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Running Scared: Costume Designer Kristin Burke – Part 2

Part two of our chat with costume designer for Running Scared (2006), Kristin M. Burke. If you thought part one was interesting, this will blow your socks off.

Chris, Clothes on Film: Regarding the ‘beefy dudes’ in Running Scared that you mentioned, they did all look massive on screen; it was like their clothes made them intimidating, especially ‘Mac Daddy’ pimp Lester (David Warshofsky). He is clearly dressed OTT and this suits his character and the tone of the film perfectly. How much do you know about the intended tone of a film when you start on the costumes?

Kristin Burke: Man, that Lester the Pimp story is epic. I will try to be brief. We had cast another actor – the original actor was 6′ 4″ and about 250 lbs. Size 13 shoe. His deal was not inked before I left LA, but the director’s vision was very strong for this character. He wanted Lester to have an ‘Honest John’ from Pinocchio vibe to him. The whole film was a fairytale, heightened reality seen through a child’s eyes. So this ‘Honest John’ look on a pimp would be, naturally, a pimp suit.

We bought four or five copies of the suit in downtown LA, complete with hat and jewellery in multiples, packed it up and shipped it off. When the actor’s deal was done, I called him to check in. We can’t legally call an actor until their deal is inked. I had procured this guy’s sizes from another costume crew with whom he had recently worked, so I knew the suit would fit him.

Long story short, he had some creative differences with production and was replaced at the last minute. The actor who was cast, David Warshofsky, called me from the airport as he was in line to board the plane. By this point I am sh*tting a brick, because I know he is probably going to be a different size. And he was: 5’9″, 150 lbs. Size 9 shoe. Further, the schedule was such that he had to get off the plane, come to the studio, get in the costume and immediately shoot the scene where he dies in a pool of blood. Which. Means. We. Need. All. The. Multiples. Ready. To. Fit. Him.

This is where I learned the bulk of my Czech swear words and tailor vocabulary. We had to cut those suits down, massively. There is no ‘pimp store’ in the CZ, and besides, we had to get this together overnight for him. I sent out one of our costumers to try to find ‘pimp shoes’ in his size, and thank God, with good luck and a lot of grace, she found a pair, in his size, with doubles. That was serious.

He arrived the next day, completely jetlagged from the flight and we had a suit ready for him. We continued to cut, alter and sew as the day progressed, so we had at least three suits completed for use in that scene. It was really unbelievable. I have never had to pull something so big our of my a$$ so quickly. It was kind of crazy. So, yes, in the end, that suit does look a bit comical on him. Now you know. Cutting it down overnight from a 52 to a 40 was quite a stretch.

Chris: You did an amazing job on the sleeve length; the looseness of the suit looks intentional, even the very long jacket.

KB: Thanks. We based the look on ‘Mr. Whitefolks’, a pimp (real-life pimp) from the documentary Pimps Up, Hos Down (1999). You should see it.

Chris: What was the idea behind Vera Farmiga’s ‘Virgin Mary’ look as Teresa? I can only assume she was cast on the way to the set for the first day’s shooting?

KB: Ha-ha. No, Vera was cast well in advance, actually. The problem was that she lives on the East Coast. We didn’t get to fit her until we were in Prague, but we had purchased a number of options for her while we were in LA. We did some studio shopping on memo (with an extension from the store) and sent back what we didn’t use. She was really, REALLY into the ‘Jersey-ness’ of the character. Vera has a lot of personal ties to New Jersey, and she knew the character inside and out.

As for the Virgin Mary stuff, the director Wayne Kramer and I spent a lot of time thinking about what images (from literature, culture, etc.) were iconic enough to use in this ‘fairytale’ world we were creating. Now, there is no disrespect intended in using the Virgin Mary in this context. She saves Oleg (Cameron Bright) and is the moral compass in the film. We just wanted a maternal icon that would be familiar enough (and subtle enough) to influence the audience without being overpowering.

Chris: I found it interesting that the immediate ordinariness of Vera’s costume drew attention away from her character. It was a surprise when she turned up later kickin’ ass for arguably the film’s most memorable scene.

KB: What do you mean by that? Do you mean that because she looked ordinary/Jersey, we didn’t have expectations of her ass-kicking?

Chris: Yeah. I was not sure how she’d fit into the story at first. Then WHAM, out of nowhere she turned up packing heat. I loved the jolt. Almost cheered. Terrific performance from Vera too.

KB: She was amazing. I had not seen her in anything before this film, so I had no expectations of her at all. I went to set to watch the scene where Oleg calls her from the bathroom of Dez and Edele’s house (the pedophiles). It was her coverage – just her on the phone and the script supervisor was reading Oleg’s lines. Vera had to act and emote with urgency and what she was reacting to was the script supervisor’s monotone, accented line-reading. Vera’s sense of place, character, situation and emotional level is superb. I knew, when I saw her in that moment, that she would be huge some day. And look at her now!

