Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Jessica Glenn- Costume Designer

(*Note: The following article was written back in January but I didn't get a chance to post it until now...)

I met Jess Glenn the fall semester of my junior year of college. It was October ’08 and I was going in to interview with her for an internship in the costume department of Rescue Me. She was Costume Coordinator at the time and was nice enough to help with a school project that summer in which I had to interview three professionals in the industry, which is actually what inspired this blog. This is what Jess had to say about what her job as Costume Coordinator:
By definition the duties include tracking the budget for the designer and accounting department (weekly budget reports so production knows how much you are spending) organizing the office scheduling and preparing fittings with actors, managing a team of PA's and making sure returns and pickups are done, making contacts with vendors and fashion houses for product placement and borrowing, rentals from both large costume houses and local stores, anticipating everything the designers need from lunch to next weeks shooting schedule.”
In high school I started working retail jobs and sometimes there are just as many sales as there are returns. So on my first day I was sort like “Ha! Now I’m on the other side of the register and I’m the one making the returns. Take that!” One of my first trips to make returns was to Saks and I had no idea how to get there. I remember Jess looked at the huge subway map on the back of the door to the costume office and told me exactly how to get there. I thought, “Wow! She didn’t even need HopStop! That’s amazing!” Later on in my internship, Jess sent me an e-mail the night before my day to go in saying that I would have to hold down the fort on my own for the morning because the rest of them had to be on set. She gave me a list of things I had to do while they were gone but finished the e-mail by saying, “We love you and appreciate you so much!” or something to that affect.
And that’s one of the nice things about Jess Glenn. She lets each and every one of her PA’s and interns know how appreciated they are. Before Rescue Me went on winter hiatus during the December I was with them, they gave each person on the crew a gift bag with a couple of mugs that changed color to look like there were flames rising up the sides when you poured hot liquid into them and a copy of Dennis Leary’s first book. When I went back to work for them that January, Jess Glenn gave me one of those gift bags, except it had her name on it. She said she accidentally took mine home because she just looked at the first name but I wouldn’t doubt if she had sacrificed her color changing mugs and copy of Why We Suck just so her intern could have it. I have to admit I never read the book, though. One of the first sentences went something like, “If you are easily offended, don’t read this book.” So I stopped reading it.

(^ That’s a picture of a map Jess drew for me while explaining how to get somewhere one time that I discovered while going through my old Rescue Me notebook. Pretty good, huh?)
My favorite memory of Jess is the car ride back to the office after making returns on my first day as a paid PA on Royal Pains. A few months earlier I had worked for her friend who owns a T-shirt company for the day helping him pack up shirts for a promotional event. At one point during the day, his brother/business partner put on some song with the word p**** in it. I was the only girl in the room. It was really awkward but it provided a good laugh during that car ride back months later.
When I finished the internship on Rescue Me they gave me yet another gift. This time I was sent a heavy package in the mail containing a couple of books on fashion and three t-shirts from the 5th season. One of the shirts I wear quite often and the last time I was wearing it, actually, was while I was working on Middletown. Walking through the green room to leave for the evening, I noticed one of the actors who was a regular on Rescue Me (or at least I think it was him…) was in there chatting with some people. I had my coat on so you couldn’t see I was wearing the shirt, which I’m sort of glad for because I didn’t want him thinking I was some crazed fan who bought the shirt off of a crew member on eBay.
I finished interning on Rescue Me in March of ’09. Since then, Jess has moved on up to Assistant Costume Designer on Royal Pains and even more recently, costume designer (!) on a movie called Maladies starring James Franco (double !). Since then, I’ve learned how to read a Subway map when HopStop is not an option. I’ve also done some other things but here’s my interview with Jess instead because I think it’s more interesting.

