Spotlight On: Costume Designer Marylou Lim
By Valli Herman
Costume Designer Marylou Lim has a knack for stuff that’s funny, campy and clever. Lim has built a career mostly as a costumer, frequently for Will Ferrell. Lately, she’s drawn accolades as a costume designer, notably for her spot-on parodies in the IFC series “Documentary Now!” As a designer, Lim also has lent her finely honed senses of style and humor to “Casa de mi Padre” (a Ferrell film), “Smiling Fish & Goat on Fire,” “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” the upcoming horror comedy “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” (featuring zombie cats) and “Looking for Alaska,” a drama.
“Documentary Now!” was created by “Saturday Night Live” alums Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. The seven-episode season satirized classic documentaries such as “Grey Gardens” and “The Thin Blue Line.” The final, two-part series, “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” is a rock docs spoof based on “History of the Eagles Part One.”
Lim’s assignment: simultaneously capture the look and feel of the films while also skewering them hilariously.
It might seem impossible to spoof the already outrageous “Grey Gardens,” the Maysles brothers’ 1975 cult film about eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis living in a squalid mansion. In the “Documentary Now!” version, called “Sandy Passage,” Lim gave the real-life character known for her turbans and headscarves an innovative head-covering—sweatpants, complete with a replica of the character’s signature brooch.
“You look at this documentary, and you feel sorry for these women, but you can’t help but laugh at it, too,” said Lim.
During the six-week shoot, Lim had to prepare entirely different looks for each of the period films on a $30,000 budget. The alchemy worked: even before the series premiered, IFC renewed it for a second and a third season—a first for the network.
The project was a fresh challenge for Lim. “When budgets are this small, you have to be mindful and extremely selective with your rental house pulls. You have to know exactly the actors’ sizes and what the directors are looking for. There is no room and time for error,” said Lim. “I pull, I fit, I approve and we shoot!”
With a little more than two weeks of preparation, Lim broke down the script and assembled costumes while also getting new scripts.
“I hadn’t worked in this quick pace before, so it was new to me,” she said. Not only was each episode a new project, but the crew also shot scenes from each episode within the same week. “Jumping your mindset from one era to another takes a lot of scheduling and planning,” she said.
With so many “S.N.L.” veterans behind and in front of the camera, Lim had to catch up to their quick-change finesse. To portray Littly Vivvy in “Sandy Passages,” Hader had to dress as a quirky, fashionable woman.
“He had 30 changes our first day of shoot,” Lim said. “Good thing he had been on ‘SNL’ and knew the process of quick change, because it was fast and furious the whole entire time.” Instead of wrapping fabric for Hader’s head coverings, Lim created pre-wound turbans.
When the crew decamped to Iceland for location shoots, the producers packed two suitcases of costumes to carry onboard. “We didn’t even have time to send things—it was that quick,” Lim said.
Series directors Alexander Buono and Rhys Thomas also are “S.N.L.” veterans. “They are used to last-minute changes and the quick pace,” Lim said. “They would shoot all day, write at night and send emails at 12:00 a.m. with brilliant ideas and changes that many times had to happen the very next day. Bill and Fred also worked as producers, therefore they had a lot of clever input into each episode.”
In retrospect, Lim said it might have been easier to create new wardrobes than to copy the look of the original documentaries.
“Recreating costumes adds an element of pressure because sometimes, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. For instance, for ‘Sandy Passages,’ I had to search for costumes in larger sizes to fit Bill and Fred,” she said. Lim scoured several costume houses to find good facsimiles.
Working at such a furious pace comes more easily when the gears are greased by humor and practical expectations, which Lim keeps in steady supply.
“I’ve built my career on many years of being a costumer. Being a costumer and transitioning to a costume designer helps you become a realistic designer. In other words, you see the big picture and know the process of how costumes get from point A to point B without the drama and egos.
“I have a full understanding that your costume crew all have a job to do and that you’re there to work as a team. I run a hard-working, no-drama crew. When things get tough we all support each other, we laugh about the crazy demands and it gets us through the day to move on through the challenges. This business has become extremely fast-paced and the sense of urgency is immediate. So you have to remember to take deep breaths, laugh and move on,” she said.
Like many creative people, Lim explored a number of academic (film, fashion, English) and career paths (music, film production) before she discovered the wardrobe department. When she worked as an extra, the costumers would compliment the looks she brought to set.
“Then I asked how I, too, could be a costumer on a movie set,” Lim said. Without connections to a costume house, she continued working as an extra until she was asked to work as a production assistant at a small production company. She eventually worked with Costumer Lisa Doyle, who hired Lim to work on the pilot of “MadTV.”
“We were ecstatic when the show got picked up for series,” Lim said. “I worked for several years there. In between hiatuses, I worked at Universal Costumes and learned a lot about period costumes.
“Then I met [Costume Designer] Sharen Davis. Sharen Davis is one of the most talented and sweetest friends I have today. I worked for her for several years and pretty much became her shadow,” Lim said. “She taught me the ins and outs of how to run the department, manage fittings and schedules, how to deal with producers’ and directors’ demands, and importantly, how to be a good person to your crew. She’s one of the reasons I’m a costume designer today.
“I’ve also been very lucky to work with Alonzo Wilson, Daniel Orlandi, Susan Matheson and Julie Weiss, to name a few.
“I feel very blessed to have worked with my mentors, actors and crews. And I’m excited to work with many more.”