Hi Film Folk!
To celebrate the UK release of Steve Jobs, the film doctor team have added to our interviews by chatting with award-winning costume designer Suttirat Larlarb about her craft, career and working with Danny Boyle!
So you were born in North Carolina and raised in Ventura County. Tell us a bit about your background – did you come from a creative family, what was your relationship to film growing up and when did you first realise that film was the industry for you?
I did not come from a creative family at all. I came from a very practical family. My father, who is no longer with us, was a heart surgeon and my mother was an economist. They met in the states and were both from Thailand. I was born in North Carolina. I was trained as a young kid in this very education-oriented family to go into something practical like medicine or law or physics [laughs].
I had a babysitter once who was always sketching while she was looking after me and I was always trying to impress her by copying her sketches and it stuck. So I’d always had a proclivity towards drawing. I think what I inherited from my parents is probably their work ethic. That’s the thing that’s transferred from what they did to how I approach my work – which is a very very serious, intense, long-hour work ethic, in lieu of a creative background. I think you can be a brilliant, creative person but not necessarily have the endurance for the long intense hours that film requires, so I’m grateful that I inherited that from my parents.
I grew up in Ventura where my father’s medical practice was and although I grew up there, I went to school in LA and went to a high school that was filled with lots of the sons and daughters of Hollywood. I felt very apart from them because I didn’t live in LA. I wouldn’t even say that turned me onto film, it probably deflected me [laughs]. I never felt like I fit in as a teenager very much and always wanted to, as an adult, leave Los Angeles to see and feel what the rest of the world was like.
I knew I wanted to do some sort of Art practice. I went to graduate school on the east coast for Costume and Set Design and after I finished that Masters I had a choice whether I would move to New York like all my classmates and try to jump start a career there as an assistant or something but at the time there was so much coming out of Great Britain. It was the 90s and I was such a fan of British music and fashion and art and I always read i-D and The Face as a teenager, so England always had this attraction to me. I was able to get a student visa to move to London with no real connections or anything. I just decided that’s where I had to be because that’s where everything I was interested in was happening.
I moved with one of my roommates in graduate school – she’s a British playwright – into a place in London. I took tiny little jobs. I met a props stylist for commercials and worked with him for a while. I worked for a British designer for theatre and opera for a long while and then eventually came across somebody who knew Danny Boyle and Andrew McDonald who were getting ready to start The Beach and my ears pricked up because obviously I have a Thai background and I was an American living in London and it’s a film about an American living in Thailand.
In my head I made a mission to somehow get on that film and weirdly at a party I met somebody who knew somebody and I was introduced to them and I ended up starting at the lowest rung on the Art Department on that.
I kind of made myself invaluable as I had my Thai language skills. When that film ended, I moved back to England and more opportunities were open after that.
It’s interesting because you’re the first person we’ve interviewed who started in LA and moved to London for a break!
Yes. I would even say my approach to how I read the script the first time is very British. My first main design mentor was British production designer John Beard who for a long time worked with Terry Gilliam and has just done The Lady in the Van. John took me on as an assistant on one of my first jobs when they were prepping ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’.
How did you get work in the early days?
I have a practical answer and an impractical answer. The practical being putting yourself in front of people that might be able to help. You voraciously read the trades to find out what’s happening and is there any vague connection you might have. One of the things that helped me was a college friend (I went to college in the bay area) was working at Henson’s in LA and knew I was moving to London and tried to get me an interview at Henson’s in London. I never worked there but, through that, I got something. You just kind of put the tendrils out there and I think if you’re willing to do that and make an impression of some sort, something or someone will allow you to access something.
So read the trades, cold call people. I also had the theatre background and I think luck played a part just as much as hard work. When I first moved to London a lot of my American friends would come to visit me and one of them had assisted this theatre designer – Richard Hudson – who had designed The Lion King when it was in New York. She came and wanted to have dinner with him while she was in London, so I came with her to dinner and at that time he was just changing the guard for his assistants and I was sat next to his partner who said ‘Oh, so you have the same training as Catherine – Richard’s looking for a new assistant why don’t you talk to him. So I ended up becoming his assistant.
