Interview with Costume Designer Linda Muir (The Witch, Bitten)

A costume designer is a person who designs costumes for a film. The role of the costume designer is to create the characters and balance the scenes with texture and colour, etc.

What a terrific honour it was sit down with the talented costume designer Linda Muir, who is based in Toronto, Canada. She has worked in the industry for the last 30 years, on many successful films and TV shows, which she talks about in the interview. A must read for anyone working or wanting to work in the industry today: 

Matthew Toffolo: The horror film “The Witch”, will be hitting theaters this weekend, and it’s getting great reviews! How was your experience working on the film? 

The Witch was the most rewarding costume design experience I’ve had to date because the writer/director, Robert Eggers, is an extraordinary collaborator and because the film plays out at extremely close quarters so much of the detail put into the costumes actually reads.

I loved the script (it was certainly the first time I’d read a feminist take on Puritan hysteria) and I found Robert to be serious and intelligent with a wickedly sharp sense of humour. I felt camaraderie: we both tend to say what we think and we both learned to create tableaus while working in the theatre.

During my first interview (of three), Robert handed me a spiral bound book; it contained a presentation of images from his research for the film, everything from inspirational Goya paintings to photographic examples of corn rot.

PHOTO: Still shot from “The Witch”

the_witch_costumes.jpg

Research is my thing, too: obviously most of the time I am not the same as the characters for which I design costumes (such a Puritan man or girl living in 1630), so I do thorough research to inform my designs. In preparing to design costumes for The Witch I read approx. 1,800 pages of material in books produced by British historian Stuart Peachey, covering every aspect of 17thC clothing, such as weaving and dyeing wool, garment construction and pattern making, and notions like buttons and braided ties.

Throughout the film the audience sees the characters in every state of dress therefore I needed to know what garments were worn (and how they were worn) from the skin out.

While researching headwear, I found a website created for 17th C re-enacters which shed light on the way in which hair was dressed at the period, using woven linen (ribbon-like) tape braided into the hair. I then found a company stateside that sold the reproduction linen tape we needed to create the style (along with reproduction brass straight pins to secure Katherine’s neckerchief). That information turned out to be vital to the look of the film: not only was it accurate, it beautifully reflected the tightly bound up and covered beliefs that eventually unravel. As we see Thomasin and Katherine become more and more out of control their coifs (linen caps) come off, revealing the hairstyles and in the end all the hair comes down with yards of tape left dangling — Katherine crazed and defeated, Thomasin sensual and alive.

So, though The Witch was a real challenge, it was also a true joy.

Matthew: You have been the costume designer on over 40 productions in the last 25 years. Is there is film/TV show or two that you’re most proud of (besides The Witch)?

Long Days Journey Into Night, directed by David Wellington is a favorite, as are September Songs, and Mulroney: The Opera, both directed by Larry Weinstein, as well as Exotica, and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

The young editor who cut my reel in 2007 was thrilled to have had the opportunity to see so many fantastic Canadian projects. He wasn’t aware of the Rhombus catalogue, for instance, because programs such as CBC’s Opening Night, that at one time commissioned and aired challenging, imaginative work, no longer exist.

PHOTO: Still shot from “Mulroney: The Opera”

mulroney_the_opera.jpg

Matthew: What are the key differences when working on a TV series in comparison to a movie?

The major difference is the lead creative thrust and decision making: when working on a film it comes from the director (who is often also the writer) and the film’s producer(s), while with a series it comes first from the show runner/head writer and the series producer because there are typically different directors for each episode; usually it would not be possible for the director to shoot an episode while prepping the next —the work is simultaneous. The directors consult with the show runner and producer to ensure a continuous tone for the series, regardless of the differing directors. Therefore, costume meetings for a series involve many more people than for a film.

During the prep period for a feature I can deal with the script as a whole. There is a beginning, middle and end to the character arcs. The audience will have the entire viewing experience in one go. I have more control over the impact of a character’s visual evolution over the course of a film (which I chart) with the use of colour for a particular reason, or style changes, or the story told by the breakdown/distressing/aging on the costumes.

