Assistant Costume Designer Irena Stepic-Rendulic
By Lindsay Lopez
Assistant Costume Designer Irena Stepic-Rendulic has enjoyed a rare seven-film stint working on Universal Pictures’ wildly popular “Fast and Furious” franchise under Costume Designer Sanja Milkovic Hays, in addition to several other action blockbusters including “Independence Day,” “xXx” and “xXx: State of the Union,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and the 2012 “Total Recall” reboot.
Not bad for a former actress with no early inkling to pursue a career in design.
After all, the Yugoslavian expat had enjoyed a successful acting career in her home country, primarily working in theater (with some film credits to her name, as well). With the onslaught of civil war in 1991, she and her D.P. husband fled and resettled in Los Angeles, where she picked up a series of odd jobs to get by. She worked as a property manager in the Hollywood Hills, and also as a production assistant cleaning set trailers, stocking towels and making coffee runs. She fully immersed herself in each gig, no task too small, large or inconsequential, she says, with no telling where each opportunity may lead her.
Shortly thereafter, she met Sanja Milkovic Hays through an acquaintance and the two became fast friends. When Hays went to work on Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi flick “Stargate” (alongside Salvador Perez and Costume Designer Joseph Porro) in 1993, the team brought Stepic-Rendulic on board as a P.A. and costume department floater.
The team had an incredible workload ahead of them, with nearly 1,500 extras to dress and 6,000 distressed costumes to produce. Stepic-Rendulic helped as needed, modeling costume samples and (swiftly) learning her hand at distressing. When the crew began shooting on location in Yuma, Ariz., she joined the Motion Pictures Costumers Local 705 and signed on for the duration of the shoot.
By far the “hardest project to date,” she says, it exposed the rookie to 18-hour work days and unforeseen challenges (like outfitting extras with size 8 and 9 feet with a dwindling supply of size 12 shoes). It pushed her to a near nervous breakdown her very first week on set, she recalls, but perseverance paid off and she realized she’d found her professional calling. She went on to work as a costumer, key costumer and shopper, before becoming an assistant costume designer with the Costume Designers Guild Local 892 in 2005. She has worked consistently alongside Hays for more than 20 years now.
The duo learned early on that designing for a contemporary-set action series like the “Fast” movies isn’t as easy as some might assume. First, the leads have to look as if they hail from a shared street-racing culture, without looking one-note or indistinguishable from one another. Furthermore, heed must be taken to each actor’s preferences and comfort.
Wardrobes also have to reflect the characters’ respective ethnic backgrounds. Known for its multicultural cast, the “Fast” films not only integrate Latino, Asian and African-American characters, but they also include international settings (from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro to Dubai and beyond). This requires extra research so that the styles look authentic and the team stays ahead of the trend curve, Stepic-Rendulic says, citing Hays’ extensive research of Japanese street fashion and the Harajuku culture for the 2006 “Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift – The Japanese Way.” Extra consideration is then given to the types of stunts performed by the actors and their stunt doubles, resulting in the production of several multiples.
Similarly, they had to accommodate a full spectrum of complex stunts in the 2002 action flick “xXx.” The film stars actor Vin Diesel as character Xander Cage, a master extreme sports athlete who’s recruited by the government for a special mission. Expert stunt doubles were brought in for an array of extreme sports, including snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX riding, motorcycling and parachuting, she says. The team had to outfit Diesel and his stunt doubles, producing several multiples to hold up against the wear and tear of all the action stunts.
Although each project comes with its own set of unique challenges, she is a firm believer that her background as an actress has been incredibly helpful on each and every one. It helps her to go “inside out as a character,” tapping into his or her psyche. Her small-scale focus on the character complements Hays’ knack for seeing the overall big picture, though they are both adamant about consulting actors directly.
“It’s important to go to the actor and get that point of view, that perspective, on anything—from a contemporary piece to the most elaborate, futuristic costume, or period, as well—because the actor may have a perspective on it that is fresh and helpful to you, big time,” she says.
Aside from “Stargate,” action-meets-period projects like the 2008 “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and the pilot for FOX’s freshman series “Sleepy Hollow” have been the most challenging, because you not only have to design for the action, but everything also has to be made to order. Furthermore, a television project such as “Sleepy Hollow” has to be turned around in an incredibly short time span, and she prefers the comparatively “luxurious” prep time and budget specific to film projects.
Despite being constantly stretched by each successive project and its own unique challenges, Stepic-Rendulic says she adores her position as an assistant.
“I am ambitious in a way, but within my position as an assistant costume designer. I try to do it better every time,” she says. “I don’t know that assistants always move from being an assistant costume designer to becoming a costume designer, but I like where I am. I think I can contribute more this way, than if I had more [responsibilities].”
For aspiring assistants, she advises, do more than what’s asked of you, bring extra options, and always give your input. “It may be ‘wrong,’ but bring it to the table,” she says.
And above all else, she says, it’s important to have fun.
“I learned a long time ago, if you don’t make your job fun, it’s never going to be interesting,” she says with a smile. “And that’s whether you’re at the office, or doing the most creative work that you do.”