Red Stewart chats with costume designer Karyn Wagner about her career and her work on the new series Waco…
Karyn Wagner is a costume designer who has been working in the entertainment industry since the 1980s. She is an accomplished artist in the wardrobe department, and has been responsible for creating beautiful apparel present in acclaimed movies and TV shows like The Green Mile and Preacher. Her most recent work is on the Paramount Network miniseries Waco, which is currently on air.
We at Flickering Myth had the opportunity to speak with her about her career, and I in turn had the privilege to conduct the interview. Check it out below.
Ms. Wagner, it is an honor to meet you. Thank you for your time, I know how busy you must be.
Thank you! I was looking at your website, Flickering Myth. It’s really great. I love your coverage.
Oh thank you. That all goes to our editor-in-chief Gary Collinson. He’s put so much sweat, blood, and tears into this project.
Yeah, it shows, it shows.
I’m a surprisingly big admirer of yours, and I say surprising not because I underestimated your talent, but because I didn’t realize just how extensive your filmography goes in terms of the projects you’ve worked on. I mean you’ve done some of my favorite movies like The Green Mile and The Notebook.
Oh, thank you.
No, thank you for the amazing work you’ve done. You’ve obviously designed costumes for both television shows and feature length movies. What’s the biggest difference between the two for you as the costume designer.
Well, there are a couple of big differences. One is strictly visual. Film is more about detail. You have more time and you’re lingering longer on details and closeups of the production design, costume design, and all of that. You tend to see more of that in film. Whereas TV is generally constructed so much of cuts, quick cuts. You try to tell the story a little bit more rapidly. So, I tend to focus more on silhouettes for television and less on detail.
So for instance, for television, I might take a little bit more liberties in terms of say the kind of lace I use. Whereas in film, I’ll make sure it’s completely period appropriate; like hand-made for something before 1900, that kind of thing.
Also, in terms of film, you tend to work a lot more closely with the director, whereas in TV you work a lot more closely with the showrunner. So it’s just differences on how you collaborate.
Right. You mentioned that you tend to focus more on silhouettes when you work on television properties. Could you go into more detail about that, because I’m not familiar with the aspects of costume design.
So let’s take Underground. It’s just my favorite example to use because it really shows what I’m talking about. So in Underground, it’s antebellum, it’s 1850s. There are so many different groups of people. There’s the enslaved people in the fields, there’s their owners which are southerners, there’s northern abolitionists, there’s northern freed people of color, and then there’s slave catchers. And that’s just the warm-up. So because there’s so many characters, I assign each group a set of colors, textures, and a specific silhouette meaning that their clothing achieves a certain kind of simple line drawing, if you will. So you would easily be able to identify which group of people you were looking at and where you were geographically instantly before the characters had to say anything.
Oh okay, so even if you’re given like a quick shot of them, you could easily determine them.
You’ll know by the colors. So for instance, the southern plantation owners were dressed in very shiny, very colorful fabrics. They had a lot of color, and they had very extravagant shapes because they had the money and the time to spend on their clothing.
Whereas say Northern free people of color did the best they could with what they had, but they might not be able to afford that, so their fabrics were more sturdy and their silhouettes were less extravagant.
So essentially the budget helps how limit you form the identity of the characters in the property.
The budget, but even more so the way that it’s going to be edited. Again, with television being so much more quick in its editing generally. It’s really just about deciding that look in a really easily recognizable way. Which is not budget dependent as much. I don’t generally feel that my budgets are….I guess I’m so used to working in the film business as it is these days, I don’t generally find my budgets horribly constrictive. And I can usually function within them. So budget is not as big a deal as editing.
You know the other thing that’s been a radical change in the last few years has been the jump from film, actually shooting on film, to HD, and having to rejigger everything I do. HD, in its infancy, was very difficult to work around for costumes because texture is such a big deal. It still is, but the cameras are more advanced now. So things don’t strobe the way they used to.
Before we talk about Waco, when it comes to costume design, I feel that it’s a very underappreciated aspect in the entertainment industry-
Oh thank you. I’ll take that! I agree, I agree completely.
Well I mean more from an audience perspective. It seems to me whenever it’s brought up in the media, it’s almost always negative. Like the recently cancelled Inhumans show, it was lambasted for the costume design. Rarely do I see anyone shower heaps of praise on the costume design. Do you think costume design could stand to get more appreciation from audiences and the media, or am I looking too much into the situation?
