EXCLUSIVE: ‘The Shape of Water’ Costume Designer – Luis Sequeira – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

Luis Sequeira has designed costumes for films Carrie (2013), The Thing (2011) and Guillermo del Toro’s FX series The Strain.

Here he joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about his work on del Toro’s new dark, fantasy drama The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water stars Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins – costume by Luis Sequeira


How did you become involved with the film and what conversations did you have regarding making the costumes?

I was working with Guillermo on a series and he mentioned that he wanted to do this movie and it was going to be black and white and it was set in the 60s. I was all excited about that and started doing this whole colour versus black and white study and went down this whole path then told me we weren’t doing it black and white so I put that aside.

I started collecting some pieces while on the series and then we started production. Guillermo and I talked about the film, talked about the time period, talked about the consciousness of the film. Set in 1962, the film was quite content in a film noir black and white, twilight zone, late-50s world. I took those notes and started working with a colour palette in conjunction with the production designer.

Then I started creating a fabric library that I could draw from for the various costumes.
What was your method from there?

I had to build a lot of the garments for the film. I went to New York, LA, Toronto and Montreal and started collecting fabrics that I felt would be great for the film. Whether it be men’s suitings, women’s day dresses, the dream sequence dress or sleepwear.

I basically collected over 3000 swatches of fabric from various suppliers. We divided them into the kinds of fabric and then from that created a palette of fabrics for each of the characters.

When you design costumes, do you personally sketch them yourself?

We had an illustrator on board but really it was working with some found pieces and imagery along with the fabric library. I was collecting and putting together imagery that I felt was part of the film. Whether it would be informative imagery of the time period or mood imagery that would work in conjunction with each of the characters.

Then having meetings with Guillermo and refining these mood boards for each of the characters. From there we started collecting these pieces and curating a collection of clothing that would be worked either into the leads to be transformed with new fabrics or used within our background.

What is the process in terms of a costume arc?

With Elisa, the silhouettes were slightly dated so that she was not as au courant and it also gave her a younger ingénue feeling. Colour-wise, most of the colours were very hidden – very invisible. But in conjunction with the colour palette of the rest of the film, she still stood out.

Later when she falls in love and finds her strength, we used brighter tones that were part of her palette and introduced the red – both in the shoes, headband and the coat which took us to the finale.

For her, she had a very specific thing. With the gentlemen, for Michael Shannon’s character we started off very black and white. Very precise, impeccable tailoring and then as the movie went on, the shirting colour started to get nuded and get mashed up and become more mushroom and putty rather than white.

The suitings, as well, went from being very polished to more textural.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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With Giles, having his heyday in the early 50s and being unemployed and being fastidious, a lot of the clothing was influenced from that period. So we have Mr Shannon in of-the-moment tailoring and Giles’ character feeling very lost in another bygone era. Alhough they were made, we aged all the garments so that they felt like they had a life to them. They had a little mending – like the sweaters – and we did fading out of shoulders.

Much of that is hardly noticeable and I think worked very well.
What considerations for the water did you have to make?

For Elisa’s red coat and her finale outfit, those garments were actually made in an alternative fabric because we did a dry-for-wet effect. They were not really in water, they were hung in mid-air.

I needed to take what was originally a fairly stiff wool double knit and then we found another fabric that was exactly the same colour that had a lot more of a viscose wool feeling so it was droopy and flowing.

Then the same thing with the dress, the dress we’d done in a polished cotton and then we found a fabric that was a rayon. So with the use of lighting and wind, we were able to change the nature of her garments to appear like they were underwater.

With a whole half hour of the movie being underwater, we again had some alternative fabrics. All the garments were interlined so that we helped keep the actors as dry as possible. Of course, when you’re shooting in pouring rain all night, it was a bit of a challenge!

Basically we had inserted interlinings that were water repellent to help the actors not to get completely and utterly soaked. A lot of the footwear for the finale was reproduced in vinyl so that they could get totally soaked and we could just dry the shoe overnight and be able to use it the next day.

Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Doug Jones in The Shape of Water
Doug Jones in The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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What degree of multiples did you need for that?

It ranged a lot. Octavia had 4. Michael Shannon had the most because of the nature of his journey through the rain. We had 12 or 14 for him.

We did water effects on shoulders for him – no matter how wet he would get, there would still be an extra glistening on the shoulder. We used brushed latex on the shoulders for that.

Richard Feder at the The Shape of Water premiere as part of the London Film Festival
Richard Feder at the The Shape of Water premiere as part of the London Film Festival
Producer Richard Feder (R) and guest attend the American Airlines Gala and UK Premiere of The Shape of Water – photo courtesy of GETTY
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What advice would you give to an aspiring costume designer?

For me, I was in fashion. I was a young fashion designer and worked in conjunction with the factory and did my sample line and did production. I left that and went into film and started as a trainee.

That whole trajectory of working from the bottom up in every job within the department has really served me well. Even after designing many projects, I’ve assisted other great designers and I have to say that those experiences have allowed me to see other people’s creative processes and really experience someone else’s reality which in turn has made me a better designer.

There are a lot of young people that come out of school wanting to be a costume designer. But there’s a lot of merit in learning the various and sundry positions within that department. The things I’ve learnt along the way have just made me a better designer and I feel more empowered by having those experiences.

READ our interview with The Shape of Water’s Lead Creature Designer – Mike Hill – here! 
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