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Q&A: Jack Fisk + Robert Elswit: An online exclusive interview

An online exclusive interview

A still from There Will Be Blood / (Paramount Vantage)


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Paul Thomas Anderson’s absorbing and eccentric fifth feature, There Will Be Blood, is a triumph of personality and verve. From its stunning 20-minute opening — constructed like a silent film composed entirely in imagery — to the assiduously worked soundtrack to the film’s violent and berserk conclusion, the movie registers as a singular and highly immersive experience.

The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as the audacious oil wildcatter and Southern Californian entrepreneur Daniel Plainview has justifiably been praised. Anderson’s most critical collaborators are arguably his two stalwarts from his previous works: cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer and art director Jack Fisk.

Elswit has photographed all of Anderson’s features since the director’s 1994 independent debut, Sydney [Hard Eight]. He has also photographed key works by David Mamet and Curtis Hanson, and recently worked with Martin Scorsese on the director’s Rolling Stones concert film, Shine a Light. Elswit has been awarded by several critics’ groups for his work on There Will Be Blood, and has received high marks for his excellent work on Tony Gilroy’s feature debut, Michael Clayton.

Fisk is a legendary figure in American independent cinema, an important link to seminal figures as diverse as David Lynch (he was an actor and production designer in Eraserhead) and Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line). Fisk has also directed several films, including his debut, Raggedy Man (1981) and the underrated 1986 film Violets Are Blue.

Recently, the two artists spoke about their collaboration with Anderson and the making of There Will Be Blood.

Stop Smiling: The look of the film is so interesting: spare, intense, hard.

Jack Fisk: In writing the script [Anderson] researched tons of photographs from the period, black and white pictures that were great research. When he sent me the script, he sent me a portfolio of probably 150 pictures. That was the inspiration when we started. The thing we were looking for in Texas was a harshness of the land. The town of Marfa, Texas dictated a lot of what we were going to do. We gave the people no luxuries. We just made it a tough life.

Robert Elswit: It was to show the idea of the romantic landscape could kill you if you walked the wrong way or tripped or fell down. There was no signage in the town. You just see these buildings. It’s not an inviting landscape at all. He wanted it to be a frightening landscape.

SS: The opening is like a fugue, a complete absence of any dialogue or exposition.

Robert Elswit: Paul wrote it that way, and he knew it was going to be unusual. He told me, “I’m going to do the history of oil drilling by taking this character from digging for silver into the most primitive form of digging for oil into something slightly more sophisticated.” He said he was going to compress this into this 20-minute piece.

It was those three parts of the story: seeing [Daniel Day-Lewis] all by himself and barely recognizing him; seeing him lift himself up and having a group of people working for him with a partner, seeing that all fall to pieces and then seeing him all by himself on the train with the little boy. Once we had the locations and once we had a clear idea of what he would be doing, it was really as much Jack Fisk, myself and Paul [trying] to make the story make sense. The real key was finding actual silver mine in a small town near Marfa that had been hand dug probably a hundred years before. It’s the one we find [Day-Lewis] in the beginning of the movie. It was probably dug in the late 1880s. About 40 years later, a tunnel was dug, which ended up bisecting the bottom of the mine.

We had access to that very bottom, and we could photograph him chipping away, with a real pickaxe in a place where people really did that for a living. Daniel Day-Lewis is so physical. It sparked the whole idea of not seeing him very well, and then seeing him a little better. We a little bit made it up as we went along, and at the same time, we knew exactly where it was going, especially the moment-by-moment stuff, digging for oil by hands and they’re pulling it up by buckets and it collapses.

SS: The church is an important location because it creates the conflict, the sense of theater and madness, of God and capitalism presented side by side.

Jack Fisk: That church was built like a barn building. It had a dirt floor and windows that cut through gothic shapes and there were no frames or glass. It’s like the poorest church you could have had. You have light poring through. I sized some benches for it; they were very primitive and had hard surfaces, so people would be very uncomfortable sitting in there. We did a later incarnation of the church, because of course the oil had brought a bigger congregation. We enlarged it, and I used an almost cross shape of the cathedral. We built that with the same wood that we used on the derrick.

SS: Some of your previous films with Paul are period. Boogie Nights was obviously period, though here it’s the more distant past, the period before World War I.

Jack Fisk
: It was an exciting time. Things were just starting out, and the automobile was coming into existence. The city of Los Angeles was doubling every year. The Pentecostal church was just beginning. Silver mining and oil [drillers] were becoming millionaires overnight, like the present day with Silicon Valley. I tried consciously not to get too specific about period, so it has a more universal feel. In a way, by using a real simple sketch of background, you can accept it almost as present day. There are certain places of Texas you can go look at where you don’t know what period you’re in.

