Star Setting

EXCLUSIVE: Oscars designer Jason Sherwood spills his secrets

Jason Sherwood. Photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

We’ve visited government buildings with less security than that of the Dolby Theatre, the Los Angeles mega-complex that plays home to the Academy Awards each year. In order to enter, we have to go through background checks with government IDs, get issued an Academy idea, scan it as we move from area to area, and always have an escort present when we do so.

What we do for an interview! Amid all the furor backstage of the Dolby, surrounded by lights, cameras and various other bits of broadcast equipment, we meet Jason Sherwood. At only 30, he’s already taken home an Emmy for the set design of Rent: Live, a Drama Desk nomination, and designed sets for major artist tours like that of the Spice Girls and Sam Smith. Strikingly handsome, dressed in a powder blue dress shirt and body miked from a previous interview, the out-gay designer invites us to sit next to him on a gold fainting couch.

“Where are you from originally?” he asks before we launch into our questions. We have much to discuss: working in showbiz, his inspiration, and the intimidation he faces as he preps for Hollywood’s biggest night. The Academy Awards air live on ABC Sunday February 9

So how are you feeling going into the Oscars this weekend?

I’m so excited. We’re just a couple days out from the show. We’re in rehearsal. We’ve loaded the set in. We have a dozen cameras in there moving around, seeing what everything looks like. We’re staging, we’re blocking. We’ve invited the musical artists to come in this week. We have some dress rehearsals, and then we do the show live on television. It’s very fast, but the whole process has been very fast. I was only hired in late October, so it’s been quick progress.

Do you know, did you do a certain job that helped you land the gig?

I designed the set for Rent: Live on Fox last year. The casting director for that show, Bernie Telsey, gave my name to some folks at the Academy as well as the producers. They spoke to a bunch of people. We had a great conversation and they decided I’d be perfect. So I owe Bernie.

And you won an Emmy for Rent: Live.

I did, thank you.

I was quite excited to do this interview because I don’t get a chance to chat with many strictly visual artists. Where do you get your inspiration? What’s your process?

Well, I’ll talk about this one specifically. When I first talked to our producers about the show, they said they were really looking to subvert and reinvent what the show typically looks like. For me, that was about breaking down the typical elements that hold the show in the typical sense. Specifically, the show usually has a frame around it. There’s a proscenium with the identifying characteristic of the year. It always has a bold aesthetic, a forward visual thought.

Sure.

For me, I wondered what it would be like if we totally obliterated that element and made something that felt very sculptural and very environmental in a certain sense. The starting point for a show is usually understanding the context. In this case, I thought a lot about the movies of the year. I watch a lot of movies, I love going to the movies. Every year I celebrate the Oscars and watch with friends. So I’m familiar with the format.

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This year it felt like you couldn’t get away from the conversation of films like Parasite. Films like Joker. Greta [Gerwig]’s reimagining of Little Women. The landscape of films felt like a cultural melting pot. You had musical artists as icons. You have actors as fashion icons. You have the class divide being explored and picked apart. You have the mental health crisis in America being highlighted. It felt like the human experience was on display in a really sharp, diverse kind of way. And the films came from everywhere, so when it came time to imagine a holding space for all of that would be, it became about taking the 16×9 movie frame rectangle and creating something that would feel more like the swirling cultural melting pot. So I began to develop this sort of cyclone shape and imagine movie images going through it. Sometimes it feels like a film reel, sometimes it feels like images on the wind, like it’s turning around. To me, it evoked the landscape of the movies which felt more complex than a rectangle and a movie screen.

Jason’s concept art for the Oscars set

So how do you begin to manifest that design? Does that being with sketching?

Totally. I familiarize myself with the venue of where we’re going to do the show. That’s a big part of what the parameters are going to be. I spend a lot of time just writing down thoughts about it. My notebook looks like your notebook; lots of words. When I was talking about what I wanted to do, I was making this sort of surrounding motion…

[He hugs the air in front of him]

Then I start drawing. I sketch things and do color renderings that express that idea. I create 3D models of the floor, sort of what the shapes might be. We create animations showing how those shapes will move, or how we might light video through them. Then when we get excited about what those ideas are, we move those ideas to fabrication. It’s the same way you build a house: drafting, blueprints, samples, we pick finishes and work with painters. The whole thing happens over a period of months.

So how do you coordinate with the Academy? Do they say yes or no to certain elements?

In the case of the Oscars, the Academy empowers the producers of the show that year, in this case, Stephanie Allain and Lynette Howell-Taylor. They work with me, our director Glen Weiss, our other producers and the rest of our core creative team. We build a show we’re really excited about with the Academy and make sure everyone is on the same page about what that vision is. Then we move forward. It’s really about how the Academy empowers the producers.

What do you do when you get stuck?

Generally, I put my pencil down and go do something else for a while. I design 20-40 projects a year, so at a given time I have plenty of things on desk that need thinking about. When I get stuck, I let it sit for a little bit and then I work on something else. Then I find myself drawn back to it.

I wish I had that problem. Looking at some of your other designs, to The Wiz, to Sam Smith’s tour, to the Spice Girls tour: all of them have their own personality attuned to the subject. In the case of The Wiz specifically, I was impressed by the abstract design of it, and the versatility. It could easily become something else. From a practical standpoint, how do you go about designing something like that?

