Updated: Mar 22, 2022
INTERVIEW BY JOSHUA SHERMAN, M.D.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY DAVID WASCO & SANDY REYNOLDS-WASCO
To listen to the extended audio interview with David and Sandy Wasco, go to VTVOICES at OldMillRoadRecording.com
David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco are an Academy Award® Winning husband-and-wife duo. Their masterfully-crafted production designs can be seen in the films of such celebrated directors as Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, Wes Anderson, and Damien Chazelle. David Wasco spent his adolescent years in Bennington, VT – and that time in Vermont had a formative impact on his life journey.
Sherman: Thanks so much for joining me, David and Sandy! We’re going to open up the conversation to both of you once we start discussing your careers. But David, since you grew up in Vermont, let’s start with you individually. Where were you born, and how did you first make your way to Vermont?
David: I was born right outside of New York City in Carlstadt, New Jersey, but my teenage years were spent in Shaftsbury and Bennington, Vermont. My dad was offered a job as an art teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, and we moved to Vermont when I was 12.
Sherman: So, your father was an artist?
David: My father was a Cooper Union graduate. He had some fantastic teachers throughout his schooling, such as the photographer Berenice Abbott. He’s a master photographer, and he’s also an architect, a lettering designer, a ceramic artist, and an abstract expressionist painter. All of that translated into the way that my two brothers and I were raised.
Sherman: You were part of the first freshman class at the “then new” Mount Anthony Union High School, which you said was a great experience. What was it like moving from New Jersey to Vermont, and what were your first impressions of the new Mount Anthony Union High School Building?
David: Growing up in Bennington, there was an annual festival called, “The
Bennington Crafts Fair” that took place at the Mount Anthony Union High School grounds. It attracted people from all over the United States, because the craft world was very big back then. There were also a lot of peaceful protests that were happening in the late 1960s, including protests on the nuclear power plants that were being planned for Vermont. I was lucky to be in Southwestern Vermont in the late 1960s and early 1970s, because I got to meet David Gill, who was the owner and founder of Bennington Potters. He was an unofficial mentor of mine, and he really played a pivotal role in helping to steer my life in a creative direction. David Gill was friends with the iconic mid-century architect and furniture designer George Nelson. George would visit Vermont annually, and I met him one year in a backyard in North Bennington. I sat at a picnic table and had an hour-long one-on-one conversation with George Nelson, which was set up by David Gill. George Nelson asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and it was an incredible experience. David Gill was also good friends with Benjamin Thompson, who designed the new building for Mount Anthony Union High School. The building was, in my opinion, a masterpiece architectural feat. Benjamin Thompson was part of The Architects Collaborative, which was a prestigious American architectural firm whose membership also included the famed German-American architect Walter Gropius. The Mount Anthony Union High School was designed in a high modernist style, and it accommodated pretty much all of Southwestern Vermont. I was elated to be in such a colorful environment. It was a very progressive high school at the time, and it had an amazing body of teachers. I was the first class to go from ninth grade to graduation from 1968 to 1971, and I’m very proud of that.
Sherman: There was recently an exhibition at the Bennington Museum that was all about Vermont in the 1960s. You mentioned that some of your photos were used in that exhibition.
David: When I was attending Mount Anthony Union High School, they had an off-site program called, “Do Unto Others” (D.U.O.). There were about 20 students that were allowed to pick a community-based project that allowed us to get credit for our schoolwork while working outside of the physical walls of the high school. For my project, I documented and photographed visual pollution in and around Bennington County. There was a good part of my 10th grade school year where I didn’t actually physically go to school. I went around the community and took photographs of things that I thought were incongruous. Looking back, some of it was naive on my part (and maybe not what I feel today), but I did take many black and white photographs using a large-format camera. As a result, I had these fantastic, almost Walker Evans-level black and white photographs. When the Bennington Museum decided to do an exhibit about Bennington in the 1960s, they reached out to me and asked if it was possible to borrow some of my images. I actually ended up donating them to the museum. That experience was one of the best parts of going to Mount Anthony Union High School – being able to apply my interest in photography and capture the Southern Vermont community.
Sherman: Did you do any set design for any of Mount Anthony Union High School’s productions while you were going to school there?
David: My dad was actually the set design teacher, so he did the sets, but I played a part in helping to build them. I was able to look over his shoulder and watch what he was doing. We did a lot of standard-fare sets for productions like West Side Story, but they were on a pretty grand scale. We had the Albany Symphony Orchestra join the orchestra at the high school, and we used the Broadway production costumes from My Fair Lady.
Sherman: Where did you go after high school?
