In Conversation: Sharen Davis (Costume Designer for Godzilla, Django Unchained etc.)

Hi Film Folk,

The Film Doctor team have a very special treat for you this week and we’re extremely proud to share it – another exclusive In Conversation interview!

This time with Oscar and CDGA-nominated costume designer Sharen Davis (Godzilla, Django Unchained, Looper, The Help).


Film Doctor - Sharen Davis


Hi Sharen, very glad to have you here.

I’m very excited to be here.


Where did you grow up and what was your relationship to film when you were growing up?

That is not a simple question, my father was in the United States Air Force and I was born in Louisiana and then we moved to Germany. I lived in Wiesbaden from 2-5 and then I moved back to the United States and then I moved to Japan for five years through the first year of college. Then me and my father moved back stateside and he retired in California so here I am. Film entered my life in the late teens when my Father was finally stationed to California.


So you weren’t an avid obsessive film-watcher at that time – you just sort of landed in LA and it came about from there, did it?

I was a theatre, an acting major and then dance – so I was doing dance and acting for a while and then I moved to LA. I moved to Los Angeles and when I was in theatre, I was more into acting but someone actually hired me to help them on a film and I really was intrigued by film costumes and stuff, it’s a little different vehicle than it is in theatre. I was still trying to pursue my career in acting when I landed a job on film working “behind the scenes” and I was captivated! The Costume department became my main focus,I fell in love with marriage of character development and costume design.


What was the first film you Designed?

Equinox was the first film that I Costume Designed. I am a big fan of Alan Rudolph‘s films including “Choose Me”, “The Moderns”, and “Trouble in Mind”. Alan’s direction and vision for his films were rich with colour, stories with original twists which intrigued a mass amount of talented actors and up and coming Designers.

The film’s star was Matthew Modine, who plays twins separated at birth, one a shy auto mechanic, one who is a small time gangster. The concept was to delicately blend the two worlds. Alan worked closely with me and the Production Designer, giving us direction on themes and colour palettes for sets and costumes.

Alan really inspired me to flow creatively with the costumes, which in turn created trust with the actresses and actors in the film. It was like a Film “Boot Camp”, working 6 or 7 days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day – everyone on the same creative page. This experience gave me the confidence to take on the Film projects that followed.

Before that I did art department, I did art department before I did costumes. I did Roger Corman films – Battle Beyond the Stars and Galaxy of Terror.


How was that?

It was so fun, it was my first film experience. I just thought it was fantastic, working 24 hours, sleeping in my car – it was great!


You worked in the art department and then at what point did you decide ‘I’m going to be a costume designer’? Was that five, six, seven projects in or from the outset?

It was about ten projects and I was a costume supervisor and then an assistant designer for a while.


During this time were you looking for this work or being called up? How was the work coming about? Was it just through working on other things?

Yes, working on other things and the job with Alan came about after five people recommended me. So he agreed to meet me and it was a great meeting and he trusted me, I had never done it really before, I had supervised and assisted the design but not designed.


This was all based in LA, right?



This is a question we’re always interested in asking, how much work were you doing outside of work to get work? Like events and talks and dinners, lunches and all of that stuff?

In the 1980’s and early 90’s, cell phones and internet were not mainstream. Looking for work was not an easy door to open. I had a partner with a loft downtown and we would have “theme parties” and invite crew members off our crew lists and tell them to pass it on! If you had a good “turn out”, you may end up chatting with a person who could give you a lead on a job, or with a Producer who have you in for an interview.

I feel engaging with fellow Film makers has made a great impact in my career.


So you were going through lots of crew lists and going to parties a lot and events and meeting people. So basically you were getting these offers over and over again?

Through word-of-mouth..


Presumably there came a point where things were steady enough for you to go ‘right, that’s it, I’m earning a living and I enjoy it so let’s just do this’?

Well, I was still struggling and then after Devil in a Blue Dress, the producer got me an amazing agent and she really started my career.


You’d done a fair bit by that point?

Yes, I was forging ahead, but when I did Devil in a Blue Dress, it put me in a new direction.


Like in the acting world or in the directing world, one can be placed in a certain box for the work you do, is there a similar methodology to placing you as a costumer from an agent’s standpoint?

I think so. Sandra Marsh Management, who picked me up – she saw a lot of potential so she pushed me towards period films – which I didn’t mind at all.

Calving Candie sketch from "Django Unchained"
Calving Candie sketch from “Django Unchained”

Now we’re going to move away from that and on to working process. What is your general working process – from script read to wrap day?