Well, to be fair to all sides, here’s the thing, let’s take The Green Mile. Nobody’s ever said a word about the good costume design in The Green Mile, primarily because I successfully made those costumes appear so natural that nobody thought to think about them. So everything in The Green Mile is manufactured, all the prison uniforms are manufactured. The guard uniforms were invented because guards weren’t even wearing uniforms yet in the 1930s.
Right, you see, everyone has that reaction, “oh,” but those costumes and uniforms look so natural. So like that’s my Academy Award is the fact that nobody said anything about those costumes because they looked so natural. You know, there’s something like that going on currently with Dunkirk. When I watched Dunkirk, I saw that it’s a movie about men in uniform, but Jeffrey [Kurland] took such care to give every single speaking character some individuation in their uniform. “This one’s a little more worn because he’s been in the service longer.” But nobody’s spoken to that because it looks so natural.
So it’s such a catch-22. If you do your job properly the costumes fade away and they support the dialogue and the action of the character. And if you don’t do your job right, then everybody is pulled out of watching [the movie] by the costumes and goes ‘what the hell is going on with these costumes? They’re so bad they’re pulling me out of the story.’ So it’s a catch-22.
It would be great if the public or the press even was more aware of what costume designers do, which is something that we, at the Costume Designer’s Guild, we’ve been talking about for years. And you know, the Designer’s Branch of AMPAS, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is also trying to figure out how to get people to be more aware. But even now I’ll read an article about a project, and the reporter will say to the actor “how did you come to pick such great clothes for your character?” And regardless of how the actor answers, why would the press ask that? They know full well that the actor didn’t pick that, that [it was] the costume designer [who] picked that or presented that choice. And then the director and the actor give some input. But why is there not more awareness? And it’s just something that needs to come from us as costume designers and I think we’re gradually making the world more aware of what we do.
So yes it’s a shame that we don’t get more appreciation, but on the other hand sometimes that lack of appreciation is our appreciation. So it’s up to us to make the world more aware of what we do.
Ironically I feel that superhero films are working to bring more awareness to costume designers. Like for example Michael Wilkinson-
Yeah, he’s very talented.
Yah, he got some recognition for the Batsuit that Ben Affleck wore in Batman v Superman. So hopefully, as you said, the change comes from within, and also from external media.
Well a lot of us are hiring publicity agents now, to get the word out there that this is what we do and it needs to be looked upon as an art. Yes of course the DP is important and the production designer is important. But costume design is equally important because without us, people would be going ‘I don’t understand why that guy wearing a suit when he’s a homeless person?’ And costume designers tend to be very self-effacing. ‘It’s just what I do, I’m back here behind the camera.’ Well no, you’re making art, and you’ve got to stand up and boldly be counted otherwise who’s going to pay attention? If you don’t toot your own horn, who’s going to do it for you?
Right, that’s a very good way of putting it in terms of future prospects. You mentioned the other departments. I’m curious, how much do you as the costume designer collaborate with the other departments on a set? Like do you have to talk to the cinematographer to see which costumes would work best in which light? Like I saw in an interview you did for Underground that you talked about how hearing the music helped inspire you to put more color in the costumes there. So how much collaboration do you have with the other departments?
Well I personally love to collaborate with the other departments. I mean everybody’s different, but I try and collaborate as much as possible. I try and work with all the other departments. It’s really important to me. I mean, the first stop I’m going to make when I join a team is to talk to the director and the DP. What effects are you doing in camera, what effects are you looking at doing in post? What are you thinking of doing with the color? Are you going to push the reds, are you going to push the greens? I need to know that. What camera are you using?
So there’s all those technical things that I want to know. And then my next stop is going to be to the production designer. What palettes have you put together for the interior, the exterior? Like Meghan [Rogers], the production designer on Underground, and I worked very closely. She would send me all these printouts. The house is going to be in this palette and that’s how we ended up making the house girls’ dresses exactly the same color as the curtains and the wallpaper for the dining room in the plantation. You know with this idea that they were hiding in plain sight. Like they looked like upholstered chairs and possessions, but at the same time that enabled the house girls to hide their private thoughts. So this all adds to character.
And then you travel on down the line and you’re talking to the set decorator: what color are you envisioning for draperies? You know, I envision talking to the directors about a yellow dress here, but I need to know what colors the drapes are going to be, cause if you’ve got yellow on your mind, then we’ve got to talk to the directors about whether or not they want the person and the drapes to be in the same color.
