Hi Film Folk!
So Kelli, tell us a little about your relationship to film growing up – when did you decide to become and costume designer and was that something that your family encouraged?
I grew up in Portland, Oregon. My father and mother were teachers and my father was a basketball coach. Nothing to do with entertainment. I moved to LA in my early 20s, figuring out what to do. I was interested in fashion and in actually being in Los Angeles. I was more interested in designing clothes for the screen for characters. So once I realised that (I was about 25 or 26) I just went for it. I did everything I could. I worked for free. I was out of pocket for a couple of shorts that I did. I did anything I could just to be able to understand the whole process. So then I joined the union and the guild and then one thing led to another.
Did you study Fashion, Design or Textiles or anything?
No. I did not go to school for it. I found that I learned so much as I was going along and studying in my off time. I taught myself how to illustrate, how to sew and learned a lot off stuff online. When I started out I was obviously not a designer, I was a set costumer or shopper so I just paid attention to people. Doing all the low budget and no budget stuff, to me that was school.
There’s a lot more to know than knowing about style or textiles or design because you’re not just working in a work room by yourself with a couple of tailors. You’re on set. There are so many different personalities. So I found it helpful to be on set and learn that way and learn to deal with the different personalities.
Sometimes the director has an idea, the producers have an idea, the studio have an idea, so I really have to filter my expertise through their opinions/ideas and come up with one concept.
How were you getting work around that time and since then?
After I did Chrystal, I was co-designer on a reality show and this guy Jeff Eastin was the creator. He then got a pilot in Hawaii called ‘Hawaii’ and it was supposed to be the next ‘Hawaii 5-0‘ and so he hired me to design the pilot for him. It was a big pilot – NBC’s biggest that year. That was my big break but then I wouldn’t have got that had I not done Chrystal!
When I got back in the states after a year of Hawaii, I had no agent and I had to compartmentalise who I needed to reach out to, who I could ask for favours. I made a couple of phone calls and talked to some of my peers and I hustled. I walked into an agency with a bunch of attitude and they ended up signing me.
I had 3 things on my resumé so they took a big leap of faith and sent me out for a few things. Design is not all about the technical aspect. It’s about the relationships that you make. You can be the best designer ever but if you don’t have the type of personality that people want to be around then, it’s gonna be hard to get hired because there are a lot of talented people out there.
It can be a tough business with people who don’t treat people very well and I watched people who did that and made sure that I was the opposite. I try to be kind and positive.
One of my biggest breaks was on Sons of Anarchy because I’d known Kurt from when I was a set costumer on ‘The Shield’ Season 2 and he was a staff writer and when he was doing a pilot for ‘Sons’ he wanted people that he knew. So I got a call and no one expected that show to be so crazy successful. There wasn’t a huge movie star aspect to it in the making of it. It was just a bunch of people that are very good actors, the production designer has an amazing eye, Kurt Sutter is an incredible writer, so everything just worked together in a really raw way.
In between seasons I would do more pilots and one of the pilots I did was Parks and Recreations. I did the first two seasons and that was another show that, in the comedy world, became huge. So I was doing those simultaneously. I also did the pilot for The Following by Kevin Williamson which I think was one of the best pilots I’ve ever read in my life.
I’ve just consistently kept my eye out for things that I really feel I can give my expertise to. Not every project is fit for every designer. I went for a meeting for Salem (the TV show). I thought the script was terrifyingly amazing and I didn’t get it because it was pretty far outside my wheelhouse. But I’ve learned that you’re either right for a project or you’re not so I can appreciate when someone else who’s skilled in a different way gets a job and can make it a perfect fit. We are all perfect for certain projects.”
It does interest me. I’m somebody, who on weekends, will sit around with my husband and watch Lock-Up marathons. I just love that world. One of my favourite movies is The Town, it’s the same sort of genre. It’s about some rough, sub-cultured dudes and there is an individual look to all of them even though there’s a similar vibe.
Also, being a woman, I like to be able to say “OK, I know how the guys would really dress but there’s elements about it that I think a woman wants to see too. They want to see that they’re sexy, or gritty” because let’s face it, a lot of the audience of Sons of Anarchy are female.
I think that’s the hope with everybody. Their goal is to make everything fabulous and hope that it’s the best thing it can possibly be. I did the pilot for The Following and if it had shot in LA then I would have worked on it. Kevin Williamson loved the look, Kevin Bacon loved the suit we created in the pilot and wore it for the entire series but it shot in New York.
There are also designers who just don’t click with everyone. Maybe the designs are good but they just don’t click with the lead cast. Sometimes the network decides they don’t want a certain look even though the creators and actors love it. It happens.
Of course there are designers (the same with directors) who do movies, who just do pilots and there is no way they’re gonna do the series.
A question about Parks and Recreations – how did that differ from your more cinematic projects?
In Parks and Recs, all of the characters are a little off. Lesley is a little weird, Ron is a little weird. So because their characters are off, their wardrobe needs to be off. I remember the first time I met Amy, I said I’m gonna make some crazy weird shirts with really huge bows and stuff that Lesley Knope would think is so stylish and super fashionable, that it’s gonna be funny.
