In Conversation: Kari Perkins (Costume Designer of Boyhood, Devil’s Knot, Mud) Part 1

Hey Film Folk!

Awards season continues and so do we. Today we have a delicious interview with the creative mind behind the costumes of Richard Linklater‘s 12 year masterpiece – Boyhood

That’s right. Today we speak to Costume Designers Guild Award nominee (for BoyhoodKari Perkins!!

Kari Perkins - Costume Designer - Film Doctor Interview

What kind of family background do you come from? Was it a creative, artistic or movie-interested family?

KP: Well I had a very creative upbringing. My Mum was really allowing of my creative ideas. I just kind of came out designing. I was always creating situations as a child, that I could create all the costumes for. I would get all the neighbourhood kids together, create a play so I could costume [laughs]. I was a first born, so everyone had to do what I say. [laughs]

I was always in theatre groups, from a pretty young age. We didn’t have much TV, so we just created situations where we’re always playing. That was our entertainment. I have two brothers and sister, and that’s all we did.


And how did that progress onto costume as a career? Was there an age or a moment where you thought ‘Oh, I need to do this’ or did you kind of have a bit of luck?

KP: Well, when I was really young, my Godfather was a Costume Designer in New Orleans. He designed for Le Petit Theatre and he’d take me up to the attic and let me look at all the costumes up there. And I just remember putting this giant headdress on and these capes, and it was very fantastical. And I just saw myself in this freestanding mirror, I was like ‘I love this. This is what I have to do.’ I was consumed by that from a very early age. And, of course, I was supported by my family and we took arts at high school in Dallas, and did lots of costume there. After high school,  I went to college to study costume design.

And then I dropped out of college and was just doing professional theatre. I started doing film through a friend I had done some Shakespeare with.  My first film was in 1987, and it was a Disney film. They needed some Mime costumes made – the Director threw in some Mimes at the last minute – so I had to make some Mime costumes and it was under a lot of pressure. But it was fine. I made these costumes and the costumers were excited, and I was excited, cos I actually got paid and that was really cool. It was something new for me to learn.

I’d done so much theatre when I was younger, and dance stuff, then film was just…that was the beginning of my film school. I started working there and was so just so excited about it. They had me sewing more stuff, and then actually working on set, so I got to learn that. Then I got invited to do another film after that, and another film, so I came to learn all the different aspects of it.

And, eventually, I just really needed to be the costume designer. So that’s what I did, I just said, “I’m designing from now on”. I got to work with a lot of people, who were very stressed out in that job and I couldn’t see why. ‘What? You’re just dressing people, come on!”

So I just started designing and I had a really good break with Richard Linklater on “Dazed and Confused”. This was my first really big film. I was asked to step in and re-design it, because he wasn’t very pleased with the look that the original designer had. So, that was a wonderful opportunity. A lot of the garments I actually made by hand, just because it was my theatre background – ‘you have to have all these looks and there isn’t enough time to send them out, have them made.’ So I was just in my trailer, sewing them myself, and it just started to really come together and have this amazing sort of chemistry. And we developed just a really easy relationship at that point and I’ve since done several projects with him.


So was that all happening in Texas? When you were on the Disney movie, did you have to go out of town?

KP: No, that was in Texas. There was a really big film industry here, at the time. And it’s kind of gone up and down, just depending on the incentives. But I learned here. And then, early in my career I was really encouraged and actually told that I wouldn’t be a successful designer unless I move to New York or Los Angeles, and so I thought, ‘well OK’, sold everything I owned and moved up to New York. I had a lot of support there and actually got really good work my first weeks there. But it just didn’t feel right to me. I learned that I was very connected to the sky here and there’s so much motion of the sun, moving across the horizon, every day – and I didn’t get that in New York. It was twilight all the time. I got really depressed. So I just moved back.

I decided I had to be Austin and if I couldn’t make it as a Costume Designer, I would just work in a bookstore or something and would be just fine with that. Same thing with Los Angeles – I got a call to go out there, to design a film. I went out there to do the fittings. I had all of my costumes stolen out of the trunk of a rental car and, that was weird [laughs] “That never happened before”. I was just devastated. Then, the next time I went out, I was in a big earthquake. I thought, “Man, I don’t need to be here, either.”

