A wild bear, rolling hills of snow, and the sheer will to survive—those are the hallmarks of The Revenant. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as frontiersman Hugh Glass, The Revenant garnered twelve Academy Award nominations and three Golden Globe wins for its harrowing portrayal of one man’s struggle to survive and exact revenge. The film is marked by a stark, visually expansive style rooted firmly in a historical frontier wilderness. To understand what went into creating such a vast world for the film, The Creators Project spoke to Jack Fisk, The Revenant’s Academy Award-nominated production designer, about his experiences working on the film.
The Creators Project: When you’re working on a project, what are some of your biggest concerns?
Jack Fisk: A couple of things. One, I hope that the sets don’t distract from the story, that they don’t draw attention to themselves individually. And that there’s a continuity of look throughout the picture, so that everything looks like it goes together.
How do you first begin approaching a project as huge as The Revenant?
Step one was: where are we going to find the Northwest United States, the wild one I read about in stories and saw in paintings? We were constantly trying to up the scale, so it didn’t look like we were just looking at the edge of a park, but that we felt like we were in wilderness. We wanted locations that didn’t stop.
Let’s talk about those stories and paintings you mentioned. What specifically did you see and read to help get this world into your mind?
One of my favorite painters was a Swiss painter named Karl Bodmer, he followed the trail of Lewis and Clark and painted a lot of the Indian villages and the Indians. His paintings were very realistic and I used those as a source of inspiration, as did Jackie West, our costume designer. And I read many journals from the time, especially Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
How do you synthesize all of this inspiration with the natural world around you?
My process is to do as much research as possible and think about it, let it gestate for a long time. A lot of the clues come right from the environment, you look around at the trees and the mud and see what’s available, and then you start building with that.
The Revenant’s gotten a lot of press for being gruelling on the cast and crew, did those conditions impact your work?
I think that all those natural conditions helped the work I did. Just how much firewood you’d go through in one night to stay warm, how thick you’d make the cabin walls, how close you’d sleep to the person next to you. I mostly like to work on films that are set outside, building sets in a real environment. It’s difficult making films, you have to find something in it that satisfies you, that interests you. To wake up every morning at four o'clock and go to work, it’s hard. But this one did that for me, it was great.