David: When I graduated from high school, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father and attend Cooper Union. I took the hard entrance exam, and I actually didn’t pass the first test. I pursued jobs that were art-related, and I put going to Cooper Union on the backburner. I worked for a company called, Design Research, which was based out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was actually founded by the same person who designed Mount Anthony Union High School, Benjamin Thompson. Design Research was really the first company to bring modernism to the American public. Benjamin Thompson decided to start a small boutique chain of retail stores, in which architects and designers could go and buy things (Herman Miller furniture or Marimekko fabric, for example) to fill out architecturally-significant buildings. I became the display director for this chain of stores, and I moved around the country as a result of my work. I started in San Francisco, where I trained to become the display director, then moved to Los Angeles. Eventually, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I ended up meeting my wife, who was working for the same retail store.
Sherman: I’d love to hear Sandy’s side of the story of how you met. What is your recollection of the first time you saw David?
Sandy: I first saw him when he was working at Design Research in Cambridge. The building that we worked at was three or four stories tall, and it looked like a big glass box. From the exterior, you could see every department in the store. The displays in all of the departments played an integral part in luring passerby’s to come in and enjoy the interior. I would see him working in the different departments wearing things like colorful Marimekko striped shirts, which was always something that I noticed. We knew each other for a couple years there, but later on (when we both moved to Manhattan for different reasons), we met again at a party.
Sherman: How did you both end up in New York City?
David: We were both working for Design Research before it dissipated in the late 1970s. I was headhunted by a much bigger company called The Workbench. They had 40 stores throughout the East Coast, and I became their corporate display director.
Sandy: I stayed with Design Research until it disbanded, but I had also worked at different galleries in Boston. I moved to New York and started doing the same thing down there. I went to Vassar College, where I majored in Art History. I spent every weekend down in New York City going to museums like the MoMA or the Whitney. Those experiences drew me back there, because there was so much happening in New York at the time.
Sherman: After New York, you both ended up in Los Angeles. How did you make your way from New York to L.A.?
David: It was similar to how we transitioned from the Boston area to New York City. At the time that I moved to Los Angeles, Sandy was actually still managing a furniture store in Columbus Circle. I had taken the corporate retail gig as far as I wanted to take it, and I was always interested in moviemaking and movies. Mount Anthony Union High School had a great film class, which made a lasting impression on me. I decided that I wanted to try to break into doing art direction for movies, so I moved out and set up an apartment. A year later, Sandy moved out there and joined me, and we ended up living together for a number of years before we got married.
Sherman: How did you manage to break into the film industry in Los Angeles?
David: To be honest, I was pretty aggressive about it. Sandy and I moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1980. At the time, Los Angeles was a lot quieter and sleepier than it is today, and there was not as much of a glut of people going after the work that I was trying to do. I was told by a couple of different people that I was being a little bit too aggressive, but I actually tell some of the students that I meet that you have to do that. In order to be successful, you have to take it right to the edge of being too aggressive, because otherwise you’re not going to get where you want to go. Once I moved to Los Angeles, I had an interview set up with Dean Tavoularis, who is a legendary production designer. I was going after a job that would allow me to work for one of my favorite directors, Francis Ford Coppola. They were just starting production for The Outsiders, but that interview actually fell through. It didn’t happen when it needed to happen, but another opportunity presented itself when my friend told me about a commercial art director who needed an assistant for a feature film. The film was a non-union movie called The Beastmaster. It was a Conan the Barbarian-type, Bronze-age, Period, Fantasy movie. I went into the interview with a portfolio of graphic material, and the designer hired me. I worked for almost a year as an art department coordinator and an assistant art director. Working on a fairly-big movie that was happening in Los Angeles during that quiet time allowed me to really watch the process of how a movie was made. I was able to see how much things cost, and it was really like a crash course in how to make a mid-range motion picture. It was a great experience, and it sealed my interest in working in the motion picture industry. I also met a lot of different people through working on that movie, and I ended up connecting with people who worked at Design Centers, which was a set construction company that worked on a lot of commercials and feature films. They hired me as their in-house art director, and I was also allowed to work on other projects while working there. I got to meet many different production designers, and I was very lucky to be given those opportunities.
Sherman: What do you consider to be the turning point in your career in the film industry?