And then, further on down the line it’s props. Do I need a purse, do I need a pocket? How is this person going to walk into a business meeting hiding an AK-47? You know, I’ve got to help the prop man hide that gun. How’s that going to happen? Is he going to be in a coat? Is he wearing a really baggy suit? Is it in the front, is it in the back, does he have a gun holster….what do I have [to do] to help props? You know, going back to Underground, pockets hadn’t been invented yet. So you can’t just pull a gun out of your pocket because there were no pockets. So is somebody carrying a handbag, are they carrying an over-the-shoulder feed bag? Is it in the waistband of their pants? Is it in a boot? If it’s in a boot, do I have to build something into the boot so that the knife doesn’t chafe the actor?
There’s just thousands of details that go into every single decision that hopefully the viewer never has to think about.
Yeah, just hearing you talk about it made me think about so many things I hadn’t thought about.
Well good! [Laughs]
No, that’s absolutely fascinating. I wonder if that kind of tight collaboration is prominent on other sets.
Yeah, I don’t know. I know that my friends who are costume designers do, and unfortunately here’s another wild thing, I don’t have a lot friends who are costume designers because we’re all busy working on separate projects. And we’re out of town so much on location. And I have someone who I consider to be a very close friend who is a costume designer and I probably see her twice a year. Because she’s there and I’m there, and then she’s here and I’m there, and then I’m here and she’s there.
So I don’t talk to a lot of other costume designers about this. But I know that we all do, the people that I do talk to, we all do the best we can, and sometimes the production designer doesn’t want to collaborate, and there’s kind of nothing you can do about that. And sometimes you’ve got a DP that doesn’t feel like they need to communicate.
But generally I feel like if you set that up at the beginning, it’s going to happen. To me it’s very important. Because I feel that we’re really all there to serve the screenwriter and the director’s vision. If you want to have an ego and you’re below the line, then you’re on the wrong side of the line. We’re all there to serve the story. And so it’s up to us to do the very best we can to make sure that there are no glitches in serving the story.
Absolutely. It’s a team effort, these movies, and if one person is not working well with the others, then it impacts the entire project as a whole.
Yeah, and you see it. I can watch a movie and say ‘oh the costume designer wasn’t getting along with the actor,’ or ‘the actor and the director had very different visions over what they should be wearing.’ You know, I see it because I’ve been around long enough to know what “what” looks like if you know what I mean. And you’re like ‘aww, that’s a shame, what a missed opportunity.’ And you can’t blame anybody because that’s just how it falls out sometimes. You just don’t know going in. You always hope for the best and sometimes somebody’s on a completely different plane, and you’re like ‘okay, here we go. [We’re] just going to do the best we can with it.’
That’s interesting that you’ve developed an instinctual ability to discern or at least accurately guess problems that come up. Now obviously we have to talk about Waco because it already premiered and will continue to play in the upcoming weeks. I had the opportunity to see the first three episodes….
Oh fantastic, well you know more than I do. I’ve only seen the first episode. But I know how it ends! [Laughs]
The show itself is really great. I’m a fan of those more historical based shows, like The People vs O. J. Simpson and The Vietnam War Miniseries. And you’re costume design is, of course, like the rest of your filmography, impeccable on this project. I’m wondering, because Waco is a real-life event compared to The Green Mile and The Notebook, did you find yourself limited by this fact, or were you given the same freedom as on other period pieces you work on?
You know every piece is different, and it’s always all about actualizing the characters to the best you can….Waco was harder to work on because I fell so in love with all these characters.
So one of things you may or may not know about the show, and I’ve been instructed to toot my own horn on this (and I sometimes succumb to that same self-effacing thing that all costume designers do)….So first my agent called and he said “I want you to read this script and it’s about [The Waco Siege]” and I’m like “Waco, Texas, that crazy guy, David Koresh, really?” Like I don’t want to do that, that’s horrible, like what an idiot he was! And my agent was like “Karyn…will you just read this?” And I’m like “ugh, okay.”
So I called him back about an hour later and I was like “Oh my god, I have to do this, I have to do this.” Because once I dove into the research I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about this subject. That all I knew was what the press had told me, and when Waco was happening I actually was working out of the country, so I got an even more condensed version of what the press was already wildly condensing. So I knew nothing other than this guy raped children and had a whole bunch of illegal guns and was a crazy cult leader. And it turned out that none of that was true. And I am a passionate, passionate person about truth and justice. It’s one of the things that drives me through life, this passion for justice. So I was absolutely compelled to tell this story, to help everyone tell this story.
