The film Babyteeth was a hit at the 76th Venice International Film Festival. Variety described it as “The most youthful and surprising entry in this year’s Venice competition, “Babyteeth” arrives fully formed in its bite”. In this fascinating double interview APDG members Laurie Verling and Laura Anna Lucas (who both interned on the film) interview Costume Designer Amelia Greber and Production Designer Sherree Phillips.
What led you to working on this film?
Shannon and I worked together on a series called OnThe Ropes last year. I was overseas when they were crewing and I sent a pitch document with some style direction and notes on the script and characters.
Because we have an established working relationship we already have a dialogue in regards to characters and style and Shannon knew what I was getting at so we could revert to shorthand pretty quickly.
What was your design process on this film?
My design process follows a general pattern but is always very flexible, a quality which I think is essential in this industry and in my job.
I always start with scripts and conversations about character and tone with the director. Costume design is all about using the language of style to express character, world and cinematic tone so a really good understanding of that vision from the director, writer and producer is key. It is always my starting point.
While I like the idea of having no rules for many things in life this is not true of costuming. Costume design is the use of language, symbolism and referencing to tell a story, and language is all about rules. So while I always keep an open mind about finding our way with the design through an organic exploration of ideas, a large part of understanding the design is about finding what the rules for the world and character are. Every film and character will be different because every film inhabits a different world and subscribes to a different style or subculture and it’s my role to convey this sartorially. I’m quite particular with knowing the rules so I do alot of research into the sociology of a character and background. But just because I know the rules doesn’t mean I need to follow them all the time. I like know the rules of something so that I know when to follow them and especially when to break them.
After initial conversations and research I make boards, gather references and explore different visual and conceptual ideas. I try to keep this part of the process very open and organic and let the design grow with exposure to new ideas, colours, weird things I see and generally just be open to trying out stuff that I didn’t see coming. There is such a plethora of diverse things to look these days – art, design, various subcultures, fashion, film, colours and international trends – so I’ll explore lots of possibilities and play with ideas and directions I find in that process. I get a lot of joy out of the curveballs and unlikely developments of design. There’s a lot to be said for loosening ones thought patterns and taking a gamble on something a little bit out of the box and fun. While I’m quite particular about the look of something I think when you get too rigid in your ideas you risk not seeing things that might be interesting or improve the design and when we open ourselves up the full spectrum of possibilities we can find beautiful and unlikely developments that we could never have anticipated.
I always keep the actors in the loop too. As an actor and I are collaborating on a character I like to make sure that they always know what we are looking at and I send them an in depth analysis of the costume design direction and ask for their input. I think wearing clothes is such an intimate experience and actors always need to feel comfortable and supported through the costume design so I like to make sure that what we are creating enhances an actor’s take on the character.
After the exploration period and lots of communication about ideas with the director and creative team, we begin to hone in on what is working in fittings. I like to play around with lots of ideas in fittings and try out weird combos, mess about with different ideas and develop direction with an actor’s collaboration.
I always work closely with the production designer and we always take time to work on colour palette, collaborate on style and make sure the both departments interact and work as a whole.
Shannon herself has a really fantastic process which involves all the key heads of departments going on a weekend away to talk creatively about the film. We go over the script, talk about themes, style and references and generally just chat about ideas. We also drink wine, tea and cook alot. It is a great chance to get together with the cinematographer, production designer, producer and director without tightly scheduled meetings in production offices, riff about ideas with a bunch of films and books.
What did you want to achieve with the design conceptually/narratively/personally?
Costuming is always looking through a particular lens at where a character fits into the fabric of society and within themselves, so conceptually and narratively we looked at what was going on with the characters headspace and the kind of world that they are from.
Costuming for Milla for example was based on a few different aspects of her personality and journey. She is curious, bold and creative and she has made a decision to live fully and courageously. We came up with the idea that she likes experimenting with vintage and is in a phase where she is playing around with her style. This vintage element allowed us to be bolder and more experimental in her clothing choices and style direction and really push the boundaries of trial and error through her choices.
Using these materials and angle also tapped into the metaphor of memory and timelessness and the idea that she is going through many stages of growth and various phases all at once in her last few months on earth. She is cramming a bunch of time periods in and sampling all they have to offer in one short moment in time. She is non-conformist, creative and is in a moment of rebellion and experimentation.
