Production designer Jack Fisk had to think very big while working for director Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will be Blood. The film is an epic about the beginnings of the petroleum business in California at the turn of the 20th century that centers on one of the screen’s all-time blackguards, Daniel Plainview, a boot-strap oil tycoon played by Daniel Day Lewis who is obsessively bent on destroying all who surround him. The film is based in part on a novel, Oil, by muckraking author Upton Sinclair.
For the film, Fisk built a number of three-dimensional structures—complete on the inside—that formed a small California town called Little Boston, complete with a ranch and adjacent house, a holy-roller church, a town center with a real estate office, a restaurant and several bars, plus a railroad station.
Although the story takes place in California, the movie was shot on a 50,000-acre ranch in the West Texas flatlands near Murfa, a town where Giant with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson was filmed in the 1950s.
“We actually shot in the interiors of all the buildings so there few separate sets,” notes Fisk. “To me it’s more fun to create a real kind of world, and I love to build things three-dimensionally,” he adds. And “because of Daniel Day Lewis and the reputation that preceded him of how deeply he delves into a character, I wanted things as real as possible.”
In addition to the town, Fisk and special effects coordinator Steve Cremin took four weeks to build a “working” 100-foot oil derrick based in part on original plans the production designer found at California’s Kern Oil Museum, only to see the wooden derrick purposely destroyed in a dramatic fire that envelopes the structure in one of the film’s most dramatic moments.
“We also had to drill a 30-foot deep shaft to put our drills in, but the ground was solid rock there,” says Fisk. “So we had an 80 ton truck come in and drill the hole for our footings.” The production design crew was able to keep the film on budget, according to Fisk, because “some of the old oil people in the area were so appreciative and excited that we were making the film there that they would bring us truckloads of equipment and just leave it.”
The final part of the film, depicting the corrupt main character’s deranged acts of vengeance, was filmed at the Greystone estate in Beverly Hills, which was built for his son by notorious oilman Edward Doheny, the paradigm for the film’s protagonist. Used by the American Film Institute in the 1980s, the giant mansion, now empty, served as the setting for Plainview’s residence and chaotic office.
The considerable talents of set decorator Jim Erickson in dressing the office were supplemented by the film’s star. “Sets are done pretty well if they’re done through the character and no one knows the character better than Daniel Day Lewis,” says Fisk. “Things like the pee pots, the food on the floor, and his camping out by the fireplace are things Daniel suggested and we incorporated and they all made for a better set.” The mansion also once had a bowling alley that was meticulously restored and used as the setting for the film’s shocking climax.
Next for Fisk is his fifth collaboration with auteur-director Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life, which is in preproduction. Fisk has been the production designer on nearly all of Malick’s films including Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. He was also the production designer on Phantom of the Paradise for director Brian de Palma, and, more recently, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.
–By Jack Egan
Oscar, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, shared with Jim Erickson, There Will Be Blood
Art Directors Guild, Excellence in Production Design for a Period or Fantasy Feature Film, There Will Be Blood
BAFTA Film Award, Best Production Design, shared with Jim Erickson, There Will Be Blood
Written by Jack Egan