Spotlight On: Costume Designer Tom Broecker
By Valli Herman
If you ever laughed at a ridiculously hilarious costume on “Saturday Night Live,” then you have Tom Broecker to thank.
The prolific costume designer may hold a record for producing the most costumes for live television. Of the 26 costume designer credits IMDB.com lists for Broecker, he tallied 302 episodes for “Saturday Night Live,” beginning as the series’ Assistant Costume Designer in 1988, and as Costume Designer beginning in 1994. If that weren’t enough, add in 106 episodes for the television comedy “30 Rock” and 35 for “In Treatment.”
Broecker’s longevity on SNL earned him something of an omniscient observer status. It was a job that had him interacting with the many moving parts of the weekly show. When the 40th anniversary approached, he seized an opportunity to executive produce a documentary, “Live from New York!”, which chronicled the show’s cultural and political impact.
Broecker had a fortuitous meeting when his work for SNL and “House of Cards” was nominated for Outstanding Contemporary Television Series at the 16th Costume Designers Guild Awards. He won for the political drama and also met JL Pomeroy, founder of JumpLine, which produces the event. During a lunch meeting with Pomeroy, Broecker discussed his view that SNL was more than a sketch comedy show.
“By the end of lunch we had come up with a thesis. We pitched it to Lorne [Michaels] a few weeks later. He suggested talking to the president of the network, Bob Greenblatt, who was very supportive,” Broecker said. He had just shy of a year to complete the project in time for the 40th anniversary season.
Released in mid-June and directed by Bao Nguyen, the feature-length documentary isn’t an extended clip reel. “It really talks about the very beginning of the show and what New York was like. It was a show that I don’t think you can take out of New York. New York plays such a central character,” he said.
The route to executive producer doesn’t always start among the wardrobe racks, but it made sense for Broecker.
“To me, it’s a natural progression from costume designer to producer. Part of the job of a costume designer is to know everything that is happening on a production,” he said. “You’re involved with actors, the director, script, hair and makeup, production design. In your mind as a costume designer, you are producing your scripts the same time that it’s going on.”
Designing for a live television show with hardly predictable costumes gave Broecker unique management skills that ease production.
“I try and memorize everything that’s in the store so I can close my eyes and talk to my assistant: ‘If you’re in Barney’s on the third floor, you’ll hit Haider Ackermann and there’s a white linen jacket,’” said Broecker. He aims for instant recall, the better to find Roman gladiator sandals on 7th, or sequined blackjack dealers’ vest on 42nd.
“The show has taught me the need for speed,” he said. “You’re constantly having to trust your gut.”
He’s also come to trust the sensibilities of Eric Justian, a former Assistant Costume Designer for the show who bumped up to Costume Designer along with Broecker in 2009.
The live shows demanded that he apply creativity in design and logistics. When the shipping of a set of astronaut costumes got stuck in Tennessee, with no possibility of Saturday delivery, he arranged to have someone from Global Effects in North Hollywood board a plane with two spacesuits. The courier and the suits arrived in New York, and the skit, a spoof of “Gravity” that also lampooned the federal government shutdown, was saved.
“I want people who come to the documentary to really see . . . all the stuff that happens during commercial breaks. I have to be aware of all the changes–the change from the wig, makeup, clothes, from out of one to in one, in a minute thirty,” he said. “It’s the closest thing to theater that really exists.”
He should know. Broecker, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, has frequently worked on Broadway, including David Mamet’s “Race,” Will Ferrell’s “You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush” and in theaters across the country.
He began branching out into other kinds of television around 2005, when he did 13 episodes of Lisa Kudrow’s HBO series “The Comeback,” and 35 episodes in 2009 with HBO’s “In Treatment.” He followed with two comedy movies, “Joyful Noise” and “Girl Most Likely” in 2012.
In between, he followed SNL star Tina Fey to her show-within-a-show takeoff on SNL, “30 Rock”—a series about a fictional live sketch series. Demonstrating his versatility, he designed the show’s costumes for 106 episodes and played Lee, the show’s perpetually exasperated costume designer.
“I loved doing that,” he said of playing against type as Lee. “It was always nice to be the silent, angry costume designer. I made him only wear black because I don’t wear it.”
Costumes were a frequent, running joke on “30 Rock,” whether they were the comically inappropriate attire of a sexy office assistant or a writer’s ballcaps-as-billboards. Fey returned for Broecker’s help for her final appearance on “Late Show with David Letterman.” Broecker’s wardrobe department helped Fey emblazon a layer of her many body shapers with messages: “Bye Dave!” on her belly, and on the rear, the hashtag “#Last Dress Ever.”
Broecker has a serious side, too. He’s established the look of acclaimed series such as “House of Cards,” “Madam Secretary,” “Happyish,” the pilot for “Ballers” and, his latest TV project, “Flesh and Bone,” a Starz limited series about ballet set for a November release.
“Dance costumes are so interesting to design,” he said. “One of the reasons I wanted to do that show is because I got to design ‘Swan Lake’ costumes, and an original, 15-minute ballet choreographed by Ethan Stiefel.”
Broecker seems to relish a good challenge. He took on HBO’s new series, “Ballers,” which stars Dwayne Johnson as a retired football player turned money manager. How was it to fit the action-star athlete in suits? “Kuh-ray-zee! It’s such a piece of geometry,” he said. “He’s a solid mass, so it doesn’t move. It’s really like draping over a GI Joe doll.”
Broecker moves easily between stage and screen. He detoured to 1840s Russia with “A Month in the Country” at New York’s Classic Stage Company, starring Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling. His latest, a new play by Melissa Ross at the Manhattan Theatre Club, “Of Good Stock,” opened at the end of June.
This summer, he continues to promote “Live From New York!” while developing two new projects: one is a film about mid-1980s New York; the other is a television show. And, oh, he’s also working on two new plays for New York’s fall season.
Broecker no doubt thrives on activity and challenge.
“I told someone the other day that I have creative A.D.D. I’m always, ‘Look! There’s a shiny object! Look! I love that!’ I like doing so many different things and projects. I really, really love what I do, clearly, or I would be a masochist if I didn’t.
“To work the hours one does as a costume designer, if you didn’t enjoy what you did, you would be completely in the wrong profession.”