David: A lot of people who work as production designers will gradually climb the rungs. They’ll start early-on as production assistants, assistant editors, or set designers, and then eventually become production designers. When I was working at Design Centers, I got to meet Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas through my friend Trevor Black, who was a director. At the time, Gregory and Anna were starting production for a film called El Norte. After meeting them, they gave me a job as a set designer. The film was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Screenplay, but it didn’t win. It was a fabulous movie, and it still resonates today. The cameraman that shot El Norte, James Glennon, then introduced me to a director named Joyce Chopra. She was the director of Smooth Talk, which coincidentally starred Treat Williams, who now lives in Southern Vermont, as well. It was a wonderful project, and it was the second film that I worked on in a succession of small projects that really struck a note with the public.
Sherman: When did you and Sandy start working together as a husband-and-wife design team?
David: I was living in Los Angeles with Sandy at the time that I was working on those first projects, but we were not working together. Sandy and I started reading through scripts together, and she would help me get jobs. That led to us working together in a more formal capacity. Some of the first things that we did were theatrical feature films, which were done under the umbrella of a periodical PBS anthology series called American Playhouse. We went off to Montana to do a motion picture for American Playhouse, and Sandy became the set decorator. That was the first time I worked with Sandy as the co-designer while she worked as a set decorator. I found that I worked more effectively when we worked as a team together. We worked as a team for the rest of our careers.
Sherman: So Sandy, I’d love to hear how you ended up in the film industry. Did you have any aspirations to work as a set designer when you were younger, or did it all happen as a fluke as a result of working with David?
Sandy: It was a fluke, but it was ideal for me, because I had studied fine art and architectural drawing. I had also served as a stage manager for many plays in high school and college. When this line of work started becoming an option – especially with these American Playhouse films, which were often based on literature – there was always a lot of research. I adored doing that research, and I also adored meeting the people in the areas where we were filming who would supply the things that we needed to make the films. They would share their stories with me, as well. It was a wonderful way to learn the craft. Sharon Seymour, who served as the Art Director on an American Playhouse feature film called Stacking, taught me a lot of the basics that I needed to know. She taught about how lettering and signage are important, especially for lower-budget film projects, and how lighting and window treatments are incredibly important, as well. She was a wonderful teacher, and she gave me a great leg-up going forward.
Sherman: Set designers have to work within physical spaces and still realize the vision of directors and writers. It requires intense collaboration. What are some of the core skills that the two of you really value in the people that you collaborate with?
Sandy: In terms of the professional relationship that David and I have, it’s a wonderful balance, because we both have totally different skillsets. When we first get a script, I rely on all of the literature that I’ve read to form opinions and visions of how something should be. From there, I start thinking about the practical considerations of how an actor is going to move through these spaces and tell the story. I think the way we approach our projects is different, but we’re able to work well together because we see things from different perspectives.
David: It is a good balance. Sandy has a much more formal education with art history, and I have an informal education through my professional experiences. When I’m working with other people on projects besides Sandy, I find that many of the people that I hire that can do set design in the best way seem to be registered architects. I’m not a trained architect, but I’ve been approached by a lot of architects that want to try to break into the movie business. Some of the most amazing sets that I’ve worked on have been made with the help of people that know how to design buildings. Beyond the visual medium, it’s also very important to be able to write and effectively communicate. Sandy is very good with writing, and we’re both good at working with groups of people and communicating with them. Films require big groups of people to come together to pull things off. Like you said, Joshua, you have to solve problems for the director, writers, and producers, and you have to do it in a very short period of time. Everything has to happen very quickly, which requires everyone who works on a project to be very careful and considerate. I try to hire overqualified people, because when you’re working on a film project, every single position is vitally important. Regardless of the position, I go out of my way to hire people that contribute ideas and come up with effective solutions.
Sherman: You’ve both worked with many talented directors. Let’s discuss Quentin Tarantino. How did you first meet Quentin, and what was that experience like?
David: When we first met Quentin, he was virtually unknown. We got the script for Reservoir Dogs from my agent, and Sandy read it first and then I read it. Sandy said, “This is amazing. We have to do everything that we can to work on this movie.” Quentin had already gotten some recognition for having written Natural Born Killers, so he was starting to become known and respected as a writer. After he got the greenlight for Reservoir Dogs, I went in and had a very relaxed meeting with him. We were very comfortable with each other. I brought in my portfolio, and he liked a lot of the period-style things that we did for the American Playhouse classical stories. After we got hired, we did the location scouting, and they began the casting process. When Harvey Keitel came on board, it became a bigger movie. It was wonderful to work with Quentin on the film, and I had a great time scouting locations with him and Reservoir Dogs’ producer, Monte Hellman. It was the start of a great relationship with Quentin, and he ended up hiring us for six of his nine movies.
