Cheryl spoke at the FIT class “Wardrobe for Film, Theater, and Television” with colleague Ingrid Price. Ingrid and Cheryl met on Crocodile Dundee and worked together on set for the first time on “Mississippi Burning”. They share lots of stories of the what it’s really like behind the scenes in the wardrobe department of a film set.
Cheryl Talks to FIT class: The early years
Ingrid: I would love for you to tell the story of Cheryl, starting where you began and where your career led you, because you’re in an extraordinarily interesting place right now.
Cheryl: Wow, great, thanks! My name is Cheryl Kilbourne and I got started in 1978, probably before most of you were born! I went to school for Fashion Design and Merchandising at Florida State, which is Ingrid’s Alma Mater…
Ingrid: Go Noles!
Cheryl: Haha… I started at University of Maryland and I wanted to go to NY but I was so terrified of NY; I didn’t have the guts. So I was at University of Maryland, which is where I was from, and I wanted to go away. I don’t know why I chose Florida, but I did. I literally looked at a map and thought hm.., maybe Denver, because I was born there, or maybe Florida… there are beaches there…
Ingrid: And you literally chose the one part of Florida where there are no beaches!
Cheryl: Haha, I know! But there was also a budget concern because I was putting myself through school and counting my little pennies. I kind of did a sly thing and became a resident of Florida and got in as a resident, which they don’t think they even allow anymore. So I went to school for Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandising. When I graduated, my first job was working for Neiman Marcus in their buyer trainee program in Atlanta. The first thing they do is put you on the sales floor, and they put me in hosiery… back then people wore pantyhose. I failed miserably at selling hosiery. I failed miserably at selling anything! I was brought into the office and was written up for not selling enough hosiery. I thought, how do you push hosiery?? Either someone is going to buy it or not, but they said , no no you need to really sell it.
I was on the bus going home that night, I didn’t have a car, and I thought, this may not be for me. I opened the paper and I saw an ad for a seamstress for dinner theater. The job payed twice what they were paying me at Neiman Marcus, because retail doesn’t pay very well, so I thought well, I can sew.
The minute I entered that world, that was it for me. I fell in love with the theater. I was just a stitcher, I wasn’t even a draper or a cutter, just a stitcher, but I was making more there and I didn’t have to hawk hosiery and I got to work on fun clothes. I really enjoyed it, but slowly but surely that theater went bankrupt, and I thought, now what am I going to do. So I went back at Florida State for my masters, and I was working toward that. But it felt like I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. So I got on the train and went o NY and interviewed at NYU with my portfolio and I got accepted. But I hadn’t thought it through, and there was no way I could afford it. So I went back to Atlanta and my dinner theater that had folded had become a package show venue where the show comes in with the costumes all ready built. So I started working there again, and this call came in from a movie production that was in town and they were looking for a seamstress. I didn’t want to be a seamstress for the rest of my life, but I said, hey, I’ll try that! So I was sewing for this movie, and I’m not a great sewer, I’m passable but I wouldn’t consider myself great…
Ingrid: I call BS on that…
Cheryl: Hahaha, well Ingrid and I did a lot of kamikaze sewing, where you have to do it really fast; you have no time and you’re under duress. And you just, boom boom boom, you have to hem a pair of pants for a suit in 5 minutes. I’m good at that because I can stay fairly calm.
So what happened was one day I went to the set and the wardrobe truck was a mess… and I’m slighty OCD. Not OCD, but I like things neat. So I thought, I’ll just clean this up, so I was cleaning up the truck and the designer came back from set in tears and said, I just fired the set person. Now this was a three-man crew… a designer, a set person and a seamstress. And it was way too big a movie to be a three-man crew. So I said, really??? Who’s going to be the set person? And she said I would be! And I said, wait a second, I’ve never even been on a movie set before! I don’t know how to do that job. And she said, well you’re going to have to learn fast. I wanted to do it, so I thought I’m just going to have to figure this out.
So I knew enough to go to the script supervisor and tell her that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and needed her help, but I would learn fast. She was mortified and said, “Do you know what a continuity book is?” “No…” “ Do you know you have to have a polaroid?” I said, “I’ll go buy one tonight!” So she showed me how to do continuity. And one day she said, “You know in two days you have a food fight.” I said, “What does that mean?” She said, “You have to have multiples… we shoot over and over and over.” So I went to the designer and said, “You know we have a food fight. Do we have multiples?” And she said they had six. Well let me tell you… six was not enough! How about 20? So I thought, well what do I do? I should be prepared. So I brought an ironing board, a wash tub and a blow dryer. Again, by myself… and there wasn’t enough time to reset anyone who wasn’t the main character. The main actor in the scene was a character actor named Dub Taylor who had been in a ton of Westerns . So we went through the six like that, and then I was just washing and drying, washing and drying, and he was always kind of damp, but he was a pro and he said, whatever Cheryl, don’t worry about it.
So that’s how I started in the business, and it was thrilling and scary and terrifying, but I got through it. I got yelled at a lot, cause directors sometimes yell. You’re ruining their shot, you’re ruining their vision, you’re ruining their movie, never mind that there’s a crew of 80, it’s all on you! So it was hard but I learned a couple things: 1. You have to have a tough skin, 2. There’s no crying.
