Spotlight On: Betsy Heimann
By Valli Herman
Most Costume Designers will tell you that the key to success is a strong visual memory. Betsy Heimann would agree, but the Chicago-born Costume Designer would add another vital skill: listening.
Heimann, who has designed such iconic films as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Get Shorty” and “Almost Famous,” has launched fashion trends with the hippie-chic looks of “Almost Famous,” and inspired a new look for tough-guy criminals–the black suits and skinny ties of “Reservoir Dogs.” Most important, she has learned to follow her instincts when she hears a good idea or sees a distinctive look. But it’s the listening that launched her onto the costume design path. She listened when a famed Costume Designer suggested she enter the same field.
As a young woman, Heimann was designing one-of-a-kind garments using old patchwork quilts sourced from a rag picker on Chicago’s Lincoln Avenue. For a film shooting in the city, shoppers for the late Costume Designer Theoni Aldredge purchased a patchwork jacket to use in the movie.
“She said to her people, ‘Who made this? This is very interesting.’ The next thing I knew, they called me in and invited me to the set,” Heimann said. “That’s when she suggested this career to me.”
Without Heimann’s prompting, the film’s costume supervisor, Margo Baxley, laid out the steps for a costume design career plan.
“But once she said it, and I thought about it, I realized I had been preparing for it probably my whole life,” Heimann said.
Never mind that four generations of her family had been involved in sewing and tailoring, or that one day, seemingly out of the blue, a preteen Heimann asked her mother for a sewing machine. Heimann realized she had a distinct gift — an exceptionally strong and precise visual memory.
She can describe the contrast of her father’s burgundy silk bathrobe against a glass of orange juice or the gold trim on her mother’s cocktail dress. Her father, who owned a tailoring business, spotted her talent even earlier.
“My dad was a bespoke guy. His shirts came from Charvet in Paris,” Heimann said. “I would sit with him as a little girl and Dad would come with the little shirt swatches and all the ties, and he’d ask, ‘Which tie and which shirt?’ We would actually select them together. It’s in my genes, somehow.”
Throughout her early career, she worked her way up in the industry as a seamstress, working with J&M Costumers in North Hollywood and eventually assisting Costume Designer Luster Bayless on “Tom Horn,” where she connected with producer Fred Weintraub.
She joined Weintraub’s crew on “High Road to China” for what was to be a two-week assignment. The job grew to five months and found Heimann organizing costumes in Yugoslavia and learning from Italian Costume Designer Franco Antonelli.
“I remember drawing with a stick in the sand to communicate with the Yugoslavians,” she said. From that film, she earned her first Costume Designer credit on a major movie , returned from overseas with a husband and moved to London, where she immersed in the city’s vast costume resources.
“I’m very good with last minute and unexpected. I read a line from ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’ by Ken Kesey. ‘Unexpected travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god.’ I sort of held onto that, in terms of the unexpected. Sometimes the unexpected is the expected,” she said.
One wouldn’t expect that it’s Heimann who brought Pee-wee Herman to a larger audience. Yet an actors’ strike early in her career forced her to get creative about finding work.
“I’m a creative person and I’ve always needed a way to express myself creatively. If I’m not working as a Costume Designer, I’m doing something,” she said, including producing the original Pee-wee Herman show.
“I went with a friend to the Groundlings and saw Paul Ruebens do 10 minutes of Pee-wee Herman–and I saw dollar signs,” she said. She was quickly introduced to the comedian and learned he had developed a television show but had no backers. Heimann went into action, securing funding, a crew, building sets and functioning as a producer. She gathered her moxie and strolled into The Roxy to meet with Lou Adler, the famous Sunset Strip club’s owner.
Adler initially turned her down, but she persisted until he gave her show a Tuesday night slot. Pee-wee’s cult following grew, then HBO bought the show and developed “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” the adult-oriented TV movie that led to the children’s show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
“And I still get a check in the mail,” said Heimann. Her sideline careers have also included jewelry designer and even bra designer.
“I had a period where I was out of work and I made a bra for myself,” she said.
In a collaboration with lingerie company Cosabella, Heimann sells her Betsy Bra, a combined push-up bra and lace-sleeved crop top that’s available for $140 to $160 at Nordstrom, Neiman-Marcus and online retailers such as Zappos.
“We all get ideas, but we can’t follow them all,’’ she said. The designer discussed her approach in “Creative Spark: Betsy Heimann,” an Academy Originals short about her creative process–which she described as “having strong feelings and intuition about what’s right and letting those things that are right find their place.” She described her role as a Costume Designer as “helping the character on his journey through the film.”
Her process also allows for enlightened collaboration, according to those who have worked with her.
Costume Designer Ann Foley was Heimann’s assistant designer on “The A-Team,” a military movie starring Liam Neeson. Foley again assisted on Marvel’s ABC series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“She is great with the cast,” said Foley. “She knows how to talk to them. She doesn’t try to force ideas down their throat, but collaborates with them to create the character,” said Foley, who calls Heimann and generous mentor–one who helped Foley move up to Costume Designer on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of designers, so I get to see how all of them work, and that has made me the designer that I am today,” said Foley. “Betsy is great because she knows what is right for the character and what she wants. She makes decisions really quickly.”
Heimann constantly feeds her own creativity, whether she’s launching a new business or playing jigs and reels on her violin. Music is just part of the process of designing, though.
“If you want career advice from me, it’s to listen. You hear things all day long. But do we listen?” Heimann said. “I hear things and they resonate with me. I pay attention. What if I hadn’t listened to Theoni?”