Austin is a really amazing place. There’s so much creativity here – music-wise, theatre, dance. There’s a lot of experimentation. It’s a very safe place for that. There’s a lot of community support for it. And you get a chance to do some really experimental things. And that’s not really accepted in a lot of other places. Specifically, like this 12-year project, “Boyhood”. Where else could you do something like that?


Kari Perkins - Boyhood - Costume Sketch
Kari Perkins – Boyhood – Costume Sketch


It’s recorded on IMDb that your first credit is “The Hot Spot” by Dennis Hopper, but that’s not correct? You started doing stuff earlier than that?

KP: Yeah, the first thing I did was the Disney film, called “Save the Dog!”, with Tony Randall. That’s the one I did the Mime costumes for. That was my first introduction to film. And “The Hot Spot” was just after that. That was another amazing experience, because I was really green and did not have much experience on set yet. That’s kind of scary, when you don’t know the dynamics or anything. I didn’t know much about it. I’d been doing sewing and I’ve been in the trailer, and kind of behind the scenes, but never actually been on set.

Second week of shooting, the Costume Supervisor or Set Costumer couldn’t be there and they were like “Go, be the set costumer”, and I was like “OK” – went out there and had no idea what I’m doing. They gave me this big book for continuity and I don’t even know what that is yet. I don’t know, I was just going along. Virginia Madsen had come to set and she didn’t have her shoes on, and Dennis Hopper comes up to me and he says, “Where are her shoes?” and I was like “What shoes? I don’t even know what shoes she was supposed to be wearing!” He just started laughing. He thought it was hilarious. And he goes “They should be in her trailer”. OK, so I go in her trailer and was like “Ah, these”.

But yeah, it was a pretty amazing project for something so early on. It was huge that Don Johnson was in it – he was at his peak and there were crowds of thousands of people coming to see him on set, so they had to have barricades up and police, to keep people from rushing the set…It was a pretty amazing experience. I learned a lot really quickly [laughs]

There were some really talented costumers teaching me. And designers, too. The designer on that film really took me under the wing. Just really taught me a lot about film design.


Around that time, how were you getting work? Was that through an agency or just being recommended by people? Was it a very proactive time for you?

KP: Yeah, it was very proactive. It was very word of mouth. It’s pretty much the only way I’ve ever gotten work. By working with fellow crew members or with, as I became a Designer, Directors, producers – they were the ones who hired me. 


What’s your general work process?

KP: Well, they’re all so incredibly different. It’s like each project is its own entity, with its own set of problems or dynamics, because of all the people working on it are different.

Lately, I just finished a film that’s probably the biggest film I’ve ever done and is set in Austin in 1968-69, and it was recreating football games for two seasons, but there was also a whole other element to this film. It was a really dramatic story. I got to do 1950s, 1960s, 1968-69. I had stands of people – I had 400 extras, I had probably six marching bands, cheerleaders, everything. We had to make it all. But that one was very specific and historical.

When I first started working on that, I met one of the Producers and the Director – they interviewed me for the job – and we actually talked a lot about the look of the show at that point. They were really concerned about it looking very realistic. They didn’t want any sort of laugh ins or stylised 60s look, especially dealing with the protesters. You know, Austin at that time was very conservative, it wasn’t like Berkley in the 60s – there’s a whole different kind of look. I spent weeks doing research, I had a lot of information available, because the football seasons were very well documented. There were all kinds of documentaries done, film footage available from the period and certainly a lot of photographs.

So I compiled all this information – it was really extensive, because I really wanted the uniforms to look exactly right. I didn’t want anyone to be watching this movie and saying ‘That wasn’t quite right’. I wanted people to really connect with that – ‘Oh, I was in that band’ or ‘That was my football team’. I was trying to get it as close as I could. It was really fun. Making it all happen – hiring a crew, finding all the stock – I had a friend who lives up in Dallas, who’s been collecting all this time period stuff for like 20 years; full of 1960s stuff. So I just went out there, got all the stuff, shipped it back down to Austin [laughs] which was really cool, cos I’ve got an authentic look – all the stuff he found was from the area. Or even creating the fabric, because they don’t make the uniforms from the same fabric anymore, so I ended up having fabric milled.