General work day – it depends on the type of film. But let’s say on a period film which I tend to do or a futuristic film, of course it begins with hiring a crew, I’m hoping that I’m using the same people it makes it easier unless they’re not available. That throws me off really bad if I have to hire new people. I start research on a period film and then I like to see how much I can break away from the actual period, see how far I can go within keeping the same silhouette and look of the period just to bring a kind of originality to it.


That will lead nicely on to this – What are your influences outside of the script or film? Are there photographers that you like or designers that you like? 

ou know in my head I’ll think ‘you know what this feels like maybe’ – I always think in artists – ‘so I think this is maybe Edward Hopper colours would look great‘ so I’ll start looking at Edward Hopper’s artwork and see if that palette’s for me and kind of start putting the characters into something. It’s an odd way but it works for me.


How much do you go into the psychology of those colour choices? Where do you balance between a style that you like and what’s happening to that character at that point in time and what you’ll need to do to show that through costume?

Yes, I do do that of course I meet with production designers and the director and basically we discuss – they discuss, they tell me what they’re thinking of and then I work off of what they’ve said and that’s how I get my process. Since we don’t use 35mm very much. It’s been quite a challenge using HD these past couple of years and colour palettes more become the restriction of the camera – the HD cameras.


So you’re all film then are you? 

No, I like HD actually, it’s just a different format and it has more options to what it can do. It has so many options that it can do, that I haven’t discussed the colour palette in a while. The camera can change the colours, crush the colours, it’s mostly a matter of how much white or what colours a certain camera is going to use is really bad for it, or what they’re going to do visually – except for Django of course which we shot in 35.


Was there any projects where you haven’t been able to do your general working process? Where you’ve either been brought on really late or just it’s been a very unusual way that you’ve done things? 

Yes, the last four films (laughs).


Oh really?

Oops! I was attempting humor! I have been fortunate on many of my projects to “Prep” the film in LA before going to the town where we are filming. The last film I worked on I had about 3 weeks to prep it before it went to Mississippi which offers nothing for what we know – there were no materials there!


What do you do in that scenario? You just have to get FedEx on the case?

Oh yes – they are my best friend. (Laughs).


An interesting thing we noticed, and it may not be any different, but you’ve done a documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property – did you notice any differences between working documentary and working in fictitious works? 

It was really fun – I worked with this director Charles Burnett for a film for television and it was pretty much the same format of how it works. At first we had no capital whatsoever so I found a place that actually loaned me all the clothes which was great. It seems people are willing to give it to you for free when you’re working on that level.

Costume sketch for Godzilla
Costume sketch for Godzilla

So we’ll move on to your newest project, which is Godzilla. What were the challenges on that particular project?

It was a new experience for me, I mean it wasn’t new but coming on off working with Quentin Tarantino who does everything old school – the 35mm and no visual effects. Not one visual effect in Django. Everything we did was shot on 35 – to go to Gareth who is a visual genius and everything he does is so hi-tech and visual and I was like oh my gosh and it was great because it challenges me and I had to really catch up on visual effects, I’ve never really worked on that level with visual effects. So my challenge was having four units run at once and a bunch of blue (screen) everywhere and trying to visualise what the hell is happening.


How does it affect costume? Was there quite a lot of stuff that had to be done in post your end?

It was a bit of a learning curve to discuss a character’s clothing arc working with partial sets and illustrated concepts. We had an amazing cast and they all gave me their backstories and input on each character. They all had such “small wardrobe closets” which can be a puzzle when trying to make an arc with costumes.

Bryan Cranston was so amazing – all the actors were amazing and they all went past the visual effects and actually found and saw the characters and they didn’t have very many clothes to wear so we really had to find their characters fast – you know with your first visual you had to know who that person was.


How was it working in Vancouver? 

The layout of the Costume Department differs from film to film. I am usually very “Hands on”, but with the scale of this film I had to delegate and rely on “discussions with the crew to follow through with a second or third unit. When we went into filming, I began to understand how this crew worked. I am happy to say the crew were creative, calm, efficient,and at the end a job well done! Vancouver film crews have filmed their share of epic sci‐fi films, so I was in good hands. I try to remember to start every project like a first, with a new project ,a new director, crew, and location.


How many people do you have working with you? Obviously it will vary from project to project but on a project like Godzilla or Django – how many people would you have working with you or under you?

