A few years ago, (2012, to be precise) we had the unique opportunity to provide wardrobe for an independent production, and a Western no less, entitled “What Have I Done?” This was a creative challenge in that we were working with a very small budget and had to outfit six principal characters. Worse, the film was going to be shot over four days at a movie ranch located in what seemed to be literally the middle of nowhere with little in the way of support facilities. Everything we needed, we would have to haul it in ourselves and hope that we didn’t forget anything.
After reviewing the script, doing a complete breakdown of each scenes, and visiting the film site, we quickly set to work on putting together the outfits for the principals. We were fortunate in that we did not have to build all the costumes from nothing; in many cases were able to modify our stock of wardrobe.
However, making dresses was just the beginning. We also had to construct or improvise the proper underpinnings to include corsets and petticoats, construct head pieces, and provide any accessories as needed such as parasols and the like. The construction phase took about three weeks to complete and we were working right up when filming began. Also, in several instances, we were unable to measure the actresses in person and had to rely on their reported measurements. Needles to say, we were a bit uncertain how things would turn out and we were prepared for the worse which meant bringing a portable sewing machine and a full set of accessories with us. Fortunately, in the end everything fit perfectly and it was not an issue. 🙂
However, our work was not complete- there was still the background talent to consider. Working with the production designer and director, we formulated the exact “look” we were hoping to achieve in the way the shots were framed. Of course, first and foremost, the background talent are just that: background, and as such, they are to provide a backdrop for the principal actors. The last thing you want is for someone in the background to stand out in some way and steal focus from the principals and this means that the background talents’ wardrobe must be in neutral colors that blend in with the terrain, in this case a weather-beaten, dirty Western town located in the desert, and that means mostly different shades of brown, green, tan, beige, and the like.
Because of the low budget, no wardrobe could be provided for the background talent. Instead, the production relied on reenactors (or “living historians”) who were ostensibly knowledgeable about wardrobe that was appropriate to the late 1870s and early 1880s and were able to secure wardrobe in the correct colors. We had no role in their selection.
However, in reality this was not always the case. To a great degree we were at the mercy of the background talent even after they had submitted pictures of themselves and their outfits has been approved prior to production commencing. Essentially, the most common problems encountered were: 1) the original outfit was unavailable due to staining or damage due to prior ear and tear; 2) the person who was going to be wearing the garment had gained too much weight since the picture was submitted (it seems improbable given the short length of preproduction time but it happens); or 3) the person didn’t like their outfit and decided to wear something else. Numbers 1 and 2 are somewhat uncontrollable, much like the weather, but number 3 was simply inexcusable.
Things that some background people insisted on bringing to wear and would sneak in: cheap import beaded corsets, frosted wigs with unnatural curls, pastel polyester dresses, dusters with snaps, huge modern “tea hats”, fishnet stockings, everything on the “not” list.
Fortunately, we were prepared for this problem and we brought a stock of separate garments such as shawls, coats, and the like that could be used to cover up or otherwise mitigate the situation. Also, we brought things from our own personal collections and in two instances, we had to construct two outfits.
In extreme cases, the problem was fixed in post production with creative editing. But in spite of these challenges, we were able to overcome every obstacle and deliver a product that remained true to the production design.
Below are a few pictures from the production. We shot both exterior and interior shots at varying times to include the late night and early morning.
Above is a scene that was shot in the saloon at night. The actress in the red dress was supposed to be the “bad girl” and the use of red naturally played it up. This dress is in contrast to what the other principles were wearing and it was done for effect. The red almost vibrates, giving a somewhat larger-than-life quality.
Day scene involving some of the saloon girls. We provided the wardrobe for the middle two actresses.
The hero of the story with the “good girl” who is in love with him and who the hero spurns until it’s too late.
Although I do not normally like to get in from of the camera, I was pressed into service at the last minute to fill out the ranks, to which I graciously acceded. Here I am after I’d been dirtied up a bit with schmutz. 🙂
However, in spite of the various challenges we faced, we came through and supported the production to the utmost. It was certainly a learning experience but Lily Absinthe was more than up to the challenge and we look forward to working on our next production.