Before production designer Jack Fisk was the legendary artisan he is now, he was a young art school graduate in his twenties working as the art director on 1973’s Badlands, his first of seven collaborations with Terrence Malick. On the set of Badlands, Fisk met his wife (the great Sissy Spacek) by establishing a connection through the knicknacks he placed in her character’s bedroom. Fisk’s thoughtfulness and creativity not only led to a decades-long marriage with Spacek but also provided a window for the actress to see into her character Holly’s world a bit more clearly. Fifty years later, Fisk continues to use his work as a designer, builder, and researcher to make the lives of actors a bit easier in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Throughout my conversation with Fisk, his love for actors was palpable. “I’m married to an actress, so I think about character often. I really am doing this for the actors, to make their journey of finding the character easier. They don’t have to partition off a piece of their head and say, ‘Well, we know this isn’t real, but this is what it would be like.’ I like them to think, ‘Oh, this is my house in 1920.’”
Since the 1970s, Fisk has shown his profound understanding of design, craftsmanship, and artistry while accessing the deeper themes at the heart of his collaborators’ projects. While Fisk may not have the same name recognition as Terrence Malick, David Lynch, or Paul Thomas Anderson, his contributions to their films make their glimmer of genius possible. From the blue light of Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive to Daniel Plainview’s oil derrick in There Will Be Blood, Fisk has created some of the most iconic sets in cinema history. Within his own community of production designers, his indelible contributions continue to inspire. So much so that in a recent interview with AwardsWatch, Oppenheimer production designer Ruth DeJong (Fisk’s collaborator on There Will Be Blood) cited him as one of her greatest mentors and inspirations. And while his extensive career includes The Thin Red Line, Eraserhead, and The Tree of Life, look no further than Days of Heaven when considering the best work of his career. The beautiful mansion in the middle of the field isn’t a facade. It’s a three-dimensional home that Fisk and his crew built in just a month. It could be the subject of a Wyeth painting, only it’s even more beautiful. It’s the beating heart of Malick’s masterpiece.
Fisk has earned two Oscar nominations for his work as a production designer for There Will Be Blood and The Revenant. His latest venture, Killers of the Flower Moon should (no doubt) be his third. In his first collaboration with – Scorsese, Fisk’s passion for bringing untold stories of American history to life allows the expansive world of the film to feel real and infinite. Scorsese’s film is a reimagined telling of David Grann’s nonfiction crime epic that moves the focus away from the creation of the FBI and, instead, places it on the complicated marriage between Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) during the Reign of Terror in the 1920s. It’s one of the darkest and most complex relationships illustrated in Scorsese’s career, and Fisk’s anthropological focus ensured that the spaces the characters inhabited illuminated their characteristics and inner emotions. Fisk’s gift for building magnificent, detailed sets on location and preference for working outside in nature made this project a natural fit. The locations detailed in our conversation (homes, businesses, a fully functioning train station) display the sheer magnitude of his work. The $200 million film also serves as a public service announcement to give him access to the biggest budget possible.
I was thrilled to speak with Fisk about working with Scorsese and his detailed approach to depicting this dark time in American history. What began as a conversation about his research on various locations and structures evolved into pure storytelling, where Fisk shared connections to his childhood in Illinois and moving revelations from Osage community members that make his work on Killers of the Flower Moon even more meaningful.
Sophia Ciminello: Hi, Jack; thank you so much for speaking to me today. I’m so excited to talk to you about Killers of the Flower Moon.
Jack Fisk: Hi, Sophia, thank you.
SC: I’d love it if you could set the scene for us and talk about shooting in Osage County and scouting the film’s locations with Martin Scorsese. What was that discovery process like?
JF: You know, when I first met Marty [Scorsese], he wanted to set out to tell the true story of the Osage, which I loved. I almost thought of it as a documentary, but it was also something we had to create. We went to Oklahoma to look for locations, which was great because often you’re in Atlanta or Chicago, and they say, “Okay, shoot Oklahoma,” and you can’t do it. But there, we were in the real environment, and that has an effect on people–the prairie, the big skies, the weather, the wind. Being in Oklahoma, where the true story takes place, was kind of eerie. The signs we would find, photographs of people, news articles, and even names on buildings reflected characters in David Grann’s book and our script. So, I set out to try to figure out what it was like there 100 years ago, and I thought the key for me was to find out where Mollie lived.
David Grann’s book is beautifully written, but he doesn’t precisely tell you where her house is. I went through his [Grann’s] research and other things that Marianne Bower, our executive producer and Marty’s archivist, collected. She amassed some wonderful interviews and talks with local people, and I started putting that together and looking at real estate records at the county office building. I found four places that Mollie lived in, but at the time of our film, she was still living with her mother. I found that in the documents for Lizzie’s probate hearing, where Mollie made a statement that she didn’t own her own home and that she lived in the same house that she grew up in with her mother. Then, I had to find her mother’s house, and I found that through conversations with David Grann and Mollie’s granddaughter, Margie Burkhart.