The other thing we wanted to illustrate was her fragility and vulnerability which is a natural part of being a sixteen year old. She is determined and resolute but at the same time extremely vulnerable and in an awkward period in her life, straddling the line between child and adult, healthy and sick. Slightly juvenile pieces paired with weird vintage items. Colours that clash and random items thrown together that are supposed to look edgy but just look awkward are a great part of showing this evolution. A pair of shorts that sit too low on the waist paired with an awkwardly bold top that shows a little too much belly or hangs off her at a strange angle could make the audience cringe and is a great technique for illustrating her youth.
She is a bold and expressive, but slightly out of depth girl, turning into a woman.
How was your collaboration with the director?
Shannon is a wonderful director and I feel very fortunate to be working with her. Her working process is very collaborative and she is always incredibly well researched about the characters and world that we are creating. I know that Shannon takes time to choose her team and then loves to see what we all bring to the table so she gives us a lot of breathing room to do what we do best and I really appreciate that about her.
Creatively, Shannon isn’t afraid to make bold and interesting choices in her directing, and we have the same sense of comedy timing, irony and slightly twisted sense of humour which we you can see in her work and in the styling – I get a real kick out of making her laugh which is always fun. She also has a great sense of style herself so we agree on a lot of style choices and have a good shorthand in terms of character referencing and style direction.
She is an inspiring and interesting director and I’m always excited to see her work. Watching the film come to life through her choices was a joy. Rita’s script is beautiful, moving and rich in character development and story. There is also so much in the film which Shannon creates that isn’t on the page so watching that final edit after Shannon has taken her nuanced directing vision to it is really exciting.
As the costume designer how was your collaboration with the production designer?
Sherre Phillips is an incredibly dedicated and impressive designer and her work on Babyteeth was really wonderful. Most of the film is set in the house and she did such a beautiful job in re-designing that space – everything looked amazing next to her design so I was fortunate to have our work on screen together.
Sherre has a great sense of style and colour and we worked closed on colour palettes to have various tones pop on screen and create an overall look. The lavender, yellow greys and blues were all designed in conjunction and work as a palette together.
What was your experience working on a female led production?
From my perspective and in the role that I do, I don’t notice a huge difference between working on a female as opposed to a male production team. I’ve been fortunate to have worked on many female led teams as well as male led ones and a good team is a good team no matter what gender so I honestly don’t notice the difference. Obviously on a structural level the disparity in gender is a huge problem and I’m so glad that it’s improving and we are seeing more women in roles that have been occupied by men for so long but on an individual, project based level it isn’t really something that changes the way I work.
What were the major challenges you had to face on the film? How were they overcome?
Challenges on the film were really just schedule and budget.
The cast for Babyteeth were locked in early but they were literally all overseas until the last week or two of pre-production so while I had a lot of ideas of what we wanted to try and the direction we wanted the design to go in, I didn’t have any cast to try looks on or do fittings until quite late. I never get too attached to things before I put them on an actor and see if they work with them because the same item of clothing can look amazing on one person and really plain on the next. Until you see the clothes on your actor, it’s all just theory of design and direction and unless the style and colour works with their figure and colouring and the look really gels with some aspect of the actor as well as the character and makes them they really step into the role and understand how this person behaves, the piece isn’t right for them and you have to let it go. I was lucky in that all our main cast were very open and cool and most of the things we tried worked but it was quite stressful not getting my hands on them till the last week or two and not knowing what will work.
As it was a small independent film, budget was also a challenge. We didn’t have the budget for a full costume department so we had less crew. We were super lucky that it was university holidays and we had two amazing NIDA students who did work experience with us. Lauren Ballinger and Stephany Eland are both incredible costume makers and were a huge part of our costume team. Among all the many many sewing jobs they did, they made doubles of the vintage formal dress, which otherwise would have been over budget. They also worked as bus assistants, standby assistants, extras standby’s and were invaluable to our team so I was very lucky to have them.
What did you enjoy most about working on this film?
I enjoyed the collaboration with a great team and scripts. Shannon and I have worked together a few times and I really appreciate the way that she works so I feel very lucky. She a very collaborative director who also has an incredible knowledge and is a great communicator. The cast were all really special and we had a great shoot.
What does the experience of screening at Venice mean to you?
It was wonderful to see our film on the big screen and such an honour for it to be at such a beautiful festival. Also great to see an audience see it for this first time. We had a really great premiere and reception. And we had a great holiday with friends.
What are you looking forward to achieving/working on next?
It’s pretty simple, I just to make great films and television with my friends and great people. I’m always looking for great scripts, interesting characters and amazing people to collaborate with. I’m very grateful that I have worked with so many wonderful and inspiring people and friends so I really just want that to continue. I’d also love to do some more work overseas as there so much going on around the world and I love to explore.
Continue reading: Babyteeth – Sherree Philips (production designer) interview