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A still from 2001’s Mulholland Dr, a film that Jack Fisk worked on with Lynch: "These images are images that David loves – the red drapes, the patterned floors and the rest of the colours and textures”

Meeting the man behind David Lynch’s surreal design

The production designer has known Lynch since school and created the look for films like Carrie, Mulholland Dr. and The Revenant – here he talks about collaborating with the director

Jack Fisk has known David Lynch since year nine. They barrelled down the halls together at Francis C. Hammond High in Alexandria, Virginia. The pair grew close when they realised they shared a mutual love of painting. “We'd go every day after school and paint and later we ended up in art school together in Philadelphia,” says Fisk, who calls from the Virginia farm he shares with wife Sissy Spacek. When Lynch later got accepted into the American Film Institute, Fisk and Lynch “rented a van and drove to Hollywood.” It was like a scene out of Easy Rider, he says, and they’d pull up in the desert to sleep at night and continue on the next morning.

That road trip cemented a lasting relationship that has spanned decades and helped to kick start Fisk’s career in film. Since an inadvertent cameo in Eraserhead, Fisk has done production design on instant classics like The Thin Red Line (1998), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Tree of Life (2011). Most recently, Fisk got an Oscar nod for pimping out the unforgiving nature in Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s 12-time Oscar nominated The Revenant. Here, he breaks down five of his most hypnagogic films.

THE REVENANT (2015)

“I made a point of anything that we would build, we would try to do with materials that could be attained in that area. We were very lucky to be outside of Canmore, Alberta, because the park service had cut down hundreds of trees for a power line. I found this big pile of trees that was a couple of years old and I asked the park service to see if we could use those and they said yes. The only sets in the film that were not made out of natural materials were the mountain of skulls and the church.

“The skulls were put together in a matter of hours, in one day, and we shot it the next morning at 7 am. To build that hill of skulls the way I designed it would've taken about 10,000 real skulls. We took five skulls and cast them in foam and constructed a mountain just using those five skulls and painted them to look real.”

ERASERHEAD (1977)

“I did the part of the man in the planet. I was working as an art director at the time and Alan Splet, the sound man, was supposed to play the man in the planet, but he got sick. We shot that film over a period of five years; David was all ready to shoot and asked if I would do it because Alan Splet was sick that day. I said sure and I was just starting this little beard and when I showed up he wanted to change my face a little bit, make it look scarred. He started putting plastic in my beard to get texture and I looked suitably bad for the film, but when I went home and tried to get the plastic out of my beard it wouldn't come out! We came from a Fine Arts background, David didn't know and I didn't know about any kind of movie make-up. I remember sitting in a hot tub steaming my face and using a razor trying to get it off.”

MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)

“I had a hand in creating the Silencio club for the film, but all these images are images that David loves – the red drapes, the patterned floors and the rest of the colours and textures. We looked for a theatre location for that scene together, but when you work with David, he's written the script, he's visualised everything in his head and the trick is to get inside that head as much as you dare and help him make a three-dimensional version of that idea. Working with David more than any other director, I’m trying to create physically something that he's already designed in his head.”

CARRIE (1976)

“Carrie’s home in the film was based on a home where David and I lived until that year, we rented it for $45 a month. Our house before that cost $27 but it had no hot water. It wasn’t until after we moved out that we got this three room house. The bottom floor was the kitchen and living room. I lived on the second floor and David lived on the third floor. It had a little wooden enclosed staircase like the one in Carrie. The house in Carrie was fashioned after that.”

KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

“Terry (Malick) is super passionate. You talk about getting into David's mind, it’s even more difficult to get into Terry's mind. Terry works on Sundays – he's always working. I’m not sure he does much besides work. His films are really put together. After we finish shooting – and we shoot a lot of footage with Terrence – he puts together the film. ’s are kind of like visual poetry but his ideas are more philosophical. They’re not as concrete, he knows what he wants to say but he doesn’t know where it’s going to be said or who’s going to say it necessarily. The overall effect is this very powerful visual.”

The Revenant is out in cinemas now