In Conversation: Kari Perkins (Costume Designer of Boyhood, Devil’s Knot, Mud) Part 2

Hi Film Folk!

Earlier this week we offered you Part 1 of our interview with the sublime Kari Perkins – the Costumer Designers Guild Awards nominee for Boyhood.

Well today we bring you the second (and final) part. If you missed Part 1, check it out here!


Kari Perkins - Interview - Boyhood
Kari Perkins – Interview – Boyhood


So coming to Mr. Linklater – you’ve worked with him on pretty much every movie, right? Except for “Slacker”

KP: I did actually work on “Slacker”. A friend at the time was in it. They had to go back and reshoot something and he had a really scruffy moustache and beard, and he’d shaved it for another role – so I made a prosthetic one, for this little part they had to reshoot. And that was the first time I really talked to Rick – because he didn’t realise it was fake, until it was later in the day and it was sort of peeling off, and I’d given some balm or something to stick it back on.

So Rick called me that night and was so appreciative that I’d helped and we talked for an hour about costume and all these ideas he had, like these high school girls that out dress each other or something. And we just talked and talked. I’d seen him before but didn’t really know him very well.

There was a coffee house and above it they would show films – I guess it was the beginning of a film society – and we would go up and watch all these 16 mm films and stuff. So that was the first time I really worked with him – well, I got a special thanks at the end of “Slacker” for that. But yeah, “Dazed” was really the first one.

I didn’t do any of the “Midnight” series – he would hire some local costume designers. In fact, we were supposed to do it in San Antonio – the very first one was written for San Antonio. But then they got funding from Vienna, to go film it there and they had to hire local crew, so I didn’t get to go. I was kind of bummed, but anyway. And then he did that awesome “Me and Orson Welles” which he also shot in Europe and hired another local costumer for…So he’s done a few – “School Of Rock” – I didn’t do. But all the other ones, here in Texas.


What do you think makes you and Richard work together on such a regular basis? Is it a love of film or love of costume? That’s maybe not the best question in the world, but there’s obviously a reason why you continue to work together – is it anything you’ve thought about before?

KP: Well, Rick is a very unique and certainly shaped my film career. Very early on, I’ve done a lot of films and there’s a lot of belittling on set, yelling, freaked out costume designers – just a lot of negativity. And then working with Rick – I got “Dazed and Confused” and it was so awesome. Like, here’s a director that can just tell you what he wants. And, you know, really laid back. And the whole vibe was so positive, and it felt so great.

Then, after the success of that film, I was getting a lot of calls to do a lot of films – and the environment wasn’t as nice. There was a lot of yelling, a lot of people didn’t know what they were doing and it got to the point of being unsafe on set, you know, stuff like that.

I finally just decided I would just hang out and wait for Rick to do a film. I didn’t have to have a whole career of doing a million films, you know, and I could do other things. So I did – I started a bridal gown business, doing custom gowns in between films. And I would just hang out and wait for Rick, because it was so much better.

Making films is really intense anyway, just the nature of it, and it can be done in a really cool way – I’ve seen that and I’ve experienced that, and I was like ‘That’s what I want my film experience to be like’. So I would just hang out and wait for him to do one. And, we really resonate well together – we’ve got a very similar idea, I think, about the way things need to look. And a very natural approach.

And I work really well with the actors, so I think that really helps the whole feeling of the environment on set. The actors are happy, they’re feeling like their characters and that helps him do his job. I think we really work well together that way. So, I didn’t take many other films, other than Rick’s films for a long time.

I had 3 daughters – 2 of them during the filming of “Boyhood” – and he was totally allowing of that, too. Like, I think Patricia Arquette and I were both pregnant, we didn’t even know it, for maybe like the first or second year we were filming and the next year we both had a baby daughter [laughs]. Then, I think I grew more as a costumer and he was better able to choose projects and those were better projects for me.

And since then I found some really cool directors and producers to work with, that aren’t Rick, but it’s always like family, whenever he does call – it feels easy, there’s no ‘great unknown’, no big surprises are going to happen [laughs] weird personalities or anything. I just know. Like, I’m prepping a job right now for him – we’re starting another film – I know he’s really busy, doing touring, promoting “Boyhood”, so I haven’t even had a chance to meet with him about the look of it [laughs], but I have an idea of what it’s supposed to look like, so I’m going ahead with my research for it.

Then I’ll have a nice presentation for when he gets back and we do get to meet, and I get my little window of time – plenty of time to get all my questions together.


It’s not “Boyhood” 2 is it? Or “Manhood”?

