In reality Pocahontas at the time of John Smith was nine years old and she had a shaved head! Things were so different back then, but you can’t always put reality on film because it can be so bizarre. Queen Elizabeth’s teeth were all rotten. King James never bathed so his hands were black. People described them as feeling like black velvet. I was in England looking for locations and at Knole they have a little museum set up where they had the last bed King James used. It had an upholstered back and there was big grease spot on it where the king’s head had rested. He was against smoking because he thought it was unhealthy but he was also against bathing because he thought it was unhealthy.
Someday it would be nice to recreate the world as it was. It would shock a lot of people! Thomas Eakins, who also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, had done a lot of paintings of doctors performing surgery because he loved anatomy. Back then the surgeons wore wool coats and they got so saturated with blood they were like cardboard. If they set them on the floor they would have held their shape. Such a different time.
I researched everything I could find on Jamestown. You immerse yourself so much into the period but then at some point you just let it all go and start working intuitively. You’ve got a foundation and then you just start working.
AS: Do you do a lot of sketches during those early stages or do you have someone do sketches?
JF: I’ve never had an illustrator work with me and I only do sketches when necessary. I’d rather build and change it. When I was younger I started with models of sets because the carpenters that I was working with didn’t all read blueprints. So I’d cut my drawings up and make white-board models and then everybody understood what I was thinking and they’d work from those.
AS: Do you still do models?
JF: Yes, but I use SketchUp a lot. I think in SketchUp. Because it gives you good proportions and scale. It’s replaced physical models and sketches for me. Most of the directors I work with never ask to see drawings. Once David did a little sketch on a paper bag of how he thought the apartment in Mulholland Drive would be laid out, but I looked at it and I couldn’t figure out what he’d drawn. I kept it because it was just so beautiful. Terry likes to be surprised by locations. I’ve never seen Terry look at a storyboard or a sketch. He’ll look at paintings or photographs. Usually I have so little time in preproduction that I just start building.
AS: During preproduction do you have a wall of pictures?
JF: Yes. That’s normally what I do. Those walls seem to benefit everyone on the film. They help them understand the place and the period. For me it started on The Thin Red Line, one of the first times that I had an office. We Xeroxed our research and put it up. I do all my photography digitally and print very little but I’ll use iPhoto if I have to show somebody a slideshow.