The Joy of Pilot Season
By Anna Wyckoff, June 10, 2011
A television pilot is the classic proving ground for a new series. It is a way for a network to verify if a concept can make the leap from page to screen. In this context, costume designing a pilot is often a trial by fire.
The challenge is akin to designing a mini-feature in a highly compressed time frame, with the added charge that the end product may not get picked up as a series, or even seen. The tension is heightened by the converging opinions of writers, producers, directors, actors, studios, networks and even at times audiences, who respond instantaneously and vocally to leaked scenes or images. There is a duality: not only does an entire world need to be created and supported by the vision which will sustain it for the long term—for a season or for decades—but also the concept has to sell immediately.
To understand the nuances of negotiating this treacherous landscape, we spoke to several guild members who find creativity in the chaos.
Robert Blackman is a veteran Costume Designer who is a multiple Emmy nominee, and three-time winner. He has designed 11 pilots, most recently “Wonder Woman,” written by David E. Kelley.
The project has created quite a furor. When Warner Bros. initially approached Blackman, the pilot was shrouded in secrecy. Blackman began by combing Wonder Woman encyclopedias, researching how her costume developed through the decades. He also considered her mystique, examining what has kept fans enthralled with the heroine since the 1940s. Years of designing the “Star Trek” series prepared Blackman for working with classic imagery in which the public is deeply emotionally invested. It also gave him the unparalleled background in specialty costume fabrication he would need, since the timeframe from the beginning of prep to the first day of shooting was four weeks.
Christian Cordella illustrated Blackman’s designs, which were quickly approved by David E. Kelley and DC Comics. Then, Blackman went to Quantum Creation FX for construction. He loves exploring new technology, and notes that one can only really experiment while on the job. Blackman takes great delight in explaining the subtleties of the metal work on the Wonder Woman costumes, which feature a new technique where rubber is coated with chrome paint. He also muses, “With a different deadline I might have sub-contracted the soft goods… but I kept it under one roof because I needed to, and I would recommend them highly.”
The statuesque Adrianne Palicki was cast as Wonder Woman, and Blackman found her to be a willing conspirator. “…She let me have my way with her. We were able to corset her tightly, and do everything we needed, in order to make iconic garments.”
But nothing prepared Blackman for the tumult that accompanied the first photograph published in Entertainment Weekly. “I was vilified and vindicated on an hourly basis,” he says, “There was outrage over everything from the fact that she was wearing pants to the boot color.” Unfortunately, audiences formulated opinions around one garment which was not completely representative of Blackman’s total vision. Eventually, Blackman stopped reading news sources, knowing what no one else knew: that a modernized version of the familiar costume does make a key appearance in the pilot. Blackman found David E. Kelly’s take on Wonder Woman both “humanizing and very fully developed” and as a result, the traditional garment was not Wonder Woman’s only look, because Blackman wanted to demonstrate the arc of her character through her costumes.
Acknowledging that he did push the envelope in some ways, Blackman is confident that he did what the design problem required. “In retrospect, there’s nothing that doesn’t fit into the overall stylistic approach that we started with. I have a really good sense of successful completion for myself… I did what I wanted to do, even though it was under the stewardship of many other people.”
The Playboy Club
Costume Designer Isis Mussenden did not seek to merely recreate the early 60s in “The Playboy Club,” but rather she chose to revitalize the fantasy of it, knowing fully that everyone’s memory is different. Her approach was to look back, while moving forward, scrapping the dumpy and the passé, focusing on what remains stylistically captivating today.
The narrative travels from the Playboy Club in Chicago to the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles and takes place in the 1960s. “It’s a little bit of a cross between ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Sex in the City,’ because our story is about the five girls, the bunnies, not about Hugh Hefner and his enterprise,” asserts Mussenden. “The bunnies are fascinating—they were mothers, girlfriends, students, they went on to become housewives, as well as doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs… people like Lauren Hutton, Susan Sullivan and Cheryl Ladd.”