KP: [laughs] No, I wish though – I miss that. I miss it so much and it’s been really interesting because it is so emotional for me. Like, I couldn’t even talk about it before it was released or hear any reviews. It was like…our thing. I don’t know. It was really hard to share it – I was nervous about sharing it with everybody. It could’ve easily been panned so hard.

I put so much love into it… In fact, I just got a letter from Rick, kind of explaining it and it’s hard to put it into words, but when you do something like that, it was like a movie times twelve. Every year, it was a little film. And then we would do it again – another little film. But you never really got your closure on it.

We just finished it this year and then it was just, boom! Out there. And it’s been so well received. But, you know, it’s so emotional. So much of my life is tied up in it and I think that everyone who watches it feels that, too. Like, that’s their life, too – ‘we were alive and doing this while this is being filmed too’. But I think that’s part of the appeal of it.

It’s a really unusual project. I’d love for him to do it again, but he hasn’t, so we joked about it, but… It would be cool, though – it’s like family, we’d always get to do something fun, especially in the Dad years. Like with the Dad you always get to do something cool, like go to Houston to the Butterfly museum, or go to a baseball game, or camping, you know.

All night, we were out, just playing guitar, under the stars, with the big pretend Moon we made…


Awesome. A pretend Moon?

KP: For lighting [laughs]. Beautiful moon, they fill up with light and suspend it. It’s helium filled, so…


Boyhood - courtesy of IFC, copyright Matt Lankes
Boyhood – courtesy of IFC, copyright Matt Lankes


On “Boyhood”, how much of it was planned out and how much had to be done each year? For example, I think Richard said in an interview that he had an overall scenario…

KP: Yeah, he had his basic idea and he had sort of a flow that he wanted with the characters, but I think that even evolved yearly. He would talk to Ethan [Hawke] or Patricia [Arquette] pretty extensively beforehand, about where they thought this was going this year, and so he would develop a script at that point.

Then, he’d sometimes be writing the script just as rehearsals were going, just before we started shooting. So he’d have his treatment – and I’d get the treatment, and I’d go in and talk to him, “What are we doing this year?” We’d have a chat about where these characters are going, what we wanted to show, and I’d go out and find the clothes that I thought would represent that year – really trying to get things to be of the moment, so that after 12 years you look back, and it’s “Oh my God, I can’t believe they were wearing that”; something a little trendy, but not too trendy, to take you out of the moment – just to make it look really natural.

I think we totally did that with the sets and everything – just trying to make it look as if it was almost documentary style.

It’s interesting that no one mentions it, but we costumed everything. I got to go back and see the footage – because they would always piece together all the film for the year, just a rough cut – so I’d go back and look at it, just making sure that I wasn’t backing up a stripe shirt to a striped shirt; make sure that there was a flow costume-wise. And it was hard to see that – like, I couldn’t see it in Rick’s mind, how he was going to put it all together.

It was really quite a surprise to see it screening, the final cut of it.


That must’ve been tricky – the fashion. Because, obviously, year in and year out, you want stuff not to feel too dated, but then the change can’t be something too significant. Like, you can’t predict what will put something in its period.  White T-shirts have been going around since the 1950s, whereas a reference to, say, a video game could put it in its period.

KP: It’s interesting how quickly technology changed during that time period. I think that’s represented in the film, too – just naturally, because it was. That was a pretty profound experiment for us [laughs]

I feel like I miss my film family, you know, although I’ll be working with Rick again. But that was a really special group and we just all grew so much together over that period of time.


Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood - courtesy of IFC, copyright Matt Lankes
Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood – courtesy of IFC, copyright Matt Lankes


Going back to “A Scanner Darkly” – how did it work, knowing the eventuality of live tracing? How did that affect your job?

KP: I talked with the animators and asked them what kind of things would really show, like what would be a fun thing to animate. Because they would have arduous work on one character, for one scene and they would just do all the drawings for that. So I tried to use textures to kind of help add dimension to the whole scene.

It was fun, because I got to create a lot of T-shirts for that and I made stencils – I have one which I love, which had a giant cockroach going up. Woody Harrelson had that.

Or the Illuminati shirt, which was one of my favourite parts about the animation. That was the one that Robert Downey Jr wore. He’s in a café and he’s talking to Rory Cochrane – he’s all itchy, just twitching all over – and the shirt has got the pyramid with an eye on and it was moving around in animation. It was just totally out of…it looked alive. It was really different, but I loved that – you could take a lot of liberty with a lot of the work.

