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An Interview with Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

Sandy Reynolds-Wasco is one of the most prolific, accomplished, and well-liked set decorators in Hollywood. Over the years, and nearly always in collaboration with her husband, the renowned art director and production designer David Wasco, she has worked on a long list of A-list, iconic films, including nearly everything Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have done. She is also one of the leading experts on postwar modernism in Los Angeles, and an avid art collector. I spoke with her at the Casa del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica (once the Pritikin Institute) about her working process, her creative inspirations, her extracurricular passions, and the unexpected ways that marquee directors like David Mamet and Michael Mann keep the doors open to creative interpretation.

—Shana Nys Dambrot

THE BELIEVER: You’ve worked with some of the biggest directors in the world—cinematic icons like David Mamet, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino….

SANDY REYNOLDS-WASCO: Well, all three of those that you’ve just mentioned are writer/directors, so they have more of a handle on the vision for the story. And while you might think that would make them more controlling, they are all very generous, and very different from each other. With Quentin, the inner life of his actors is his priority, and except for a few recommendations from a specific film or an old TV show for visual clues, he left us pretty much alone to develop a style while he concentrated on working with the actors. David Mamet, on the other hand, is hyperaware of every detail of the formal environment. Every little thing is important to him in moving the story, so that a pen or a blazer button is chosen as carefully as a location or the larger elements. Once the set is set he’ll let the actors find their way around inside of it and use it to flesh out a deeper understanding of their characters.

BLVR: Do you find that you and your husband get typecast as much as actors do, in terms of being associated with a certain period or style?

SRW: We probably do, inasmuch as we might have a “signature style.” After Pulp Fiction or The Royal Tenenbaums we had a lot of momentum with this kind of hybrid modern-Victorian pop-culture thing—a dense, concentrated kind of sensibility that producers and directors responded to when we interviewed. And having done Reservoir Dogs and Collateral we were called for a lot of “shoot ’em ups”—but like a typecast actor, you always remind people that you can do anything, can do period work. In fact we started out doing period films. My particular love is for environments of the early 1800s, pre-electricity, where there’s such mystery in the use of shadow, texture, and reflection. Someone hire me on a western.

BLVR: Let’s start at the beginning and take people through the process. You’re given a script—what’s the first thing you do?

SRW: First thing is the breakdown. We go through every scene, every set and location with a fine-tooth comb and chart what happens and where. It’s basically a map of the relationship of action to location. We do that fast. Then comes location scouting. That’s one of my favorite parts of the job. It’s me, the production designer—who is almost always my husband, David—the director, the location manager, and sometimes the director of photography, and we’re just in the car together, driving around and talking. You get a really deep sense of the director’s vision on those rides. Sometimes it’s just silly fun, like the eight strip clubs we visited with Quentin for Pulp Fiction. Sometimes you see the creative process unfold on the spot, like when the director of my current project found a location, but the dogs next door kept barking and leaping at the fence. He wrote it into the story.

BLVR: Oscar Wilde talked a bit about the difference between creative and interpretive art forms, and as you know, set decorators get Oscars just like cinematographers and production designers. How exactly do those different roles fit together? Who exactly reports to whom along the way?

SRW: The production designer is the head of the art department. Although they collaborate with the director of photography and director, in our experience the cameraperson is more like the director’s right hand. Art and camera transpose the director’s vision into reality on film, and the director is responsible for leading the teams in that effort. The set decorator works closely with the production designer to implement the directives from the top, but the whole process is very fluid and there’s always room for anyone to make suggestions and have ideas. What a film decorator does is very different from the job of our “real-world” counterparts, who design for a flesh-and-blood client. Sometimes we can be asked to design purely for an emotion, but mostly we enhance or flesh out a character or an idea. Ultimately, my job is to give both the audience and the actor as much information about their character as I possibly can. It’s an almost psychological balance, developing a kind of surrogate intuition, keeping a million balls in the air, and choreographing the interplay between inspiration and instruction. It’s one of those jobs that, when done correctly, becomes invisible.