On Django, I mean all the different divisions – there’s the shop of course that makes the clothes and then there’s the set costumers – there was probably like 25 on Django on and off. That was such a travelling show – it would just vary wherever we were. That was great because we started in Los Angeles so I got to keep my Los Angeles crew and we went up to the North, the Northern United States –  to Wyoming and then we went to New Orleans and then we came back to Los Angeles. Oh, Quentin, I love it – making a film almost take a year, it was great! Then on Godzilla, it’s so many units the crew was twice as big. It’s so amazing – no complaining, they just did it! It was awesome on Godzilla! They’re just so used to it.


Presumably, between those two projects, some of the Godzilla extras were CG whereas in Django all of the extras would have been real did something like that pop up?

CG was used in “scenes with crowds” and situations to support locations. That’s the beauty of Gareth’s direction ,as he is very talented in the visual effects field,he has an amazing perception of emotional reactions. We spend intimate time capturing reaction shots from our extra talent.

Costume Sketch for Bryan Cranston character Joe Brody in Godzilla
Costume Sketch for Bryan Cranston character Joe Brody in Godzilla

Much of your work has been contemporary or period, but on something futuristic like Looper or Godzilla which obviously is futuristic, what changes for you in that process?

“Looper” was an intoxicating project! A distant Future , and an ever‐changing closer future. I was so excited to work with Rian Johnson, I was a big fan of “Brick”. After meeting with the Production Designer and Rian, I suggested we use designs from 1920’s, 1940’s and 1970’s and mesh them together. In the distant Future, I designed a simple streamline style with color block and little pattern. “Godzilla” is based in the “present time” with touches of “Futuristic societies”.


We would have thought that as we get further through society as we are now, it gets tougher because there’s so much that has already been done.

It does get tough! The Hunger Games and Inception are fresh with new design focuses. I am a fan of both Designers!


What would be your top tips to stay organised? Obviously you’ve got huge amounts of responsibility where you are now – how do you stay organised?

I am not organised, sorry to say. I do have a process of how I take on a project. I really think one must be aware and open to the budget and preparation time. After the reality of time and budget sets in, you can dive into your creative design.


Do you think time constraints damage the films? 

I have looked back at some projects and wished I could have worked on a few designs with more detail. Other projects I felt really flowed despite the budget, I find that prep time is most important.

Film Doctor - Sharen Davis - Django Slave Poncho 

You’ve worked with some legendary filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Quentin Tarantino, Brett Ratner and Gabriele Muccino – are there commonalities that you can see that those people share that make them so successful or good to work with? Is there one unified principal that you can see that kind of threads them together?

All of those directors are extremely passionate. They’re extremely passionate about their projects and extremely passionate people and I found all of them extremely creative and involved in every aspect of the film. Which is great – it draws you in and makes you do your best.


So what is your relationship with actors? Do you find that generally there’s a decent two-way collaboration or do some collaborate more than others?

Some collaborate more than others (Laughs). I feel I have a pretty good relationship with them, I mean I’m a costume maker so I try very hard to give them what I think they need or listen to what they have to say and work with them to find their character.


Do you find that most actors at the top of their game have plenty of costume ideas coming in to it ?

Yes they usually have plenty ideas that the director does not have! So there you have to kind of mediate – you become a mediator. You try to take both worlds – the director’s world and the actor’s world and then you have to take your ideas and try to find a commonality so everyone’s happy.


We’ve noticed that a lot of people always want to wear shades and wear hats. Does that happen a lot where you are?

Yeah it does! (Laughs) Most people who have done it for a while, they get it that we need their face. Denzel knows exactly when to wear sunglasses or a hat – he’ll just take them off in time. He’s great at that! Then there are younger actors who come in and say I need to wear shades throughout the whole movie and I say yes well that will be great but nobody will know who you are!


Do you get a lot of notes from directors or from studios that say we need to see his face or her face 75% of the time so can we not have this here?

Yes. Gas masks and hazard suitsthe big bio hazards that they wear for radioactivity that make so much noise and cover the face. That’s all I can think of.


Presumably (with the masks) you have to think of the reality of what someone might do in that situation but also work so you can actually hear the dialogue and see their face perform.

Yeah, it’s really hard and I worked on a film with them and I just custom made it, I looked at the inside of a helmet and couldn’t see their face and it had to have a cooling system so they wouldn’t fog up.


Is that something you have to design yourself, the cooling system?

Or you can go get the ones from all the other movies but if you design it then it’s really made for the actor. But they’re quite claustrophobic. But sometimes you need that to happen so the actor fills their containment area. The problem with sunglasses is that property gives sunglasses. I find that sometimes they don’t discuss this with the director. They’re getting ready to shoot and all of a sudden they have sunglasses on an actor and then I’d be called to the set and I’d be like “oh I didn’t do it”.