I had fingers in film and theatre. It wasn’t like I was unable to support myself because nothing was happening on the film front. I always had something small on the go. It was definitely hand-to-mouth, eating just one egg and cress sandwich a day for a while though.
You started in the Art Department. Was Costume Design something that had been percolating for a while and was always the end game?
One of the reasons I moved to England to begin with was that my training in the US for theatre was both costume and sets but in the US those things are very compartmentalised, so it’s very weird or rare for someone to do both in theatre or film. A lot of that has to do with the union system here (it’s two jobs, so you’re taking a job away from somebody if you’re doing both) but also it’s just a mindset thing.
In Europe and the UK, at least in the performing arts theatre (dance, opera), you often will see that the productions just say ‘Designer’ and that person is responsible for the scenography, which is the world, the environment and the people who populate it. So one of the reasons I even moved to England was because I couldn’t foresee a future where I had all this training and then had to pick one. All my favourite designers weren’t costume designers or set designers, they were just designers. So that was one of the big impetuses for me to come to England.
When I started in film I had to pick one and I felt that the translations between costume for stage and screen were less filled with gaps in my knowledge than the translations of sets for a stage and sets for a camera. The human eye vs. the camera’s eye. So I wanted to train myself to fill those gaps in my vocabulary that I didn’t have training for. That’s why I wanted to start in the Art Dept.
So when did you start making that transition into Costume Design and how did you go about that?
Well in the time between doing Art Dept gigs in film, I was costume designing for theatre. So while all that’s happening, I have this simultaneous career as a costume designer for theatre in the states. So bubbling in the background it’s going on. I will credit Danny Boyle for bringing me into costume on film because he knew me in the art department and I was working for John Beard for several productions.
Danny was starting up Sunshine and there was this spacesuit in the film which he always described as a ‘wearable set’ – there needed to be a costume designer but he needed the costume to have some sort of technical element to it. He didn’t know that there was a costume designer out there that had that same ability to think about things technically rather than just the ‘soft stuff’ and he knew that I did both. He is also generally just very generous in giving his collaborators a say in everything.
I hadn’t worked with him for 5 or 6 years at that point and I certainly wasn’t at that level, so I jumped at the opportunity and that was the beginning of it. What’s funny is I worked on Sunshine and I came to the US with one Costume Designer credit under my belt and I tried to get more films as a costume designer but nobody would hire me as one because they only knew me as an Art Director. They were like ‘that doesn’t make any sense. Of course you can’t do costume, you’re an Art Director!’
From then onwards, you singularly did Costume Designing in film, except on 127 Hours where you did both (Production and Costume Design). How was that?
The scale of 127 Hours allowed me to do both. There was obviously, for the most part, one actor who went through levels of change. There were probably actually about 60 characters in that but they’re mostly one little thing – iconic memories etc. In terms of the costume load it was unusually minimal. The set was actually quite complicated because we shot it in Utah and we were meant to start shooting in the desert for the lead up to his entrapment first (all EXT stuff) and we started prep in December or January and we were waiting for the snow to melt.
Meanwhile there were two canyon sets. One was what we called the ‘acting set’ and the other was called the ‘action set’ – anything involving stunts or effects or any action/moving around in the canyon was in the action set and then there was the acting one where James Franco is literally trapped in there. The set didn’t move. We needed to create the necessary stasis, for the crew, for him, for everything. So there were two canyons, side by side, that we had built. so that was always going to take a long time to get right, to match the canyons properly, to have them tie in to the real location. We were never going to shoot in the real location, it would be much too difficult to shoot something like that, on many levels.
We had this plan for how we were going to do it but the snow never melted and it was the longest winter in south eastern Utah’s recorded history. So the schedule just completely flipped and we had to do interior stage stuff first, which meant we had to turn those sets around in half or quarter of the time we had to actually do it. We had round the clock crews. We also had two cinematographers on that and two main units filming (it wasn’t first and second unit, it was Red Unit and Blue Unit).
