MWS spoke with Melissa Toth, powerhouse Costume Designer and recent honoree at Designing Women, a night presented by New York Women in Film honoring the best of the best in the world of design for film & TV. She’s a brilliant designer and amazing woman!
The costumes of a film articulate not only a huge amount about the characters, but about the world that they exist in. Does your creative process usually begin with envisioning the look of the wider world of the film, or the individual characters?
I always start with characters. It’s my key into the world of the film, but it’s also my way of telling a larger story. The people in a screenplay have a finite life on the page, but I try to expand their stories beyond that…what happens to them before we meet them, and what happens afterward? Costumes can tell little pieces of a story that aren’t necessarily part of the script. I love actors and what they can do, so I always have a strong partnership with them. I like to think we go on a little journey together. They inspire me and I think sometimes I inspire them, too. I think performances are richer when an actor feels utterly at home in their clothes.
That being said, I also have a strong connection to color. I often will feel out the world of film, or the various worlds of the film, through a color palette inspiration. That will guide my thought process as I gather up garments.
You’ve worked on an incredible range of films with varying styles. Can you tell me the difference between, say, the realism of a Kenneth Lonergan film like “Manchester By the Sea”, to the light fantasy of “The Night Before,” to the subtle surrealism of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Does each style demand a unique approach?
I always approach costume design with an eye toward naturalism. I think to make things look very real is actually kind of a bold move. We are very used to seeing visual tropes in movies, stock characters. And often what we see is a glamorized version of reality. So I always start with the idea of a real person, no matter the genre. And real people are actually weird. The way real people put their look together is usually highly idiosyncratic, there is almost always something “off”. I’m fascinated by people and so I am always watching and filing ideas away in my mental Rolodex.
I think this approach works well across genres. For something like MANCHESTER it gave the film a very granular texture that helps draw the audience in to the mood of the story. You see Lee as a real person, even though a lot of almost-unimaginable things happen to him. In ETERNAL SUNSHINE I think the naturalism of the costume design helps the audience stick with the topsy-turvy adventures into and out of various realities. And even in the lighter comic stuff I’ve done, I think naturalism works. I have always thought comedy is funnier when it’s played straight., when the people who are doing ridiculous stuff seem like real people.
Working in film is an interesting combination of preparation and spontaneity. Have you had instances when your original plan had to be modified once you were on set?
It will take up a lot less ink if we talk about the times when things HAVE gone exactly as planned! But yeah, you are right, it’s always a combo platter of planning and letting go. It’s actually a hard lesson to learn when one is first starting out. I tended toward getting precious about things early in my career. But after seeing a few of my first films, and knowing that so many things that we shot ended up not in the film at all, I guess I realized that the best way forward is to just try to get as many of your ideas up on the screen as you can. And don’t get too bummed about all the great ideas you had that never made it! You’ll get another chance.
I also almost never “plot out” all the costume changes either. I like to build closets, make sure I have all the pieces and parts to play with, and then do just that: play. I like following my mood and the mood of an actor and just kind of picking things out like you would as a real person: on the day. It can be a little nerve-wracking but I think it can really improve the verisimilitude of the look.
Particularly when a designer is first starting out,how important is resourcefulness? Can you share any anecdotes of early and useful lessons learned in your career?
Resourcefulness is a major part of the game. You always have to have an option. If it can’t be worked out in the way you thought of at first, find another way. The other way might even be better!
I had a book as a kid called “Rags: Make A Little Something Out of Almost Nothing”. It’s a book about crafting little doodads out of trash and leftovers. It’s not exactly analogous, but this is something we do all the time on set. Something outrageous is asked for and you definitely don’t have it. Then out of desperation you find this and that on the truck, throw your best people on it, and voila! You have a mint green turban made out of a towel and a box of dye.
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you’d love to do?
You mean as far as costume design or life? Yes and YES!
Seriously, I would love to do more period stuff, but recent periods. I have always fantasized about 90’s, early 2000’s. I always want to embrace the ugly and somehow really be allowed to do it.
How closely do you collaborate with the set designers to create the world of the film?
For the most part there is a sort of ersatz collaboration. We almost never have the time to really luxuriate in the collaboration in the way we always want to. We tend to have a quick discussion here and there. I usually talk to actors and see them before anyone else, so I get a lot of information before others and pass it on. We almost always have a color palette meeting though.
What about working with actors? Do they usually discuss their own vision for each scene as well of their overall characters?
It really depends on the actor. Some actors come to the table with a lot of specific ideas, some with very few. Sometimes I will see an actor do a visual inspiration board to help them prepare, sometimes an actor will honestly just say, “well, what am I wearing?”
Do different skills come into play when you are shooting on location vs on a set?
I would say no. When we shoot on location in another city, state, or country, there are of course things you need to learn about where you are and how to find stuff!
When did first hear about Manhattan Wardrobe Supply? How has your relationship evolved over the years?
Asking about when I first learned about MWS is like asking when I first learned about the Internet. I have no memory of the exact moment but I can’t imagine living without it.
Thank you so much for talking with us, Melissa! We look forward to more of your incredible work creating characters with such imagination and specificity!