How did you break into the industry?
I studied Costume Design in college and never thought I would actually do it until I randomly met a girl who was working on a movie and they needed extra help. It happened to be American Gangster and I met a ton of people through that job and have worked with several of them since. It just takes one break and then you are in for life! I was willing to do anything to work in the film industry and actually worked a second job on the weekends to make ends meet. I didn't care that most of the time I was taking out the trash and getting coffee, at least I was around talented people I could learn from and made sure to listen to everything and watched very closely everything the designer and dyers and shoppers did.
What is a typical day on the job like?
There is no typical day. Everyday is completely different and usually includes at least one disaster and several fires to put out. But it usually starts out with making sure the designers have everything they need on set for the day and 600 phone calls, being yelled at, yelling at people and preparing for the next day and the shooting days ahead. This means reading the script as soon as it comes in and trying to be a week ahead of schedule. For example, if in the script there is a scene with cheerleaders in a couple of weeks I would start doing research for the designer with pictures.
What is an atypical day on the job like?
Quiet and short.
What are some advantages of the job?
It’s always something new and different. Impossible challenges when accomplished lead to great satisfaction, especially when no one knows what you had to go through to achieve them. You are working on a new project all the time. Working on sets can be a lot of fun and you get to see some great locations and do some really crazy things!!!!!!!
What are some disadvantages of the job?
Extremely long hours, sometimes up to twenty hours a day. You are constantly on the verge of unemployment. It can be a little stressful and you have to learn to be quick on your feet and flexible with problem solving.
How does working on a film differ from working on a television series?
Television is much more predictable, shorter hours, longer jobs, it’s pretty steady but also moves quickly because you get new scripts every week and sometimes just days before you start shooting. Film is more intense with major production meetings to constantly discuss the direction of the film and the overall look and feel. These days a lot of television is filmed more like movies so you are dealing with larger and larger scenes with a lot of background and the stakes are higher. Television moves very quickly.
What advice would you give to students trying to break into the industry?
Never say no to anything. You never know what little jobs can lead to. Some of the most insignificant jobs that I have done for free have led me down a very quick path to success. Getting a coffee for someone may seem like a pain in the a** at the time, but can make someone’s day and people remember these things. Intern as much as you can and do it with a smile. Don't cry or complain in front of anyone. We all cry and complain but never in front of anyone!!!!!!
How did your work as a coordinator prepare you for work as a Costume Designer?
This is a job that is built on building blocks. You cannot just jump into being a shopper or designer without the proper training. Coordinating teaches you a lot about a budget and scheduling and preparedness. It taught me to always be two steps ahead and to prioritize. It also introduces you to a lot of contacts in the fashion world and other resources you'd never thought you'd need. You also realize how important the team is to a costume designer. We are nothing as designers without a team of hardworking talented people to support.
Your most recent film, Maladies, looks to be a period film. Did this present a bigger challenge than your work as the assistant costume designer on the contemporary show Royal Pains?
The basics are the same. Breaking down the script, creating character worlds. But the challenges are different. The biggest challenge is making sure the clothes are period and draw people into that world without being distracting. This was a very stylized film directed by an amazing artist, Carter, so we really wanted to create a very controlled environment with regard to color and characters. For example, every single background person wears a hat. While this is not periodically necessary, we felt it was important to create that look. We wanted a very specific costume environment for the background. There is a lot of research involved, which I love.
After you read the script, what is your process in concluding how each character should dress?
I initially have my own instincts and ideas on what kinds of clothes the character would wear. I take the cues from the writing to determine how traditional, eccentric, etc. I think about the characters emotional state. If they are hiding something, pretending to be something they aren't, that kind of thing. I then have several meetings with the director and go through the script page by page. I think about the character arcs, what the mood is. There is also a great deal of input from the actors themselves. This is often where most of the finishing touches and personality pieces can come into play. It’s very important to me for the actor to feel completely comfortable with the choices. I love the collaborative process and coming up with the finished product of a really well thought out, fully formed wardrobe that is honest and special.
How do maintain the integrity of your design while still pleasing the actors, producers and director?
This is often tricky. You have to really believe in your choices and have reasons behind that choice. You have to pick your battles. If an actor hates something they are wearing, everyone’s day will be hell. Sometimes you have to just move on and realize that those pants that you love will never see the light of day. Often the designer and the actor will love a costume and the director will hate it and when that happens you just move on.
How does your collaborative process with the actors differ from your process with the producers and director?
With actors there is a sensitivity you have to have and you have to develop a personal connection. You are seeing them at a venerable state and every actor is different. I've dressed actors that are like mannequins and will wear whatever you want them to- doesn't matter to them. They completely trust you or just don't have that strong a connection to the costume for that particular project. Other actors have very specific ideas about how they want their clothes to feel, like shoes, or fabrics. Other actors say they don't care as long as they look skinny. Everyone is different. It is extremely important to me that an actor feels comfortable and confident in the costume choices.
With regards to directors: It is ultimately their vision and I am there to facilitate that. I love working with directors that are very specific and have a clear sense of the overall look of the film.
What is your proudest moment as a costume designer so far?
Maladies was an amazing experience and was so much fun. It really was great to work with such a talented director who is a beautiful artist and created such a stunning world. At the same time we had a lot of creative freedom and came up with some really fun costumes. The actors are some of the finest in the industry and were great to collaborate with. I had a team of amazingly talented people in my department and it made all the difference in the world.

Thanks for the great answers, Jess!

Above is a picture taken by Georgia Kral of the filming of "Maladies."