Mollie’s kids, Elizabeth and Cowboy, inherited Lizzie’s house, and Margie told me about the house that she lived in in Gray Horse when she was a kid. I talked to some people there and found out that the house was a really small house on Blackbird Lane. It was exciting to see how close she lived to the reservation of Gray Horse. Then, I started researching other homes of the time and devised one that was right for Mollie. It had to be larger so Marty could shoot in it but with the same feeling and essence of the house she grew up in. We built Mollie’s house on location on a ranch between Pawhuska and Fairfax. That property was just spectacular. It’s just pure prairie, and a stream is running through it like the one in Gray Horse. I positioned the house on that stream like Lizzie’s house was in Gray Horse. Her house was yellow, and I learned through period magazines that that was one of the favorite colors of the Osage. Inside, we did a wallpaper that looked like you were inside a bush; it was green and leafy, setting the tone of nature and the Osage.
We also built what they call a summer home, which is a native structure that the older Osage used to love to have outside because, in the summertime, when a house would heat up, this structure would let in the wind and the air. Being in the shade was always more comfortable, so we set that up behind the house. The only thing that separated Mollie from the main village was the stream, and we built a little walkway across that stream so they could go back and forth. In the village, we built a roundhouse, a structure that the Osage used for meetings and gatherings, but mostly their dances. It was a sacred structure in a way. We also had a space on the stream where Mollie could give her morning prayers. It was like a little compact world that was in the middle of nowhere. We found the location on this ranch, but it was probably 50,000 acres, so we had to build roads to get in. Our locations department came in and had to put in a couple of miles of gravel roads just so we could get there to build and shoot.
SC: I love how you incorporated nature in the interior and the exterior spaces for Mollie and the Osage. You mentioned that finding Mollie’s house was the key. Where did you go next after figuring out how you wanted to design her space?
JF: Once I found her house, I could think about Hale’s house because I wanted it to be very different. I wanted it to be larger and, you know, a little more menacing in a way. We built Hale’s house on another ranch, down in a valley. I chose that gray shade color, because I thought it seemed like he was a Gila Monster or something living under a rock.
SC: Oh, wow, that’s perfect for him. And you’re right that the camera goes down into the valley when we see Hale’s ranch for the first time. You see this sweeping land, all of those cows, and the oil derricks. There really is something so compelling about how we see everything he has, and then he takes you right down into it,
JF: Yeah, exactly, it takes you right down into it. You know, in real life, Hale had about 50,000 acres next to Gray Horse, and he leased some of it and bought some of it. He was always in the cattle business, and before the Osage made money from oil, they made money by leasing their land to cattlemen from Texas. They had income coming in from the beginning, and that made them tempting objects for Hale’s greed. He wanted to try to separate them from some of that money. So even though he grew up with the people, learned their language, and was very friendly with them, he was taking advantage of them from the beginning. As their money increased, his desire got more passionate, and he started incorporating his nephew into his schemes. You know, I think Ernest really did fall in love with Mollie. If he hadn’t had Hale as an uncle and he had met Mollie, I think they could have had a wonderful existence. But his uncle kept prodding him to go for more. I think he feared and respected his uncle and didn’t quite know how to say no.
SC: He’s just such an impressionable character. That fear Ernest had of Hale makes me think of the scene when he’s humiliated at the Masonic lodge. Was that a location that you found and then transformed? How did that come about?
JF: That location of the Masonic Lodge was actually the Masonic Lodge that was built in 1924. It was a Gray Horse Lodge that had moved to Fairfax. We went in and there were pictures on the wall of all of the important members of the past, and one of them was Mollie’s guardian. It was really interesting to see that, and you knew you were in a place that her enemy dwelled in. And the thing is, it was all painted white, and I always thought of a Masonic Lodge as a kind of mysterious place. In research, it’s hard to find out exactly everything that goes on there unless you’re a mason. I got the idea of painting it dark blue because I wanted to use the carpet that was in there. It was a huge room, and I was trying to think of what I could do that would make it look period and also a little mysterious and a little foreboding. So I called Marty and said, “Marty, I was thinking of painting the Masonic Lodge dark blue.” He said, “That would be great.” (laughs). That was how I had to convince him. You just found him very open to creative ideas. A lot of my suggestions came from research, so, you know, I could always back them up with information. Because it was important for him to make the film real, he embraced anything that was real.
