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Scenic Designer Bryan Wofford, BA ’04, on ‘Building’ and Enjoying a Hollywood Career

By Chris Hazell

In the middle of Oklahoma, Bryan Wofford, BA ’04, is turning a nondescript drive-in burger joint 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 last four months.

“I tell everyone I’m a scenic designer or scenographer, but I’m just a scenic painter,” Wofford said. “My job is to prep a set or location for a theatrical production, TV show or film. This might mean aging the set — making it look older and appropriate to a certain time period — painting it, adding wallpaper and decals. For instance, we might be shooting a movie with a post office built in the 1970s, but the film takes place in the 1930s. We'll go in and paint the brick a different color and more appropriate to that period or make it look dirtier if we’re filming a gangster movie, for instance.”

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 many other films, television shows and theatrical productions. He also works as an art director, a role that entails designing the entire creative vision for a set or shot and managing various departments to bring that vision to fruition. He has been an art director for Fan Controlled Football, several independent films and countless theatrical productions put on by the University of Texas at Dallas and other organizations.

In other words, he keeps very busy.

“Sometimes it can be hell collaborating with others on the set, and other times it’s just fun. It can be a lot of work, but I enjoy it. I’ve always loved being part of the creative process,” Wofford shared.

Wofford’s journey to working with Waititi in Oklahoma has been winding and eventful. He came to the University of Dallas in 1986 as a theater major interested in acting. One day, while waiting for rehearsal to begin, he was asked to help paint a set.

“I knew how to paint and always had an artistic side, so I just went for it. I liked it, and I remember thinking, ‘This is a lot better than memorizing lines,’” Wofford said.

After a couple of years, he dropped out of UD and began working as assistant technical director of Dallas Theater Center. Smaller theaters all over the city asked him to help design, paint and build sets. While he enjoyed the work itself, it came at a heavy cost.

“It was bloody awful. I was making $200 a week working 14- or 16-hour days, six days a week. My wife would drop me off on Monday morning and pick me up Wednesday night since I worked so much that I slept there. I kept doing it because I liked being a part of the work and, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I could do anything else,” Wofford said.

He eventually took a job as a scenic designer for the Repertory Theatre in Plano, where he continued to design, paint and “set dec” their productions. The hours were still brutal, and it was around 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 have her help hold my paint brushes and hammer, and when she got old enough, she would help me paint.”

Eventually, Wofford’s wife suggested he return to UD to finish his degree. He earned his bachelor’s degree in drama in 2004 and then began a three-year master’s program at Southern Methodist University.

“After earning my degrees, the doors blew right open for my career. I started doing more work in film and television, where I could make more in a day than I could in a whole week working for a theater,” Wofford said.

While the paycheck has certainly increased since he started in this business, the time commitment can still be rough. For Killers of the Flower Moon, he arrived on set in January of 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 enjoy time with his wife or work on other creative projects that don’t require him to be on location.

When asked for his advice for those interested in a similar career path, he stressed the importance of being a continual learner.

“Keep practicing whatever it is that you're doing and keep learning. You may be a great painter, but don’t stop there. Learn metalwork or carpentry. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself, ever,” Wofford said. “And when you get a job, do it to the best of your ability without griping. Just be grateful and do a good job.”

Another major piece of advice he gave is to have an active presence online.

“One thing that launched my career from making $1,800 a month to grown-up money was having a website. I started my website in 1998 and never stopped updating it with my work. It eventually led to a call from the company Freeman because the guy there had been following my website for about nine months and noticed that I was getting better and better and had a good work ethic.”

Pat Kelley, UD professor emeritus of drama, recalls Wofford fondly.

“My memories of Bryan Wofford from both his residencies at UD are happy ones. He was an enthusiastic and talented theater man in all departments,” Wofford said. “While for most students theater-making is an exciting endeavor on its own, many of them find in the experience of doing actual work in one or another aspect of production the path that they will follow professionally. It is always encouraging to see how the range of experience offered at UD theater helps its graduates to discover their life work.”

It’s been a lot of work, but Wofford remains grateful for what he gets to do and excited about what’s around the corner, whether “Twisters” (the sequel to the 1990s blockbuster “Twister”) or something else.

“I’ll just keep going down this river on a raft like Winnie the Pooh, reaching a fork and deciding if I'm going to take the path with rapids or the smooth one,” Wofford said.

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