Production & Costume Design
The world of a teenage street gang, mobsters running rackets in New York and a young girl cocooned on the top floor of a derelict hotel were the trigger for my imagination to run wild with this beautiful script.
Set in 1959 Brooklyn, I started my research with mobsters and street kids, icons of the time, movies and popular culture that the teenagers of that day might fashion themselves on.
Armed with many great images, I got to work on the individual characters, creating a look that would be unique and personal in some way, allowing the actor to run with the details and bring the character to life. The brilliant Eric Roberts plays “Casket Mike,” our villain. His character is wealthy through crime and his car is the most beautiful silver Jaguar. His wardrobe needed to represent his power within the community: Italian 3-piece suits, dress shirts and ties, with a cashmere overcoat and a silk scarf in a contrast color to finish the look. I wanted him to be the only character that had any red in his wardrobe.
The entire film is devoid of red apart from the single red carnation that sits proud in Casket Mike’s collar in each scene. To me this represents a touch of danger, elegance and attention to detail, adding a layer to his character as the Don of his New York crime family.
The apartment for the Mob is designed in a modern 1950’s style. Green is the predominant color, as the darker greens represent masculinity with a conservative edge and imply wealth. Danielle Laubach, the co-production designer, and I chose to include blond wood, animal heads and cigars to build that world. We used modern (at that time) venetian blinds which gave director Tjardus Greidanus and cinematographer Michal Dabal a way to play with the lighting and give it a film noir feel.
Spider and his gang are teenage street kids, entertaining themselves with petty street crime until they get mixed up in a much bigger game. Leather jackets and jeans, all things cool of that time, were appropriate for these boys. In the 1950’s, things just seemed a bit larger than life. I looked at West Side Story for influence, and while that film was a tornado of color, movement and teenage emotion, I did borrow from the style. The iconic feel was something I wanted to have in my teenage gang: the high-waisted jeans, the high top Converse sneakers, the patches and, my own touch, the hats.
I chose a big eagle for the back of Spider’s jacket as this tied in with my design for our female role Tamara whom I designed as a caged bird. I wanted to link Spider and Tamara visually, he with his eagle flying free and she with her origami birds and many bird cages in her top floor apartment. Her entire world was the top floor of the old hotel and although she was well provided for, her freedom was denied. So she sneaks out at night to experience a small taste of life on the streets.
Tamara’s costumes are all based on movie star dresses of that period. I justified her wardrobe as being self-made from magazine clippings and books. When designing her room, Danielle and I made an area with a sewing dummy, sewing machine and many drawings and dress ideas pinned on her wall. Tamara spends her day reading, gardening and sewing. I wanted her wardrobe to be fun, young, colorful, full of positive life and beauty to contrast Spider’s take on 1959 gang life. Tamara’s apartment is full of soft furnishings that are sumptuous and elegant, taking us back 20 years to when the hotel was grand and in operation. Our heroine is an avid reader, replacing a classic education in school with self-learned skills through study.
This indicated that we needed books and lots of them. One of our art department helpers found 130 linear feet of old leather-bound schoolbooks on eBay; they became Tamara’s library. The book case was constructed out of 50 old wooden apple boxes tied together with twine and we had to build a structure to support the boxes and the weight of the books, as a fight takes place in that location and I was concerned that if an actor were thrown against the bookcase there might be an injury. So hidden behind the burlap fake wall that separated our art department work-space and our shooting location, we built a frame to hold the bookcase/apple boxes safely and firmly.
Tamara’s room is a large open space with eight large windows. To create a feminine romantic world, I used copious amounts of beautiful French lace. As this was a far cry from my actual budget, I was delighted to find a local person who was happy for me to remove her personal lace curtains, dye them a soft shade of pink, hang and use them for four weeks. Once finished, I bleached them back to the original color and returned them to the owner. It was this sort of generosity that allowed my art department crew and me to create the look of this film.
Big Didi, the wheelchair-bound ex-mobster, long hidden away from his old life of crime, lives in the forgotten hotel’s top floor with Tamara. I used similar browns and greens to visually link Didi with the mobsters’ apartment, but in a very subtle and subliminal way. Creating Big Didi’s world was a challenge and again I trespassed upon the generosity of a local lady for help. I was chatting with her and she happened to say, “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask.” I said that I did happen to need a very big wooden bed, preferably from the turn of the last century. She looked at me and smiled, “I actually have just that,” and a few days later her own bed arrived on my set, creating the base of my design for Big Didi. I could hardly believe my fortune; it really was the most amazing bed I had ever seen.
His wardrobe is less formal as he is bed-ridden. I gave him stylish pajamas of the 1950’s and robes to match, detailed with paisley and stripes. His color palette was muted browns, greens and navy, all conservative, masculine and powerful.
I liked the idea that since leaving his life of street crime and finding comfort in a top floor sanctuary with his niece Tamara, he had also connected with a higher world, on a very delicate note; I added a beautiful statue of a monk. This lone figure standing among the sumptuous curtains, observing without judgment, echoed what I hoped for Big Didi to emulate in the wisdom of his waning years. Below is an image of the Saint with Spider in his ill-fitting father’s old suit, nervous to meet Big Didi.
The story is set in Brooklyn but we shot Pittsburgh for NYC 1959. There were many challenges in creating the look on the streets. All the signage had to be taken down before we could shoot and then replaced at the end of the day. All the drainpipes and new materials had to be aged or hidden. Many wooden crates, old metal garbage cans, wooden boxes and vintage-looking trash were used to hide modern fixtures.
On the days of street location shooting, Danielle and I would be on the street by 4am, often in the rain, to paint over the graffiti. Mindful of the value of street art, we used water-soluble paint, which turned out to be not such a brilliant idea when it was already raining. Hiding graffiti in all sorts of imaginative ways turned out to be a major challenge. Working in Pittsburgh was wonderful. I enjoyed the delicious crisp bright weather, the beautiful autumnal colors, the aged skeleton of the once world famous steel industry. But most of all I adored the people of Pittsburgh, generous and supportive in every way imaginable.