So for me, in addition to wearing two design hats, it was like two films. It was seven days a week and twenty hours a day (because I was checking in on the build when the night crew would come in, answering questions so that the morning crew would be ready). We never work on big budgets, it’s always around $20m or less. It required a lot more attention than something like that probably would if you spread it out in a kind of humane way [laughs].
The scope of it was contained though it was very intense within the short period of time we had to accomplish what we needed to do. I had very good help, a great local Utah team who were very excited to be a part of it. They were great.
I had my lieutenant in the art department, a fantastic Art Director named Chris De Muri, and my lieutenant in the costume department and it was a woman who I really inherently trusted. Having good, trustworthy, creative people around you allows you the proper support to take on a huge endeavour since you feel that your team are working to faithfully execute your vision with your reciprocal trust and creative guidance.
Do you have a sort of go-to standard starting process when you start a project?
The very first jumping off point is the script. I get the script and read it once to just read it. I read it again technically and start constructing all my lists of things like ‘how many story days?’ ‘how many changes does this character have?’ ‘what year is it?’ ‘are there any cues about the set?’
So I break down the script for technical reasons and end up with about 6 sections of a notebook going on simultaneously where questions start to emerge for various people involved with the film (the director, the costume designer, the production designer, the actors). That’s the only time I’m operating in a vacuum. I try and set a good couple of days to really break it down properly so that the next time I meet anybody else (mainly the director and line producer) I’m armed with so much knowledge.
I do the breakdown in writing as there’s something that happens between the pen and the paper that helps. If I do it this way then I’ve digested what this film is and know it inside and out very very early on.
Now, of course, all of that changes in pre-production. The script sometimes changes drastically. By the time you get hired and are starting, the director and a few other key people have been on it for sometimes years. They know it and they’re thinking about it and I kind of want to get as close to that level of trying to talk about it without having to flip through pages and going ‘oh you know that character on that page?’ I want it indelibly stained on me.
That’s the first thing I do and that might be the only standard for everything. Depending on what the subject is I then embark on an intense period of research. If I can meet anybody who has anything to do with the subject matter, I do. For example, I did a film for directors that I work frequently with in New York and we were doing a film about this family called the ‘Loud Family’ who were thought of as the first reality television family in the 70s in America. I went to meet the original documentarians of the family and they showed me all the material that they’d kept over the decades. Sometimes it’s first hand like that, other times it’s purely looking through troves and troves of photographs.
I try not to, unless it requires it, to look at fashion magazines as there is already a level of interpretation of a time. I tend to want to work on things where the directors expect a level of honesty about the characters that’s not just about a superficial style. Of course, if you’re inventing something then maybe I will look at those things but I tend to look at snapshots. Real moments in people’s lives. Sometimes that’s digitally, sometimes through photography books, sometimes through a community of collaborators who all call each other and ask if any of us have anything of diners in the 1930s or whatever. I do a long period of research and it never stops throughout the film.
Depending on what the subject matter is I do try and steep myself in as much 2D knowledge about that thing. I had a very nice compliment from Robert Zemeckis when I started on The Walk because of how deeply I go into research. One of our first meetings I had huge binders of research that were organised in chronological order to the script, delving deeply into things that weren’t too obvious in the documentary.
He was so happy with the level of research that he said ‘I’ve been working on this project for twelve years and I haven’t seen some of these photos. How did you find that?’ Chewing into that is very fulfilling. You become a mini expert on a particular subject. That’s the thing I love about this job.
Speaking of Jobs (excuse the terrible joke), your latest film was shot as 3 scenes in 3 sections with rehearsal breaks between them. Did that make things a bit of a luxury in comparison traditional back-to-back shooting?
There is a knee jerk response to that – ‘Great, this’ll be somewhat more humane than it usually is!’ – because you have breaks between each filming section. You start one thing and then finish it, so there’s no continuity nightmare. You’re just starting things, going through them in relatively chronological order (which is a God send and very rare), finishing it and leaving it behind and now you only have two things left to do.