We also painted the little square-patterned floor piece in there. That’s common in all Masonic lodges of the period, and I think even today. In that same building were the original offices of the two doctors, the Shoun brothers (Mollie and Lizzie’s doctors), and we decided to shoot in their original office space. I found old research with their names actually on the windows. Marty was just ecstatic. I mean, he loved the idea that it was so real. And I was looking under pieces of wood and trim and electrical plates to find out what color it originally was. So we were able to create it with the physical location, the colors that we discovered, and pictures of doctors’ offices of the period. We couldn’t find actual pictures of the Shoun brothers, but we found pictures of that space. Adam Willis, the set decorator, was just as enthusiastic as I was about entering history. You really try to slip back in time. You know, it’s kind of a wonderful mind game where you sometimes think you’re actually there, or you get to see glimpses of stuff that looks so real. And we decorated it pretty much like a doctor’s office of that period and I think it was exciting for the actors. We tried to make all the sets as three-dimensional and as real as possible. When we were at Mollie’s house, you could look around 360 degrees and all you could see was prairie and native structures. It was the same thing at Hale’s. Marty loved the cattle, so we brought a lot of cattle in. There was a great freedom, and it was so easy to get transported into the period.
SC: In your work, I’m always struck by the detail of the objects and the little idiosyncrasies that do transport you to another time. A piece of furniture might look like the builder didn’t use a level because they wouldn’t have at that time, or an object looks worn in a certain way. How do you incorporate that level of historical accuracy in the building process?
JF: Well, a lot of it starts with observations when you look at old places. We have to remember that we’re seeing houses today that may have been built in 1920, but they were new back then, so you have to pick and choose how much the floor was worn at that point. When you’re making a period piece, you tend to want to make everything look worn, but it wasn’t. And for the Osage people, they’d been there for about ten years, and you know, a ten-year-old house looks different from a brand new house or a one-hundred-year-old house. So, a lot of it is trying to think like the character. Where would I sit? What would I do? If there was a fire in the building, how would it be repaired? So, you try to put in elements that don’t give you a specific date and time but give you a range of years so that you see an evolution in the living space or the town.
The town was pretty exciting because we shot in Pawhuska, about 30 miles from Fairfax. Fairfax was a town of about 1500 people, mostly farmers in Osage. Pawhuska was the county seat, so it had more businesses and 6500 people, about three times the size of Fairfax. They gave us two blocks of derelict buildings, and we started finding the similarities between Pawhuska and Fairfax wherever we could. Then, there were a lot of gaps where buildings were missing or had been torn down, and we filled those with building fronts that matched the research we had had from Fairfax. So, it became kind of a blend of the two towns. We also added a whole train station (laughs).
SC: (laughs) I have to ask you about that train station. How did that come together?
JF: It was like one thing led to another, really. There was a train station in Blackwell, Oklahoma, but it was about a 4-hour drive. I drove out there a couple of times and thought, well, we don’t want to bring the whole company out here. So I talked to Daniel Lupi, our producer, and said, “You know, I think it would save money to build it in Pawhuska. We’ll have time to shoot it. Plus, it will give us a real train station in the background that you could see when we were shooting. One set helps another.” He agreed, and we were able to build the station there. We put in 1600 feet of track to get our train on, three Pullman cars, and got it moving a little bit so we could bring it in with the steam and the smoke. It worked really well and was so convenient because all of our dressing was in Osage County. To go into another county to shoot would have been crazy and not as successful.
SC: Oh, I bet.
JF: Yeah, and the pool hall we shot was in the middle of town. At first, I picked a smaller location, but Marty wanted a larger pool hall, so we picked another building that happened to have an existing furniture store in the second half. We were able to make a deal with them to move out, and we pretty much gutted the building. They had plastered over a wall of clear story windows above the regular shop windows, and heavy awnings were hanging outside. We tore that down, and with the extra four feet of windows and the awning gone, we got so much light in there. The real advantage was that when you’re shooting in the pool hall, you look out, and you have so much more depth. Our AD is so great; he also put people in cars, so it was active out there. It was like a mural of the town, and you had the greedy people in the pool hall just watching the Osage, and everybody walking by. It became a wonderful window into the world, and it made that set so much better.
SC: I agree. That’s my favorite set in the movie. You learn so much about the men inside and how they have control over the town. I wanted to ask you about this combination of the pool hall and a barbershop because it’s such a unique space. It felt like something I saw for the first time in this movie. Had you seen a space like that before? Where did the idea to combine those two social gathering spaces come from?
