“Send the Actors to Set with Everything They Need For Their Bodies”: Costume Designer Keri Langerman Dresses The Photograph
After her mother passes away, Mae (Issa Rae) finds letters and a photograph left to her in a safety deposit box. The letters recall an unrequited romance between her mother, Christina Eames (Chante Adams), and a man Mae’s never heard of, Isaac Jefferson (Y’lan Noel). What got between them, mostly, was just space. Christina moved to New York to pursue the kind of career you can’t ambling clammy in the heat. Isaac stayed home. This is a timeless romantic dilemma. As The Photograph shows what happened between Christina and Isaac, the same dynamic recurs in the present between her daughter Mae and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a journalist. We watch wondering what exactly unfolded then, and what of it might repeat itself now.
The elements that set our old and new lovers apart — space, time, and climate — manifest naturally as distinctions in garb. Well-to-do urbanites in cashmere lay into plush sofas to mingle. In Pointe à la Hache, the clothes lay less but as quaint. The film always looks delicate. Mae is always made to look stunning. The threat to romance is situational and barely encroaches on their comfort or ours. The stakes are low. This is a major studio allowing successful black characters to buoy as mildly as the genre’s white staples have.
To maintain that weightlessness, Costume Designer Keri Langerman (Luce, Vox Lux) worked to make her designs look “easy.” The costumes should stand out when they’re meant to and not when they’re not. Each piece has to work for the director, herself, and the actor’s interpretation of the character. It’s one of the final gateways between an actor and their immersion into set, a rung of trust to be cleared between them and the designer before they’re set free, and ideally disencumbered, into the wild.
Keri caught a morning showtime at the Regal United Artist on Court Street.
[The credits roll]
Filmmaker: What did you think of the film?
Keri Langerman: I really enjoyed it. I was immediately drawn to the script, and I think Stella [Meghie, writer/director] did a great job realizing her original vision and connecting the departments to create a unified aesthetic. All of the actors did such an incredible job giving their characters life, heart and humor. I loved Lakeith’s performance. He looked and sounded like Michael Block to me. I “didn’t see” Lakeith. It’s always exciting to see an actor transform.
Filmmaker: Are you dressing “real people” as you described you did in High Maintenance (and so did the bulk of your research on social media), or is everything slightly elevated here in The Photograph? How does the research differ if the latter?
Langerman: It depends on the scene, but overall I would say we didn’t necessarily focus on an elevated style. It’s more that we focused on what a successful lifestyle looks like in the context of these characters. We wanted to showcase a world that felt relatable yet aspirational. We wanted these characters to feel successful, chic, classic, and intelligent. By understanding who these people are and the successful careers they’ve each carved out for themselves, it was obvious to me that the clothing had to reflect this sensibility. It’s just the world that these characters are existing in, it wasn’t a conscious choice to elevate the clothing per se. It feels “real-life” to me, just a different life than maybe we are used to seeing portrayed on the big screen from a non-white cast.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of elements from the script informing the costumes here, not just period, but also location and climate.
Langerman: Oh, I love that aspect of this film. It’s also what drew me to the script. There’s a lot to explore, and I really love solving technical challenges, diving into photo research, and being able to stretch my mind in many different directions. For the period scenes we made a conscious choice to let the time period influence the style but not dictate it. For the clothing, I went about five to ten years prior to the time period that the scenes were set in due to what we thought the economic status of the characters were and what they valued. Christina, Issac, Peter, and Denise felt like people who valued things in life that didn’t revolve around fashion. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have style, which to me are two very different things. I speculated that Christina especially was interested in silhouettes from the ’70s, perhaps as a result of her love of photography—possibly feeling influenced from looking at photos from the past. As an artist I thought her clothing choices should be a bit more daring than the rest of the people in Point á la Hache. I specifically dressed Violet to represent the genesis of style for this generational story. Violet, Christina, and Mae—they dance around each other in terms of silhouette and at times color. I wanted to support Stella’s goal in letting these three women appear, at times, forever bonded, even after death.
Filmmaker: Are you collaborating with the actors here more or less on their character’s costumes than you did on Luce or Vox Lux?
Langerman: Probably exactly the same amount. It’s tough because before the actor arrives there are already months of prep and meetings that have happened. In general, I do the yeoman’s work of walking through the script with the director to see what part the costumes play in the scenes in their mind. After I understand what they want for the scenes and overall tone, and what role the costumes play, I sift through thousands of historical and modern photos looking for people, textures, and moments that mirror what we are trying to capture in the film. I’m usually simultaneously creating sketches, configuring different color palettes and considering different textures depending on the tone of the scene and what my production designer [Loren Weeks] and DP [Mark Schwartzbard] need from me.
After I shape those elements I go back to the director with what I feel are the best options. After she lets me know what she likes I then bring those ideas with me into the first fitting. The fitting is where I work with my actor to really focus on nailing down the silhouette that works with the actor’s body.