They’re shooting on HD, so the detail has to be really spot on. When you’re watching it on big TV or even big screen, I can see that the fabrics are different. So I had fabric milled for that. I tried to use as many vintage pieces as I could – principals and certainly the background, to really help take you there. I think the HD can really pull you out and make you an observer.  That was that, its own little project.

I did a film with Atom Egoyan. There was a lot of research once again, a different time period. It’s called “Devil’s Knot” and it’s about the “West Memphis Three”. So diving into that research; trying to make it look as authentic as possible. He [Egoyan] had some very specific ideas with colour and some dream ideas, so we had a lot of discussions about that. Usually that window is really small – that you get to be creative with the Director, because once they start going to location, with all the Location Scouts, all the crew, they don’t have much time to really talk about things.

So in this little window you get to talk about all the things you can, then they’re pretty swamped. Then you’re shooting and you might get a little window like at lunch – “Let me show you these fitting pictures”, “Oh great” [laughs]. That’s about the only time you get for Design. So I try to, when I first meet someone, to really talk to them about their project when I have that one on one time.


Kari Perkins - Interview - Boyhood
Kari Perkins – On Set


When you talk about “vintage” and you talk about “authenticity” – how important is it for you to see and feel a genuine garment from, say the 1950s, versus just seeing images of them? Because, obviously, at the end of the day, it is going to be an image projected anyway, but at the same time, you might like to get a certain feel of the texture and an idea of it. How important is that?

KP: The texture is hugely important. And I was looking at band suits from the 1960s. And if you look at the fabric, it’s not just flat, it’s not just one colour, it’s like 3 or 4 colours woven together to get the overall appearance. The craftsmanship that went into the weaving of the fabric is absolutely amazing. It’s such high quality. They don’t make them that way anymore. You can’t tell, but I can. Just the feel, the smell…yeah, the wool smells [laughs] a lot differently than a blend.

So I think that’s really important and I think that it helps the actors feel more of their character. You know, the rise on the pants was around the belly button – now everyone’s trying to wear their pants low, on the hips; crotch would be by the knees… I can go around all day pulling people’s pants up [laughs] 


That’s interesting. Have you been in a situation where something might work for the Director on a wide [shot] and then, for some reason, they wanted an extreme close up of the fabric or something and the costume then has to change?

KP: Yeah, no I haven’t really experienced that. Although, I grew up working on “film” film, so it’s been quite a transition in learning to do it digitally. And the camera not only sees it differently, but also there’s so much more freedom in cheating.

Like, for example, I did “Parkland”, which was about the JFK assassination. With the film camera it is sort of like stage, almost, where you’re painting your picture, you’re lighting this particular area, you have your camera, your viewer going this way and in a big scene, you would probably know that the people in the background are not so much in focus. So you could put something that might not be so period on them, and it would be OK. But one thing I’ve noticed now is that they can have 5 cameras on a set and they can light it that way, so that old trick that they used to rely on, “Oh those guys will just be in the background”, like in the 1980s, there was a 1960s style that was pretty popular where you could find some men’s suits, that look very 60s but actually made in the 80s – fabric’s different, but it’s OK if it’s in the background.

Well, Oh my gosh, I was seeing it on the dailies, on the monitor, and I was just running and pulling these extras off the set, “We have to change them!!” The cameras were just shooting everybody, from all angles. And I had to change my technique, because even if it was beautiful what I was doing, going in on a close-up, a nervous hand with a cigarette, and it would be just the arm in the sleeve of a shirt, cufflink, all of that was so big in the frame. It was so awkward. It’s sort of guerrilla style, you don’t really know going into it that they’re going to feature that.

So I have to have someone really keen on set watching it: “oh let me switch out that cufflink, because that’s going to be close-up”. So I guess that kind of ties in a little bit with what you’re asking – just having to be really aware of what they’re doing at all times. There was a different flow with film – especially when it came time to reload the film on the camera, you had a little break. You could run back to the trailer and do something. But now there is no break – you have to just keep the flow going. Try to get everything ready before they start shooting. There’s no time to prep at all when you’re actually shooting.