Amy didn’t care, she was very open, she was like “whatever you need to do.” There was no issue of being self conscious if something didn’t fit exactly right or the hat was a little too off. She’s used to that with SNL which is very costumey!
I remember going around with my shopper and seeing something and going “Oh my God, this is horribly awful. It’s perfect!” The thing with comedy, as opposed to drama, is there is always some gag involving the clothes. There’s always something being spilled on or I have to make a walk-around Dinosaur costume. It’s a totally different muscle to Sons of Anarchy which is all about research and bringing the guys’ flair vs. my flair vs. what’s authentic in that world. Parks and Recs was very light and fun and just needed to look off.
So how did you end up working on Straight Outta Compton?
Honestly, Adam Merims – the exec producer – and he is just a genius when it comes to figuring out who will fit where on a movie and he was the one who brought in me and Shane to meet Gary. He saw the parallel between Straight Outta Compton and Sons of Anarchy and loved the sub-culture. He also knew that Gary was a fan of Sons of Anarchy.
There was a big approval process but they know that Kurt (Sutter – creator of Sons of Anarchy) is very specific, so they knew I knew how to deal with a very specific vision. Adam brought me in for a meeting and I did my presentation. I’d brought in a board of N. W. A. and of Sons of Anarchy and showed how we could take what was real in the 90s but how we could make creative license so that it would resonate with the kids today.
I got a call about a week later to put together a presentation for Donna Langley (President of Universal) and so I put one together and emailed it as a powerpoint and then there was another week of waiting and I finally got the phone call saying ‘Donna approved you! You’re doing N.W.A.‘
So what’s the first thing you did creatively on this movie? What was the prep time?
Well unfortunately we had a very short prep time – about 6 weeks. The costume supervisor broke down the script and said we have something like 550 costumes. So I went and met with Dre and Cube at Dre’s studio for a Q and A on what you would like us to hit, what you’d like us to bring out, what you’d like us to leave out – you know, find out what vibe they wanted it to be. Then, I started with the boys. I had to get stuff made, I had to call resources to get them to ask around for throwback sweatshirts and I had to get the Raiders gear re-made. It was a mad house!
About a week and a half after that, I brought the boys in for a fitting, one-by-one. I’ve never had a fitting last so long (it was 3-4 hours) because they had something like 40 changes (when we finished the movie each guy had had 60-70 changes each! And the total changes ballooned to 866!) There was a lot of pressure on Gary to do this movie right. Some of it we could take creative license with but a lot of it there might be ‘I want Eazy’s outfit to look the same as in that picture’ . I had to make a lot of outfits that were exactly the same as the pictures. Eazy’s shirt that says Eazy. Cube had a shirt that says ‘I heart my attitude’ and that had to be re-made. For 40 changes I had to give at least 120 options.
Then it came to guest cast. I think Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) had over 30 changes when he got cast. The casting was very last minute – the leads were cast but Suge, for example, was cast the day before he worked.
The hats were a big deal because the guys wore wigs. Shea’s wig was big. There’s no snapback on the planet that was gonna fit his head with the wig on it. We had to keep doing it with the wig, without the wig, with different hats. We actually joked that one of our trailers could have been a hat store, there were so many!
Crew-wise, it was me, my supervisor (who did a lot of the research and all the uniforms as there were so many cops and different states) and I had an assistant designer who was working on set and a shopper that was only part time. She didn’t even work the last 3 weeks because it wasn’t a big budget movie.
It was $29m and when we first started it was only $20m. We had to extend the shooting schedule due to changes and additions in the script And the script was literally changing the entire time we were shooting, I mean literally the entire time. There would be days where I would get a call on Friday and they were like ‘oh by the way we’ve moved the pool party scene to Monday’ and the pool party scene had like 400 people and I needed to get 80s bathing suits, so there wasn’t a single weekend where me and my team were not working. It was insane!
I would go in and show Gary (and if Dre or Cube were there, them too) all the photos and all the drawings for the next shooting day (each character had 5 changes and 5 options for each change!) and one day I went in and saw Gary and Dre and Gary was like “Man, just know Kelli, that after this, every movie you do will be the easiest thing you’ve ever done in your life” and I was like “yeah”. There’s no comparison. I was up at 4am every single morning and would not be home until 9 or 10pm at night and that’s if we weren’t shooting nights. Nights, I wasn’t sleeping! Everyone was stretched thin because the pressure and the scrutiny the movie would be under if we didn’t make it right would be huge.
What advice would you give to an aspiring Costume Designer?
I would say get out there as soon as you can and just work for anybody who will let you, for free. Personally, I think it’s the best way to learn, it’s the best way to meet people. Do shorts for no money. Borrow everything you can, if there’s no budget then go into people’s closets. A lot of the time on those low budget projects the actors understand. I’ve gone over to their houses and looked through their closets. Really the best thing to do is offer your services for nothing and then it literally will spider web from there.
Also just have a positive attitude. Everything is so tense and everything needs to be done perfectly and right now and there never seems to be enough money. It’s really easy just to be negative because it’s hard and it’s long hours and a lot of people are away from their families but if you come in and you’re new and you’re fresh and you just have a super positive attitude, people will want to keep you around.
Do everything you can. Hustle
If you have films you think all costume designer or filmmakers should most certainly view?
Straight Outta Compton is out now internationally.