Ingrid: There is, but it’s in the wardrobe truck
Cheryl: It’s in the honey wagon, it’s in the wardrobe truck, it’s in the bushes but there’s no crying in front of the director. You keep it together and then you go off by yourself and have a good cry if you have to.
And then the next movie, the same company did another movie with a better designer. So she came in and I told her my past experience, and she taught me how to do it the right way. She taught me how to do a script break down, how to do the set properly, she was the designer but she’d been a wardrobe supervisor, and this was a small movie so she was sort of both. Actually, it wasn’t a small movie but in those days we did it with less crew, and I don’t know how we did. We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have walkie-talkies…
Ingrid: Maybe that’s how we did it!
Cheryl: Maybe that IS how we did it! We were oblivious and nobody could find us! Now when you go home, you’re bombarded. If you weren’t home, they didn’t get you until the next morning. So in a way, it was less stressful. And we shot slower because we shot film. Lighting was slower, everything was slower.
Ingrid: Yeah, the change to digital has really altered the pace. Everything goes much faster. You’d think that because digital is streamlined it would require less crew, but the crews are bigger now. And there are a couple of things I wanted to interject here. Listening to Cheryl talk makes me think of what I always tell my students: Just say yes. Try it. When Cheryl was told I need you to go and do this job that you’ve never done before, she said OK!
Cheryl: OK! Here I am! I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? They fire me… but even that doesn’t usually happen. They usually just move you around.
Ingrid: Yes, they want you to succeed.
Cheryl: They NEED you to succeed!
Ingrid: Yes! And the other thing is the value of a mentor. A designer eventually showed you how to do it right. And sometimes you just have to ask if you really don’t know.
Cheryl: Yes, I’ve had several mentors in my life and I always try to mentor other people, too. One of them was a costume designer named Peggy Farrell; she came to Georgia with a made for TV movie, and she hired me as a PA. They were shooting in Griffin, GA, which was a two hour drive from Atlanta. The production expected me to drive two hours every morning and two hours every night, and that wasn’t gonna cut it because the days are already 12-14 hours. So myself and another PA put ourselves up at the local Hotel 6. I had to call my parents and say, “I feel really good about this opportunity, but mom, dad, can you give me some money! Cause they’re not paying me enough to support myself and put myself up in this hotel.”It turned out to be an excellent move because Peggy turned me on to four other costume designers and my career really took off. Peggy showed me her tricks about breaking down a script, and what her process was, even though I wasn’t going to be a costume designer, I knew I wanted to be a wardrobe supervisor.
I actually did have one design job. I did this movie with a costume designer from LA and she made the mistake of trying to tell the director that he was wrong. You can’t actually do that! So they let her go and they were looking around for another designer, They interviewed another costumer in town and she said, “I don’t know why you’d hire me when Cheryl is there.” And they said “Oh, why don’t you design it?”
I loved the designer they had fired so I tried to keep with what she wanted. But I realized a couple of things- I didn’t want to be a designer because I didn’t know how to play the politics. Back then I was also very shy and I didn’t feel comfortable talking with the producers and director. I felt more confident as a wardrobe supervisor. I felt stronger that way, and so I decided I didn’t want o be a designer. I did 5 movies with Peggy as a set costumer, and I worked my way up to being a pretty one.
When I met Ingrid I was hired as the set person on Mississippi Burning, and there were two supervisors, and that morphed into maybe four and they kept burning out and leaving, and at the end of the job they gave me a credit as supervisor, which I was not, but it was the prize I got for just hanging in there and not quitting!
Ingrid: Cheryl and I lasted the longest!
Cheryl: If someone asked me what’s the hardest movie I ever did, it would be that one. It was grueling; we were shooting nights for three weeks; I felt like a mole person.
There’s one night in particular, which is etched in my brain. They were shooting this horrible sequence of this man being lynched. He was this actor from Georgia who I knew, I’d done many movies with him, and Alan Parker, the director, was dragging this actor through real pig shit. And we broke for lunch and I said to the actor, his name was Lou, I said “Lou why do you put up with this? Why don’t you say that’s it? I’m out of here?” And he said, “Cheryl this is the best work I’ve ever done, and if I have to be dragged in pig shit I’ll do it.” So I said let me help you get out of these clothes at least and have lunch semi-decent.” It was a very emotional scene, even watching it being shot was difficult, it was very realistic. He did an amazing job.
Ingrid: The take away from this story is that there is nothing glamorous about this business whatsoever. Even on a film that is about glamour, if it’s a project about high fashion or rich people
Cheryl: Even on The Devil Wears Prada.
Ingrid: Even on that film people are sweaty, they get cranky. It’s hard work. So it’s important to go into this industry with your eyes wide open and understand, it may not literally be pig shit, but even on a glamorous film it’s not glamorous work.
Cheryl: Yeah, I mean that night Ingrid and I went back to the hotel room and we got into our showers with all of our clothes on to get rid of the mud.
Stayed tuned for Part Two with more battle stories, tips about getting into the business and more of Cheryl’s evolution to opening Manhattan Wardrobe Supply with Tommy Boyer.