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Brigbsy Bear: Interview with Costume Designer Sarah Mae Burton

Brigsby Bear tells the bizarre yet charming tale of a young man, James Pope (Kyle Mooney), who was kidnapped as a baby and subsequently released into the world many years later with no knowledge of it beyond a non-existent kids television show. The film evokes a nostalgic view of the 1980s and, while is contemporary set, gently embraces that period in terms of its aesthetic.

Costume designer for Brigsby Bear, Sarah Mae Burton, experienced in both television and film, has created a familiar yet distinctive vibe that feels entirely believable. Here she talks exclusively to Clothes on Film about her process:

Clothes on Film: James Pope’s world for twenty five years seems very much grounded in the 1980s. Was this the idea, to give him this retro look throughout?

Sarah Mae Burton: The family that “abducted” him would have gone into the bunker in the late 70’s / very early 80’s, and so I thought that their clothing would pause in time there. In an effort to preserve the world they have created for themselves, I thought they would provide James with clothing that was similar to theirs’. As he grew up and time moved on, they would have to incorporate other items from more modern times, but even those few things would not want to stray too far outside of the world that they had convinced James didn’t exist any longer – these were just relics of another time, when people were able to live above ground. The director Dave McCary and I agreed we didn’t want it to feel like a perfect period film, so his looks harkens back to another range of time, rather than a year or two, specifically.

CoF: It does seem as though James understands that clothes serve a purpose as a ‘uniform’. He realises that he needs to wear a smart shirt when me meets Arielle Smiles for example and refers to Detective Vogel’s gun and holster as his ‘soldier attire’. Did you design his costumes in this way, to reflect this understanding?

SMB: Yes, I thought when he went to meet Arielle, he would want to “dress up” a bit. We used a shirt that we hadn’t seen anywhere else in the movie – as if this was his single option from life in the bunker for more formal occasions. There were a lot of gold tones in the diner, and the yellow stripe of his shirt lived nicely in this environment, and I thought helped him fit in more in this world – that by taking a step into this world where the only other person who understood Brigsby was, he might fit in slightly better than he had otherwise.

Kyle Mooney as James. Costume designer Sarah Mae Burton specifically chose James’ blue ringer tee as something that could conceivably have been a promo item from a real television program of the 1980s.

CoF: Where did you find your inspiration for the young Smiles Sisters’ striped dresses in the opening Brigsby Bear scene?

SMB: I looked at vintage sewing patterns, thinking that the costumes would have likely had to have been made by James’ mother or father in the bunker. I wanted there to be a close link between their costumes as children, and that of the teens, and was lucky to find fabric that was close, but not exactly the same – as it wouldn’t have been able to be exactly the same, had they really been making these clothes 15 years apart. I liked the idea of maintaining the turtleneck between both the kids and teens Sisters’ costumes, something that would have been popular at the time for the children in the early 80’s, but sort of out of place and unusual for a teen girl “superhero” type in more modern times.

CoF: How involved was director Dave McCary in the costume process?

SMB: Dave was a great collaborator. Both he and Kyle had done extensive research on children’s television programming and had been living in the world of Brigsby for long before I came on. They were both great resources and inspiring to come up with continually creative ideas for Brigsby’s world. In regards to the other characters, we would review fitting photos together, and pick what suited best, given the environment where the scene took place, and what other characters may be wearing.

CoF: Everyone else in the story, specifically Pope family, have a very ‘normal’ look costume wise. Was this your intention, to create contrast with the apparent oddness of James?

SMB: Yes, I wanted the worlds to feel distinctly separate. I wanted there to be a subtle discomfort to the way James might feel or look in his “new” life. I also tried to use colours that were foreign to the world he had previously inhabited – which was rich in tones of the late 70s. Using more vibrant modern colours for his new “mom” and muted tones in other places, I thought it could help James to feel like an island of his own in this world.

Unused outfit designs for the character of Brigsby Bear by Sarah Mae Burton. Also see main image.

CoF: How did clothing Brigsby Bear himself work?

SMB: The bear was fabricated by Stoopid Buddies in LA. When I was brought on, Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney had been working on designs of the bear itself for about a year. The production designer (Bandon Tonner-Connolly) and I were consulted to help final decisions, that eventually resulted in the final bear.

I was responsible for all of the costumes the bear wears. We discussed many options and ideas for Brigsby’s signature costume – there were versions of overalls, a vest, a jumpsuit, a t-shirt and shorts, and through many designs, eventually decided that he would have a signature t-shirt with his “logo” and then alternate costumes for his different adventures.

CoF: And finally, who came up with the Brigsby Bear t-shirt designs?

SMB: This was a collaboration between the director, our lead actor, the production designer and myself. I had picked out the blue ringer tee, as it felt of another time, and like it would fit well into the world of “Brigsby” — as if there had a been a real show in the late 70’s / early 80’s, this could have been what the promo shirts looked like.

The bear graphic was actually drawn by one of our interns, who was really talented. We went back and forth about how to design the lettering for “It’s Brigsby!” and I had suggested iron on letters. This shirt was shot on the first day of shooting, and so the night before I ironed on the letters in my hotel room. As luck would have it, the set of letters I had was missing some that I needed, so I had to cut up other letters and piece them together to make what I needed. Sony had inquired about making these as promo tees, and I got a lot of emails about what format the lettering was in — since it was so handmade, it would be hard to actually execute a reproduction!

With thanks to Sarah Mae Burton. Ms Burton also costumed The Big Sick which is currently on general release in the UK.

Brigsby Bear was released in the U.S. on 28th July and is released in the UK on 8th December.

© 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.