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Filmmaker takes crew members to see films they worked on for the first time by Aaron Hunt

“I Wanted the Hotdog Universe to Cross Over with the Taxes Universe”: Costume Designer Shirley Kurata on Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at OnceEverything Everywhere All at Once

Beyond the cartoonish mania of the multiverse action-comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once is a story about a mother and daughter, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Joy (Stephanie Hu). Their family laundromat is on the brink of falling out, though  not for want of trying–both strive to get along, but the air between them remains tense and unpleasant. Under a scrupulous audit by a five-time award-winning IRS agent Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), the laundromat may be taken away from the family too, and Evelyn’s sweetheart husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), has secretly prepared divorce papers. Eventually, Joy decides it might be mutually beneficial if mother and daughter just let each other go. When Evelyn’s on the verge of losing everything, a version of Waymond from the “Alphaverse” assumes control of her husband’s body and introduces her to an emergency in the multiverse that only she can resolve.

Evelyn takes on foes in her humble mom-fit—a patterned vest and floral button-up—but can access the unique skills of Evelyns from alternate timelines in distinct costumes: a glimmering red carpet dress, kung fu garb, a pizza-themed sign flipper uniform, and hotdogs for hands, among others. Waymond dresses like a washed-out host of Blue’s Clues in the main “taxes” universe, but fits well into the dapper suit he dons in other universes in a take on In the Mood for Love. Multiverse antagonist Jobu Tupaki can access every multiverse version of herself at once, swapping skills and outfits on the fly with boundless cartoon logic.

Co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert tapped venerated costume designer and wardrobe stylist Shirley Kurata to take on this daunting load with a limited budget. Altogether, her immense lineup of costumes distinguishes each blistering cut and “verse jump” with stunning, cumulative shape and color. Kurata and I discussed her research and shopping process, her stand-out custom looks mixed with eccentric loaned pieces and how she broke down the script for when characters change costumes rapidly in a single scene. 

Filmmaker: Did you get to attend a crew screening?

Shirley Kurata: I’ve actually seen it three times now. [laughs] We had a crew screening, then I saw it again at the premiere, then there was a one-time show in IMAX. I needed to see it in IMAX.

Filmmaker: Were you surprised by anything while watching?

Kurata: I’m very elated that the reaction has been so positive, because there are some crazy things in there–the hot dog hands, the butt plugs–and I was afraid the public was going to think it’s a crazy movie. But the true message of kindness and empathy shines through, and I think people were able to understand it. Reading the script, it was much so much more difficult to understand and take in. [laughs] It took a lot of conversations with the Daniels to understand how things were going to be cut, and what they envisioned. Now I can finally see what was going on in their heads.

Filmmaker: Does your prep process differ from the traditional script to research to sketching, etc?

Kurata: It all started with conversations with the Daniels. They told me about movies that inspired them, whether in spirit and weirdness or for the martial arts sequences. I watched some of those movies and dug deep into the research for what Evelyn, Waymond, and Gong Gong [James Hong] would dress like. I studied what people wear here in Chinatown LA, and blogs like Chinatown Pretty or Accidental Chinese Hipsters. Daniel Kwan showed me pictures of how his mom dressed, and I also studied my mom. It was the usual process I have for any project, but I feel like there were fewer things holding me back with the Daniels. They said, Just go crazy, get creative. Let’s create costumes that people are going to wear on Halloween. And that was a good goal.

Filmmaker: At what point did the cast become involved?

Kurata: Michelle showed up to start rehearsals not too long before we started shooting. I loved that she trusted my and the Daniels’ vision. She would say when she didn’t like something but gave me a lot of freedom to create these looks. Some of them are absurd costumes, so I was really nervous. But she was so open to it: “Throw this pizza hat with a pizza costume on.” She’d say, “OK!” Ke was the same thing: “Sorry, you’re going to have to wear a very dad outfit.” He was laughing because it was so not him, but said it was perfect. Vor Joy and Jobu’s costumes, Stephanie and I collaborated more, because her characters had so many costumes and because we had such free reign.

