Oscar-nominated Anastasia Masaro on the Art and Craft of Production Design

What can you tell iAWW about your childhood?

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Toronto in an entirely Italian neighborhood. My father’s parents immigrated to Canada when he was a teenager. He later met my mother in Italy through a mutual friend and they married and made a home in Toronto. She ran the house and family, while my dad was a carpenter, who then moved up to financial secretary for his union. All my friends were Italian – it was the first language I spoke – and I still speak it at home. My dad loved the movies and took us to the cinema a lot.  My favorite things to do were read books, draw and play with Legos.

What was your childhood dream?  

To be Indiana Jones.

Great choice! What TV shows and films inspired you growing up?

I grew up watching BBC kids shows like The Ghosts of Motley Hall and The Phoenix and the Carpet. I also relished old horror movies on Fox 28, I think that was the channel. I loved anything with Vincent Price, and watched Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on repeat. 

What about your educational background?

I went to French immersion elementary and high schools and then started university, considering a medical career. After volunteering in a hospital ER for 2 years, I decided against that. I left university and immediately started my film career.

As a female, did you face any obstacles?

Not particularly – there were many obstacles in my path, and gender definitely was and still is, one of them. Back when I started, there was a clear division between those who worked on feature films and those who worked in television (now the lines are far more blurred). There were also far less women working in higher positions. More than once, I heard “I don’t like hiring women because I don’t like asking them to stay late.”

Which one female has been your biggest source of inspiration? 

Production designer Sarah Greenwood – her work is inspired and inspiring, and she seems to be a lovely person as well. When we were both nominated for an Oscar in 2010, she came to my dinner table after the show and introduced herself and I barely held myself together.

When did you realise you wanted to be a production designer? 

When I saw The Adventures of Baren Munchausen

How did you learn the craft of set-design?  

I learned on the job. I would see what skills I was lacking and then try to learn them in my down time. I went to night school for drafting after working on Cube, and lived down the hall from an animation company at the time so I borrowed their tutorial books to learn graphic design.

What production designer has influenced you? Do you have a mentor?

I don’t know about influencing me but, plenty inspire me – Dante Ferretti, Sarah Greenwood and Rick Heinrichs. I don’t have a mentor. I wish I did.

As a designer, are you drawn to any specific genres?

I’m drawn to story over genre. When I read a script, the movie plays in my head as if I’m watching it on a screen. My gut reacts immediately to that vision, whether I’m interested in it or not.  

How did you get involved with Tully

I received a call from my agent that I was being sent the script and I hopped on a Skype call with Jason Reitman. It was a really easy conversation. I had already committed to another job just before that call but, they had delayed production, and then I got the call they wanted to hire me on Tully.

Charlize Theron stars as Marlo in Jason Reitman’s TULLY, a Focus Features release.

At what stage did you board production? 

I started production about a month after that initial Skype call. I flew out to Vancouver and we started prepping and location scouting immediately.

You earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for designing the sets of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. How is creating a studio green screen world different to designing on location? 

Thank you very much. That was a very emotional project for me. I love studio work, especially ones that involve set extensions and blue/green screen. I actually used every can of blue in the country for that movie. Studio sets are easier to design for me because I’m not bound by an existing box. I don’t have to account for a wall blocking me here or a storefront blocking me there. It’s a far easier and fulfilling process.

There are a lot of small details in Tully that add to the texture of the film. For example, your use of the seashell wallpaper in the kitchen to convey Marlo being swallowed by the sea. What were some of your sources of inspiration? To what extent did Reitman play a part?

Jason played a huge part – he gave me a lot emotionally and so it was easy for me to catch his wave on this project. My inspiration was the script itself, and Marlo’s character arc. We dropped little Easter eggs throughout the movie and hoped the audience would notice at least on the second watch (it’s a very different movie on the second watch).

Was it difficult to create an oppressive and claustrophobic ambience while maintaining the subtleties of a realistic and lived-in space?

It was a tricky thing to not make her (Marlo) seem like a hoarder. Too little would have not felt realistic and too much would have looked too slovenly. I researched people’s homes and reached out to friends and a few strangers. Workingwomen with their first child were particularly helpful – going from working woman to, oh-my-god-this-kid-thing-is-a-lot-of-work was a perfect starting point. There are details everywhere that are not necessarily on camera – socks stuffed into sofas, half-full water glasses left in odd places, food dropped under tables and so on.

