Our conversation with Nicki Ledermann continues!
Nicki Ledermann: Period Pieces, Painting and Research
MWS: You’ve done extremely varied work- glamorous stuff like “Sex and The City”, period pieces…
Nicki Lederman: Which is my favorite, by the way. I’ve been doing period pieces for the last six years and I love it.
MWS: Why do you prefer that?
NL: It’s more creative. And you really help to transform the actors into different people. They look really different. It’s fun.
MWS: We spoke with the great Costume Designer Jane Greenwood and she talked about the precision that’s necessary for doing period work, and that if you get too creative it dates the film very quickly. How can you divorce your eye from what is current?
NL: Absolutely, that’s true. That’s the fun part… you do a lot of research into what people had available to use and you create recipes to replicate that. We did a lot of that on “The Knick;” we created lip stains for the ladies and things like that. But what I always do is look at all of the painters of that time and look at the portraits. For “The Knick” we invited the core group of make up artists to the country and we recreated portraits of painters like Sargeant and American Realists of that time so that we could really study and recreate the colors and what they looked like. What painters did… they didn’t really paint exactly what they saw. With the women, they did add a little more blush to make them more beautiful. They were commissioned portraits, after all. So we looked at that to see what the look was at the time and found ways to use that technique on their faces.
MWS: So you had a little boot camp.
NL: Yes, and the people who I work with regularly are mostly painters. So they understand color and highlight and shading and all of these things and that are so valuable.
Nicki Lederman: Technical Knowledge
MWS: Do you need to know a little bit about how a scene is going to be lit?
NL: Absolutely, that’s extremely important to know. The colors of the light will effect you. For example when we did “Enchanted,” that ballroom scene was lit in a strange way. They used these sort of violet and orange lights, so I did the make up on Amy Adams and she looked amazing, but on set she looked like she had nothing on. So I had to go back and use colors to compensate for the strange light. And under regular light it looked crazy, but once she was in that unusual light it looked great. So that’s a basic understanding of how color works that you need.
MWS: And then I imagine understanding how things translate onto film or video, too?
NL: Yes on top of the light there’s how the camera is reading it. Back in the day when it was film, the different stocks would pull out different colors, warm vs cool, and now with all the digital there are also variations, but you always have a DIT tent where you can check and see pretty much what it’s going to look like. So back in the days, you’d have to wait to watch the dailies, and then it would be too late because it was already shot.
MWS: And then you’d have to keep the continuity.
NL: Yes, exactly.
MWS: Is there a difference between working on a long running show and a film? Is there a different sense of developing the character and maintaining some continuity and still keeping it fresh?
NL: In terms of designing the look it’s not that much different, but in terms of working on it it’s very different because TV is so fast. You don’t get the script until five days before you start shooting it, and you have to pull out what you need for new characters on that episode, or sometimes special effects, wounds and things like that. It’s very fast paced, and there’s a deadline for airing the show, so you work long hours. In contrast you work on a movie for around three months usually, and you shoot three or four pages a day.
MWS: Which is incredible to think that if you’re working on an hour long show you’re making half a feature in a week or so.
NL: Yes, you cram it into 12 days for an hour, or 7 for a half hour. It’s a lot of work.
Nicki Lederman: Women In Film and On Set Culture
MWS: What about women in the industry? Your field is more female dominated, but in general, do you think the attitudes towards women are getting better?
NL: I do. There are more women producers and directors now. On “Vinyl” we alternated DP’s and AD’s, and we had one episode where the main producers were all women, and the DP and director were women, the writers, too. Bobby Canivale was coming to the monitor and it was all women looking at it, and he stopped and was like “Oh, my God. There are so many women!” It was exciting. And he’s great and loves women and is so respectful. I still encounter sexists. Sometimes you put your foot down and sometimes you have to let it go.
MWS: I guess there’s a certain amount of placating a certain amount of asserting yourself.