Is that a regular thing that you’re seeing or hearing from other costume designers, the 5 camera thing or 3 camera thing? Is that being used on a much more regular basis?

KP: That’s just from my experience. I think it helps save time. And money. So I think people are doing that now. And, plus, with the cameras, you now have a little card [laughs] it’s not a like a big reel of film. Film was so precious, that you didn’t waste a moment. And you made sure that all those moments that you captured on film were so well planned and rehearsed, and now it’s much more freeform.

I think that’s really changed the way things are directed now, the way things are acted. It’s just moviemaking – now you can’t really call it a film, because it’s not shot on film. I’ve really seen the dynamics change. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can tell the difference. “Mud” was shot on film and it had that flow, it had a sort of slowness to it, that I think is very apparent in the movie.


Kari Perkins - Deliverance Creek - Jasper Costume Sketch
Kari Perkins – Deliverance Creek – Jasper Costume Sketch

How often do you hit a wall when it comes to budget? You obviously do all your research and you’ll have your idea of what you want for the Director and what he wants, but how often do you find that exactly those things are a struggle financially?

KP: Well, usually I get a chance to do my own budget. So, I’ll take all the parameters within the script, and the things that I think I’d need, and create a budget. Then I’ll present that to the Producers and the Line Producer, and that’s what we’ll go with. Usually, the Producers will add a cushion there, but I have a really good sense of what things are going to cost, and can kind of predict what might happen.

I really haven’t had too many situations where something new was thrown at me that was just throwing me out of my budget. If that was the case, I would go to the Producer and say ‘Oh, they just added this new scene, there’s like 15 mermaids, that’s going to cost a little bit more’, you know? And maybe they’ll talk to the Director, like ‘You can’t have 15 mermaids’, or, they’ll be like ‘OK, that’s fine, here you go’.


On the subject of working with actors, how closely are you working with them? Obviously, there would be some actors that want to work a little closer than others. Do you get into big discussions about character arcs with the Actor or is it the Director mainly?

KP: Once again, everybody is so different. I like to listen to what they [actors] have to say. It’s their character and we’re working together to help bring this character to life. A lot of actors are really intimidated by the fitting process and they can be very overwhelming, so I have a tendency to just try to do the bare minimum; just to get the look or something that feels right. Try what I think is right and work with that and see if that works with what they were thinking or feeling, and usually that’s worked out pretty well. And then, if we have more things to do, then we’ll do some more fittings. If not, then I’ll go out and find some more things.

Some actors really like to play a lot. Robert Downey Jr. was one of my favourites – he had this really crazy character in “A Scanner Darkly” and it was so much fun. He would just come into the trailer and be like – cos I have closets all developed for each character – ‘What about this and this?’ and I’d pull out the wildest things for him, ‘cos he was such a crazy character. He loved it. And I just loved having him come in. I pulled out a shirt out – we accidentally washed it with something red and the shirt turned pink! He said “I love it, I’m gonna wear it”. He was very playful.

Some actors don’t. I did fittings with Colin Firth, for “Devil’s Knot” – he plays an investigator, a private eye. There weren’t too many different looks for him. So, although there were a lot of script days for him, I just decided to do that with a few really well fitting suits, well tailored, some nice shirts, then we’d do the rest with ties. It was set in the early 1990s.

So, for our fitting, he’d just flown in from London, and was totally exhausted, so we just tried a couple of suits on him, pinned them up at the back, tried a couple of shirts on, he loved it, a couple of ties, got some shoes, got some comfort – I was like ‘OK, that’s it we’re good.’ He’s like ‘What?’ [laughs] ‘That’s it? That’s all? Oh, thank you so much’. He was so appreciative. I really had all the information I needed to make it work.

It’s always different for each person. One of my favourite stories is from the film “Bernie”, with Jack Black. He had 72 costume changes in that movie – and that’s a lot. And trying to keep it all looking within the character and make it not look like it was a billion costume changes was quite challenging. In our fittings, I was just really trying to find Bernie. And he was just looking himself, but just wearing these ridiculous Tommy Hilfiger shirts.