By the way, people in the audience where I saw the film DID, in fact, cheer when Vera does the whole ‘paedophile’ thing…I don’t want to spoil it for your readers.

Chris: I’ll put a spoiler in. Actually I want to get onto those two lovelies in a second. Just one more point about Teresa – there did seem a deliberate attempt to sexualise her from the get-go. I’m referring to her G-string popping out the jeans, then no jeans at all while making the dinner; much of the dialogue from peripheral characters refers to her in this way too. Is this correct or am I just being pervy here?

KB: Well. The G-string thing is a bit of a joke, especially for Teresa’s ‘type’. If we didn’t have the G-string, we would have missed the mark. As it was, Vera was hiking the sides of her undies up so that they would really show in the laundry room. It was funny. It’s really Vera’s embodiment and understanding of the character. I can’t recall the dialog of the other characters re: her sexuality. I think that, as a character, she embodies the best in womanhood. She’s a good mom, good neighbour, good wife and good person. She just presents herself in a way that suits the neighbourhood, her own self-perception and self-image. If you ever watch Dog the Bounty Hunter, take a look at Beth Chapman. Here is a woman who is taking her look to the extreme. It’s not all that uncommon here in the States. I know it must look tragic and unreal to eyes unaccustomed to such expression, ha-ha!

Chris: We Brits are so repressed. Bending over with your pants popping out would put you in The Tower. Vera’s dress at the funeral is beautiful by the way. Where was it from? US or Czech?

KB: I think I got that dress at the Burlington Coat Factory outside of LA. It’s a cheapo store that sells ‘Jersey-like’ clothes. I wanted to find something that was budget-appropriate for the character, but also tarty enough (the keyhole neckline) to be in line with her previously-established style. After all, she’s not REALLY in mourning. And I loved the giant 1980s sunglasses, too.

Chris: I must admit I laughed out loud when I saw the creepy paedophile couple (Elizabeth Mitchell and Bruce Altman). Never trust a woman in florals or a man in lemon! Just knew something serious was up with them. From an audience perspective this was fun costuming; it’s like you gave us clues to follow.

KB: Well, yes. We wanted them to have kind of happy, sing-song colours so as not to appear threatening. The colours of their house also fall into this scheme. They were really fun to costume, that’s for sure.

Chris: The silhouettes against the glass when Oleg is in their bathroom scared the living hell out of me.

KB: Ha, ha! We actually tweaked those silhouettes, adding shoulder pads and the finger extensions. Very creepy, but very fun to create!

Chris: The fingers reminded me of The Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz (1939). Excuse me while I check the doors are locked. Now, finally, how did Wayne Kramer’s decision to shoot an entire scene under UV light affect your costume choices? Surely whites would suddenly become very white? Or was there camera trickery involved?

KB: Yes, it was very important that we take the blue-light into consideration. James Whitaker, the DP (Director of Photography), and Wayne collaborated on the lighting for this scene at great length. First they tried black-light and then settled on blue-light, as it was (I think) easier to see the details of peoples faces, etc. while still getting the effect of black-light. I designed the hockey uniforms here in LA, and we did a lot of fabric testing under black-light to make sure the fabric would glow. Once we found the best ‘fluorescent’ fabrics, we turned them over to Sportsrobe (a costume house in LA known for sports equipment rental and manufacturing) and they constructed the hockey jerseys. If you look closely at the names on the back of the jerseys, they are Russian, and literally translated, mean things like ‘goat sucker”, etc. I wanted it to be extra creepy for anyone paying attention.

As for the rest of the guys on the ice, it was a continuation of what they were wearing before. Of course we knew from the beginning that we would end up here, in the blue-light, so we didn’t want any of their items to really pop as it might be too distracting. We teched John Noble’s (Igor Yugorsky’s) shirt so that it wouldn’t spike in the light. And come to think of it, we bought all of his stuff in Prague as well. We shot that ice rink sequence over the course of five days, with a little extra time in there for 2nd unit, fighting, etc. The lighting was no trick and the ice was real. Paul Walker was my personal hero. He really was face-down on that ice for days. And he never complained or had an attitude. I love him so much.

Chris: He had all that fake blood dripping from his mouth as well. Presumably one of the reasons to shoot with UV was to have all that excess blood without falling foul of the censors, as it would look black on screen?

KB: Wayne does not like the censors or the MPAA. We had such a good laugh about how offensive this film could be. I mean, they gave The Cooler (2003) an NC-17 rating because of a 1.75-second-long glimpse of pubic hair. So I think the idea was: give them all the violence they can handle, because they don’t seem to have an issue with blood and death.

Chris: Pubic hair?! Nooooooo!!!! Kristin, thank you so much for taking the time to chat during what I guess must be about breakfast time in LA.

KB: No, by now it’s noon!! Ha-ha, lunch time.

Any time you’re not perusing Clothes on Film, drop by Kristin’s immense movie costume review site FrockTalk for some education.

With thanks to Kristin M. Burke

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