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Emmy-nominated costume designer Meghan Kasperlik on outfitting the world of sci-fi

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Dec 5, 2018, 4:02 PM EST

Meghan Kasperlik has been outfitting some of our favorite shows for nearly two decades. She dressed America Ferrara in Ugly Betty, costumed the cast of Royal Pains and crafted the look of Netflix’s The OA. TV was Kasperlik’s stomping ground in the early days of her career but a few years ago, the designer ventured into the world of film. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight Rises, It Comes A Night — Kasperlik has spent the better part of the last three years building worlds in the horror and superhero space, dressing dark characters, clothing conflicted vigilantes and testing her own creative boundaries.

She earned an Emmy nod for the first time this year for her work on HBO’s Fahrenheit 451, helping Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon build a futuristic reality in which books are dangerous and firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. It’s a dark, gritty reimagining of the classic dystopian novel written by Ray Bradbury, and it might have been the catalyst for Kasperlik’s involvement in another noir project, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen series for HBO.

Both are a far cry from Kasperlik’s network comedy days and considering the #MeToo era we’re currently living in, the shifting landscape of television, and the superhero craze dominating the box office, we thought chatting with a costume designer responsible for bringing genre to life, on the big and small screen, might yield interesting results.

We were right. 

You started on TV, transferred to film, and now you’re back doing television. Is there a medium you prefer? One that allows you to do the most character-building?

I've just recently gotten back into TV, and I'm finding TV is so different than what it used to be back when I was doing it. There's so much character development and so much freedom to really build. With television, I'm currently on a project now that's all about really building a world and building different concepts and ideas that a lot of times you would experience in film. But now, TV has really taken that over. And, really the dream is just working with HBO. What one person might think is a crazy idea, they embrace the fact that you're having this creativity.

Looking at the different projects you’ve worked on, is there something about genre, specifically fantasy and sci-fi, that interests you? Does it offer more of an opportunity to be creative than say, a network sitcom?

As far as sci-fi and fantasy, I think a lot of costume designers like that because it's a world where you can really build costumes. But I'm also very much involved with the building of the character. I love nothing more than to start out a project and talk with the director and the writer and the actor, and kind of collaborate with them and say, "Who is this character, and what is the story we are trying to tell?" Because that then conveys what their costume is going to be.

I think I've been choosing projects lately where I feel I will have a little more creative opportunity and creative freedom to tell that story through an interesting detail, or interesting character. But the story is very important to me, and what's on the page, if it kind of sings to me, that will let me know if I can help bring that alive on camera.

Diving into Fahrenheit 451 for a second, this is a classic novel but the film is a modern reimagining of it. How did you go about mixing the past, present, and future in the costumes?

Basically, it was, "How can we make some parts futuristic and some parts correlate to what was happening in the past?" For the fireman uniform, I looked a lot of uniforms not only from the past in the US, but I also looked at what they were wearing in Paris and Thailand and China, and you know, different parts of the world to incorporate that into the uniform. I wanted there to be a sense of strength and precision and uniformity, but also a brotherhood that you kind of get when you're in the military. And, they were the enforcers of the law, so it wasn't that they were putting out fires, they were starting them.

Michael Shannon’s character is kind of an imposing presence in the film. How did you make sure his look represented his strict adherence to this doctrine that controls the characters in the film? 

This is like the fifth time I've worked with Michael Shannon. So, I have a really good relationship with him and it’s a matter of, "How can I make him stand out a little bit more?" I fashioned his character after the Nazis because he was so rough in his military ways and so authoritative. I looked at the ranking of government, the ranking of officials and how they had the armband, and so I wanted to make the modern version of that.

So now I’m wondering how you approach Michael Shannon and tell him, ‘Hey, we’re dressing you like a Nazi for this thing.’ 

[laughs] I don't know if mentioned that to him. I do concept boards for each character, and he saw that there were some military and Nazi images on there. But he's a true actor through and through, and he takes it all in. We have a good rapport, so if I say, "Oh, this is what I'm thinking," if he thinks something differently, he'll tell me. I think we have a trust there that he knows that I'm working towards something.

Talking about the look of this film, and of other genre projects you’ve worked on, it’s so darkly lit. The Dark Knight was, I’m assuming Watchmen will follow that mold as well. I know that presents challenges in terms of costume. How did you deal with that? 

So, I worked with my textile artist and we put together a mixture of wax and paint. She would wax up the jacket and the pants so that light would bounce and reflect off the wax and help light the face. So, there was a glisten and a gloss to it that really helped make the costume light up in a way without having to put extra light on it or being worried about everything being too dark.

I'm assuming they worked with real fire at some point on this shoot. So, how did you keep them safe if you're painting them up with wax? 

We would only have the high-gloss ones when the flame was far enough away when it wasn't a safety issue.

I wouldn't want to be the person responsible for setting Michael B. Jordan on fire. I think his fans might have some issue with that. 

[laughs] No, goodness.

You're a costume designer and you've worked on shows and films that have been directed by men or produced by men. I'm thinking about things like superhero movies and sci-fi shows. What's your experience like as a woman designing for those kinds of projects? 

I think there's definitely movement and improvements on women in the industry. And I think that female directors are getting more opportunities to shoot projects that are seen by all audiences, not just by women. So that is really exciting to me.

I just got done working on a pilot, and it was a female director, a female DP, and two female showrunners. And they kicked ass. Steph Green was the director and she was precise and focused, more focused than most directors I've worked with. She wanted and knew how to navigate the crew in a constructive way. It was amazing.

A lot of the genre films you’ve worked on have been helmed by men and intended for male audiences. What’s it like for you to come on board a project like that, a film that might not have been made with you in mind, and put your stamp on it? 

I watch all genres and I love that. But I also think that I come from more of a fashion background, and so much of what people are talking about is the aspect of the superhero costume. It's marketed so much that you want to look at something that people want to see and want to desire. So, I think that my fashion background is a great perspective to bring to the table. I'm really excited to be a part of the project I'm on and bring my voice to the table. And not only design for women, but also men, and overall an audience that will look at something that's new and fresh and interesting.

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