More of the entire project is prepped up front for a film and then once the film starts shooting work continues on costumes needed later in the schedule, either for the leads or for day players who weren’t cast until after the film started to shoot. It’s a dual focus for the costume designer: facilitating the ongoing filming of established costumes, dealing with problems that can (and will) arise, while continuing to design characters that haven’t been in front of the camera yet.

In a series, such as Bitten, the first one or two episodes (of ten or twelve) are prepped during the initial prep period, prior to shoot day 1, and that is as much of the season’s storyline as is available to the various departments.

Even though our producer JB Sugar and show-runner Daegan Fryklind were exceptionally helpful with giving a heads up about upcoming plot turns, wardrobe would still find that a character whose costumes were designed (and in a modern-day series that can often mean purchased with direction to a particular look) a month before, was then scripted to die a bloody death in the current episode being prepped. The costume had already been filmed and the character was on the run and had no opportunity to change clothing so the task for costume designer and wardrobe department became that of matching the wardrobe, either by making or finding more of the same wardrobe pieces that had already been shot, but in multiples to costume the actor for multiple takes of the action in new episode and, additionally, for the stunt performers, also for multiple takes.

PHOTO of Laura Vandervoort’s costume in “Bitten Season 3”:

bitten_laura.jpg

The other major difference (for the projects I work on) between a film and a tv series is the overall duration of the project. Costumes for a film typically prep over a 4 to 5 week period, shoots for 5 to 6 weeks and then wraps, whereas a series has an initial prep period of 4 to 5 weeks, shoots an episode in anywhere from 7 to 10 days while simultaneously prepping the next episode, and the shoot period lasts from 4 to eight months, and then the show wraps. Developing the designs for series characters is ongoing throughout the shoot and is dependent on the needs of each new episode.

Matthew: What type of film would you love to do costumes for that you haven’t done yet?

That’s a great question. I’ve been extremely fortunate in working on a wide range of projects but I really enjoy scripts that winkle out insights into society. Perhaps an alternate version of an existing book or film. Like Middlemarch set in the 1960s…

Matthew: Describe the process of a typical production. How early do you get hired in pre-production? Do you work and report to the Production Designer? Is your wardrobe budget already set in stone by the time you begin your first day?

“Typical” has changed over the years: financing for projects seems more precarious than ever and that impacts the total budget of a project, which in turn impacts start dates, department size, departmental budgets and the amount of time offered for prep.

Collaboration with the Production Designer is always crucial. The Production Designer has had other conversations with the Director that impact costumes. The palette for a film starts with the sets and extends to the wardrobe. Collaboration with the DP is also important; to be aware of lens choice, proposed light levels and filters.

The Witch, though totally a-typical, turned out to be an ideal pre-production and budgeting model. It took around four years for Robert, Jay, Lars, and Jodi to get the financing together for The Witch. Once I was offered the job of Costume Designer, I discovered that the proposed budget for costumes was ruefully low. After discussing all the areas that the costume budget would need to cover, it was agreed that I would devise a costume budget during a pre-production period far in advance of the actual prep period. Building that budget required extensive research and consultation with Robert; it actually meant designing and costing the family’s costumes. But ultimately it meant that the producers had a realistic number to budget for costumes (which shifted downward during prep as other production costs surfaced), and it meant that Robert and I had a solid starting point for the actual prep period.

Robert and I broke down the script to arrive at the number of script days depicted over the film and after discussing many options made the decision to limit each character to one costume with all the layers realistically represented, with multiples for blood or mud, or rain where needed. Even though it may be a stretch to imagine the family had so few clothes it paid off in the end because there are no distractions around the clothing—they have little, they care not for adornment, they have much more pressing problems to think about the changing a waistcoat.

I knew that we had to design and fabricate the costumes for the family of seven; we couldn’t rely on renting existing costumes since we needed multiples to accommodate the scripted action and we wanted control over the colour palette. We opted to put our limited money and time (which meant money) into creating perfectly detailed clothing that would bear scrutiny and help hold the audience in the period.

Costumes for the Meeting House cast of 50 were rented from Tirelli costume house, in Rome, shipped to Mattawa, Ontario and were augmented with collars, cuffs, coifs and aprons sewn on set in the middle of a forest.