I kind of went with an 1980s look for all of the men’s suits and everything, cause I thought that probably, if everything is going in cycles and that’s supposed to be 2011 – and when we shot it, it seemed like it was so far in the future – I was like ‘well maybe that 1980s look will be really in, in 2011’. Plus it was available [laughs].

And then we had to create that scanner suit. We didn’t really know what that was going to be, that look. They experimented with many, many different styles for that suit, which was all the different faces, so I ended up creating just a shiny meshed suit that zipped up at the back, that just completely covered the face and the arms and everything. It looked kind of gelatinous or something. It was really kind of fun. So they filmed in that and they animated all the different faces over it. I think that you’re still aware of the suit in there. I loved that.

Working with Winona Ryder – she’s used to really high end stuff and my budget for this was something like $10,000, for the whole movie, which is really low. And she brought this Prada dress, the price tag still on it, basically more than my entire budget for this dress and she’s like “I wanna wear that” and I’m like “well this is an animated thing, you won’t be even able to tell that it’s a Prada dress” [laughs]. 

But she felt more comfortable in high end clothes, so we started working with it and ended up cutting it, and putting  it backwards, making it look completely different to how it was intended [laughs]. But my Producer helped out with that, she covered the cost of that dress. But it was so important for her to wear this high end fashion outfit. 


What skills or tools should an aspiring costume designer have available to them? Skill-set or knowledge, but also physical staples that you feel are needed – say, they haven’t gone to film school or costume college, but thinking “I would like to do that, but I don’t really know what I need to do”.

KP: Listening is very, very key. You get a lot of information just by listening to what the actors have to say. Listening to what the Director has to say – and just assimilating that information and then using that to help you create your designs. I think I learned so much – and such better characters come out – by listening.

Learning to research is good. I have to breakdown the script every time, there’s a lot of paperwork involved. Keeping your sanity [laughs] in filmmaking, because they don’t ever shoot in sequence. That’s a big part of what I do – I’ll take the script and break it down, then use that information to create like a continuity bible.

So we have each character and all the scenes that they’re in in this particular outfit. Because they shoot by location – so they’ll shoot all the scenes in that one location, in this particular outfit, but then you might have 3 outfits in that location, so you have to take really detailed notes about who’s wearing what when, so you don’t get it mixed up.

It’s so easy to send someone on set in the wrong outfit. “Oh my gosh [laughs], they’re wearing the wrong thing.” And that embarrasses the actor, and it takes more time. So you have to make really good notes.

There’s a certain formula that has been developed for those kinds of things. So writing all that stuff out is really important – and it keeps you on track. When you start shooting, things get really crazy. And you’re tired. So it’s so easy to make a mistake.

Costuming, I always think about the sound department. If you ever get a chance on set to put the little headset on, you can hear what they can pick up in those microphones and it’s absolutely mind-boggling. So I’m always sensitive to that – I try not to use fabrics that make a lot of noise or rustle, cause a lot of people wear LAVs, body mics, so you can hear rustling against the shirt. I try to use natural fibers.


If there is one piece of advice you could give to a Writer/Producer/Director, what would it be?

KP: Well, two things. One, try to get some experience on a film crew, in some aspect – no matter if it’s camera assistance or a PA, or craft service or anything, that will give you a better sense of what really happens. Because it’s so much work and some producers that have never worked on a film beforehand, don’t have any idea. They’re not sympathetic when somebody comes to them and says ‘I’m gonna need this’, they’re like ‘Why do you need that, that’s ridiculous’.

Well, I do need it, that’s why I’m here asking for it and you don’t know because you’ve never worked on a film set. But really, it would give them a broader sense of what goes on behind the scenes. 

They think we’re just sitting there, smoking cigarettes, kicking it back in the trailer, you know [laughs] but listen, it’s so much work. In all the departments. That’s really not that apparent – all you see is the magic.

And another piece of advice would be ‘Don’t micromanage’. You hired a professional studio mechanic to do a job, let them do it. 

A lot of times people get really overexcited – like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna produce, I’m gonna do film’ – and then they want to get their hands in every single aspect, but the hardest part is to step back and oversee. You’re looking at the monitor and you see something that you don’t particularly like, then you can say ‘That’s not quite right, can you do something to change that.’

Usually, the person who’s responsible for that will be right on it – ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying. Sure, let’s go, move that’ [laughs]. It’s an amazing collaborative process.     


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


THANK YOU so much, Kari, and good luck at the Costume Designers Guild Awards 2015

If you missed the first part of Kari’s interview, take a look here.


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