However, when I go into a first fitting I genuinely want to understand what the actor is seeing, feeling and where they want to go with the character costume-wise. I do my best to integrate their ideas with the ones we have in place. I want my actors to feel heard, to feel seen, and to feel comfortable voicing their desires to me in a respectful way. I try to send the actors to set with everything they need for their bodies, to give them what they need to transform and deliver a great performance.
Filmmaker: Were there particular costumes that you were anxious to get right?
Langerman: All of them, always, down to the last background. I literally re-dress background myself if I’m feeling like their colors or styles aren’t working for the scene. Background is an easy aspect to overlook or under-budget. Since they are an extension of both the set and the costumes, I find that they have to be perfectly considered in order to melt away—which is kind of what they need to do a lot of the time.
Filmmaker: Did you guys test any of these looks on camera?
Langerman: Nope. We had a camera test but it was more for hair and makeup, not for costumes.
Filmmaker: They do do camera tests on particular costumes though?
Langerman: They do, but it’s very inconsistent. I would say 80% of projects I work on do not set up a costume camera test. There was almost always a hair/makeup test on the projects I have worked on, though.
Filmmaker: Have you run into any issues where a material or design didn’t read well on camera? On The Photograph or any of your other work?
Langerman: [laughs] Everytime time I watch a movie I re-design one or two costumes in my head. In general though, I’ve come to a place in my career where I feel content with the choices I’ve made and I try not to dissect the work beyond what’s helpful for me to learn from it.
Filmmaker: You run into more issues with that when shooting on digital than on film right — moire, “jaggies” on complicated patterns, etc?
Langerman: Hmm, I think the same amount? Each has its own challenges, they’re just different. When we’re shooting on film I’m aware that a lot of people will still experience it on their laptops, televisions, iPads or phones. You can never escape the digital aspect of how people will ultimately experience the film.
Filmmaker: Are you on set everyday?
Filmmaker: What does a day in the work-life look like for the costume designer?
Langerman: It really depends on the day and who needs me. I go wherever I am needed. I rely on my costume supervisor and assistant costume designer to let me know where my time is most valuable. If it’s a big set day with BG [background] or even a small set with new costumes that haven’t been established yet I am on set to make sure that goes smoothly. It’s just easier for myself and my team when I am right there with them, in real time.
If it’s a continuity day [they’re shooting costumes Keri’s already established] then I’m usually off site: either shopping at the store, visiting designer studios to pull for the next work week, or I’m having a meeting with the producer to discuss an upcoming scene that I feel has been under budgeted, and we work together to remedy that. I could be with the production designer hearing what their vision is for the new set. Maybe I’m in my office with my headphones on trying to get inside the mind of a character that I haven’t figured out. Maybe I’m doing fittings for the new actors who were just cast. I could be in Long Island with my assistant costume designer shopping background stock at a thrift store. I could be anywhere.
Filmmaker: Which departments are you interacting with primarily and how?
Langerman: On a day-to-day basis our department mostly interacts with props, set dec, accounting, the ADs, the UPM, the legal/clearance departments, hair, and locations. On a larger scale, less frequently I specifically interact with the director, production designer & make up for the overall and larger aesthetic conversations. It helps to keep that circle limited, consistent, and efficient. Since we all have departments to run, our interactions need to be really efficient and our choices need to be in sync while also unique to each of our department’s goals.
For the day-to-day interactions my crew really handles those. There is a shift from prep to shooting where the technical challenges really kick up a notch. I always make sure I hire a costume supervisor who can handle these challenges. For this it was Michelle Winters. Recently I’ve been working with the same assistant costume designer, Julie Bennet [The Wolf of Wall Street, The Greatest Showman] . The movie would look completely different if these women hadn’t been with me every step of the way. I trust them to make decisions in my absence and to know when to call me if the decision at hand is one that could impact the film in a significant way.
Filmmaker: Do most of your discussions with the director and D.P happen in the beginning; less throughout?
Langerman: They are primarily at the beginning during prep, that lovely time when anything is possible. We use photos and words to communicate what we are seeing and feeling, and those feelings change day to day, so it’s important for me to check in with them regularly. I also have the unique challenge of having to be in sync with them without physically being near them. They are usually together during prep on location scouts, tech scouts, etc. walking through the technical aspects of the film together sharing passing thoughts. I love catching the DP or Production Designer right after a scout, I’m like, “tell me everything!” [laughs]
I understand what they are doing once we start shooting because I watch the dailies and I watch the monitor. For me there is less to discuss when we are shooting because everything is tangible at that point, you can see it, it’s really there, you don’t have to imagine it. In prep we lay the groundwork to make quick decisions on set.
Filmmaker: What are the conversations with you and the production designer like?
Langerman: It’s so different from person to person. I usually end up falling in love with the production designer. I’ve been lucky to have really wonderful, specific relationships with each of the production designers in my life. For this project Loren [Weeks] and I had a couple conversations to discuss tone and what our inspirations were coming in to the project. He is a very easy person to work with, he’s kind, articulate and he has a quiet confidence that I think really comes through in the film.