Actors that you’ve worked with a few times like Denzel and Will Smith presumably you have a close relationship to them with regards to putting the characters together?

Denzel I’ve known for a long time. I met him when I was young and acting and in San Francisco. It is always great to work with Denzel and Will, the collaboration is always there! Denzel has hired me to Design a few films he has directed which is very flattering!

 Film Doctor - Dr King Schultz Fur With Background

What do you feel you’ve developed and learned over the years? Were there any big penny dropping moments either in life or in the industry or specific to costume designing, where you’re like ‘oh this is what it’s really about’? 

There has been a few films that have really extended my knowledge on not just costumes but myself and I would say Ray working with Taylor Hackford – he’s a director that demands that you were there for every shot – I wish that was possible nowadays but it’s not. Being on set you learn everybody’s job, even though you had an idea of it but it was kind of a great period because now I’m so aware of when I do something with the extras – I do need to go up there, see what they’re shooting and see how they’re shooting it. And that’s because Taylor made me go out there every day and made me look through the camera and make sure I liked what I saw. Not the monitor, the camera.


If you had to say ‘this a photographer or a designer or a director’s body of work which I go back time and time again to watch’ – who or what would it be? Photographer, filmmaker, films – any of those things?

I don’t really have… There are so many “Film Makers” I go “ga‐ga” over and I can watch them over and over again!


Is there a particular time period or style that you’d really like to have a play with that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

I really would like to do more futuristic projects. I’m really trying to get interviews for those projects. I don’t have enough on my resume to get the projects but I keep trying.


You’re getting there aren’t you because you’ve done Looper and Godzilla. You’re carving it out.

And Book of Eli, so I’m inching my way. I do find myself craving a good period film but I like to challenge myself creatively and switch it up.


How much do you think it’s necessary to control what work you do? Do you have a strict philosophy of ‘I will not do this kind of work and I will do this because this is where I want to pursue right now’?

I will pass on a project I feel there is not enough money or time for me to make it an original costume design. If I do the same period in a different film, I need time to erase what I already styled.


OK Django Unchained. There’s the famous scene where Django says ‘I get to wear my own clothes’ and it cuts to this ridiculous…wonderful extravagant outfit..

You’re right, ridiculous! My first interview with Quentin I did a little look-see book of how I saw the characters. Of course, since he wrote Django, he wrote every costume description in the film but doing that it makes it harder for you to come up with something on a written page and when you cast a person how’s that all going to work. So I don’t know why I decided, well if we’re going to do something that crazy let’s just go all the way and do the blue boy. So just put that in the book and see if he likes and he loved it and then when we were fitting Jamie, Jamie said ‘oh my God, of course I would pick that out! It’s like the King and I’m a slave, I’m in dirty clothes for months, the same clothes – I would of course pick something that I would think looks like I would be royalty.” He never thought it was funny, he took it very seriously that he would pick that out. Because originally in the script, Christoph was going to pick out what he wore and then Christoph said ‘why would I do that? I think I’d let this man pick out what he wanted. It was a really interesting whole conversation about that particular scene that was the only scene I watched, couldn’t actually think about and say you know what you guys are right let’s do it. They came up with that and that’s how it came about but when you’re watching it, I’ve never seen it with an audience, I’ve only seen it at a screening but even then people just start laughing. I mean it’s just so outrageous.

‘Django Unchained’ Schultz suit
‘Django Unchained’ Schultz suit – notice the change in trim and tie

How often do you get into situations where perhaps you really feel that you can’t do certain things because of the tone and you might have to fight furiously against having it in there? Does that crop up a lot? In that particular instance (Django and the blue coat) it worked because of the context of the character, what he wanted to feel and comedically but-

