[Interview] Deborah Newhall fashions character from cloth in ‘I CARE A LOT’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Costume designer Deborah Newhall pulls off the unexpected in filmmaker J Blakeson’s I CARE A LOT. She gets us to care about a bunch of underhanded protagonists. Not only does her wardrobe elevate the actors’ performances, it speaks to the underlying psychology of the colorful, duplicitous characters showcased. In this dark satire, opportunistic guardian Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) has just selected Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) as a perfect ward, when it comes to light that her latest mark has mysterious ties to Russian gangster Roman (Peter Dinklage). It brings to light a few shocking loopholes in our legal system while entertaining us.

This is usually such a banal question to ask actors, but I’m curious how a film project comes to a costume designer’s attention?

It came to me through executive producer Andrea Ajemian. She said, “It’s an unusual script. I’m sending it to you. See what you think and we’ll put you in the loop.” I read it. It came across on the page as a dark, not pleasant story and you really did not like these characters very much, but I thought “This could be a challenge.” I pictured it quite differently for awhile. We all thought it was a dark story with people in dark suits.

When I finally had a chance to speak with J, he said, “This is a comedy.” I said, “Where is this funny?” He said, “We’re gonna have color in this.” That had my head spinning, but I was like, “Keep talking.” Talking to the production designer and further into [pre-production], I saw a picture of the house that they were going to use for Jennifer. It was a beautiful storybook cottage and an incredible color blue. That was the trigger of how I was gonna make color work for me. I’m gonna find yellow for her. That white door with that blue house and she’s gonna pop! I wanted her to be fresh as a daisy when she comes to the door. There’s no floral, but that was my visual trigger, that she would be completely trustworthy when she comes to the door at 8am and is all smiles and she looks like you could trust her.

So I have her trusting looks when she’s friendly and agreeable, and then there are her more sleek, hard-edged looks that are her bank-robbing, behind-the-scenes looks, when she’s crafting her next move and counting her money. We kept talking about color and where we would go with this. I kept searching for things I could make work and J said “That’s it.” Everybody always had input. I do very thorough breakdowns and build that arc of the trajectory of the character and all the things they have to go through – whether there is weather, or water – and try to find things best suited for those moments. As it gets to the end, the color goes away as she’s supposedly becoming more rich and pure, in her mind. It’s a checkered progress as you go through and lay it all out. It did fall together in a fun way and everyone seemed to go for it.

I Care A Lot: Peter Dinklage as “Rukov”. Photo Cr. Seacia Pavao / Netflix

These characters really pop against their backdrops. You, the director and the cinematographer and production designer all got together initially to discuss the look and tone. Are those collaborations normal to how you approach your work, or was this a unique situation?

That’s a good question. I don’t often get to speak with the DP. We get some basic groundwork in our early meetings about directions of things, but I don’t always know where the camera is going to go and what the director might be looking for. J also built his direction on the day. He and Doug would shape the shot. Doug was really great because he was always looking for stuff that were fun to shoot in the wardrobe. It wasn’t just shoulders up. He took pictures of her shoes a lot. He did it almost every time. He said the shoes were fun and amazing. I said, “I’m glad you’re appreciating the whole look.”

One day, we were having fun on set, and we were shooting the scene where Peter is in a disguise going to the deposit box and it took awhile to get him ready because he wasn’t done getting dressed until just before he walks out there. The camera crew burst into applause when he came onto set. They said, “You’ve done it again! It’s another home run.” I was tickled with that. He was always enjoying what was coming to set. Everybody had a look that was shaped for them and it became consistent. Nothing ever got rejected, or that we had to re-do. It always fell into place.

It’s a collaborative process, but generally, mostly I, as a designer, get what I need at the top and you’re just off in your bunker, pulling together, shopping or having things built and hopefully it all works when you get to set, which it does.

There seemed to be a visual tie between Marla’s silhouettes and Roman’s. They’re both tailored and put together. They both have great coats. His leather jacket is amazing and her trench coat is covetable. I’m curious if there was a conjoined look you were going for?