So one of the things I went into the interview with was this idea that I was going to find a picture of every single person who had been in the compound when the siege started. I was going to make a research wall with all of these people’s portraits. And then whatever….speaking parts we didn’t cast, I wanted to cast an extra to look like the Henry Family or any of these other families that were there that stayed. I wanted to cast extras that looked like them.
So I put up this huge research wall, which became kind of the central hub for the entire production. All the actors coming through would come to see this wall. One day David Thibodeau, the real David Thibodeau who actually survived Waco, when he came it took him two weeks to come upstairs. And when he finally came upstairs to look at “the wall” as everybody was now calling it, he stood there for a second and we were all kind of in terror. We were like ‘what’s he going to do, is he going to have a heart attack, is he going to start crying, is he going to go postal?’ We didn’t know. And he just looked at ‘The Wall’ and he said “It’s really great to see you old friends, I haven’t seen you in so long.” Which of course made us all start crying.
But that wall became so central to my part in the movie, to the actors getting a sense of who they were playing and all of that. And the directors would come upstairs and visit the wall. My office was on the second floor and we were shooting on the first floor, sound stages were on the first floor. So everybody would wander through to look at “The Wall.” And you know I had other walls with so many groups of federal, state, and local law enforcement. There were sheriffs…even Border Patrol people were there. So the walls were all covered with this whole crazy situation.
And there was another wall that we never fully got to address unfortunately on the series, there was this whole circus of lookie-loos. So there was press that were camped two miles away from the compound, but there was also like a fortune teller and a guy who showed up and decided that, through the light of God, he was going to sing them out of the compound. And he stayed awake for three days. And he came with a white piano and a white suit and a white hat with a white feather in the white hat and white shiny boots. And…he wasn’t really there to make a spectacle of himself, so much as he was there to bring God’s light to these people and get them to come out safely. So there was that whole world going on.
And it was just all on these walls. And as you walked in, and unerringly, now that I’m thinking about it I wasn’t even conscious of it, but I put up all the walls in the order that they were geographically from each other. So the lookie-loos were the furthest from the people in the compound if that makes sense, both geographically and also on my walls.
So because I have this wall up, and because we were living with these people and we knew what their names were, and as the extras came and we told them who they were and we gave them a little bit of backstory, we all became so involved in the project. And we shot for very close to the same amount of days that the people were in the siege. I think we might of shot for like 60 days or something, and the siege was 51 days….the shooting days were close. So we all felt like we were in the compound together.
And you know that Melissa Benoist is playing Rachel Koresh, but it’s sometimes hard to remember it when she’s saying “how old is Bobby Lane right now?” And I’m like “well Bobby Lane is about four” or whatever it was, and we’re looking at a little girl dressed as Bobby Lane. The line became so amorphic. Sometimes you were on one side of the line and sometimes you were slightly on the other side of the line. And so as we ground to an end and people started perishing, the tone on set became so somber because we were all so dug into the siege, so dug into the story and so dug into each other, and we were all so supportive. It’s really one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever worked on in that regard, because it was such a tight-knit community.
And having the real David Thibodeau there and the real Gary Noesner there, you felt like you had these two poles that you were bouncing between. And you really became able to see both sides of the issue. And we were all asking each other on a daily basis ‘how would you have solved this?’ and none of us had an answer because there wasn’t an easy answer. It was a bunch of personalities that came together and the wrong thing happened. Nobody was completely right and nobody was completely wrong, nobody was an altar boy and nobody was the Devil. It was just like a bad situation that happened at a bad time.
I don’t know how to respond to that. It’s amazing how art can imitate life. You often hear about how some actors go method and live out the life of their character, but to see that it unintentionally happened to the crew and the cast I…I can’t even imagine what the experience was like.
Thank you, it was very intense. I’m so proud of this project. And I’m so proud of the writing and the way it is offering to set the record straight on who David Koresh really was.
Yeah, Taylor Kitsch really makes Koresh three dimensional.
He completely inhabits it, yeah.
Pardon me if this sounds ignorant, but was Waco a little easier for you given that a good portion of the cast just wears suits and government uniforms like ATF flak jackets?
Well, but it’s about getting that right. I mean, is it easier than Underground in a sense because I wasn’t building, for instance, five sets of frock coats or five antebellum gowns because there was so much violence on Underground? In that sense yes. But it was harder emotionally because this happened in my lifetime and because I was so close to the people I was representing.
