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SYFY WIRE costume design

How the costumes of The Prodigy strike a balance between creepy and innocent

By Emma Fraser
The Prodigy

Children and horror often go hand-in-hand; sometimes kids are the conduit for evil, others can see ghosts, and in The Shining, the hand-holding is literal. The sub-genre of parents who are at their wits’ end because of supernatural occurrences impacting their family includes classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen, as well as the more recent Insidious and Conjuring franchises. Joining these ranks is The Prodigy, a psychological horror, which debuted in theaters February 8, as Sarah (Taylor Schilling) becomes increasingly concerned about the behavior of her young son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). 

The matching blue dresses of the Grady twins in The Shining and Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) Exorcist bedgown are iconic scary movie costume moments, pieces which visually juxtapose the innocence of children with the horrific scenarios they have found themselves in. In any other situation, young twins wearing the same childlike frock wouldn’t be creepy — well, not that creepy — but in the Overlook Hotel, it epitomizes the horrors that are about to come.

Taylor Schilling and Jackson Robert Scott the prodigy
The Prodigy costume designer Catherine Ashton wanted to make Miles look as childlike as possible, as this would emphasize his youthful innocence. This helps maintain a sense of balance between the darkness enveloping this family and Sarah’s desire to protect her son. When SYFY FANGRRLS recently spoke to Ashton, she detailed the clothing tricks she used to achieve this goal and the challenges that occurred during filming.

Ashton is a big fan of horror — her favorite is actually The Shining — but this was her first time working on a horror movie. However, she did not alter her research or preparation methods, as genre does not define how she approaches a script. “It is all character driven with me. I build their character," Ashton noted. “I do my own biography. That is how I normally work. And then I breathe life into them.” She added that the family unit, particularly the relationship between mother and son, is what leaped off the page.

It may also be Orange is the New Black star Taylor Schilling’s first foray into scary movie territory, but her young co-star Jackson Robert Scott is becoming quite the horror veteran — he previously played young Georgie Denbrough in the recent It remake.

The Prodigy
However, there is no danger in getting the characters mixed up, as Miles does not have a yellow raincoat hanging in his closet. “He was Miles. I dressed for Miles' character. He was just another person, but they are very different from how they look,” Ashton explained, when asked if she consciously avoided garments that might remind audiences of Scott’s other recent role.

For Miles, it was important to highlight his childlike sensibilities through costuming. “I wanted everybody to fall in love with this little boy and I wanted everything that happens in this film to be so unexpected,” noted Ashton. The disturbing behavior is at odds with Sarah's maternal instincts and the audience should identify with this dilemma. The clothing Miles wears acts as a reminder that he is just a child; if he was too stylish, then there might not be the same impact. 

The sleeper-style footie pajamas were something Ashton was keen on acquiring, but they were only available in smaller sizes. Unfortunately, Scott is older than this particular bedwear style is typically made for, so Ashton had to improvise by buying the largest size available, followed by remaking the garment so it fit the actor. This specific style was important to Ashton’s vision of the “image of a child in little pajamas with little feet — it just brought him innocence and I wanted to keep him as innocent as possible.”

The Prodigy
Sleepwear is not the only item in Miles’ closet that helps project this image; a cable knit sweater is also a signature piece, which also features heavily in promotional materials. This is something Ashton wanted to use from the very start of the design process — again, the sizing factor was sidestepped by adding onto the garment so it fit Scott.

However, another production obstacle had to be overcome as the clothing required didn’t match the season of garments available in Toronto stores, where The Prodigy was shot. Winter attire had already been switched out for summer. “We were chasing the trucks with all the clothing to actually get this sweater,” Ashton laughed, as she explained the dash for this key garment. Cable knit is pretty innocuous, and there’s nothing particularly evil looking about it — it was what helped make Mrs. Voorhees seem so unsuspecting when introduced in the original Friday the 13th. The sartorial serial killer vibes or evil aesthetic are not often associated with cozy sweaters. 

The goal for Ashton was for Miles to not be another creepy kid at the start of the film; she wanted to “try to keep him as real, so you fell in love with him. And you were able to be a part of his mother’s struggle in keeping her child safe.”

The Prodigy
His school uniform is part of this, even if it evokes memories of another young boy experiencing some troubling behavior. Ashton did note this costume does go in a similar direction to Damien (Harvey Stevens) from The Omen. It is impossible to think of a young boy in this kind of ensemble and not think of Damien in a bow tie and three-piece suit. Miles has a knit vest, white shirt and tie as his school uniform. School attire can look a bit like dresses kids as mini-adults — particularly when neckwear is involved — but again, the innocence factor is strong.

Halloween costumes can also go in any number of directions, but as with the rest of the costume design, Ashton wanted to keep this look simple to help ground the action. You can't get much more classic than a skeleton, even if this one has a slightly different design twist with a half painted face. In fact, the half-painted skeleton face is a concept Ashton presented in her Prodigy interview. As she told us, “I wanted to keep his costume very basic; it wasn't something ordered from a big Halloween place. It came from a mother going to a store and buying a very simple skeleton costume. I wanted it real so it could play, again, the innocence of him.”  

The Prodigy
The bond between mother and son is another theme Ashton wanted to project through the costume design; this is a typical family who is experiencing something far from normal. “I wanted to make [Sarah] believable as a concerned mom,” said Ashton. “I didn’t want her to be high stylish, I wanted her to be very simple, so everything around her and what was going on was about the relationship between the two of them.” The color palette, including the pink of Sarah's sweater, gives off an image of warmth, Sarah is "a happy mom."

Another reason for Sarah’s simple muted, but warm tones is so the audience isn’t distracted by the clothing. The action swings between what is logical and supernatural, and as this line blurs, the costuming helps ground the story, “I wanted with the action and everything else, to actually be the story and not about the clothing. Keeping it simple and real,” said Ashton.

The Prodigy Movie Poster
Duality runs through The Prodigy, whether it is Miles' half-painted face or Sarah feeling torn between her maternal instincts to protect her son and wanting to delve deeper into the cause of this disturbance. Another detail of Ashton's costume design also presents an image of two things connected. Sarah's wishbone necklace wasn’t intended to have an overt meaning, although Ashton noted it was possibly a subconscious choice as it does represent “the part of wishing her life is going to be okay with her son and her family.”

When asked about her favorite costumes, Ashton chose the aforementioned striped sleeper suit with the image of a moose, but there are some surprises up her sleeve. To save us from spoilers, she instead teased what to look out for: “a T-shirt we made for Miles. This special T-shirt reveals who or what Miles really is.”

You can also see one of Ashton’s favorite moments from The Prodigy in the trailer when Miles runs to his mother, as "that is when you really figure out there is something seriously wrong with Miles.” Working on horror isn’t something Ashton finds scary, but she did note when she was watching that particular scene from another room it “jolted me a little bit.”

The striped sleeper suit also features on these brilliantly creepy limited edition retro-style posters, which does a good job of highlighting why Ashton was so keen on having Miles in it to begin with. It is the perfect balance of unnervingly creepy and cute.  As with the twins in Thie Shining and The Omen's Damien, Miles has a look of childlike innocence, even if there is something much more insidious going on. Cute clothing can only mask what lies beneath for so long. 

The Prodigy is now playing in theaters.