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How Costume Designers Make Magic Happen on an Independent Film Budget

Three costume designers with projects at the Tribeca Film Festival walk us through their methods.
Angsty musician Jude (Amber Heard) with her father Paul (Christopher Walken) in "When I Live My Life Over Again." Photo: When I Live My Life Over Again

Angsty musician Jude (Amber Heard) with her father Paul (Christopher Walken) in "When I Live My Life Over Again." Photo: When I Live My Life Over Again

Movie magic doesn't just happen. Certainly it doesn't for the wardrobe department, and certainly not when the costume designer is operating on the sort of shoestring budget enjoyed by many independent film teams, which is to say a relatively small one. 

"The standard [costume design budget], depending on the requirements, is anywhere between $9,000 and $20,000. I don't remember exactly, but this was on the lower end," said costume designer Ciera Wells of her new film, "The Wannabe." "But it's always hard; it's never enough money."

"The Wannabe," which documents the cocaine-fueled rise and fall of a couple (played by Patricia Arquette and Vincent Piazza) chasing a mob lifestyle in early '90s Queens, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week. Malgosia Turzanska said she too was working on a sub-$20,000 budget for "When I Live My Life Over Again," a family drama focused on an aging crooner (Christopher Walken) and his musically gifted but professionally stymied daughter Jude, played by Amber Heard.

So how do they make it work? 

Borrowing from designers or orchestrating product placement deals with brands is perhaps the most obvious way to alleviate budgetary restrictions. For "When I Live My Life Over Again," Turzanska outfitted Heard's Jude, constantly at odds with her family and herself, in a mix of pieces from Allsaints, Mango and Velvet, with old sweaters altered for the occasion. The jewelry designer Pamela Love, known for creations that are both beautiful and tough, lent out some arrowhead rings and a spiky silver necklace. The armor-like quality of Love's jewelry fit well with Jude's hard-edged, self-protective nature. 

"We supplement with product placement. That was a big part of this film," Turzanska explains. "We called and called and borrowed and stole, and had a pretty good-looking film."

Wells likes to turn to local designers for product placement. She called in a hat and coat from a retailer called Fabulous Furs for "The Wannabe" — faux, because Patricia Arquette is staunchly anti-fur. The payoff was clear: Fabulous Furs got its wares on the screen, and Wells was able to save some money that she could put toward pricier items.

But locking in partnerships like this requires a measure of caution. If the wardrobe elements in question aren't exactly right for the story, the brand could end up dissatisfied with how it's advertised, says costume designer Emily Batson.

Batson worked on "Ashby," a Tribeca film about a smart-ass misfit named Ed (played by an enormously charming Nat Wolff) who befriends an older neighbor (Mickey Rourke) in the course of working on a school project. Football figures heavily into the story — despite being rather skinny, Ed finds his way onto the team — and Adidas lent its support for the movie in the form of cleats for the entire football team, which the players got to keep afterward. Converse also provided kicks for a few of the lead characters.

"Most everything was bought or rented," she says. "I'm not really into selling people's brands unless it's serving the story. Adidas was amazing because we had these sport teams, and it made sense in the context of the story."

Nat Wolff and Emma Roberts as high school misfits Ed and Eloise in "Ashby." Photo: Peter Taylor

Nat Wolff and Emma Roberts as high school misfits Ed and Eloise in "Ashby." Photo: Peter Taylor

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Borrowing product can be complicated by a movie's shoot length, too. While a magazine team might keep designer wares for a week, a costume designer will need them on-set for a month or two, which can prove particularly challenging for labels that don't have a ton of samples on hand. 

"It's almost easier a lot of the time to just buy it," Batson says.

And buy they do. New actors flew in throughout the "Ashby" shoot, and Batson had to fit them the day before or the morning of their day on set, meaning she needed lots of options on hand. For every shirt a character wears, she explains, you need something to the tune of eight alternatives. One woman on her team was tasked primarily with doing returns, manning the three-inch binder filled with the receipts they accumulated.

Batson and Wells agree that it's poor form to return clothing than an actor wound up wearing in a scene, though they've both seen it happen in the face of hard budgets. Wells says she'll buy five pairs of shoes, have the actor try them on and send back three or four, but whatever goes on set has to stay.

For both Batson and Wells, vintage also turned out to be a key source for clothing. Because "The Wannabe" is set in 1991, Wells wound up doing a lot of thrifting to hit that period's particular mix of '80s flamboyance and mid-'90s androgyny. She dedicated a research board to each character, which she would then photocopy and distribute to her team before hitting up vintage stores. But she tries not to be too tunnel-vision about it. As any seasoned thrifter will tell you, the best finds are always the unexpected ones.

"You map out what you're looking for, then you go see what you find," she says. "With this one, I did some rough sketches. I knew the shapes and what look I wanted for each scene, but not specifics. I try to be very open."

Patricia Arquette and Vincent Piazza chasing their mob dreams. Photo: "The Wannabe"

Patricia Arquette and Vincent Piazza chasing their mob dreams. Photo: "The Wannabe"

For Wells, incorporating vintage into the characters' wardrobes also helped her budget, allowing her to spend more on the custom suits that Piazza's mob aspirant Thomas buys when he starts making more money. 

Batson went the vintage route when outfitting Emma Roberts's Eloise, an adorable geek with a taste for vintage horn-rim glasses, gingham and mod little '60s-style shifts who bonds with Ed. That choice was more about aesthetics than frugality, the result of a desire to realistically portray teenage girls' shopping patterns while making the world of "Ashby" more visually interesting than other coming-of-age films, which tend toward the homogenous.

"When I read it, I think I identified with that character," Batson says. "[Eloise] reminded me of me at that time in high school. I was so into thrift store shopping. Before the Internet, before style blogs, before all that was so accessible, the way we would differentiate ourselves was thrift store shopping."

Batson, like Turzanska and Wells, had about four weeks of prep followed by four weeks of shooting. Even more than budget, time can be the biggest limiting factor. 

"I would rather take time over money," Turzanska says.