Sandy: From the start, Quentin always had so much energy. He was incredibly excited about his projects, and he would tell the story of the film and the inspirations behind how he wanted it to come to life in a very animated way. He was deeply-involved in every aspect of the films, including the casting, the music, and the location scouting.
David: He was very hands-on in his approach. When we did the location scouting, Quentin and the location manager would often ride around in the car with Sandy and I. We would drive around and look at different things, and it was fantastic. Being able to talk one-on-one with a film director in a casual environment where you can ask questions is ideal, because you can get crucial information about what they want to do with the film. Almost every director we’ve worked with also wrote the script for the projects that we worked on, so we’ve been able to get our artistic direction cues straight from the horse’s mouth.
Sherman: Designers often help directors figure out the practical solutions to accomplish their vision. Were there any instances where Quentin had ideas that he hadn’t resolved - and you came up with solutions that worked really well?
David: When we were working on Kill Bill: Vol. 2, we had to figure out how to do a scene in which Uma Thurman burst out of the ground after being buried alive in a wooden casket. To solve the problem, we built a 30-foot-high glass wall that was cut in half and surrounded by “dirt” on the other side, so we could show the casket on camera. It was like a huge ant farm. To show her escape, she was essentially lifted by wires and was able to “fake claw” her way through the earth. The “dirt” was actually crumbled cocoa puffs. It was also very difficult to figure out the theatre fire scene in Inglourious Basterds, because we were working with real fire, not CGI fire. To be able to do that - while keeping the actors safe - was a challenge. We did many takes in the auditorium, which we built as a set for Inglourious Basterds, and the exterior of the French cinema also had to blow up with real people inside, without anyone getting hurt. I like to take some of the credit for the planning, but we worked closely with the physical effects group to make it happen.
Sherman: The Quentin Tarantino films that the two of you have worked on have incredible sets with phenomenal details. Earlier on, I heard Sandy mention the importance of lighting treatments, window treatments, and other significant set decoration details. Can you talk about some of your favorite set elements and decorative touches from the Tarantino films that you worked on?
Sandy: When we were working on Pulp Fiction, I determined that each set had to have contrasting colors. I wanted the color shifts to be dramatic enough so that when you went from the dope bust apartment to Butch’s boxing scenes, you would be able to really notice the difference. The house of the character that Quentin played in Pulp Fiction, Jimmy, was also a tough space to design. It was the only set that had wallpaper in it, which was a deliberate decision. We wanted to design a set that would emphasize the fact that his wife was the scariest thing in the world to him, even though he was surrounded by bloodthirsty cohorts.
Sherman: In the process of making any film, there are always some incredible details that get lost on the cutting room floor. Are there any specific moments that weren’t included in the final cut of the Quentin Tarantino films that you worked on that you were really proud of in terms of the design?
Sandy: Quentin’s scripts are vast. They filmed an entire background story for the Boston Bear character in Inglourious Basterds that was completely eliminated from the film. In the eliminated scene, he goes into a vintage 1940s-style Boston sporting goods store to get the bat that he uses later on in the film.
David: There was a wonderful scene from that background story chapter with the fabulous actress, Cloris Leachman, that was completely cut from the film. In the final version of Inglourious Basterds, you never get to see the story behind the Boston Bear’s bat and how he got it signed by the neighborhood relatives of the victims who lost their lives during the Nazi regime. Beyond Inglourious Basterds, many of Quentin’s scripts were shot verbatim with minimal changes, such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. As Quentin progressed in his career, his scripts became longer and more complex, and he started editing between scenes and making changes while the projects were still being filmed.
Sherman: What was it like working with David Mamet? He’s obviously a brilliant writer and director, but would you say he is visually-inclined, as well?
Sandy: He is very visual! The clothing and props from his films all have a certain feel. There’s definitely a style to his films and the kind of things that he likes to put on camera.
David: He’s also an incredibly loyal person to work with. His earlier movies were all designed by a designer who had health issues and passed away. We were actually introduced to him after we worked on a film called Where the Rivers Flow North, which was based on a book that was written by the Vermont-based author Howard Frank Mosher. David wrote the script for the film, but he didn’t direct it. Coincidentally, the editor for that film was David Mamet’s editor, and he introduced us to him. We worked with him first on a made-for-TV movie that he wrote called A Life in the Theatre, which starred Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick and was directed by Gregory Mosher. That led to a nice string of projects with him, which started out with Oleanna and ended up with Heist.
Sherman: The two of you have also worked closely with Wes Anderson on some of his most iconic films, including Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Could you tell from the beginning that he was an extraordinary talent?