Robert Elswit: The hard part about doing any sort of period film is you could create a believable world in something like this, making an environment that even if it wasn’t like that in 1910 or 1898, you thought it ought to have been like that. What happened was Jack and Paul found this ranch, where they were able to imagine everything existing in the movie that took place prior to 1927 — the whole period of time he’s digging for oil. From the top of the hill where the church was going to be built, you could stand and see the town in the distance to the west and you’d see the derrick to the east and you’d see the Sunday ranch — the family that they swindle — just a little further south. You saw the whole environment. Everything was there. Walking the same ground for pretty much the entire production period kind of connects you to that stuff. I don’t think that happens in most movies.

There was something about being in the middle of nowhere, three hours from anywhere else. Jack was able to figure out, along with Paul, where everything would be. The visual connections made themselves very apparent — the side of the buildings and the side of the buildings in relation to one another. The sun was changing the light all day long. It worked so wonderfully well that all of these visual possibilities just automatically presented themselves. With Jack, it was really thought through from beginning to end, because he’s a real filmmaker.

SS: You get the sense the way you work with Paul is very instinctive, even improvisational.

Jack Fisk: I’ve always worked intuitively. Paul and I visited a couple of wood oil derricks in California, so we knew what they looked like. We never seemed to have the time or the budget to do extensive drawings. I found a blueprint of a wooden oil derrick from 1914, and we used that for the genesis of our derrick. Paul and I spent three trips to Marfa where we just walked the land. One day we were up on a hill and we said, “This is a nice place for the derrick.” Then we’d look over to the right and see the valley and [think] that’s the Sunday ranch. Then we start thinking about another hill, at the other end of the triangle that looked like a nice place for the church, because it was up high and you could see it from the town. Those three settings were in close proximity to each other. The town was built last, and that was designed around the existing train track.

Robert Elswit: Paul always wants to shoot a lot of film tests and hopefully find the look of the movie by shooting film two or three weeks before producing: testing stocks, looking at different lenses. Paul’s not into pretty pictures or picturesque images; it’s all storytelling and character based. He throws away anything that looked pretty, creating that stark environment. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was the right temperature for that: Dirt-poor human beings did what they had to do to scratch a living out of the earth.

Paul is always improvising. The hardest thing about working with Paul is the crew people [because] there’s not a traditional working method. Rehearsals slowly build into shooting. There isn’t a giant announcement and three assistant directors shout, “We’re shooting.” Things evolve in a very organic way, and it’s really Paul and the actors, but everybody has to be a filmmaker. That’s why he has the same people he trusts around on each project.

: The centerpiece of the film — the blowing up of oil derrick and the injury that Plainview’s son suffers — is extraordinary: the build up, the rupture. It appears incredibly visceral and real, something you imagine happening right in front of you rather than being digitally manipulated visually.

Jack Fisk: We did it about midway through the production. We struggled to get the derrick built, and then to teach people how to act on it. We knew that we’d only have one shot at it. The derrick was made out of wood. In researching it, we discovered that steel derricks [burn] faster than wood derricks, because they burn on temperature alone. The wood was so thick; it would last twice as long. We set up about eight cameras. The hope was we’d start the action, cut out the fuel to the flame and regroup and continue on. We also feared that something might go wrong. We were bound and determined to keep shooting. Paul had it pretty well choreographed; he knew where the actors were going to be.

Robert Elswit: The only thing that was digital was they had to make the water turn to oil, which is almost impossible for a visual effects team to do on site. Paul really wanted that to happen. In the oil sequences, there’s a lot of oil coming down — or fake oil — but it was definitely augmented. There’s no way we could shoot in that much oil. It was always shooting up, like when Daniel goes up to rescue the kid, it was pounding out of the spigot and they just augmented the foreground and background. Paul’s an old-fashioned guy. He not only doesn’t want a lot of computer-generated visual effects; he won’t finish a film digitally. He insists on shooting a film photo-chemically.

In terms of pictorial style, Paul is really his own guy. We have very weird frames with Paul — we dead-center people, we tend to do very simple graphic shapes that don’t call much attention to themselves and we don’t move the camera that much. Taking advantage of the landscape is something Paul has done all along, except [before] it was the San Fernando Valley. Paul is always looking for something better. He’s not afraid to throw something away and start over again.


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