By the time you read this, I will have seen the P.T. Anderson film "There Will Be Blood." I may either find myself impressed by Anderson's genius or irritated by his eccentricity. Either way, I'm already a fan of the sets, the desolate expanses of California (played by Marfa, Texas) dotted with the lichen of civilization: a train depot, a fledgling church, white tents in the shadow of an oil derrick.
Critics are calling the story of an oilman's battle with the world (based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!") a great film -- one even says it's one of the great American films and while much of the credit goes to Daniel Day-Lewis' portrait of monstrous greed, part also must go to the landscape that shares his fate.
For that, we have to thank Richmonder David Crank.
Crank, 47, was the art director on "Blood," the second-in-command to the production designer, Charlottesville resident Jack Fisk. Fisk knew director Anderson from somewhere and knew Crank from their work together on Terence Malick's "The New World." So Crank was called to Marfa in the first half of 2006 to help stage Anderson's epic.
Crank says an art director "makes sure everything gets drafted and designed and painted," spending a lot of time building a world on top of ours, rather than in an office, designing one.
"It's very hands-on," he says. "It's kind of like getting out in the field and building sculptures." Some of the decisions run opposite to conventional architect thinking, like carving a roof beam so it will sag, or finding a shack in a field, loading it onto a truck, moving it and using a crane to place it in another field, all so the dead grass there wouldn't be disturbed for a shoot.
Crank and the design team also avoided signs on buildings. He says, for all the things movie magic can't accomplish, no one's been able to figure out how to make a sign look old and authentic. So pay attention and you'll notice a lot of nameless places. "We wanted something that looked like the essence of the period but didn't get caught up in details," he says. So they had to design around the spaces where signs would be.
It's a lot of salvage work, finding parts of oil derricks on other ranches or that well-placed shack. "We bought a lot of old buildings and took them apart so we'd have the old wood," he says. "I think we pretty much built everything you see in the movie, except the bowling alley at the end."
And the people have responded. Scott Foundas of L.A. Weekly says in his review, "The period detailing by which I mean everything from the sets to the costumes to the haunting peasant faces of the smallest background players is subtle but exquisite."
Crank, a lifelong Richmonder, started working on sets in the '80s, both onstage with TheatreVirginia and onscreen. "My first job in a film, I was a painter," he says. Crank booked it to New York in the late-'80s for about six years, and then, realizing he could live anywhere, returned home, where he's designed sets for "The New World," "Hannibal" and the HBO series "Iron-Jawed Angels" and "John Adams."
Now he's gone again, back to Texas (Austin this time), where he'll spend the next five months working on Malick's latest project. By the time he returns home again, perhaps, the question of whether "There Will Be Blood" is genius or folly will be answered, right down to the final scene in the bowling alley, which Richard Schickel of the L.A. Times calls "the most explosive and unforgettable 10 or 15 minutes of screen acting I have ever witnessed," but which boggles some critics.
"I don't know," Crank says, "it made perfect sense to me." Maybe the answer's written on the wall. S