But also, for like, for Michelle Jones-Koresh, David’s second wife, there’s one or two photos. I have to extrapolate an entire real person out of these photos and I have to extrapolate it out of her facial expressions, out of her body language, out of what I can imagine it being like to be married to the same man that your older sister is married to. There’s lots of photos of Rachel Koresh. And I can figure out a lot of things about her personality from those photographs.
Getting the clothes just right is walking a knife-point. You don’t want to fall, and I mentioned this briefly before, [but] you don’t want to fall on the side of making it so stylish that it puts you squarely in that era and you know what you’re looking at and it’s about the clothes. You need the clothes to fade away. You need to tell a story with those clothes. So sleeve length, color choice, print, the fit of the jeans. I mean I think that, in the ladies fittings, we probably tried on 40 pairs of jeans to get that pair of “high rise, Texas Levis, that looked like they were hand-me downs,” that showed just enough to where you could see how the women were appealing, but not enough to make it obvious. Because their beliefs forbade them from wearing anything sexy.
So it’s all about just hair splitting decisions…you know we’d try a blouse on, and I’d say ‘the blouse is beautiful, but there’s something about the color I don’t like, I’m going to nix it.’ And we’d stand around and we’d look at it and Melissa would say ‘you’re right’ or Julia [Garner] would say ‘well, but I like that color’ and I’d say ‘yes, but is it right for the character?’ and then we’d go back and forth ‘yes, no, maybe?’
The knife-point of picking out plaids for Michael Shannon, for instance like this plaid was too Dab Plaid, this plaid was too ’80s, too loud; how do you strike that perfect balance….I mean plaid is like a whole language. That’s something only a costume designer would say. But plaid is like an entire language in and of itself. Which plaids signals what? You have a covenant with an audience, and audiences intrinsically speak plaid but they don’t know they speak plaid. So which plaid is the right plaid for a guy who wants to be comforting and approachable, yet professional? Which plaid is that? It’s not the same plaid that Michelle Jones is wearing because she is wearing a second wife plaid.
Thank you. I’m sorry, I feel like Anne Hathway in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep goes off on her for…
About the color blue?
It is one of my favorite movies because I’m like yeah, I get it, I totally get what you’re talking about Meryl!
No, thank you again. Again, I apologize for ignorance-
No, no the only thing that’s ignorant is being afraid to ask the questions.
Wow, thank you, that’s, that’s very sweet of you to say. I just had a couple more questions. One was what inspired you in general to become a costume designer for the entertainment industry?
Well, let’s start with I’m third generation film, and it’s pretty much all I know. I had intended to become a veterinarian, and I decided I didn’t want to deal with the pet owners. I mean I love animals, I still love animals to this day. But I ended up with a degree in art history and painting. And….I took a gap year….I had started my graduate thesis, but I needed a gap year to figure out which direction I was going. Was it going to [be] an art history professor, because I love teaching, or was it going to be a painting restoration expert, because I’m really interested in that kind of thing too?
And then, while I was in my gap year, I took a job in film. And I thought ‘god, I know this business so well. I know the people I know the expectations. I know what it takes. Why am I going to try and fix what ain’t broke? Why don’t I just get into the film business?’
So I started off as a production coordinator, and that was too much like the executive secretary jobs I’d had putting myself through college. So I got into camera, which was very very difficult for women in those days. I mean, you can’t imagine what Rachel Morrison’s [Oscar] nomination [for Mudbound] means to me. I’m so, so happy to see that. But in the ’80s it was just too much for me to cope with all that sexism.
So I had gone to Hollywood High, and a bunch of us were in play production together…And I was talking to one of my friends, who said ‘you’re a really well-dressed camera assistant, why don’t you come try the costume department?’ And it was just a fit. I mean it found me. I can’t even say that I went looking for it. But I’ve been sewing since I was a child. My mother sewed all her own clothes, my grandmother sewed all her own clothes. So it was something that just….made so much sense for me.
It’s wonderful that you found your calling and it happened to tie in with your family’s history of sewing.
Yeah, I mean who knows where I would’ve ended up if I didn’t know about the film business. I can’t even begin to imagine. So I’m very, very grateful.
Thank you so much for your time Ms. Wagner. I know how busy you are.
Of course, and thank you for your very thoughtful questions.
Oh no worries. I mean I’ve learned so much more about costume design from these past 30 minutes than I have from all my weeks of research beforehand. I hope you have a very prosperous career in the future.
Thank you so much, thank you very much. Good luck with everything.
Thank you ma’am, you too!
We’d like to thank Ms. Wagner for taking time out of her day to sit down with us.