Filmmaker: What has to be worked out?
Langerman: Mostly color palette, texture, when to push and when to pull and which department will be doing what. If the set is going in a specific direction I do my best to balance it with my costume choices. I know I sound like a broken record but it is just so different from project to project, person to person.
Filmmaker: I think there’s a general “coziness” or just slightly elevated romanticism to The Photograph that is reflected in the costumes as much as its other elements. Are you abiding by that general feel in all of your designs on this?
Langerman: For this film, I was striving for costumes to feel “easy.” Maybe that’s the same as cozy. I’m not sure. In general, I do like when the clothing feels smooth, they are visible when they need to be seen and invisible when they need to disappear. I tend to look for pieces that have versatility, can be lit in different ways to appear as different colors etc. The rest of it is up to the DP, director, and post. The same brown sweater looks completely different depending on who lit the scene, who shot it, and who color corrected it. It’s always a surprise to see how it comes together. My work was in great hands on this one.
Filmmaker: Are you trying to tie Christina and Isaac’s characters in the past to Mae and Michael’s characters in the present through their clothing?
Langerman: For sure. I want to believe Mae is Christina’s daughter, and I want to believe Michael is someone who would be interested in Issac’s story. I want the world to feel authentic, not convenient.
I was also working in a limited color palette so it was really fun to dive into all the different shades of blues, browns, creams etc. It was exciting to look at the different characters, from different time periods, living in completely different socioeconomic situations but sharing a sensibility of style.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about working with Issa Rae on Mae’s character, specifically?
Langerman: Ah, these questions are always really hard for me to answer because I never know what of their process they want revealed. I want actors to know they can tell me anything, they can do anything, and I’ll keep those things secret forever. Even if they are small mundane secrets, I believe they belong to them.
Filmmaker: Can it be difficult to navigate between the trusts and interests of the director and the cast?
Definitely! It’s a very diplomatic position. Being able to coordinate between people who may have conflicting interests is a skill I strive to improve with every project. Part of my job is absolutely to get everyone on the same page. It’s important we make collective choices in a way that feels good, collaborative and respectful.
What’s the saying? “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Filmmaker: How did the overall production apparatus of this compare to Luce and Vox Lux?
Langerman: On both projects I was lucky to have a producing team who understood the value that a costume department can bring to a film when properly supported. I’d say about half of the time my first job is to educate the producer or UPM on why costumes in a modern story are important, why they will require a budget and what the budget will go towards. A lot of producers assume, unless a film is period, that it won’t require as much attention from the costume department.
On Luce I worked closely with [co-producer] Marshall Johnson and [production supervisor] Johnny Holland to build a costume department that was on par with our limited resources but also gave me the support I needed to really explore that world. So often I feel like there isn’t enough time to explore the world.
Even though Luce had a smaller budget than The Photograph, I would say they felt similar in workload. The stakes go up with the budget so it’s all the same in terms of being creative about finding ways to stretch the dollar.
On Vox Lux I had Brady Corbet who is a dream to work with. He is so unique in his approach in that he truly considers and touches on every single department during a production or concept meeting. It’s rare you get a director who discusses literally all of the elements from hair, makeup, costume, to location, art, camera, the logistics of the company move, etc. He’s so in tune with the process that it makes my job extremely easy. He speaks the language of each department and there’s no guessing with Brady. He knows what he likes and what he doesn’t. Above all he is able to communicate all of that to his crew in a way that makes each department head want to do better. He challenged me and helped me grow as a designer for which I am forever grateful.
Vox Lux was so chaotic because we were filming an incredibly ambitious movie, complete with multiple dance numbers and a ton of technical challenges on an indie budget. It was grueling from a physical standpoint. We were running around everywhere because we just didn’t have the crew support we needed. It was wild.
I was also nine months pregnant when I started prep on the movie and went into labor during the shoot so my recollection of it is a bit blurry [laughs]. I remember thinking: “I just need to finish designing this movie before the baby arrives!”
I went to the delivery room with the pair of gloves I was still hand sewing for Natalie [Portman]! Luckily my hospital was across the street from our production office so my husband dropped them off at the office just in time for the scene.
Again, I had Michelle Winters and Julie Bennet with me on both of those projects, so those women saved my sanity. They are the ones who I turn to when I fear that I bit off more than I can chew. We work as a team, the three of us, we are strong where the other is weak and we try to have fun while we do it.
Filmmaker: Any similarly wild anecdotes from your time as assistant costume designer on Moonrise Kingdom or other productions?
Langerman: Oh boy, it sounds like a fake answer but it’s really true. Thirty to sixty days out from wrapping a project I go through a complete mind erase! When I am in a project I eat, sleep, breath and live it to the extreme. It’s all I think about. I start to dress like the characters, I try to get inside the script. Once it’s done I need to leave it behind, so I can give the next project room to breathe. I barely remember people or places or where I got anything. It’s the only defense I have when it comes to self-preservation in this industry, to let everything go forever when it’s done! [laughs]