Filmmaker: Were all costumes specified in the script or were you able to come up with some of those ideas on your own? 

Kurata: Yeah. Because my budget was a little limited, I couldn’t custom make all her costumes. I had to be resourceful. For some, I reached out to designers who helped by letting me borrow stuff. For others, we put things together to make it work. For example, in the scene where Jobu Joy falls down the stairs, she’s in this crazy get up we call Jumble Jobu, which was supposed to look as if all her costumes got mixed up. I grabbed pieces and elements from her other outfits and free-hand draped it. There were also costumes that were so crazy I showed the Daniels to see if there was a place for them. In the Alphaverse, Joy’s in this green getup with feathers borrowed from designer Brad Callahan. So, it was a mixture of piecing together and some custom work.

Filmmaker: Can you talk more about how you put the Jumbo Jobu look together?

Kurata: I got a jumpsuit as a base, fit it onto a mannequin and got clothing to piece it together. I’m a big fan of Commes des Garçons, so that was kind of my inspiration—avant-garde but fun. With the accessories too, we used the gloves, elbow pads and knee pads from the wrestling costume she wore earlier, the Converse she wears as Joy, etc.

Filmmaker: There are a ton of costume changes in this film. Jobu changes costumes several times in the same scene. How does that affect your work?

Kurata: It was one of the most difficult scripts to break down. Within one scene, Jobu will change five times, so how are we supposed to break this down for continuity? It was really challenging. What helped me figure it out for Evelyn was associating her costumes with the universes. She had her costume for the movie star universe, her costume for the Kung Fu Universe and so on. For Jobu, [costume changes] occurred more based on whatever she’s doing in the scene. When she exits the elevator she’s in her Elvis Costume. Somehow we figured out a system. That’s why I asked so many questions. It was scripted that she was wearing an Elvis costume, but after that, we had to discuss when she would change and what she’d be wearing.

Thankfully, the Daniels are very patient and happy to answer questions. In the beginning, they told me they might ask for some things late in the game. “Just tell us if you can’t do it because of budget, time, or something else–don’t feel like you have to make something happen that might be too difficult to obtain.” It’s really nice to hear that. I also think compromising sometimes makes things better: “I don’t have this, but I have this!” I love that aspect of their process, which may come from the music video world, which I also come from. Usually, the budgets are pretty limited, so you have to be creative with making something work with the money you have. We had to do that for everything in this movie, whether it be a stunt or set build. Most of us on the crew were all very versed on how to do that, so that helps. [laughs]

Filmmaker: Because the film “verse jumps” so quickly, each costume has to sell who Evelyn is in that universe. Sometimes the costumes crossover between universes, creating connections in the story that way.

Kurata: I wanted the hotdog universe to crossover with the taxes universe. We wanted that whole world to be in hotdog colors: beiges, pinks, almost mauves. So, we used that color palette but Deirdre wears the same vest as she does in the taxes universe. Sometimes there’s a little bit of connection there. I wanted the movie star universe to have more of a connection to the real Michelle and Ke, because they’re much more stylish than what they wear in the taxes universe. On the red carpet, Michelle wears dresses designed by Elie Saab, so I reached out to them to see if they’d loan me some dresses, and thankfully they did. I got the suit for Ke, but those are his real glasses. So, sometimes I’m taking pieces from the real actors. In other worlds, like the raccacoonie world–I think we called it the chef universe–stood for itself because they’re in chef costumes. [laughs] It was also interesting how you see some of the supporting people appear in other worlds.

Filmmaker: I’ve always been intrigued by the process of shopping for wardrobe/costume. What does that look like?