That could have been a nightmare! He could have been ‘I’m not wearing that’. Christoph did not want to wear half of his wardrobe. Christoph said ‘I’m not wearing that giant fur coat, that’s crazy!’ Luckily it was so cold, he said ‘give me the fur coat please!’ And ‘I’m not wearing this tiered coat’ it was so funny and what it is is Quentin extracts things from other films. So he extracts, he makes me watch the films and ‘Sharen, look at the film and tell me what you see’ and then I say ok I see the fur coat and whatever, Telly Savalas had it on in this film. He said ‘Christoph can rock this, I know he can’ and I said ‘OK’ so it was very interesting working with a director who is so hands-on about the clothing and then here’s a poor actor who doesn’t want to wear it. But luckily they have such a relationship that I don’t really have to worry – that Quentin’s gonna talk Christoph into it anyway. Quentin really controls his set, there’s no-one – he’s the producer, the writer, the director: he’s got full say. That’s interesting but I have had to try…sometimes it takes two to three fittings to talk someone out of something that I feel is not working for them. Or it’s wearing them or it’s taking them – it’s just pulling itself out of the film. It becomes a showpiece and then you don’t even know why that person has it on. You’ve been to a film where a blue suit comes out and you’re like what?! (Laughs) Something throws you out of the film, that piece of clothing. In Django you could do anything because you’re allowed to be thrown out of the film but a very serious film then you’ll see something that’s jarring and then you’re like ‘why would they do that?’ Why did that happen and then you’re kind of out of the film. So that sometimes, if I feel that’s happening I will discuss that with whoever until I feel it’s gone even if it has to be at a screen test and just hope that I’m right. Well I wouldn’t know because we didn’t do it. Gently, I do it, gently.


Are there scripts that you’ve seen where you’ve just thought ‘that’s not helpful, I could have done with a bit more of a steer on what that character was or what he was wearing’? Are there any tips that you could say writers should definitely do or not do that help the costume aspect of a script.

If I think there’s too much clothing direction in a script, with the exception of Quentin, that’s a writer, that’s not the director. So usually you don’t have to pay attention to what the writer has scripted for wardrobe. Because the director may not feel the same – so that’s kind of usually I’ll say well do you want this or is that a pivotal point? And can I change that, it is odd sometimes when a writer puts in wardrobe and you can’t tell the writer has kind of directed before or if he’s just a writer. Somethings just don’t…are not really feasible.


Presumably, whoever is cast in that role will affect how you’ll approach whatever’s written down as well?

I’m sure you’ll talk to a few costume designers, that’s the biggest part of the whole thing is who’s cast. Can they wear that or will that work for them? You go into an interview and they want to see your ideas and there’s no actors attached to the film. It’s so hard.


What do you do to counter that? Do you just say ‘I’m picturing it as this actor or this kind of a character’?

I will do three quick different sketches, different body types and then say well I don’t know who it is so if it’s this kind of person I will see this and that type of person I’ll see that. I keep it very loose because I don’t want to be so wrong I don’t get the job. It’s extremely hard, I have to go to an interview next week like this and it’s been a couple, maybe five years, since I’ve really had to interview and bring my concepts. Usually I just go and get the job. While I’m being hired, I start conceptualising.

Film Doctor - Lara Lee - Sharen Davis
Lady Lee sketch for ‘Django Unchained’

Do you do all the artwork yourself?

No, I have an illustration artist, I would love to but the time constraint is too much so I do a quick pencil sketch that looks like a stick person and then I staple fabric and put an arrow to where it goes – this is a vest and this and this is a red dress and this is this and then my wonderful illustration artist puts the face of the actor in and makes it come alive. So that’s usually how I do it – I love to do illustrations instead of tear sheets. I will go ahead and take that risk.


Tear sheet? 

I don’t do them. Just go online and pull research and copy it and show ideas of what I’m thinking for a certain outfit but I find that if I don’t do an illustration – let’s just say I’m doing coveralls, then I’ll go online and copy and print something in coveralls to show and then I will illustrate one that will encompass all the ideas that I liked in like seven photos and that’s the only – I’ll take that risk. Sometimes it may be wrong but they know that I’m willing to attempt to get there.


What is one piece of advice you could give to a writer/director, a producer starting out or struggling today? And a separate piece of advice for an aspiring costume designer? 

My advice for a filmmaker – that is so hard because it’s so easy to make your own little short films and I really think that’s such a great idea – to just make a short film or something or put it on YouTube it seems to work – then everyone will know where you’re coming from and what your look is. But also, you really need to work on some films and work under some really good directors I think to really figure it out. That would really be my real advice is to work on a film and see how it’s done. But everyone’s so anxious and they want to do it now so the new way to do it is just do your own film – safer to work under somebody!!

And for a new costume designer, I don’t know – I think they can give me some advice! It’s such a different world, in the last twenty years I really don’t even know what to say. You just really need to know everything – every technical aspect of filmmaking you should know. You should always have a discussion with the DP and what camera he’s using. If he’s using HD, what type of HD? And then do your research and see what it does to the clothes, see what it does to the make-up. You have to really be on your technical game nowadays.

 Interview transcribed by Catherine Wooding.
Film Doctor - Godzilla

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One thought on “In Conversation: Sharen Davis (Costume Designer for Godzilla, Django Unchained etc.)

  • May 16, 2014 at 3:04 am

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