Troop Zero (2019, directed by Bert & Bertie) is the kind of film you just wish they made more of. A simple, good natured story, well told without an ounce of pretentiousness. A feel-good movie about a ragtag troop of girl scouts called ‘Birdies’? Unless you’ve just fallen into a crocodile infested pit (for heaven’s sake call somebody), Troop Zero cannot fail to make you smile.
Costume designer for Troop Zero is Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, she of Moonlight (2016), Under the Silver Lake (2018), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and many, many others. Intuitive and meticulous, Caroline Eselin is someone who really ‘feels’ the projects she works on. Troop Zero is indicative of this approach. Very kindly she has agreed to share with us her inspiration and process for the movie. Read on – if you’ve got this far it just gets better.
Troop Zero features a predominantly young cast and is set in 1977. Moreover it is set in a place called Wiggly, Georgia, U.S.A. A lot of vintage multiples were required (there are a couple of very physical sequences in the movie) and that’s not easy when you’re costuming kids. You might be able to find one perfect vintage children’s tee, but several of them? All the same? Not so straightforward.
“So hard to find!” Eselin explains. “(the costumes) came from everywhere. United American Costume and Western Costume in Los Angeles, right to the Moon Alice in New York and Kali collection in Atlanta. Also, I went to a wonderful place called Torgom Vintage in Vernon, California a few times. They had a bin of vintage kids that we’d sift through for hours and when we got through a bin, they’d crack open another bale of kids gear for us. Treasure hunt for sure. The thing with kids and movies though is that you need LOTS of multiples. For the kids themselves AND photo doubles. We would find classic baseball t-shirts in sports stores, reissue classic sneakers like Nike Cortez, other little sports shorts – things that stand the test of time so we could multiply. The food fight and obstacle course scenes gave me heart attacks!”
Apart from actual vintage clothing, Caroline Eselin had to design the Birdie troop uniforms from scratch. In the context of the film, the ‘proper’ Birdie uniforms are smart and coordinated, freshly pressed, clean, and oh-so perfect. Birdie troop zero, our scrappy heroes, have to make do with rummaging from through a box of old uniforms and putting together whatever they could. The results are endearing and hilarious. At one point Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace), whose journey to find acceptance and gain a slot on NASA’s Golden Record (a real thing whereby earth based recordings are sent into space) the story of Troop Zero revolves around, decides that a sieve would make suitable headwear. It’s kids being kids; Eselin wanted to look as though they dressed themselves.
“Right after troop zero declares themselves as a troop to Ms. Massey (Allison Janney), she brings in an old box of uniforms and badges. You probably can’t tell, but the uniforms are a little faded. We stripped some of the colour from them so they would look like a-few-years-ago-Birdie yellow. They just put them on with whatever they have. Troop Zero don’t have money for new Birdie uniforms with white peter pan collars and freshly ironed and bright jumpers and skirts. They have to make the best with what they’ve got.”
Yellow is used through the entirety of Troop Zero, but is especially prominent during the first part of the film. Depending on its shade, yellow can signify anything from warmth, innocence, earth, even danger. In Troop Zero it is primarily a youthful shade; glowing, implying nature and vitality.
Eselin confirms this was a very deliberate choice on her part and that of production designer Laura Fox (there are yellow set references and props scattered throughout) and directors Bert & Bertie (aka Katie Ellwood and Amber Templemore-Finlayson).
“I think it started with photographic research and the Birdie uniforms. And yellow just seemed natural for a town called Wiggly. I looked at lot of William Eggleston and William Gedney photographs. Also elementary school and high school yearbooks from southern towns. The Eggleston photographs from the 70s have a lot of warmth. Amazing Laura Fox had Eggleston in her research too. Ms. Massey came straight from William Eggleston. Some of Ms. Rayleen (Viola Davis) did too. But also Ms. Rayleen inspiration came from the first African American president of the Girl Scouts – Gloria Scott”.
Ms. Rayleen, reluctant adult leader of the troop called zero, is embodied with such zeal by Viola Davis, it’s difficult to buy she’s not actually a real person. Eselin dressed her in contemporary styles of the era, e.g. flared jeans and pointed collar shirts, as we would expect, but kept her look fresh with more unusual period additions, such as, in one scene, culottes.
“I think we just wanted it to be as natural and real as it could be” Eselin explains. “All the photographic research was really helpful. Also, in small towns, people don’t have the most up to date clothing. Some of Joseph’s (Charlie Shotwell) clothes I tried to make like they were hand-me-downs from his brothers”.
If Christmas Flint is the energetic, incredibly likable, red wellie wearing centre of Troop Zero, then Joseph is definitely its heart. Joseph is the only male member of troop zero and while it is not made explicit if he is transitioning during the film, he gradually develops greater confidence to embrace his feminine gender. Unsurprisingly for the talent show at the end of the film, he impersonates Bowie, the most famous boy-girl of all time. Arguably Joseph’s most important scene though is when he opens a pop-up street salon to style the hair of the Wiggly ladies (of a certain age) to earn his Birdie badge. It’s a blue (with perfection yellow zip) jumpsuit moment.
“Joseph! Love him so” enfuses Eselin. “I love all of them though. Such wonderful characters to get to dress. I think Joseph has finally found his people and where he can be who he really is. The hairdressing badge scene is so great. One day in prep while pulling at Western Costume, Esther Lee (a wonderful costumer I get to work with sometimes) pulled the blue coveralls / jumpsuit and said her best friend growing up was boy-girl and he wore one just like that. Thank you Esther!”
But what of the actual, full Birdie uniforms, their conception and design? Troop Zero has two obvious motifs: birds (seen on badges, pins, prints) and space (Christmas’ rocket tee, star badges, the Bowie Ziggy Stardust reference). For the Birdie uniforms though, in their most immaculate incarnation, Caroline Eselin actually leaned toward flight attendant uniforms of the era.
“I looooove flight attendants!” Eselin explains. “60’s and 70s flight attendants. I absolutely looked at girl scouts and brownie uniforms from the time, but also school uniforms – old and new, too. When I first read the script, for some reason when I read that they were ‘Birdies’, I just thought they should be marigold (I don’t know why birdie = marigold) and proposed that to our wonderful directors Bert and Bertie. We did draw up a blue version and a green, but came back to the yellow in the end”.
What makes the Birdie uniform so relatable is the way that the kids, specifically troop zero, customise it. Joseph, for example, wears a Birdie dress, while Christmas chooses shorts. With added significance of the faded yellow that Eselin selected to contrast against the conventional Birdie troop’s more vivid, almost orange hue. Troop Zero is a film about outsiders not trying to fit in but rather be accepted on their own terms. It’s a cute message, and one that is more relevant than ever, but underneath its very worthwhile significance, Troop Zero is just damn enjoyable, feel-good fun. It’s birdie brilliant (not even slightly sorry for that one).
With thanks to Caroline Eselin-Schaefer.
Troop Zero is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
© 2020, Lord Christopher Laverty.