Kurata: Jamie Lee Curtis showed me a movie [Daddy and Them] where she was in stirrup pants that showed her belly. She loved that and wanted it for Deirdre. But from there I think, where would these characters shop? I think that they would shop in Chinatown; these clothes fit the Asian frame better. A lot of the men’s clothes are designed for shorter guys, and Ke was a shorter guy: It just made sense that this is where they would shop. There’s something about it that is distinctive, maybe in the fabric choices or the way it’s cut–I don’t know, it’s hard to explain for me. For Deirdre, I thought she’d shop at a store that’s called Comfort Zone or something, a little mom and pop shop with cat purses. So that’s the kinds of places they would shop at that I had in mind.

Filmmaker: Were there particular locations in Chinatown you kept going back to, or which had good finds?

Kurata: There’s this one store that’s been there forever. I was talking to the son of the owners, and he told me his family had this shop back when Chinatown used to be closer to Union Station—which was in, I wanna say, the 20s. Then they moved to where Chinatown is now. So, I knew there’d be stuff in there that has been around forever. They had some of the [costumes for the] kung fu sets, which you can’t find anymore. The new stuff is cheaper fabric, they don’t even make this fabric anymore, the shopowner told me. So, we went there to find certain pieces, especially for the kung fu world—slippers and things like that. I also liked the stalls in Saigon Plaza. Almost all of Evelyn’s regular taxes world outfits came from there; same with Gong Gong and Waymond. 

Filmmaker: So you’re piecing outfits together from various sources, but you also have to have duplicates of all those pieces?

Kurata: That’s the challenge. Some they only wore once, like in flashback scenes and things like that. But you need them for anything with stunts. For Evelyn, I had at least ten. I think Deirdre maybe had eight. The blouse that she wears, I had to make sure we had enough of them. We also have to dress the stand-ins, the body double and the stunt double. Someone, I think Jamie Lee Curtis, posted groupings of all the same outfits. It’s difficult.

Filmmaker: Are the clothes ever washed? How are they treated throughout the shoot? Have you had any laundry/costume-related nightmare incidents?

Kurata: Deirdre’s outfit was a little bit on the bright side for me, so I wanted to wash it down. The first time it got all stretched out, so we had to try again on a more gentle cycle. Certain times like that we had issues, especially in the dying process. There were some things we had aged or dyed that did not come out well.

Filmmaker: How do you think the music video world of costumes, where the looks are perhaps more front and center than in film, translates here?

Kurata: I think working with musicians is different from working with actors. Musicians tend to be more daring with what they wear. I work with Tierra Whack, who likes to push the envelope with what she wears. I think that helped me with Jobu, because Jobu is that [music video] world. You really have to be in communication with hair and makeup, because popstars are a package—the makeup and hair must align with the wardrobe. Michelle Chung did makeup and Anissa Salazar did hair. We constantly shared each other’s references. I’d show them costumes and they’d come up with hair and make-up ideas. That collaboration worked so well. I was really happy with the end results. I had the outfits, but they wouldn’t be complete without the hair and make-up. 

Filmmaker: What costumes were built from scratch and what ones were sourced?

Kurata: For the most part Jobu’s bagel universe costume was built from scratch. The skirt that she’s wearing was designed by Claudia Li. That was already existing, but Li also did all the bagel followers’ costumes. I thought she’d be great to collaborate with. From that skirt, I filled out the rest. I had the ruff and bodysuit that she’s wearing made, [and] added gloves and accessories. But, for the most part, that was a custom build. Also, the plaid look when we first see Jobu: Claudia Li made that, and a custom visor and face mask to match the coat she’s wearing. 

Filmmaker: You mentioned the green ball and feathers costume was pre-existing. How was it worn or used originally? 

Kurata: That designer actually works a lot with drag queens, as well as musicians and other talents. He had also created some custom pieces for me for Tierra Whack.

Filmmaker: Is there anything we didn’t cover that you want to talk about?

Kurata: I’m just so excited the film is getting a pleasant reaction. As an Asian-American, it’s nice to work with Asian leads on a film that finds success. I definitely connected with Joy’s character too. My parents own a laundromat. [laughs] The love is there despite the language and generational disconnect. Going back to your question about what surprised me: I had a lot of existential thoughts while watching the movie.

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