So on paper and in your imagination it sounds really luxurious but, in reality, what it is is prepping three different films with a lot of prep for the first section and then only two weeks of prep to do the last two.
There’s a momentum that happens in prep. You start with everything on your to do list and then from T minus a week or two you start to focus in on the first day and what you need for it and the rhythm changes so you’re wondering what happens the next day and the next couple of days rather than the whole film. You’re just trying to get through it and maintain it and things are changing, so you can’t really prep for the whole thing. You’re revising your momentum and your energies are directed more specifically as you get closer to the actual day.
So that momentum happens and usually it’s just the prep phase and then you have 10 or 12 weeks of filming and get into a ‘shoot mode’ momentum where, as a head of a department, you’re still prepping for things down the line but you’re also in ‘shoot mode’ so you know the attentions of the director and the cinematographer are going to be very contained.
So you’re very targeted about what you do each day. But on this, that momentum changes because you have this spurt of activity, finish that and then you have to do it again – go back to the old momentum and have a more compressed version of that, leading up to another start where you have to gear up and get into that mode again and it’s a completely different film essentially and then you do it again and it really is weirdly not comfortable [laughs]. It’s not terrible or anything, it was just a different challenge that you couldn’t foresee.
That’s one of the in-built great things about working with Danny. Whether intentionally or not, he always builds in a challenge, so that nobody can rely on their jaded version of how they’ve done it before and actually for something like the subject of Steve Jobs it’s perfect because you’re just constantly looking forward and never looking back which is exactly what Steve Jobs would have done.
Danny somehow finds some sort of universal truth about the subject and infuses the way we prepare in that manner so that the whole production process is similar to the theme of the film.
Other than the 3 segments are there other challenges that you face doing long continuous scenes which you feel the average Joe might not know about?
Yeah, there are different kinds of challenges. Obviously there’s a challenge for the actors, as they’re used to the small pockets of things that they do that they can connect together and make a continuous performance (which I’ve never understood how they can do as it’s so bitty and out of order) but obviously Michael Fassbender had to know the script inside out from day one so that filming could happen in that continuous line that it needed to was a feat to behold every day.
In terms of the design and the crew and the challenge that creates is. when you’re doing a film traditionally, when it’s out of order, it keeps people on their toes because you have to be so prepared and organised with how things tie together and fit together in the bigger picture so that you’re always making the right decisions. A lot of time you’re mitigating mistakes. You’re thinking about continuity and how this has to match and so much of your prep is about making that fit together from a big jumble.
But on something like this where you’re doing it sequentially, because you think you can relax on that account a little bit, I actually think the danger is with this because you’re not having to work out the next 10 steps of the day, because you know it’s going to go in order maybe the challenge is to make sure that you’re still up on your toes on every moment. Very, very long takes or resetting things, the challenge is to keep the level of intense focus and attention to detail.
You can’t ever really relax on a Danny film because he’ll always throw something at you because he’s constantly thinking of how he can improve things. Maybe there’s something that he wants to do tomorrow that you’d really, really prepared for but suddenly he’s changed that thought, like ‘I saw this thing on TV last night and maybe we should do this instead’. So you’re never not on your toes with him but if you had the misgiving of thinking you could relax a bit because it was in chronological order, the challenge was to not get too secure about that.
Also, other than a few key creatives it was a completely new crew. Working in San Francisco it was working with the locals and working with people who aren’t actually used to the way Danny works. They all loved it, he makes sure everybody has a stake in things. He’s very trusting and generous.
You mentioned research, how much did you go for matches and how much ‘off book’ so to speak? Obviously there’s the Steve Jobs turtle neck etc.
Well the turtleneck was the off book decision. In those 3 actual launches, in real life, he never wore that. In the 1998 portion of the film, in real life he was wearing a dark greyish/brownish suit. We made it for him as a back up idea in case we needed to adhere to it. As we got closer to the time of filming, I thought we’d set up rules for 1984, we’d set up rules for 1988 – there’s so much of the film that’s about design and he was about design – so you have to obey certain things about the design of those periods.
