Set designer Bryan Wofford, BA 04, on building and pursuing a career in Hollywood
By Chris Hazel
In mid-Oklahoma, Bryan Wofford, BA ’04, transforms an undescribed hamburger restaurant into a 1960s Sonic in preparation for a scene in Taika Waititi’s FX television series “Reservation Dogs.” Aside from a recent trip to see his daughter graduate from the University of Maine, Wofford has lived and worked in Oklahoma for the past four months.
“I tell everyone I’m a set designer or a stage designer, but I’m just a scenic painter,” Wofford said. “My job is to prepare a set or location for a theater production, TV show or film. This can mean aging the set – making it older and appropriate for a certain period – painting it, adding wallpaper and decals. For example, we could shoot a movie with a post office built in the 1970s, but the movie is set in the 1930s. We are going to paint the brick a different color more appropriate to that time period or make it dirtier if we are shooting a gangster movie, for example.
In addition to ‘Reservation Dogs’, Wofford has worked on Martin Scorsese’s upcoming ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’, Richard Linklater’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ and numerous other films, TV shows and theater productions. He also works as an art director, a role that involves conceiving the entire creative vision for a set or shot and managing various departments to bring that vision to fruition. He has served as artistic director for Fan Controlled Football, several independent films, and countless theatrical productions staged by the University of Texas at Dallas and other organizations.
In other words, he stays very busy.
“Sometimes it’s hell collaborating with others on set, and other times it’s just fun. It can be a lot of work, but I love it. I’ve always loved doing part of the creative process,” Wofford explained.
Wofford’s journey to work with Waititi in Oklahoma was winding and bumpy. He came to the University of Dallas in 1986 as a theater major interested in acting. One day, while waiting for rehearsals to start, he is asked to help paint a set.
“I knew how to paint and I always had an artistic side, so I started. I liked it and remember thinking, “That’s so much better than memorizing lines,” Wofford said.
After a few years, he dropped out of UD and started working as assistant technical director at the Dallas Theater Center. Smaller theaters all over the city asked him to help design, paint and build sets. Although he enjoyed the work itself, it came at a high cost.
“It was really awful. I was making $200 a week working 14 or 16 hour days, six days a week. My wife would drop me off Monday morning and pick me up Wednesday night because I was working so much I slept there I kept doing it because I liked being part of the job and, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I could do anything else,” Wofford said.
He eventually accepted a position as set designer for the Repertory Theater in Plano, where he continued to design, paint, and “decorate” their productions. The hours were still brutal, and it was during this time that Wofford and his wife Kelly (Donovan), BA ’90, had their daughter, Lily.
“We decided I would play Mr. Mom, and I took care of Lily and took her to work with me,” Wofford said. “I used to help her hold my brushes and my hammer, and when she was old enough she helped me paint.”
Eventually, Wofford’s wife suggested he return to UD to complete his education. He received his bachelor’s degree in drama in 2004, then began a three-year master’s program at Southern Methodist University.
“After graduating, doors opened for my career. I started working more in film and television, where I could earn more in a day than I could in an entire week working for a theater,” Wofford said.
Although the salary has certainly increased since he started at this company, the time commitment can still be difficult. For Killers of the Flower Moon, he arrived on set in January 2021 and didn’t return home to Dallas until November. Since jobs like this can be long and grueling, he often takes months off between projects, where he can spend time with his wife or work on other creative projects that don’t require him. either on the spot.
When asked for his advice for those interested in a similar career path, he stressed the importance of being a continuous learner.
“Keep practicing what you’re doing and keep learning. You may be a great painter, but don’t stop there. Learn ironwork or carpentry. Don’t label yourself, ever,” Wofford said. “And when you get a job, do it to the best of your ability without complaining. Just be grateful and do a good job.
Another major tip he gave is to have an active online presence.
“One thing that took my career from $1,800 a month to grown-up money was having a website. I started my website in 1998 and I never stopped to update it with my work. This eventually led to a call from the Freeman company because the guy over there had been following my website for about nine months and noticed that I was getting better and better and I had a good work ethic.
Pat Kelley, professor emeritus of drama at UD, remembers Wofford fondly.
“My memories of Bryan Wofford from his two residencies at UD are happy. He was an enthusiastic and talented theater man in all departments,” Wofford said. “While for most students creating theater is an exciting endeavor in itself, many find the experience of real work in some aspect of production the path they they will follow professionally. It’s always encouraging to see how the range of experiences offered at UD Theater helps its graduates discover their life’s work.
It’s been a lot of work, but Wofford remains grateful for what he has to do and excited for what’s to come, whether it’s “Twisters” (the sequel to the 1990s blockbuster “Twister”) or something else.
“I’m going to keep rafting down this river like Winnie the Pooh, hit a fork and decide if I’m going to take the rapids route or the smooth route,” Wofford said.
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