Monday, February 11, 2013

Stephani Lewis- Costume Designer

Back in July I had the pleasure of meeting with costume designer Stephani Lewis about working as a production assistant for her on a film she was going start working on soon. Unfortunately, that film fell through shortly after our meeting but since then a project she worked on back in 2010, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has gone on to receive much acclaim and accolades including four Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Leading Actress and Best Motion Picture. So, in honor of the biggest awards ceremony of the year, which are to take place on February 24th this year, I figured who better to interview than somebody who actually worked on one of the films being honored at this year's ceremony.

How did you get into costume design?
I studied costume design for the theatre in college at the University of New Mexico. My degree program was called Design for Performance. Everyone was required to study costume, set, sound and light design before declaring which field we emphasize in. During that time the film incentives in New Mexico were making it super busy there. While I was still in school I started interning on local productions. After graduation I started working more consistently as a set costumer and seamstress and finally an assistant designer. After about a year of working in New Mexico I moved to New York to pursue more design opportunities.

How did you get involved with Beasts of the Southern Wild
I had previously worked with two producers who were involved with Beast as a Sundance Lab project. They both threw my name in the hat to design it.

What approach did you take in designing the costumes for Beasts of the Southern Wild and how has it differed from other films you've costume designed?
I wanted the costumes to be true to the characters and environment. My goal was to accurately reflect the world they lived in by creating natural pieces. Working with non-actors it was important that all the costumes were something they would feel comfortable in. I didn't want them to have to be worried about how they looked or their comfort level while they were on camera so they could fully focus on their character and their acting.

What was it like costuming Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only six at the time of filming and just became the youngest nominee in Oscar history for Best Leading Actress at age 9?
She is just fantastic- such a strong, tough, brave little girl who kept the whole crew laughing. She comes from a really fantastic family and is just so full of happiness, love and energy. 

Not only was this Quvenzhane's first acting experience, but many of the rest of the casts' as well. What was it like working with so many first time actors?
It was fun and exciting to take the journey with them but also a challenge. I remember constantly saying in fittings, you might not like this, but would your character? 

What was your working relationship with director Benh Zeitlin, who was also just nominated for an Academy Award, like?
Benh is a very smart talented guy. He had a great beautiful vision in his head and I just strived to contribute to that.

Did you have any input on the red jersey Hushpuppy carries around that once belonged to her mother or was that a decision of the director?
That was actually a prop. I believe it was scripted that she carried around a jersey but I can't remember if it was scripted as red. It was something the art department and the director worked on together.

What was the inspiration behind the looks of the women in the bar scene towards the end?
We didn't want the women at Elysian Fields to feel like strippers, they are supposed to feel more like mother figures in this fantastical world Hushpuppy and the orphans enter. It was so long ago but I think Behn came into my office one day with that idea and I thought it was fantastic. We went thrift store shopping and bought up all the slips and negliges we could.

How did you achieve the looks you wanted on such a miniscule budget?
Well there aren't actually a lot of costumes in the film so most things came from local thrift stores. And they have great thrift stores in Houma, Lousianna! It was always an adventure to go out shopping. 

What have you been up to since Beasts of the Southern Wild wrapped?
We wrapped in summer of 2010 so I've been up to quite a lot! I've designed and assisted on quite a few films. I guess the biggest change is I moved from New York to Los Angeles. 

Thanks to Stephani for answering my questions and good luck to the Beasts of the Southern Wild at this year's Academy Awards!