Costume Designers and Directors, the Ultimate Collaboration
By Valli Herman
As the person with the ultimate responsibility for the look and feel of a production, the director has to make sure that every element helps tell the story—especially when it comes to wardrobe. The clothes not only have to fit the actors, but also the storytelling, a task that demands a high level of trust, expertise and creativity between directors and costume designers.
At the 16th Costume Designers Guild Awards, that special relationship will be honored by presenting acclaimed writer, producer and director Judd Apatow with the Distinguished Collaborator Award in recognition of his creative partnerships with and support of costume design. Apatow recently produced the fabulously costumed “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” and directed “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.”
Costume design has far-reaching impact on the internal operations and external perception of a production, say notable directors.
“The costume designer has to play many roles in a production—head of department, parent, therapist, confidant—more so than any other department head. Ignore their importance at your peril,” said Elliot Hegarty, a television director known for “Bad Education,” “Suburgatory” and “The Middle.”
Costume designers can have enormous impact on the internal mechanics of a production, which leads many directors to value previous working relationships, said Andy Fickman, director of the films “She’s the Man,” “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical” and “Race to Witch Mountain.”
Though Fickman is among the directors who often hire based on previous experience with a designer, he also looks for specific skills and expertise with someone who can “go into certain periods and create something fresh.”
The costume designer, along with the assistant director and production designer, is among the first hires. As a result, the designer’s input can help directors make decisions about sets, budgets and even casting.
“I like to start thinking about costume and wardrobe at the very beginning of the process,” says Hegarty. “Not only is deciding on an overall color palette very important – and this comes only from wardrobe and production design—but also thinking about what people will be wearing helps bring color and life to your characters, even when you may not have cast them yet.”
Michael Spiller, who has directed “The Mindy Project,” “Modern Family” and the famously costumed “Sex and the City,” says discussions about costume design can begin at various points in a production’s early days.
“If I am directing a pilot, these conversations begin earlier, and often take place on a conceptual level long before the role is cast. Because we are establishing the character, it is especially important to get the costumes right,” Spiller said.
After soliciting input from the writers and producers, Spiller returns to the costume designer. “At this stage, I lean heavily on the designer to bring me references, either original sketches or tear sheets representing his or her ideas, or their interpretation of what I have asked for. I would rather have an open conversation from a character standpoint, rather than limit myself to my own narrowly conceived idea or preconception, because that collaboration is where it gets exciting.”
Spiller, however, is careful to limit input about costumes to the people with specific expertise. “Because we all wear clothes, it is often an area that gets a lot of outside opinions, in a way that a more technical craft like lighting might not,” he said.
That’s why directors such as Fickman like visual aids that help sell the look – character boards, swatches, tear sheets, all of which help him “feel confident that [the costume designer] might be inspired by my vision or can convince me to perhaps change my vision.
“We are visual storytellers, whether we’re working in TV, film, theater or even the Internet,” said Fickman. “When we start getting involved with a project, we immediately think about what it’s going to look like. The more a costume designer can lead in those initial meetings with their own visuals and ideas, the better,’ he said, adding, “I would be lost without a costume designer at my side.”
Hegarty advocates giving fairly broad latitude to costume designers. “I don’t like to hamstring them from the get go by being overly prescriptive. If they’re good, they should be coming up with ideas that I could not have thought of, because it’s not my field of expertise,” Hegarty said. “In the second phase of production, when we start narrowing down looks and characters, then I start to give more feedback.” Hegarty also finds it most helpful to be presented options for different looks in a visual format.
“We work in a visual medium, so nothing beats seeing things in front of you,” Hegarty said.
Creating costumes demands a high level of precise communication to make the selection process easier.
“I put a lot of faith in the costume designers I work with. I have to,” said Rob Thomas, a writer who has produced and directed “Veronica Mars” and “Party Down.”
“It’s an area I don’t consider my area of expertise. It’s rare that I tell the costume designer what I want a character to wear. I do see every look before an actor shows up on set in wardrobe, and I occasionally veto looks…usually because I may not have explained a particular character trait well enough. I may describe a kid as a ‘punk rocker,’ but there’s a wide range within that brief description…so occasionally there is a disconnect.”
Costume designers are an essential part of the production, especially since they are often an actor’s first contact with the crew, and their choices can also influence hair, makeup and set design.
“Choosing the right designer is like casting a film,” said Hegarty. “It’s crucial to choose the right person for the project. Not only do they need to understand the material, but also the personalities involved—in front of and behind the camera.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a costume designer, Salvador Perez, on many of my projects, and it’s such a huge weight off my shoulders just knowing that costume design is something I don’t have to worry about,” said Thomas.
“If you ever want to appreciate the work of a costume designer, hire the wrong one once,” said Thomas. “It can kill your show.”