeless town they were searching for: Smithville, 40 miles outside of Austin. "It was a great little town," Fisk adds. "There weren't as many houses in a block that you find today and, with taking out some fencing, we could really open up one yard to the next and make it feel like I remember places back in the early '50s in Illinois. And Terry and I had similar childhoods so we were working from the same reference point. It was easy because I knew exactly what he wanted to achieve: a small town with 500 people." Most important, it helped evoke childhood memories of playing outside at dusk and between yards and seeing lives through windows, as Fisk suggests. "My wife [Sissy Spacek, who starred in 'Badlands'] is from Texas and she told me so much about her childhood that it also became part of my research. It went into the big stewpot. Like Terry, she also had been chasing DDT trucks in the '50s. She knew all her neighbors and the local phone operator. And like Terry she also lost her brother when he was a teenager and it just tugged at her emotionally. I was more fortunate: I lost my father at an early age but didn't lose any brothers or sisters, so I saw it differently as I immersed myself in the period." So Fisk and the art department covered up the metal buildings with wood and painted harsher colors; took out modern play sets; removed trees that didn't belong and brought in others; planted gardens; and hid modern windows with chicken coops and anything else they could find. "This gave Terry a playground of about five square blocks where he could pick up a camera and just walk down the street and shoot," Fisk continues. "There wasn't anything glaringly wrong for 1957. Terry doesn't use storyboards and he doesn't even plan shots that far ahead. He's always looking for spontaneity. He loves to be surprised; he says he likes to approach it like a documentary. He delights in not being locked into a plan and is always trying to find something fresh and real in the environment. He'll throw a little chaos into a scene just to get a reaction that nobody planned. He'll put a kid into a scene or a dog." And with a rich ensemble cast (including New York Film Critics Circle winners Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as well as Sean Penn and newcomer Hunter McCracken), Malick had plenty to play with. Indeed, the philosophically-minded director writes scenes that can be shot anywhere: a moment crafted for a living room could just as easily be shot in front of a restaurant downtown or in a field out in the country, according to Fisk. "We all know things are going to change, which is why I try to be on set all the time," the production designer says. "I remember talking to a set decorator [Jeanette Scott] and discussing that Terry wanted a location on the Colorado River that he hadn't seen yet. She wanted to know when he wanted to see it and I told her not until after lunch. 'Oh, no problem,' she said. We had gotten so used to moving so quickly that three or four hours seemed like a luxury." In contrast to the soft and colorful childhood memories, the modern section set in Houston featuring Penn is architecturally cold and claustrophobic with glass and stone. "There were trees in their yard that the kids would climb on, but in Houston there were trees inside the glass lobbies of buildings so the contrast was not only remarkable but wonderful for the story," Fisk offers. "We've worked since the first days of 'Badlands' with minimal augmentation of the locations or sets, because we found it was so powerful to just choose a few things to represent the place we were telling about. " Fisk has since completed another film with Malick, which he describes as "'Tree of Life' on steroids." The untitled love story stars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams about a man who reconnects with a woman from his hometown while struggling with his marriage. Of course, it's deeply personal, but this one's shot in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (Rachel Weisz talks about making that film here.) "One morning Terry showed up and said he needed a location with some water and we pretty much had scoured the town," Fisk relates. "But John Patterson, the location manager, and I went down some back roads where the city was digging a culvert and it had been flooded by a lot of rain. And it became a magical location in the backyards of a neighborhood. We went running back and told Terry and John called the city manager asking for permission to shoot there and the construction people said they would shut off their equipment for three hours. And the whole company rushed over in vans and we shot a scene. "Terry's found a way of working that's much more spontaneous and I've never seen him so happy making films. And we're about to start another one in June, this time in Los Angeles, followed by another one, so he's not only more excited and passionate about working but he's doing it more often." Meanwhile, to help stir some more Oscar heat, Fox Searchlight will bring back "The Tree of Life" to LA (December 9th-December 15th at the Music Hall). There will be Q&A discussions with producers Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, Nic Gonda, cinematographer Lubezki (who also took NYFCC honors), editor Mark Yoshikawa, costume designer Jacquie West, and supervising sound editors Craig Berkey & Erik Aadhl. These will occur after each 8:00 pm screening and on the 10th after the 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm screenings.  
  • By Bill Desowitz
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  • December 2, 2011 1:02 PM
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  • 1 Comment

