Behind the Scenes: Making "The Revenant"

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Legendary production designer Jack Fisk describes the grueling process behind bringing Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic vision to life.

When Jack Fisk signed on for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, he had no illusions about last year’s Oscar-winning director. “When I first met him, I saw this passionate Latin artist who I knew could be volatile and he didn’t let me down,” Fisk recalls with a chuckle. We’re speaking by phone just as The Revenant has wrapped production with a scene for which Fisk built a meticulously researched Pawnee village, then burned it to the ground. So he’s still buzzing with the adrenaline of finishing what may go down as one of cinema’s most ambitious film shoots at the hands of one of its most ambitious auteurs. As Jack puts it, “I’ve never heard him ask for less.”

Fisk should know: he’s something of a legend amongst production designers, renowned for crafting the natural world into epic sets and stunning vistas for masters like Terrence Malick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. The Revenant would see him working at the top of his game, braving the Canadian wilderness for over a year to find the perfect locales to bring the harrowing story of trapper Hugh Glass to life. Fisk built a 40-foot-tall mountain out of buffalos skulls, an entire European church in the wilderness and a frontier fort from lumber discarded by the Canadian Park service. “I want you to be able to smell this fort,” Fisk said he told his crew. For him, the imperative was to realize Iñárritu’s vision of brutal survival tale on a film shoot that became notorious as a survival tale of its own. Fisk admits, “Alejandro said this film is about spiritual enlightenment through physical suffering and it turned out to the motto of the film.”

To that end, perfection was the enemy. Take that fort. When he first saw what had been shipped to Calgary from the carpenters in Vancouver, Jack felt it was too perfect: “I had to pick it up with a big forklift in the air and drop it three times. And it started to look better.” That hands on, do-whatever-it-takes attitude is Fisk’s signature, the ethos which has suffused all the film’s he’s worked on with rugged beauty: “The challenge for me as production designer is first to keep the show moving forward: never say no. Second, it’s to solve problems. If a set doesn’t look right, figure out a way to deal with it.” Fisk started by reading accounts and journals from the era, like the writings of trapper Osborne Russell, the writings of Lewis and Clark, and Jim Bridger, the real-life frontiersman who leaves Glass for dead in the film. He also got spiritual guidance from Iñárritu who suggested he read Howard Zinn’s famous A People’s History of the United States and watch Tarkovsky’s Andre Rublev. But then Fisk did what he always does in tackling any film: “I sort of forget about [all that] and work off gut. The environment will tell you what you need to do and what’s available.”

Fortunately, that dovetailed well with Iñárritu’s vision for making the film: shooting entirely sequence and using only natural light. To the layman that may seem simple, but doing so often inflates a productions’ schedule and budget enormously, which it did for The Revenant. And natural light means often have only a couple hours any given day for key scenes. Ironically, Fisk says the natural light made his job easier: “Natural light is real and you know exactly what you’re going to get. You’re not looking at sets under spot light, you’re looking at them at that time of day, as the painter said, when warehouses become palaces.” Of course, it helps to have Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at your back, channeling the eye of Vermeer and Caravaggio. But above all, Fisk said Iñárritu’s unrestrained passion help them get through the arduous set: “Alejandro is never scared of getting dirty or doing what he has to do to get the shot; sometimes I see him behind the monitor and he’s acting out the shot, wincing and punching and whatever he wants his actors to do.” That enthusiasm inspired Fisk and everyone on the film to make this gritty tale as authentic as possible; when called on to eat a raw beef liver, vegetarian Leo DiCaprio willingly ate the real thing after everyone deemed the Jello molded-one not authentic enough. “My goal is to get lost in the period… to walk into a set and feel you’re in that period.” And despite the grueling conditions, Fisk had no doubts that what they were all doing was special. “I said to my crew, we’ll never get to work on a film like this,” Jack shared when I asked him about the grueling conditions. Then he paused and added that his first thought after completing the shoot was, “if I had to a chance to do this film again, I would run to do it.”

The Revenant premieres on December 25.

For more can't-miss debuts, events, and cultural happenings this December, see our Culture Guide »