So I just suggested maybe if he hiked up his pants over his belly, like up to his belly button, and see what that would look like. And he did, and it kind of helped bring that character to life. He changed his stance. It was just amazing – with that one gesture and all of a sudden it all started happening. And all the clues were working perfectly. I love that – kind of magic, it’s really awesome.


On that subject, you’ve worked with some pretty well-known actors, like Matthew McConaughey, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Colin Firth – is there something in their approaches that you think makes them so special, that everybody wants to work with them or people want to watch them on screen?  And the other question is a follow up from what you mentioned about the process being intimidating – what exactly?

KP: I think the intimidating part is a lot of designers have the tendency to want to get all of the fittings set at once. Which I can see advantages to, ‘cos then you can go on with your day and don’t have to worry about it ever again. But I think that it can be a lot – it’s exhausting. To put on all these clothes, try to come up with this character; then you’re trying to get everything figured out at one moment. For me, I know that there’s evolution. As the character matures, as you get more into the project, you’re going to discover more things, more depth. So I prefer not to do everything all at once because that’s my evolution, too. As I’m looking at this character, more things will start coming up – like ‘Oh, this is perfect for this’ – you know, you just find things. I’d find this magic…this vibrating awesomeness, like ‘Oh, this is it, this is so great’ and then it plays.

So, I think it can be pretty exhausting – all these costume changes – and I think a lot of actors really dread that. Plus, dealing with new personalities – they may not know me; they don’t know how I work and so you’re being trussed into a room with someone [laughs] You don’t know what kind of issues they’re gonna have or anything. So, that can be really scary, too. So I just try to keep it light…just so I can get the information I need – how the actor would wear their clothes, how their body’s shaped, what they need and then character.

Everybody’s so different. I like to just accept people as they are. And then, we’re just really working together as a collaborative venture. And I like to get to know someone. In your fitting time, when you’re fitting with someone, you’re trying to find this character and they’re searching for that too. They’re looking for little elements and glimpses of things that are going to help them bring this character to life. And then slowly they really become that character on some level. I try not to engage too much with that process – I don’t want to destroy that magic. I don’t want to pull them out of it.

An example was on “Mud” with Matthew McConaughey. We shot for two weeks on an island and I took time off to go home and be with my family. We’d been in rural Arkansas for months and everyone was established, they had the same outfits on, so I just left it with my crew. When I came back, they’d been filming this really intense stuff on this island for two weeks, like a major part of the film, and Matthew was so much into his character – darkly tanned, dirty, his hair was long and greasy; he was just feral.

I couldn’t even say ‘Hi’ to him. He so moved into that character, became ‘Mud’, it was really profound – you can’t even make small talk. I was just in awe. Couldn’t even approach him, really. And that was out of respect, you know.

Kari Perkins - Deliverance Creek - Jasper Costume Sketch - courtesy Warner-Horizon
Kari Perkins – Deliverance Creek – Jasper Costume Sketch – courtesy Warner-Horizon


Is there a regular set of mistakes you might see aspiring filmmakers making with costume or with the films themselves?       

KP: I don’t know, ‘cos there are some really amazing costume designers – young costume designers – a whole generation. I think a lot of it is just not trying to over-think it. Just try to be as natural as possible. There’s a really big film community here in Austin, with Film school, so many talented people. Directors with really amazing ideas.

I like to encourage people to do their own films; if they want to be a designer, then do that and do it to the best of your ability. Listening, I think, is very important. Listening to the Director and not thinking you know exactly what it has to be. Because it doesn’t – everything can change. One word or one idea can bring a whole new look that you haven’t even thought of at the beginning. So, I think, flexibility is good.


“The Legend of Hell’s Gate” is obviously a period film that is much deeper into history than some of the other things you’ve worked on. How do you find working on those? In the sense that there is still photographic evidence of those periods and an established John Ford-kind of look that those movies get. What differences do you feel dipping so far into the past?