He is changing over these 3 decades, I wanted him to go from being someone who needed to fill out a suit that didn’t quite, someone who suddenly gets a lot of money and can afford one but it’s not quite him yet, to someone who just is so natural. 1998 wasn’t 1998 for me, it was the future. So we’re very, very doggedly 1984, doggedly 1988 and then when we got to 1998, I kind of made it feel honest to the 90s at the turn of the century but specifically made it about the rest of his tenure and the future, so that’s why the turtle neck and jeans combo came about. In reality he wasn’t wearing that.
I look at pictures for details but I also look at their expressions and what’s happening in the picture. I think good costume design comes from the level of observation – not just looking at aesthetics but also character. I found some pictures of him from the 80s and he really looks like a different person. He looks like he has ambition but he also looks like he’s trying to figure out how to play the game a bit.
There are things like that, that might bore most people but it can help – like making his suit a little too big for him, which you hope subliminally will help some tension where you want it to be.
The general rule was 16mm for ’84, 35mm for ’88 and then digital for ’98. I think we questioned it a few times because of flashbacks within a later period to an earlier one.
In terms of how it affects what I do, because of that shift there were already camera tests planned for hair and make up and art department. So I made sure to get in on that. Because we’re residing with Steve Jobs throughout, I made sure we had key things – like his ties- ready to be tested on the film stock we were using. I tested various ties. The first tie in ’84 is pale pink and pale green. We made a few that had more green, more pink, some with the diagonal lines going one way, some with them going the other.
Like with 127 Hours, you’re living with that thing for 90 minutes – or in this case 35 minutes, or however long each section is – and I looked at the results and tried to work out what I could live with the longest without it getting distracting or annoying. Nobody else is looking at it like that but I try and make decisions that don’t take you out of the film or catch your eye if you drift out of it – not that you would on any of Danny’s films!
On The Walk – which was on 3D – the first time I saw it I was amazed at texture. Chunky sweaters were so chunky. Suddenly you’re being punched in the face with a cable knit [laughs]. Surface and relief are going to behave differently in 3D, so it’s just finding the right things that you want to say with texture. You always want to give things texture so that it’s not so ‘sitcom flat’ – block colours and things. I like a level of interest. Not too much so that it’s nauseating but real.
HD and 3D are now factoring into the things that I pick. It’s pretty amazing what you have to consider. You become a de facto painter in that way because you’re composing things and you also have to be, I think, more informed than not with what the set decoration is. There are patterns and textures to consider and control on every visual surface, whether architecture, décor, or clothing fabrics.
I became very sensitive to that with 127 hours because he’s literally not going anywhere for 90 minutes and the colour of his T shirt up against the sandstone of the canyon walls, it was going to relentlessly be this pink colour. This salmonly hot colour. You need to have relief from that in some places.
You teach University students. What would you advise outside of the syllabus?
It’s interesting because of how I came to be in this industry – which took a lot of grit – the thing I like to tell people is that you have to have a level of faith that things are gonna work out. You have to have that unspoken drive in believing that things will pan out.
I remember Terry Gilliam being asked about his career and he said ‘I’ve never had a career. Every single film is the first film and probably the last one I’ve ever done’. That’s exactly how I feel and I try to tell my students this. You have to be able to withstand the low points and trust that something will happen.
It’s not a blind trust. You’ve got to be keeping yourself busy somehow. The dangerous thing with film programs and certainly this generation, there’s an expectation that you just tick these boxes and it’s just there for you. Sure, there’s truth in that for some people but generally it’s just a bit of hard work, luck and being in the right place at the right time. So one of the things I like to tell my students is to be invaluable. People notice. When we work on something, we find it more important that the people that our working around us are reliable and hard working and you can count on them rather than them being almost anything else!
The stamina of a 4.30am call and going through a shoot day and then being able to prep for the next day. Everything requires a level of focus and intensity and I think you need to start shoring that up while you’re in school.
It’s hard because it’s not a secure job to choose at all and it was heartening to hear Terry Gilliam say that because of course, intellectually, you think ‘of course he’s going to make films forever, why wouldn’t he?’
