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Production designer David Wasco and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco have worked on more than 30 films in the past 25 years. The husband-and-wife team has collaborated with some of the most talented filmmakers working today, including Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, David Mamet, and Michael Mann, to create seamless, life-like sets for their pictures. The duo’s design work on Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums was featured in the Smithsonian’s National Design Triennial in 2003 and Wasco has been nominated for Art Directors Guild’s award for excellence in production design three times, including a nod for his work on Mann’s Collateral. With Inglourious Basterds opening in theaters today, the couple shared some of the behind the scenes action of working with QT.
When did you first start working with Quentin Tarantino?
We first started to work for QT in 1992 when we got the job to design Reservoir Dogs. David interviewed for the job and he and QT immediately clicked. QT felt comfortable working with us and he trusted us. We then continued to work with him, designing Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Vol.2, and now, Inglourious Basterds.
The set for Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the nightclub in Pulp Fiction, has been noted in numerous articles about your work. What was the inspiration for the design and how difficult was it to make?
The inspiration for Jack Rabbit Slim’s nightclub came from a variety of things. QT had us view Elvis Presley’s Speedway, which is a film about race car drivers that hung out in a nightclub, dining in booths made out of cars cut in half. He also recommended Red Line 7000, a James Caan racing film with another club that had a slot car set-up as a centerpiece, something we incorporated into Jack Rabbit Slims.
QT suggested the vintage American International Pictures’ posters, which we blew-up oversized for the walls, and chose John Lautner’s Googie-style architecture as our model for the building’s design. Early in Lautner’s career he was building roadside attractions in LA, where the building itself became a billboard, an eye catcher. This style hadn’t been used in films before and led to a mini-craze for West Coast Pop-modernism, which is still vibrant today. The large floating, cantilevered valance, suspended over the tachometer dance floor was copied from Tiny Naylors, a demolished restaurant on Sunset Blvd.
How did you prep for Inglourious Basterds?
Preparations for Inglourious Basterds were much the same as Pulp Fiction: lots of film references. Much like Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the cinema in Inglourious Basterds was a centerpiece set with a mixed pedigree. QT mentioned LA’s New Beverly Cinema for the projection room and its Vista Theatre for the auditorium dimension and number of seats as models. He wanted the lobby to be exactly like the one in Action in Arabia (directed by Leonide Moguy in 1944 with George Sanders, specifically the two stairs, the ceiling fans, and the timing of Inglourious Basterds character Colonel Landa’s and Sanders’ Action in Arabia character’s descent on the stairs. Private Affairs of Bel Ami (directed by Albert Lewin in 1947, and also starring George Sanders) served as the inspiration for the big circle window in Shosanna’s living quarters, overlooking the cinema.
What were the most daunting sets to construct for Inglourious Basterds?
The cinema was the most challenging set in Germany. We started to approach it as a 50/50 blend of built sets mixed with dressed or altered practical locations; but after scouting, the money involved with lengthy rentals and town street closures, it became prohibitive; so it was decided to build the facade on the Babelsberg Backlot and the interiors on the Marlene Dietrich Stage.
The next challenge was deciding if the stage could withstand the heat of the fire, which turned out to be a negative. We did build a full cinema auditorium on stage to house the primary action and the first low level flames, and then we built two more “fire sets” in an abandoned concrete factory on the outskirts of Berlin — one for the screen images of Shosanna’s “Big Face” film and the other, a duplicate auditorium.
In the fire set we did the “Big Burn” scene with Donowitz and Ulmer firing on the crowd, the Swastika falling, and Nazis trying to run. It reached 2000 degrees (a QT exaggeration?). This set was built to withstand the fire for three takes before the structure was compromised, it only had to be repainted and redressed with banners, eagles, lights, seats… and shot again. Back on stage in Babelsberg, some fires were set as well and that structure had to be architecturally strong enough to support the projection booth to the rear, a light grid and technicians above, and the two balconies on either side, while flames raced along the side walls.
However, in the end, this wasn’t the biggest challenge. The nearly impossible challenge was that the entire prep time for the film was 10 weeks and there were 20 other stage sets to build, and 35 extensive locations to construct, as well.
What sets were the most enjoyable to build?
The pleasures were building the Lapadite Farm in Ottendorf, which is three and a half hours southeast of Berlin. It was based on the farm in the opening scenes of The Searchers. The scenes for Joseph Goebbel’s faux-film Nations Pride were shot in Gorllitz, four hours southeast, and inspired by a battle in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. We found beautiful sites after weeks of scouting. Ottendorf had hills and actual buttes with mesa tops, and Gorlitz had been untouched by WWII bombing.
How difficult was it to assemble a crew in Berlin?
We were extremely lucky to assemble a first-class, all-German art department and work at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, about a half-hour east of Berlin. The studio was built in the 1920s and it was where Fritz Lang made Metropolis, Josef von Sternberg shot The Blue Angel, and Goebbels produced propaganda film comedies, like Lucky Kids. Quentin loved the idea of filming there and the studio provided us with stages, offices, and construction shops. Because it had been locked away behind the Berlin Wall during the GDR period, Babelsberg resembled the Hollywood studios of the ’40s and its prop shop was full of furnishings from the era.
What were your experiences working with the crew?
We speak very little French, and no German. The German crew spoke very good English, and the propmaster, Simon Boucherie, spoke French and German. The construction coordinator spoke no English, but was so good at his job that by the end of the movie we realized that we developed a way of communicating, which did not depend on words. At the height of construction we had 247 carpenters and painters. The level of craftsmanship was outstanding. Because of all the fire in the cinema, we could not construct that set using conventional materials. The construction of metal framing and plaster walls, which made “floating” or “wilding” out the walls to get a camera angle, was a slow process, which was often a frustrating thing for QT.
Some of the other all-built stage sets include the French dairy farm, the downstairs bar La Louisiane, the French veterinarian’s office, the film processing lab, and the cinema’s projection booth with two, working 1920s German, carbon arc projectors.
Most of the films that you have made have had sets that seem quite recognizable as places from our time, but Inglourious Basterds required period rooms. Did that require more research and scouting to achieve the right look?
It’s kind of a misconception that period films are more difficult than contemporary ones. They’re much easier because period environments are all research — plagiarism in a way — where you just copy a well-documented reality. Something new is usually a fresh concept that enhances and reflects a story point or character, versus merely establishing a certain time. That said, a QT period film is a little freer than most. It’s more like a Sergio Leone reality with roots in history, but influenced by the director’s aesthetic. The exposed house without barn, eyes through the floorboards, dungeon-like subterranean taverns, giant megalomaniac portraits… QT style.