I think a lot of that comes with experience. The reason I like live entertainment is twofold. One is that there are a lot of parameters. When you do a show in the theatre, there is a certain amount of space. There is a certain footprint. You have to make it happen in front of the audience without post-production. No green screen. No CGI. No touching up. You do it live. The immediacy and the parameters around it I really respond to. If someone says “You have this much time, you have this budget,” immediately I can start thinking within that. You get better at learning how to maximize resources once you’re into it.

Sure.

The other thing that really appeals to me about live things is the ephemerality. Even something like the Oscars which is very available to a certain extent, after Sunday this whole room disappears and is gone. You can only see it really until Sunday night. The ephemeral nature of that is something that is attractive to me. You can see a show like Wicked that has run on Broadway over a decade, but it’s different every night. The cast changes, nuances change. You can never go back to the first time you saw something like that. That ephemeral nature is the most valuable commodity.

Did you grow up watching the Oscars?

Totally. We were big movie buffs in my family. We would do Friday night movie night. Even when I wasn’t allowed to watch all the movies of the year because they were above my emotional pay grade at the age of 10, we would watch the Oscars. I always thought it was so glamorous and incredible. The thing that was the most interesting was that you’d fall in love with Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and then there was Harrison Ford as Harrison Ford in real life at the Oscars. I used to think, as a kid of five or six years old, that they were people on the box doing it just for me. The narcissism was on high alert. I was blown away by the fact that these were real people being honored as real people for playing characters that you love. The tension of that farce is fascinating.

That’s also astute. After all, it is a show. Everyone in that audience is aware that the cameras are on. Do you have a specific memory from a show that stays with you?

I remember the first year Swarovski collaborated on the show. I think David Rockwell, who is an incredible designer, designed the Dolby as well as the set. And the whole proscenium frame was crystals. It is an iconic visual, synonymous with the Oscars. It’s probably the most famous visual that exists. I remember that one particularly. I was also obsessed with movie trivia. I was born the year Kathy Bates won Best Actress for Misery, which is one of my favorite movies. I love the movies.

I love Kathy Bates.

Oh me too. The fact that she’s nominated this year—I can’t handle it.

Hopefully, you’ll get to meet her.

Hopefully. She’s amazing. Her favorite swear word is “c*cksucker.” Did you know that?

No, but that makes me like her more.

She said it on Inside the Actors Studio. I guess James Lipton asks people. I just love her.

Her and Liza Minnelli.

Really?

Liza’s is “motherf*cker c*cksucker.”

Well Liza and I have that in common. Here’s a thing I haven’t really talked about:

Please.

The design for the show has a huge outer swirl and then an inner spiral. They’re the two focal pieces. But for three months, instead of calling them outer and inner spiral, inside the art department, we call them Judy and Liza.

Oh my gosh.

[Laughter]

We needed a name for the big one and for the small one. It’s like mother and daughter, so Judy & Liza.

That’s amazing.

I didn’t think I’d talk about that in interviews, because it felt kind of disrespectful to name a piece of scenery after an icon. And Renee Zellweger is nominated for playing Judy. But I love them so much, and our art department loves them so much, and our art department is so gay that we couldn’t help it.

Working in showbiz has its price. Work can be far between, and the unusual income, hours and creative process can have an effect on your personal life. How do you cope?

When I was in undergraduate school at NYU, an incredible costume designer named Greg Barnes, who designed Kinky Boots on Broadway and tons of other shows. He’s a multiple Tony winner. Greg said “If you really love this, if you’re going to do it professionally, you’re going to miss birthdays. You’re going to miss weddings. You’re going to lose friends. People aren’t going to understand.” And I think I’ve experienced that even in my short career. The thing I always respond to, that I’ve always responded to in my work, is the people I get to work with. Every show I meet anywhere from five to 50 new people. And within those people there are new possible connections. It makes my world very big. Every city I go to, there is someone that I know, that I can have dinner with, that I can connect with. Someone to have a perfect memory with.

Name one.

I’ve stood in Wembley Stadium waiting for the Spice Girls to go on stage, waiting for 90,000 people to walk in. I’ve waited with my eight best friends, having taken them to the show. Those memories are priceless in a sense. The access that this job has provided me with, the unique experiences, the incredible experiences. I think there is an incredible amount of pressure as an artist to find the next thing. But the thing that has always motivated me more than the next big gig or any financial scenario is to make things with people I respect.

Yeah?

To be around people I respect, to learn from them. That’s been the motivating factor. It’s made my life rich so far. If I wish anything for the future, its for that to continue.

Wonderful. So what is next for you?

I leave here Monday morning to go back to New York to do an off-Broadway play. I’ll tech that for two weeks; it’s a world premiere. Then I have a period where I don’t have to be in rehearsal for anything. Which is very exciting. I can draw, think and work on some music projects coming down the pike. I’m excited. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a period where I’m not in rehearsal. Rehearsal is 12-20 hour days, draining, designing a period of a month and a half or so. I’m looking forward to it.

What’s your dream project?

I’ve always wanted to do a show on Broadway. I would love to do that.

A specific title?

I want to do a new, original musical on Broadway that no one has ever seen before. So call me!

Here’s hoping.

The Academy Awards air live on ABC Sunday February 9