David: During the shoot for Pulp Fiction, we got the heads up that the Wilson Brothers and Wes Anderson were working on a film together. One day, they came onto the Pulp Fiction set and Quentin told me, “David, will you please take my friends Owen and Wes on a tour of the set?” During the course of the tour, they asked me if I was interested in working on Bottle Rocket with them. Sandy and I got the script, and we went to Dallas to work on the movie. At the time, Wes was still developing as a director and getting a handle on what he was trying to do. Rushmore was his real breakthrough project, and it was fun working with Bill Murray the first time that he got to work with Wes. Every other movie we worked on with Wes was a great experience, and it was wonderful to work with Gene Hackman on The Royal Tenenbaums right after we had worked together on Heist with David Mamet.
Sherman: I also love the movie Seven Psychopaths, and I’m a big fan of the playwright Martin McDonagh. What was your experience like on the set of Seven Psychopaths?
David: Sandy and I absolutely love Martin, and I am so proud of that movie. We had an amazing cast with Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, and Martin was incredibly respectful and a pleasure to work with. He entrusted us with the first movie that he did in America. We also worked with him on the location scouting for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I ultimately withdrew from my role as a production designer for that movie right before it started filming. Inbal Weinberg took over and did a fabulous job with the production design. Martin was incredibly nice to us throughout the whole process.
Sherman: Let’s talk about your Oscar-Winning work for La La Land. One of the challenges with a film like La La Land is that it has to integrate stylistic elements that are both current and retro. Can you tell me about the process that went into creating La La Land’s look?
David: Damien Chazelle is very much a visual director. When I interviewed for the movie, Damien and I both brought “look books,” which are hardcopy physical books that have images for reference. We had many of the same images in our look books, and we both thought that was very interesting. Damien really had an established vision going into the project. He set out to do a kind of off-kilter look at the city of L.A. He was a new transplant there, and he wanted to feature different elements of the city and highlight the architectural convergence of all these different styles living side by side. One day, he said, “David, we’re going to do some practical location shooting, and we’re going to be building some sets. What I want to do is have the real locations look fake and make the sets look overly real.”
Sherman: Let’s talk about La La Land’s opening.
David: It all goes back to solving problems. When I first read the script, I thought, “Okay, we’ve got to shut down the Hollywood freeway to do a big dance number. How do you do that?” The California Department of Transportation’s highway department showed us places on different freeways that were shut down, where it was safe to shoot for a few days. One of those was the elevated portion between the 105 Freeway and the 110 Freeway. When we showed that location to Damien, he said, “Oh, my God, this is great!” He liked it, because when you look in the direction of downtown, it looks like the City of Oz. From my perspective, another very important aspect of film production and production design is safety. We were 100 feet off the ground, and the parapet was only knee-high. We had people dancing, running, and jumping all over the place during the shoot, and we didn’t want anyone to fall. Everything was very carefully planned, and I’m happy that it all worked out in the end.
Sherman: You also got to work with Aaron Sorkin on Molly’s Game, which was his directorial debut. How did you first connect with Aaron Sorkin?
David: He’s an iconic movie and television writer, and I had the quickest interview I’ve ever had in my life with him. I brought my portfolio book to the interview, and he didn’t even want to look at it. He just knew that he wanted to work with us. I will say, though, that the film presented several difficult challenges. Half of the movie takes place in Los Angeles, and half of the movie takes place in New York. We did extensive research, but we were told that the majority of the movie was going to be shot in Toronto. With the exception of a few scenes on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and Central Park in New York, we were able to shoot the whole film in Toronto. I think that when an audience watches that movie, they don’t know that the movie was not shot entirely in L.A. and New York, which I’m very proud of. Another hurdle that we had to overcome is that the writer of Molly’s Game, Molly Bloom, was not allowed to enter Canada due to the fact that she was a convicted felon. Sandy got to talk with her over the phone about the different characters, and she was a wonderful source of information. It’s always good to be able to talk directly to the author when you’re working on a film that is based on a book.
Sherman: You’ve had an extraordinary career and life together, and I’m grateful to have you here in the studio with us just down the road from where David grew up in Bennington. What does it feel like after you’ve been to all of these different places and worked with all of these amazing artists to come back to Vermont, David? Does it still feel like home?
David: Vermont is an amazing place. I was once told that the photos from the visual pollution photograph project that I did at Mount Anthony Union High School as part of D.U.O. were used in the fight to pass the anti-billboard law that went into effect in Vermont in the 1960s. I still have a place in my heart for Vermont, and I like to think I played a part in keeping this carefully-preserved state beautiful. To listen to the extended audio interview with David and Sandy Wasco, go to VTVOICES at OldMillRoadRecording.com