The Designs of Santo Loquasto
If Arnold Wengrow ruled the world, production designers would form a triumvirate with directors and cinematographers in receiving proper credit for a film’s look. Doing his part to convince the masses, the UNC Asheville Professor Emeritus of Drama makes a compelling argument to that effect with his new book The Designs of Santo Loquasto, an in-depth look at the man responsible for helping Woody Allen realize his visual dreams on nearly 30 features.
Wengrow will read from and discuss the book on Thursday, April 6, at 4 p.m. at UNCA’s Karpen Hall in the Laurel Forum – the same campus where he founded UNCA’s drama program in 1970 and chaired it for almost 25 years. It’s also where he developed a research specialty in American scene design history, which led to books on designers Robert Redington Sharpe and Michael Annals.
In 1996, Wengrow began writing for Theater Design & Technology, the journal by the U.S Institute for Theater Technology (USITT) – an association of designers, design professionals, technicians and people who teach design. A decade ago, USITT started an annual series documenting the work of America’s best contemporary theater designers, typically established artists in the fullness of their careers. Asked if he would like to contribute to the series, Wengrow immediately agreed and chose Loquasto, whom Wengrow had interviewed while writing about Annals, Loquasto’s beloved teacher. In addition to his admiration for Loquasto’s work, however, Wengrow had another reason for selecting him.
“I knew that Santo designed for Woody Allen, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to do a book about somebody who knows Woody Allen and maybe I can get to meet Woody Allen,’” Wengrow said.
Though Loquasto had been profiled numerous times by many different writers, the modest man found the idea of an entire book dedicated to his work a daunting proposition. He also worried about his ability to remember specific details scattered throughout his 50-plus year career – which also includes credits on Big and Desperately Seeking Susan – but quickly revealed himself to be a wealth of knowledge.
“He’s very literate and he’s very self-aware. I’m very lucky in that respect, that he was able to articulate extremely well, not only his recollections of his designs and be able to describe his designs, but...his philosophy of design and how he goes about what he’s doing and why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Wengrow said.
“Now, you would think that a lot of designers at that level would be able to do that, but I can tell you, I talked to a number of designers who had worked with Santo – because he mostly designs scenery, but occasionally designs costumes, so sometimes he’s working in collaboration with a costume designer and then occasionally he designs costumes and he’s working in collaboration with another scene designer – and I would talk to those people and I would realize that they were very visual people and they often couldn’t explain as well as Santo what they were doing.”
Wengrow made many trips to New York to interview Loquasto, focusing on his most important works from the more than 400 projects that comprise his career. He also spoke with art directors, location scouts and others who’d worked with his subject, further providing the theatrically-minded author insight into the mechanics of filmmaking. He then revisited the bulk of Allen’s filmography and, fortified with Loquasto’s insider information, was able to notice a certain color palette the collaborators often employ and the ways the art director sets up interiors so his director can move his camera around and satisfy his fondness for long takes.
Armed with that new skill set, Wengrow was ready to interview Allen, though he was shy about asking his friend for access. Loquasto is well aware of the filmmaker’s halo effect and frequently has conversations turn to questions about the cinematic legend – but without being prompted by Wengrow, he insisted that the author talk with Allen for the book. In order to properly prepare himself for the dialog, Wengrow postponed the interview until deep into the project’s second of three total years, but when he announced his readiness, Loquasto broke the news that Allen would be happy to speak with him over the phone, but didn’t want to meet in person.
“I must have looked terribly crestfallen because Santo said, ‘I know you’re disappointed.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, it would have been fun to walk in and sit down with Woody Allen,’ but the telephone interview turned out very, very well,” Wengrow said.
Intimidated by what to ask a screen legend who’s surely been asked every question imaginable, Wengrow found confidence in focusing on the largely unexplored topic of Allen’s work with Loquasto. Like Allen, Loquasto is passionate about New York and the designer has a near unparalleled repertoire of locations in his head that he can then utilize on Allen’s projects.
“One of the things that apparently makes [the partnership] happen is…Woody likes to go home at night. That’s why he likes to make movies in New York. He comes to work in the morning at 8 o’clock and he wants to be through by 6 o’clock and he wants to go home and be with his wife and kids and go play his clarinet at the jazz club or whatever it is he does. He doesn’t want to be out of town – he wants to be in his own bed in his own apartment,” Wengrow said.
“So, I think what he’s come to over the years with Santo is he doesn’t have to do a lot of explaining. They know each other’s minds so well that he knows that Santo is going to give him what he wants and Santo knows what Woody wants, so he’s going to give it to him.”
Asked if that rapport was instant, Allen said it was “a little hunt and peck at first” with Loquasto getting used to Allen, who made it clear what he wanted from his production designer. Ever since that simpatico work relationship was established, Allen has been deeply loyal to Loquasto, to the extent that Loquasto was one of only three members of the filmmaker’s longtime production team not cut in 1998, part of an overall budget reduction that led to Allen making less expensive films in Europe. Though Loquasto did not join him for the London-set Match Point (2005), nor the seven foreign productions that have since followed, they reunited for Allen’s New York return, Whatever Works (2009), and his subsequent domestic shoots.
Wengrow will expand on these anecdotes and share others in Thursday’s presentation, and three weeks later will link up with Loquasto for a signing at New York’s Drama Book Shop. Whether Allen will show up is uncertain, though Wengrow said the people in the filmmaker’s office were very interested in the event and all have been invited.
[Cover image: Woody Allen's Radio Days, sketch by production designer Santo Loquasto. (Photograph by John Quilty, courtesy of Santo Loquasto.)]