Matthew: What do you look for when hiring your assistants?

“sewn on set in the middle of a forest” pretty much says it all.

Matthew: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

It’s likely a tie between E.T. and Backdraft, my son’s favorites that I watched with him on VHS (over and over) when he was a child. I don’t do multiple viewing, unless it’s for research purposes or to share a favorite; I think, like books, there are simply too many films to experience.

Stylistically, I’m sure that I was influenced by films of Hollywood’s golden years, as presented weekly by Elwy Yost, and since I worked designing Trade Forum environments and parties for T.I.F.F. (then The Festival of Festivals) from 1979 to 1984, I had a Staff pass enabling me to experience many new films by influential filmmakers like Fassbinder, Bergman or Tarkovsky.

Matthew: What makes a great costume designer?

A Teflon exterior? The nerve to pitch and defend out-there ideas because you really believe in them? An ability to empathize (fictionally, at least)? Curiosity, curiosity, curiosity? Being, or at least learning to be, a team-player? A refined sense of less-is-more?

Matthew: How did you originally get into the film industry? Was it your goal from the beginning?

Big smile. No, when I was in grade school I thought I’d be an English teacher. Then, in high school and university, I found Theatre Arts. Up until that point, the situations of the characters in novels had provided stimulation and illumination for me, but in plays they actually voiced those themes!

I have real respect for actors: they are the ones who must take it personally, their being is on the stage or in front of the camera. To produce a pertinent, convincing costume design seems to require similar insights into the character’s psyches —but I can remain anonymous.

At the start of my career I designed costumes for the theatre, at The Theatre Second Floor, Theatre Passe Murialle, Tarragon, TWP, Royal Alexandria, and Mabou Mines, for instance.  Folks kept telling me I should design for film because of the detail in my work and eventually the opportunity presented itself.

Now, after over forty years of designing costumes, it’s very special when an actor says that they feel like they are wearing clothing, not a costume, or when an actor cast at the last minute without benefit of rehearsal says that I have handed them their character. That’s a terrific feeling.

Matthew: Besides wardrobe, what else are you passionate about?

Other than my family, reading and cooking. In my fifties, I went back to school for a Chef Certificate.

Matthew: What advice do you have for high school or university students who are looking to work in the Costume Department in the movie industry?

Each path is different. Some are attracted by the stories; maybe they come to costumes by way of an arts background. Others come from fashion school. I suppose I’d say that however one arrives at the idea of being a costume designer, know that for most it is not a glamorous job. It involves REALLY long days; impossible amounts of stress (over lack of money, lack of time, lack of staff, and sometimes lack of collaboration); and the only thing that is certain in production is that nothing is certain.

Don’t rush it. Many young costumers that I meet think that they should be designing costumes for a film or a series immediately.

Take the time to learn the job. Observe. Work with designers from whom you think you can learn and when you do work on projects, be a team player. Commit. Commit to the project for its duration and commit to your department.

Learn to sew. You may not be a competent seamstress but you do need to know how clothes are constructed.

Learn to render a costume sketch. Again, drawing may not be your strength but you will need to convey your ideas.

Learn about fabrics. It’s unlikely that you will be able to afford the real thing so learn how to imitate it.

Learn how to do breakdown/distressing/aging of costumes. It is an important skill that adds dimension and personality to cloth.

Learn how to organize yourself and a department. There is a huge amount of paperwork that goes into costuming, from breaking down the script to scheduling all the work that ensures costumes are fit, altered and ready for camera. Learn how to read a Day Out Of Days, Shooting Schedule, One-Line Schedule, etc.. Delegation is important, but in the end the designer is responsible for the department running smoothly.

Observe. Watch people on the street, see what they choose to wear and think about what those choices reflect. Be aware of differing styles, their origins and the cycles that they have taken.

Nurture an interest in helping to tell the story and figure out what that means to costume choices. In my opinion the best costumes are not random, they are not simply beautiful or cool or whatever but they reveal something about the character who wears it in the story that is unfolding.

 

_____

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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