Tully is filmed primarily in British Columbia. How did you create an upstate New York feel?

Most of the film was shot in Vancouver and the city scenes were filmed in Brooklyn. I researched Upstate New York and we matched up various neighborhoods and schools. It wasn’t particularly difficult at all.

Marlo’s house was an actual lived-in home. How did you find it? What changes did you make to put your own language into it? What were some of the challenges? 

Jason found that house by driving around on his own. We filmed the main floor in the house, while the second floor (hallway, bedroom, nursery, bathroom) was a studio set.  The owners of the house were amazing and super accommodating. There was nothing they prevented us from doing and even sent gifts at the end.  We changed a lot – painted all the walls, swapped out kitchen appliances and light fixtures, built a banquette and table for the kitchen, wallpapered various rooms, added wood paneling to their living room, added a stone wall and new fireplace to their family room, removed their front doors and turned them into a single door and a panel of yellow glass, their closet into a storage nook… The challenge was wishing I could remove walls to make rooms bigger. 

How did you play with color to set the overall mood of the film? 

Jason seemed to gravitate towards a lot of autumnal colors. We scouted one location (that we didn’t wind up using) and something felt so right about it – it was the color palette. So I took a bunch of photographs and blew them up for the art department. That one living room had the most perfect combination of colors for the beginning of Marlo’s journey. We then started adding more primary colors as the drama unfolded.

How closely did you work with cinematographer Eric Steelberg? Can you elaborate on the artistic process?

The PD/DP collaboration is always an important process and Eric was wonderful to work with from the very beginning. He has known Jason forever and gave me some tips early on about their process. We had ongoing conversations about lighting and color choices to make sure we were all on the same track to creating Marlo’s journey. I loved working with him.  

To what extent did you collaborate with other departments such as the art director, set decorator or location manager?

My art director manages the department – the set designer, graphic designer, art pa, construction and paint as well as coordinating with the set decorator and locations teams. The art director is my right hand, the set decorator my left. I had not worked with Louise Roper (set decorator) before so we shopped a lot together and socialized a bit outside of work so we could understand each other’s working methods. I give a lot of reference and direction and am there when sets are being dressed to get everything as close to my mind as possible. When time allows, I do illustrations, as well.  When we were still fleshing out Marlo’s kitchen and living room, we went out shopping one weekend for the tiki bar and wound up in the house of an art collector who just happened to have children and the most perfect lived-in mess. I took a lot of photos (with the owner’s permission) and we referenced that house often when dressing Marlo’s life.

How was it working with Jason Reitman?

He’s pretty wonderful. Kind, intelligent, open, collaborative, talented – I really didn’t want to disappoint him.  

This interview wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t ask you about Craig’s tiki bar. What was your inspiration behind it?

That was a fun one. When I was a kid, my dad was obsessed with theme parks. We spent a lot of summers in Florida and one of my favorite places was Tiki Gardens. It has since burned down but I loved that place and have many photos of us there. That’s where my obsession with all things tiki started and where I drew inspiration from for Craig’s. 

Mark Duplass stars as Craig in Jason Reitman’s TULLY, a Focus Features release.

What do you enjoy most about being a Production Designer? And what do you consider the greatest challenge?

I love researching and creating new worlds. I immerse myself emotionally into whatever story I’m working on at that moment, and it feels like I get to live different lives, be different people.  It’s a lucky thing to be able to do. The greatest challenge is trying to not stress about figuring out what, when or where the next project will be.

You’ve worked on some great projects, including The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Mama and Life. What type of film would you like to work on next? 

I’ve been very lucky.  There are many types I’d love to do – a western, 1920s, dark Victorian – but I miss doing fantasy and I would love to do another soon.

Do you have any up-coming projects you would like to tell iAWW about?

I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen next. I’m in talks for two very different projects, neither which I can really speak of… hopefully one gets green lit soon.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to become a production designer?     

Figure out what kind of production designer you want to be and choose your projects accordingly. Trust your gut and don’t listen to the advice of people who don’t want you to dream bigger than they can.

By JSK

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