I love that coat. That was the only one I bought for her for that. Where that started was J saying he wanted a signature coat that she wears. I talked to her about it, saying, “I’m trying to find a coat that is amazing for you and fills the space. Something that moves and fills the angles from top to bottom and it floats with you, the way that you walk, behind you, almost like a cape. Regal in its feel.” She really worked to find that.

Him, as his character, he had to be dressed for a powerful person, whether he’s 6’2” or his actual height. I put him in items that I’d buy for a 6’2” man, I just shaped them on him to give him as much presence as possible. He’s got a little more detail on him – his shirts, jacket and scarf. It all had to fit perfectly on him so there’s no question he’s a well-taken care of person as his character is in the story.

They both had power looks, whether it’s black or textured black, but to do it with her and keep her in playful colors and sometimes less so. We don’t see storyboard necessarily, but to see how it fills the frame, what that location is and how you move through that space, for her, my thought about shaping her was like a sharp blade, who slices through the scene. She’s so slim and pointed in her dialogue and movements. You could slice an envelope open with that haircut it’s so sharp. To give her that crisp, angular look where there’s no question that she’s not fully in her game and focused at all times. The two of them in different ways.

I Care A Lot: Chris Messina as “Dean Ericson”. Photo Cr. Seacia Pavao / Netflix

Roman’s shady lawyer Dean Erickson’s (Chris Messina) suits are spectacular. That tie chain is a whole other character.

(laughs)

Was it fun playing with fabric texture and patterns on him?

Yes. He was very agreeable. I had lots of ideas of who and what he should look like. I said, “Chris. I’m on it. I’ve got something in mind for you.” Actors, if you haven’t worked with them before, they don’t know how realistic you’re going to be until it actually shows up. It was beyond what he expected. He was laughing and just tickled in those fittings. He just locked into everything I put on him. It’s too bad you don’t see his feet! He has the most amazing shoes. J had said, he’s a brash lawyer, the fixer for Peter’s character. He’s a bit full of himself and very secure in his success rate at doing probably lots of terrible things. But he can be flashy and get away with it. He looks like he was meant for these suits, pushed just enough that it puts a little humor on him, but it’s still showing who he is when he walks in the room.

Marla’s sunglasses made her look like a noir femme fatale in a way.

A little vintage.

Do you have favorite costumes or accessories?

I did like Marla’s final look. That was a great one to get ready for and the jewelry we were able to acquire for that. I liked her disguise when she’s wearing the funny wig and the glasses and coat. And I loved her trench coat. And I loved that yellow suit on her. But there’s things on all of them that I liked. The uniforms on the people in Berkshire Oaks – that mint, pale green with the white piping around the neck. There was some talk about having them be darker colors and I said, “I think all those people in the care home are on a lot of medication and the idea is to keep them off balance where everything is a little soft and blurry for them so the client, or patient, would be fuzzy in their sight and can’t ever tell who is taking care of them because they all look alike and are dressed precisely the same.” It was purposeful to make them pleasant, but bland.

How did working on this project creatively satisfy you?

I had a great time. I had a great crew. Things were done on time and we were all having a good time. They were listening to me, did what was asked and enjoyed their work. The actors were happy and I was happy working with J. It was one of those shows where everything lined up and fell into place with a very harmonious team, from one end to another. We had plenty of support from the top – from the producers. I had a great time and it shows we had fun.

It looks like your visions were supported.

Yeah. J is great storyteller. He doesn’t say a lot, but you can see what he does. It throws you back. I had no idea that it would be pulled off this way, or that’s where your eye would go in scenes that were shot. It was really great working with him. He had done a couple of outtake trailers once that he showed at lunch and he did another one at the wrap party and they were amazing. I had never seen such cheering at a trailer. That’s not the trailer we see now. There was other stuff that was quickly edited with new music. He’s really a terrific visionary. His script was great. I expect to see a lot more from him.

I CARE A LOT begins streaming on Netflix on February 19.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.