Rachel Weisz on Working with Malick

  • By Matt Mueller
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  • December 2, 2011 12:50 PM
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  • 1 Comment

Weekend Preview: Sex & Power Dominate The Box Office: Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Coriolanus, Outrage, The Lady

Forget feel-good holiday movies: themes of sex and power dominate this weekend's newcomers. Feast on the dark side before more heartwarming Christmas fare hits multiplexes--"War Horse" will loosen your tear ducts and we can assume 9/11 drama "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" will do the same. (Then there's that "feel bad movie" of Christmas, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.")
  • By Sophia Savage
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  • December 2, 2011 12:40 PM
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Watch: Three Clips with Charlize Theron from Reitman and Cody's Young Adult

Jason Reitman's new movie "Young Adult," written by his "Juno" collaborator Diablo Cody, opens in limited release December 9. Charlize Theron goes wicked as a teen lit writer who returns to her home town to reclaim her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson). The catch? He's happily married, so her scheme doesn't go according to plan. Check out a sneak peek below of three clips from the film, which Reitman describes as a love story between Theron and Patton Oswalt--both are building Oscar buzz. (Our Reitman Q & A will go up shortly.)
  • By Jacob Combs
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  • December 2, 2011 12:30 PM
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  • 0 Comments

Academy Begins Accepting Entries for 39th Student Academy Awards

Academy Mails 5777 Oscar Ballots, Due January 23
The Academy is accepting entries for the 39th annual Student Academy Awards, which will be held in the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on June 9, 2012. The U.S. competition is open to all full-time college students at an accredited school whose films are made within the context of a program or class. Entries are due on April 2, 2012. International students must also be full-time and attending a school that is a member of the international film school organization CILECT. The deadline for foreign student films is March 23, 2012. The Academy began the Student Academy Awards competition in 1972 to reward excellent filmmaking at the college level. The awards' past winners have received a cumulative 43 Oscar nominations and eight wins and include some impressive alumni, such as John Lasseter, a 1979 and 1980 winner and the director of "Toy Story" and "Cars."
  • By Jacob Combs
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  • December 2, 2011 12:14 PM
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Producers Guild Announces Documentary Nominations

Sundance Video: James Marsh Talks HBO's Project Nim, Roadside Lands U.S. Theatrical Rights
The Producers Guild of America (PGA) has chosen its five documentary features to be voted on for best documentary. Last year, "The Kings Speech" won the PGA's Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures--the fourth year running that the Producers Guild presaged the best picture Oscar winner. Of the list below,  the films that are also on the Oscar shortlist of 15 are "Project Nim" and "Bill Cunningham New York." The International Documentary Association awards will be announced Friday night. Stay tuned.
  • By Anne Thompson
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  • December 2, 2011 12:06 PM
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Oscar Talk: Impact of New York Critics, National Board of Review, Indie Spirits, We Bought a Zoo Review

  • By Anne Thompson
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  • December 2, 2011 11:53 AM
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  • 3 Comments

Roman Polanski Interview by Le Figaro: Misses Hollywood and Nicholson, Wants to Do Film About Aging

The French newspaper "Le Figaro" sat down for an interview with director Roman Polanski, whose new film, "Carnage," based on Yasmina Reza's French play "God of Carnage," was released in France yesterday.
  • By Jacob Combs
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  • December 1, 2011 5:42 PM
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  • 2 Comments

Ten Animated Short Films Advance Toward Oscar Nominations

  • By Anne Thompson
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  • December 1, 2011 4:29 PM
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  • 0 Comments

Sundance Film Festival: Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, NEXT and New Frontier Slates

Thursday the Sundance Film Festival announced the out-of-competition line-up for 2012, in the Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, NEXT <=> and New Frontier sections. The Fest runs from January 19 through 29 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah. See the complete line-up so far here. Much of these more innovative selections reflect the taste of director of programming Trevor Groth: “In many ways, the extremes of the Festival’s program are most readily apparent in our out-of-competition sections, which showcase the wildest comedies, the most terrifying horror films and uncompromised visions from singular voices springing up from around the country and the world. We hope audiences experiment with their film selections to an equal degree as these filmmakers have experimented with their storytelling.”
  • By Anne Thompson
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  • December 1, 2011 4:03 PM
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  • 1 Comment

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