KP:  Those were really fun. I like creating stuff and I got to make so many things for that movie. It was really awesome. And the budget was very, very low, so I did a very small pull at the United American, which is a costume house in Los Angeles, then everything else I thrifted, made, scrounged, just tried to make it happen. That was fun. It’s so creative. And yeah, all the research was good.

I did another too – a lifetime TV movie, called “Deliverance Creek” – that’s very similar, a little later time period. Because it was for television, I was able to create a more modern look with the same overall feel. I really simplified the look for the main characters, and…it’s pretty awesome, I’m pretty proud of it and can’t wait to see it.

But “Hell’s Gate” was very fun. I had a very small crew, but they were very passionate and they love westerns. One of my favourite crew members was so crazy about doing westerns – that’s all she wants to do – working with the wranglers, the horses, and all that. It was really fun, I love it. The textures and painting the palette.

There was one character, who they didn’t cast until the night before. She was supposed to play the next day, I had no sizes or anything on her. But I did have a pair of pants that I found in a dress store and I loved the fabric, they were like linen, really beautiful, aged, washed beautifully. When she got there I made this outfit for her in probably like 30 minutes [laughs].

I wanted something that was home-spun looking, had a little texture, and those pants were perfect. So I cut them up, then I made the shirt for her – I just made it very boxy, fitted ir on her, she was like ‘I don’t think this is going to fit’, then I took darts in all the way around, took it in and put it on her and it was like a glove. But I loved that, it was kind of freeing in a way, kind of low budget creativity – you just have to pull from whatever sources you can find.


Kari Perkins - Deliverance Creek - Costume Sketch
Kari Perkins – Deliverance Creek – Costume Sketch


Kari Perkins - Deliverance Creek - Shooting Costume
Kari Perkins – Deliverance Creek – Shooting Costume


Do you find that with horror films or comedies e.g. the family Christmas movie “Angels Sing” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation” – the discussions are more limited than with a drama film, where the character arc might be a bit more up for grabs?  With horror, would  it be the process of dirtying up the clothes, having them ripped? Obviously with comedies there’s usually a fairly clean look, at least for most of the film…

KP: Right. Well, yeah, for “The Chainsaw Massacre” we dirtied up a lot. Of course we had to do the very last shot of the movie first. So then you kind of have to predict how dirty it’s supposed to be. And, turns out, it wasn’t anywhere near [laughs] Renée was one corsage the whole time, which was pretty ridiculous. So, she’s wearing it at the end of the movie, but she’s been through mud, chains, and just trauma, the whole show. I thought I dirtied it up so much, I worked on it so hard and then it just looks so bright and fresh, I was just ‘Uh, terrible’. We had lots of changes for her, but…yeah, they’re all different.

On “Angels Sing”, I don’t think I had any multiples on. We didn’t really have action so much in that movie. But when you think about something like “Mud”, for example, he wore one shirt, while I had to make 20 of that shirt. Because we had stunts, he rips the shirt at one point, we had to have multiples for that; multiples for just daily wear and dirt, it had to match the dirt on all the shirts every day. [laughs]

I ended up taking a leather chamois and saturating it with this stage dirt we use, with mineral oil, and making this lather (like clay almost) just so that we can control the application of the dirt on his shirt every time. So that worked really well – you’d just dirty it all over in the same consistency every time, without having to match.

But yeah, for those horror films there’s a lot of multiples – although, I don’t think there were that many on “Natural Selection” because I don’t recall that we actually saw that much blood or anything and I think all the scenes were really short. We had a lot of cameo appearances, like local celebrities and stuff – they were all interesting characters, but really short scenes. “

Chainsaw” did – for example, the prom dress, I had 5 or 6 of them made. I think the budget was like $400 or something [laughs] It was really, really low. So I made a lot of stuff from scratch myself, from fabric that I already had and found a bunch of really old 1970s tuxedos in a business in a small town – that was going out of business, so its tuxedos were like $20 apiece – powder blue, really 1970s, with the really big lapels. So that kind of dictated the look for the show [laughs]. Necessity. It was so cool. It had to be that way.


Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood - courtesy of IFC, copyright Matt Lankes
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood – courtesy of IFC, copyright Matt Lankes


Read PART 2 of Kari’s interview where she talks working on Boyhood!

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