JF: Well, when I was a young kid in Illinois, I lived in a town of 425 people, and we had a pool hall, and in that pool hall, we had a barber’s chair. My mother used to take me there when I was three years old, and they’d put a board across the barber’s chair, and I’d sit up there and get my haircut. So, while I was getting my haircut, the shadows in the background would be of these men playing pool. It was so fascinating to me, and when I read the script, I thought it would be a great thing to incorporate because there were two sets in the script–a barbershop and a pool hall. Combining them gives you more depth; when you’re in the pool hall, you can see the barbershop, and when you’re in the barbershop, you can see the pool hall. It gives every man an excuse to go there, not necessarily to widdle time away playing pool but to get their haircut. And then when I started looking at these Sanborn Maps–I think they have them for about every city–they listed all of the businesses, and I found several instances where they would have a pool hall and barbershop combination, which confirmed it. Then it was one of those things where I talked to Marty about it, and he said that it would be great.
SC: I love that you could pull that story in from your childhood. It seems like you had such a strong collaborative process with Marty.
JF: Yeah, I just think Marty is a brilliant filmmaker, and he’s always interested in making things more dimensional than what’s written on the page sometimes. It was exciting to watch him rehearse a scene because he didn’t go in with many fixed ideas. I’m sure he had an idea, but he would let it evolve. He would let the actors join in. I remember we were doing the scene before Rita’s house blew up, and the actors were trying to decide what their characters would do, and Leo or someone said they would go to the basement. Marty turned to me and said, “Is there a basement in this house?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Can we shoot in it?” and I said, “Just give me five minutes.” (laughs)
That scene after the explosion, when Leo comes back, looks down the staircase, and tells Mollie about Rita when the whole family is hiding in their own basement, was really effective. That wasn’t in the script, but it evolved very naturally. The actors, Marty, and Rodrigo [Prieto], our cinematographer, responded to it and it was exciting. It made me think of how young Marty is as a director and how unfixed he is in his approach. That whole approach changed when he met the Osage people, and every time he was on set, he would find out the best way to use it. It’s exciting to me, you know, I’m about the same age as Marty, to see people our age still enthusiastic and looking forward to a day’s work.
SC: I love to hear that.
JF: I want to tell you another story about Rita’s house that blew up…
SC: Please do!
JF: You know, that was a real house we found that looked very similar to Rita and Bill’s house that I had a picture of. As the location manager was going off to negotiate to shoot the house for the exterior, I said, offhand, “Ask him if we can blow it up.” I was kind of half-joking, but I was thinking how great it would be if we could destroy it. He came back and said, “They said yes. You can destroy it.”
SC: Wow! How did he get the go-ahead?
JF: I was so curious as to why they so readily agreed, but their grandfather, who was Osage, lived there, and he had a white wife who was his guardian, took all of his money, and made his life miserable. Their memories of that house were horrific and harkened back to the Reign of Terror. So, they were glad to see it go away and wanted to leave the land to their nephew. Now, they could leave him a pristine lot in Fairfax and it wouldn’t be this old house of memories. We found that continually in the town working with people. We painted tons of houses, but I would tell the owners that we would like to paint their house one of the colors on our period color chart. They would pick a color, and I would tell them that we would paint two walls of it for shooting, and when we were all done, I’d paint the other two walls that color if they liked, or I’d paint it back to white. I think we painted 30 houses or so, and at the end, only one of them chose to go back to white. They all liked the colors so much.
SC: That is so moving.
JF: I know. I agree. Yeah, I think it was their way of contributing to the film. There was also a woman across the street; her husband was the pastor at the church there. He had died once we had started filming, but he had supplied us with a lot of historical photographs. She would bring plates of cookies for the crew when she saw them out working. They just welcomed us with open arms.
SC: That’s wonderful. Thinking about the film, your stories of the people you met, and your collaboration with Marty make this sound like such a rewarding project.
JF: It was a really fun film to work on. I heard about it long before Marty called me, so I was so excited when I heard from him (laughs).
SC: (laughs) Oh, I’m so glad. It just feels like the perfect film for you. With what you’ve done in your career and your interests, with your ability to build these houses from scratch and work outdoors, it feels like a great fit.
JF: Thank you, and I’m really comfortable building on location with deadlines, but it was harder for our carpenters because it was freezing cold and windy. Tornadoes had gone by, so we had to build everything to be tornado-proof if we could do it. We were building houses in weeks when, in real life, it takes nine months or a year to build a house. Hats off to them because they were out in the middle of nowhere, and I thought their overall attitude was so great. You can have the idea that you want to build out in the middle of nowhere, but you have to have people who will help you do it.
SC: Yeah, the execution, I’m sure, is so much more than I can’t even imagine (laughs).
JF: (laughs) It’s a fun challenge.
SC: Jack, this has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to talk about this film and your work on it.
JF: Thank you. I loved talking to you about it.
Killers of the Flower Moon is currently in theaters and available to purchase/rent on demand.