When people are in school, they tend to fall into one of two camps. One is being a really good student and caring so much about your grade and fulfilling the tasks of being a student but that doesn’t really give me or somebody else a picture of what you’re capable of when just ticking the boxes. I do tell them to dream a bit. I had one student come to me and say ‘my other professors are saying that over the Summer I should be doing this and this and this and this in preparation for my future career’ and I said ‘well what do you want to do?’ and she said ‘well I just want to go back home and go to the museum and read’ and I said ‘well, just do that!’
I feel the constant self-referencing is not helpful. If you want to be a designer you have to be able to feed your work with observations of things that are around you, not just other design. To inform characters, you’re not constantly looking what other people have done in film – you should look at that but you also have to have a life. Surround yourself with things you don’t normally do.
Is there a certain trait you’ve seen in all great actors and actresses that you feel they all share that makes them good at what they do?
They’re all different. They always do come to that first meeting with the history of their experience with previous costume designers so sometimes it’s been a good experience and sometimes not good but I really treasure the times – this has happened several times – where the actor doesn’t know you and they are handing a responsibility to you, you’re hired and they had no say in it, of helping them create this character.
I remember one fitting in particular where the actor had not had a good experience with a costume designer and he told me this before our film. He’d read the script and thought about it cursorily but his schedule was so packed and he hadn’t dug into it and at the beginning of that very first fitting he’d just got off a plane and it was a tumultuous flight and he was tired and not in a great mood but by the 3rd look he really started to pose as the character and by the end of the fitting he actually said one of the nicest things ‘I didn’t know who I was when I came into this fitting but I now know what I have to do. I know exactly who I am in this character’.
That’s always the best thing for me, to help that process. Not just to throw something on as an aesthetic band aid. You can tell when it really works for them and they can transcend the clothes and it feels natural to the character.
You’ve worked with some amazing directors such as Danny Boyle, Robert Zemeckis. Is there one characteristic or several characteristics that they all share that you feel makes them so good at what they do?
I think it’s relentlessness – not in the negative way. It’s trusting that the answer is only going to get there through an instinct you have about it. It’s like what we were saying about students – you can check off boxes to a certain degree but the thing that pushes it over the edge is that you just kept pushing until you can’t push any more.
It’s a hard thing to be around if you’re not used to it but it’s funny when people don’t expect that level of dedication, I don’t actually feel very easy about it. If there’s time left in the day it feels like I should be using it. Maybe it’s the intense work thing I got from my Dad!
It’s a relentless drive to continually better things. It’s never just settling for ‘that’ll work!’ [laughs]
What advice can you give to an aspiring Costume Designers hoping to reach the heights you have reached?
I think being a good observer in life. If you’re riding the tube, look around you. How are people wearing the things they’re wearing? Is it possible to construct a story around them? And why they made the decision to wear those things on that day? That doesn’t mean that in film everything has to have that level of thought – sometimes it’ll just be instinct and sometimes it’ll just be this looks better than that – but I would say that when I’ve had an assistant who is a very observant person and you can just tell that they have honed in a certain skill or appreciate looking around.
That’s why I brought up fashion earlier. Sometimes people mistake costume design for styling. Styling is a discipline in itself and I don’t think I could do that. I need a different set of rules than what styling requires. For me, the observation of real people – not celebrities on the red carpet or pop culture images – is important.
Observe people around you, not just your friends or people you’re interacting with. Then you’re honing a skill that you can bring to the table when a director has an idea for something. That will transfer into your more traditional skills like cloth and colour and fit. All my best assistants have had that curiosity in normal people and not just the runways.
Can you name 10 films that you feel all filmmakers should watch or maybe some that you feel all costume designers should watch?
Sorry despite my efforts I can’t narrow it down any further, so there’s 12. 6 ‘Essentials’ and 6 specifically for the Costume Design….
Essential Films to watch:
Films to watch for Costume Design:
Thank you, Suttirat! You can find Steve Jobs in cinemas now.
Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below! Have a great week!