BLVR: I’d love to go through some of your most iconic pictures, the ones that presented the biggest challenges and that you’re most proud of. When we first met, you were working on Michael Mann’s Collateral. Now, Mann is known for a certain fraught kind of noir, stylish but sparse. We’ve talked about how you help shape characters by engineering their domains, but this film took place almost entirely in the streets, public places, and a taxi cab. How did you deal with that?

SRW: Oh yes, abstract set decorating. It can be a curveball, but it remains integral to the storytelling process. It’s both meticulous and improvisational, like art, or, really, like the characters in this film, a cabdriver and a hit man. The story is fairly straightforward, focused on a two-person exchange between men of apparently opposite moral mind-sets. This is a movie about inner rather than external life. All the major dialogue scenes, all the reveals, happen in the cab. That taxi was the closest the movie ever had to a character’s private space. And the cab was built from scratch with careful attention given to every detail: fabric, paint, the backseat television, internet visuals, the postcard of the tropical paradise on the visor, right where he can get to it. Part of who this man is is precisely the idea that the walls of the cab contain his personal life. It is his vehicle in more ways than one. He’s a dreamer, a know-it-all, master of his diminutive domain. What would he do with it, how would he maintain it? Like a workhorse or a kingdom? It was a logistical challenge, but my creative process was essentially the same.

BLVR: The interior set pieces in Collateral sort of function like stops on a train—if I’m not mistaken, no set is visited twice. There are the public spaces, some built sets and some location work, and they get darker in pace with the growing intensity of the action until at the critical moment it has become completely dark and silent. There’s an alley, a hospital, a series of nightclubs, corporate offices, a parking garage, and a lot of neighborhood streets. I’d imagine the challenge there is that you’re being asked to use locations that move the story a bit differently. What those sets do is inform the audience about the character and the story in terms of what it means to them to find themselves there. So, for that to work, the locations have to appear natural and familiar while still satisfying the aesthetic, evocative aspects of the art form.

SRW: Michael was so totally committed to naturalism that at one point we ended up renting the entire contents of more than one migrant worker’s household—family pictures, religious objects, chipped Formica tables, the whole thing. Even though these sets sort of speed by—the first victim’s building, his and two other apartments glimpsed—they gelled with the impressionistic, narrative camera work they were using. The Korean nightclub was based on the reality of the neighborhood, possibly L.A.’s most surreal and impenetrable. There were a lot of reflective surfaces, different types of glass, and lighting that really made for compelling atmospheres as well as interior details. Every shot becomes full of meaning.

The gangs of downtown shook us down for protection, then took pride in being part of the crew. The subway forms a sort of indeterminate, metaphorical space hovering between public and private. It had something to say about the film’s ultimate meaning. That set was about both characters being pulled forward by the momentum of fate and destiny.

BLVR: The whole film had a slow-burning archetypal quality to it and was, in comparison to Mann’s other work (and yours), fairly restrained, especially when you look at the maximalism and innovation of your more high-profile sets such as Pulp FictionKill Bill, and The Royal Tenenbaums.

SRW: Even what never appears in the frame can influence the actor’s performance, so it all counts, it all has to be truthful, or at least truth-y. And sometimes the place is a character unto itself. The family brownstone in The Royal Tenenbaums is a perfect example. The story called for a set that expressed the eccentric inner lives of the family, as well as of New York City itself. In fact, the set decor in that film received almost as much attention as the cast; it was included in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s 2003 National Design Triennial. It was owned by a couple, Gabby and Michael Boyd, who are among the most important collectors and conservators of mid-century modern architecture in the country. They owned this house but it was no museum—it was being lived in. We used their young son’s real-life space-rocket sheets in the film for Luke Wilson’s character. They sort of made sense in that room somehow, in a way that was authentic and quirky and fundamentally human.

BLVR: And that diner in Pulp Fiction set the tone for the whole film—at least as much as the sound track.