The inherent challenge in costuming five lead women was intensified because the rules of the Playboy Club stipulate all traces of individuality be removed—from earrings, rings and jewelry to last names. Mussenden used her only remaining tool—color—to distinguish between the characters. Utilizing different shades to evoke different emotions, she tried to imbue one girl with more maturity, one with more of a country feel, and one with a more urban quality, as the script dictated.
Manufacturing the look required a multi-faceted approach. “We had to build all of the bunny suits from head to toe, including collars, cuffs, and bow ties. Shoes were also dyed to match, and everything had to be fit and refit,” says Mussenden. Additionally, there were the 20 extra bunnies, clubgoers in cocktail clothes, street scenes in Chicago and parties at the mansion. Mussenden reflects, “It felt like we prepped a feature in four weeks, but then again, we never stopping prepping until the last day of shooting.”
Spearheaded by Allen Taylor, the director of “Boardwalk Empire,” there was a strong synergy between all the creative teams from production design and cinematography to hair, makeup and costume. Mussenden acknowledges, “It’s rare to get a whole group of people with the same sensibility, and suddenly a picture is complete. The young girls thought the look was so cool they didn’t want to change their hair and make-up after work, they would put on their own clothes and head out.”
Mussenden has designed numerous films including the Narnia series and three pilots. She found the greatest difficulties with “The Playboy Club” to be the late casting coupled with the abbreviated prep time. However, the only aspect of her design process she modified was the organization of her research. “Ultimately, ‘The Playboy Club’ was a costume designer’s dream… the costumes are progressive and sexy, and the concept is fresh, which gave me plenty of artistic license.”
“Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea”
With 25 years of sitcoms under her belt, Costume Designer Bonnie Nipar loves pilots and has designed 19. She delights in what many designers dread. “I find it exhilarating—I really do!” Nipar exclaims, “While the time frame seems to get shorter every year, it’s something that really excites me because of the creative process.”
The concept behind her latest venture, “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea,” uses comic Chelsea Handler’s autobiography and her sense of humor as a point of departure. “The script is smartly written, it’s cutting edge humor with a warmth to the characters and a comedic banter that isn’t spiteful or mean—it’s fun,” says Nipar.
The two main characters Chelsea and her best friend Ivory, played by Laura Prepon and Natalie Morales, respectively, live together with a third roommate. They are childhood friends who, despite divergent career paths, remain close-knit. Ivory is a marketing agent and wears a conservative suited look typical of that world, while Chelsea works at a successful bar and has a more hip, casual style. While Nipar enjoys fashion, she only uses it in a specific manner to illustrate personality.
“I like to meet my characters,” says Nipar, “I like to see their body language and hear a table read before I shop. Obviously, I can’t wait that long, but I find that’s what really helps me hone in on them.” Of utmost importance to her is creating a character with real vitality. When costuming Dee Dee, portrayed by Laura Lapkus, who is the third in the trio of leads, Nipar originally went quirky. But after observing Lapkus, who is tall and slender, playing the character rather large, Nipar adjusted her original concept in order to prevent Dee Dee from becoming cartoonish.
Nipar considers the writers, Julie Larson and Dottie Dartland-Zicklin, friends who trust and appreciate her sense of style. Their rapport created a dynamic in which nuances could be freely discussed and fleshed out. “Everyone who reads the script probably sees the character differently, and part of your job is to stay connected with the creators who write it… I like to build a back story so I know who they are and where they’re going. I do that through conversations with the creators like, “Where did this girl grow up? How did she come in the picture? Where did she live? What kind of economic status does she have?” Nipar explains that eventually she starts to feel the characters, know them, like them, and most importantly, believe in them.
After years of designing the television show “Entourage” and feature films, “Charlie’s Angels” was Costume Designer Amy Westcott’s first pilot. With the exception of the three crime fighting, female detectives working at an agency, the new show doesn’t parallel its famous predecessors. Westcott doesn’t call it a remake, but rather “a whole new take.”