NL: Always. Especially with some of the older people. Sometimes you almost have to just play dumb with them. It’s awful to do, but sometimes if you want to get what you need, you do it. Now that I’m getting older I can fight for what I want. I’m working now with Scorcese for the third time and he prefers to work with women. He loves working with women.
MWS: Which is funny since he’s made such iconic male films very often.
NL: True. But I’ve seen him sort of clean out the house a little bit and now there are lots of women.
MWS: What has it been like working with him?
NL: Oh, he’s just so smart and talented and really wonderful. And he’s also just a guy. You realize quickly that it’s just people like anyone else.
MWS: Are you a big film buff yourself?
NL: I love movies and I love going to see them. But I’m not a film geek.
MWS: Maybe that’s sort of leveling to not be such a fanatic.
NL: Sure. But if you’re a fanatic you have all of these great references to pull from.
MWS: How often do you see a look on the street that inspires you.
NL: That happens frequently. But often if you recreate certain looks on film, nobody would believe it. And I love fashion. Though I worked in fashion and didn’t like the beauty element, the insecurity and superficiality. I don’t love working on glamour stuff so much. Like on Sex and the City we tried to exaggerate self-expression, instead of just standard beauty. But it’s hard not to get pulled into that beauty stuff. We all got sucked in on it on that show, with the labels and fashion and being thin and all that stuff.
MWS: Oh that’s interesting. It’s like the way actors can’t help being effected by the parts they are playing, and I guess if you’re working on a long running show everyone working on the show must get sucked into the very culture that you’re creating.
MWS: But now that some time has gone by it does seem like the show represented a certain freedom of expression. In some ways it also heightened that perfectionism, but some freedom to be outrageous is there as well.
NL: Yes, though they did exaggerate a lot as well. Like Samantha’s character was a sort of fantasy of something, she wasn’t a real woman.
MWS: What about something like “Jesus’ Son,” which has a sort of gritty realism to it. How much are you actually doing on a film like that?
NL: Sometimes I think you can feel obligated to really “do something” and it’s not always necessary. On “Jesus’ Son” we had to distress a lot. Sam has beautiful skin and she’s so pretty, we had to make her look more like a junky. So you use painting to create the sunken cheeks, and you have to know the anatomy and to know what happens to the body with that kind of drug use, how the body reacts and what that looks like. So that’s a lot of research.
MWS: Is the research part fun?
NL: Yes, that’s my favorite part! On “The Knick,” on “Vinyl,” on “Boardwalk Empire.” You learn about history and what was happening in that time. You learn so much.
MWS: Is there a difference between working with men and women?
NL: Not so much. Actually men can be a little more picky and insecure. Maybe they’re not as comfortable with makeup in general. But I’ve been lucky and worked with great people. You just need to make the actors feel safe and comfortable.
MWS: Acting is a strange job. It’s very vulnerable.
NL: Yes, and they get rejected all the time. They don’t know if people are telling them the truth. What’s interesting is the difference between American actors and English or Australian actors. Americans are more into that hype of celebrity, but English and Australian actors don’t have a posse. They’re just grateful and happy. They want to go out after work with everyone and be a part of it. It’s a little sad with the celebrity culture. There are also American actors who are very down to earth and who walk down the street and never get noticed. They don’t court the attention.
MWS: Would you want to do anything that’s more fantastical?
NL: Well, I’m not really a prosthetics artist and that’s really what that is. It’s like a totally different specialty. It’s interesting, the Scorcese project that I’m working on has Pacino and De Niro and Pesci all playing a wide age range from 30’s to 80’s, but we’re not using any prosthetics. It will be all digital.
MWS: Do you think the industry has changed in terms of people getting into it?
NL: It’s harder to get in because of union restrictions, and so many people wanting to get in. It’s harder to get good work and have a good career.
MWS: It seems like people used to be able to almost stumble in to the business.
NL: Yes, I sort of stumbled in. I don’t really know how people do it now. You need help to get in.
MWS: Thanks so much for talking with us, Nicki. I can’t wait to see “The Greatest Showman!”
NL: Christmas Eve! It’ll be in theaters.