SRW: Jack Rabbit Slim’s, yes. David built that from scratch. It really honors and symbolizes the city of Los Angeles as a bona fide character, integral to the film’s story. The restaurant is a hyperreal interpretation of an indigenous L.A. architectural period called “googie,” or sometimes “postwar optimism.” The scene that takes place there is as much a celebration of a unique segment of the history of L.A. buildings as it is an intense moment in the lives of the film’s characters. And as for Kill Bill, there were two design teams—one in North America and one in Asia. Here we were able to bookend the film with expansive, archetypal, Sergio Leone–style vistas with warm, organic desert colors. For the scenes in Mexico, we used indigenous architecture—the desert chapel in Lancaster for the opening scenes—and built sets inspired by modernist architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta. There’s an art deco hospital in Pasadena called St. Luke’s that has been closed due to earthquake damage. We were the first movie to use it. Same with the grand hotel in Mexico—it had never been filmed in before. It is important to Quentin to be in the real place, the one that inspired and shaped the story for him.

BLVR: One unique thread that runs through all of your extraordinarily diverse projects is your love of architecture and, in particular, late L.A. modern. Could you talk a little bit about how that interest shapes your life and work? A few years ago you and David were involved in the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses” project. Would you give some background on what that’s all about and what that entailed?

SRW: When we first moved to L.A. we spent all of our off-hours driving around the city with David Gebhardt’s guide to architecture in hand, ferreting out the work of the local greats like Neutra, Ain, Ellwood, and Soriano. We had both studied architecture back east and knew the names, so we toured L.A. like a giant architectural museum by car, a pretty perfect SoCal experience. On the practical side we were also hunting for potential apartments, since our first place, a half block off Hollywood Boulevard, turned out to be less glamorous than we’d expected—my ’64 Galaxy 500 was stolen the night I bought it. But luckily, on a tour of Silver Lake we found Schindler’s Faulk Apartments and moved next door to Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, the architectural team hired to oversee MoCA’s Case Study exhibit, which was the museum’s first show at the Temporary Contemporary [now the Geffen]. Craig in particular was infatuated with film and we had a lot to talk about. He thought our help with the exhibit, with the full-size mock-ups of the Eames House, Konig’s Case Study #21, and Ralph Rapson’s Greenbelt House, would be ideal, and the buildings would be best built by film designers, who were used to doing temporary structures on the cheap. So the iconic steel frames were made of wood, the swimming pools of stretched black plastic by our set construction crew, and the interiors dressed as if their owners had just stepped out. Movie magic serving a museum—it was a wonderful mix.

But we’ve learned that interesting architecture brings its own magic to films, and we try to take advantage of that strength whenever it can help make an impact. Albert Frey’s buildings, now considered to be the “Palm Springs–style,” directly influenced Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction; we used the largest Frank Lloyd Wright house in Texas to give weight to the low-budget Bottle Rocket; and Ben Stiller’s Tenenbaums character lived in a four-story Paul Rudolph. That town house, glorious in glass, steel, and Plexi, was the perfect contrast to the quirky family Victorian we talked about before, and we chose it to underline the character’s rigidity and his controlling nature.

Another benefit to our research was meeting some true legends. We had tea and ice cream one night with Rae Eames in the Chautauqua house. Albert Frey took us on a tour of literally everything he built in Palm Springs. It’s funny where inspiration comes from.

BLVR: So then architecture really came first for you, before design? How did you first get into the film business?

SRW: When we got involved with making films neither of us had any formal training, but that was the beauty of the business back in the day—and the attraction. It was meant to be. Where else could we use our mixed talents and be continually challenged and creative? Our backgrounds were in art history, fine art photography, painting, theater, gallery and display work—all over the place. But combined, that gave us kind of a perfect foundation to build a career in film. And we can’t picture doing anything else. We’ve really found the best of many worlds, with the added perk of always having a new project with new and interesting people in new and interesting places. You and I met through films! That led to this, and who knows, now you’re introducing me to this great old grand hotel by the beach. Maybe we’ll use it in a movie someday. 

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