When she originally read the script, Westcott thought, “This is crazy! It was a scary prospect to do so much in such a short amount of time. The onus was on them looking good, it was so difficult that it scared me.” One of the main obstacles was that 70 percent of the costumes needed to be doubled for stunts which the actors performed themselves. But the challenges are also exactly what appealed to her.
Westcott began by poring over the script and making boards to represent the main characters. After the dialogue was initiated with the producers and director, she refined her concepts into sketches for individual costumes, then met with the actors. Communication is key for Westcott and she makes an effort to keep everyone involved and in the loop. “Many people want to steamroll their ideas through… I don’t think it is right to push around an actor, you have to be on the same team. Everyone wants to look great, and you have to make them feel good because that’s how they do their job well.”
Set in Miami, the show’s three leads come from entirely different backgrounds, from the police force to Park Avenue. Their style and personalities are disparate but they overlap in the way friends tend to mirror each other. The look was so fashion focused that it attracted the eager lens of the tabloids. Westcott jokes, “The paparazzi got their photographs before I even got to set.”
When asked if she would consider designing another pilot, Westcott responds, “I really did enjoy it, but I also think that it had a lot to do with who I was working with,” she adds with a chuckle, “I don’t know if they are all this way.” Westcott loves her film work but wants to keep an open mind for any project that can capture her imagination.
The Wedding Band
“It’s like exercise,” says Costume Designer Salvador Perez, “You have to use your design muscles. Pilots are hard work, they are manic, everyone has an opinion, but you have to hone your skills as a designer and do at least one pilot a year.” “The Wedding Band” is Perez’s 10th pilot. In a rare moment of synchronicity, Perez was intrigued by the idea of a show about weddings, just as director Bryan Gordon contacted him.
Having previously worked together on “Party Down,” Gordon trusted Perez with creating big events within a budget in a short timeframe. Having the luxury of history with the director led to a verbal shorthand which saved time. However, Perez always finds the dynamic of working with new producers fascinating as both sides try to understand each other’s vernacular.
The story takes place in Seattle, Washington, and follows a wedding cover band. Perez wanted to give the struggling band a look that would be appropriate and adaptable, so he decided on black suits. Fit played a crucial role in conveying the differences of character. Brian Austin Green’s rebellious tendencies were evident in his rumpled clothes, lack of belt, and careless attitude about alterations, while Peter Cambor was an executive by day, so his garments fit well. “I got to have fun with their footwear,” adds Perez, “While Brian Austin Green wore a Converse high top, Peter Cambor wore black dress shoes, Harold Perrineau sported 80s rocker boots, and Derek Miller was boyish so he had skater shoes on. You would know who they are just by looking at their feet” Once the band hit it big, Perez gave them an entirely different style.
Perez worked closely with the production designer to distinguish between events through a strong color story. For example, he dressed the Irish wedding in green, while red and white gingham dominated the country wedding. The princess wedding was pink and lavender, and the Bar Mitzvah was clad in blue. Perez also played with subtle touches like matching the band’s accessories to coordinate with each event and didn’t hesitate to build costumes when necessary.
When asked why he relishes designing pilots, Perez explains, “As a Costume Designer, it is your job is develop the character. The writers have written it. The actors, director and producers have an idea, but as the Costume Designer, your responsibility is make it a reality.” It is the ownership of the creation of the physical character which excites Perez, in the end.
In the wake of the waning maelstrom, with wardrobe boxes packed away and the progression of images set, crews return home, and networks made their final decisions.
Of our featured pilots, “The Playboy Club,” “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Wedding Band” were picked up. Despite the tremendous skill and thought that accompanied its inception, “Wonder Woman” was not.
A new cast of characters is about to enter the American subconscious and melt into the fabric of our culture. We will invite them into our homes and they will become part of our lives. Some will last a season, and some will enter television mythology and become unforgettable.