By Diana Eden, March 2013
Costume Designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers, not quite retired, is still happily living in the Mission district of San Francisco with her husband Peter Laxton, in the same house they have been in since before the birth of her eldest son James, now 32 and working as a DP with Local 600 in Los Angeles.
She is still an active member of the Guild, and she “doesn’t feel retired at all”. Work finds her through the many people she knows and her network of connections through a life and career in the area. However, she won’t commute to Los Angeles as she used to, or go on location, and she avoids films with those night shoots!
Rodgers has about 50 features to her credit, but says she was was lucky with the way she started. Having graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1970 with a Master’s degree in theatre costume design, Rodgers had no experience in film costuming when she was hired as the costume designer for George Lucas’ groundbreaking film, “American Gaffiti.” During her interview, it was discovered that she graduated high school the same year as director George Lucas, and only 20 miles away from where Lucas himself graduated. Due to her experience growing up in Fresno, Calif., her understanding of the script and the vision Lucas had for the film, she got the job. It was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, who hired her again the following year for “The Conversation,” which he says is his favorite film. Of Coppola, Rodgers says “He saw me exactly for who I was and for what I was capable of. He knew at the time I was not capable of designing The Godfather. It was not my scene. I am more interested in unusual urban stories.” I did not even know how to break down a script – the script woman had to teach me!” She admits that she found her way through the shoot and is full of admiration for her director and star. “I tell you working on “The Conversation” changed my life. Because of it, I got to do ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.’”
In the early 1980s she designed for “Return of the Jedi,” also for Lucas, one of her first big budget films, but says that it was filmed locally, and many of the costumes were already established from previous films.
Rodgers says that whenever asked what her favorite film experience was, she always says “The Color Purple,” for which she received an Oscar nomination. She had an amazing time filming near Charlotte, South Carolina, and gives a lot of credit to Robert Blackman, who came to assist her for eight weeks or so, without credit. “It was my first big show and I didn’t have a clue,” she says. “I never would have made it without him. It taught me the value of hiring good people to help. Whoopi was wonderful and everyone was so happy to be involved”.
At the beginning of the prep, the producers saw the visuals as much more “down in tone,” but Rodgers went to see author Alice Walker, who lived not far away from her in California, and showed her ideas they were working on. Rodgers brought her a book of photographs by James Van Der Zee (an African American photographer best known for his portraits of black New Yorkers). Walker marked some of the photos, which Rodgers later showed to producer Kathleen Kennedy, with the result that “the color palette was brought up several notches.”
Two other of her favorite films were produced in the 1980’s: “Beetlejuice” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” and she continued to design major films regularly (sometimes two or three a year) through the 1990s and at least one a year into the current decade, including “Rent,” “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” “Holes,” and “Life or Something Like It.”
Her latest film, “Fruitvale,” came through her friend, an Oakland film location manager, and she jumped at the chance because of the material and the fact that she was missing her younger son Thomas, who is working with the Peace Corps in Ecuador. Both the director, the very young and talented USC grad Ryan Coogler, and most of the crew were 25 years, so she felt right at home. Based on a true-life police shooting, the film tells the story of a young Bay Area resident who was detained and killed by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) cops in Oakland on New Year’s Eve in 2008.
The event was captured on camera, and the ensuing trial and its verdict spurred protests and riots. Filming took place at the actual station where the shooting took place and, surprisingly, had the full support and co-operation of the BART Board of Directors.
This film also gave Rodgers the opportunity to train and mentor several young people that she actively sought out, even exchanging her chance to work out of a trailer instead of the honey-wagon, to get them the man hours allowed on the low-budget film, and to get paid.
“The young woman I had in my department was on summer break from her graduate program in directing, and will never be the same again, after witnessing what goes on on a 21 day shoot of a $700,000 film. She saw what the director went through at every stage, and she will be a force to be reckoned with in the future. Another young man who worked until midnight in a restaurant job, and then came to set and worked all night, is thinking about becoming a Costume Designer.”
A passionate woman, Aggie holds strong political and ideological beliefs, which has informed much of her life choices, as well as her film choices. She will not to do any films where “there is a black man holding a gun, nor will I do films about boys and their toys.” She says “I just wish that more people were able to say no to that kind of film but not every kid in the world is politically savvy.”
She worries that there may not be a pension plan when today’s generation of San Francisco designers reaches retirement. In Los Angeles, independent features are all pay-rolled with Social Security and payroll taxes taken out, but still not in San Francisco, so an unemployed costumer can’t get unemployment insurance, or build up their social security accounts.
However, these days Aggie Guerard Rodgers seems quite content in her own skin, living where she has lived almost all her life. She says she would be quite alright if she never got another film. She is not much interested in travel, cleaning house or gardening, but does enjoy her ice skating, of which she exclaims with a laugh, “how ridiculous!” Her family and community are all that she needs to be happy.