COSTUME designer Natalie O’Brien can now add Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart to the impressive list of actors she has worked with in her career so far.
Ahead of the film’s screenings at the BFI London Film Festival (13 & 20 October), Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Natalie for an informative and highly-entertaining chat about her experience working with Sevigny and Stewart, preparing outfits for murder and sex scenes, what led her to this career path and much more.
Q: ‘Lizzie’ is set in Massachusetts in the late 1800s. How did you prepare for this period piece and what styles were you looking at?
A: I did so much research. I got my hands on any writing or images about the Lizzie Borden trials and completely immersed myself in them.
There was one book in particular called Parallel Lives [Michael Martins and Dennis A. Binette]. This book was bigger than an encyclopaedia and it had every ounce of information one could ever desire. It even went into great detail about her wardrobe. It stated she was wearing a pale blue cord skirt during the murders and that she was caught wearing dark indigo – not black – after the murders. That colour choice led people to believe she was not actually mourning.
I was collecting any pictures and clippings, basically lining my office walls with bustles, corsets and big beautiful 1890s mutton sleeves.
Q: Let’s start with Chloë Sevigny. I heard you dipped into her personal collection for some of her outfits. Can you tell us about working with Chloë and how you put together looks for the character of Lizzie?
A: Lizzie was actually known to be a very sharp dresser – as is Chloe – and we definitely wanted to follow that.
Chloe knows what she likes and is immersed in fashion, fabrics and the Victorian era. She was hands-on and played a huge part in constructing Borden’s overall look and mood. She was also gracious enough to lend us some of the beautiful pieces that she has been collecting. One item in particular made its way into the film – the brown polka dot dress Lizzie wears after she commits the murders.
We only put real vintage clothing on Chloe. Even the fabric from the murder outfit I designed was sourced vintage fabric. A lot of the clothes were rented, purchased, altered and made from scratch. That meant a lot of it was falling apart and extremely delicate to act in, but we made it work.
Q: How did working with Kristen Stewart and dressing Bridget differ?
A: Bridget was a travelling housemaid so all of her costumes had to be less expensive fabrics and have less than perfect cuts. This showed the class difference between Lizzie and Bridget. For instance, there is a scene when Bridget arrives and you can clearly see her ankles. This shows she had outgrown her clothes and they were not tailor made for her. Back then exposed ankles were a big no-no.
We kept her colouring monochromatic with hints of Celtic colours such as green and red to show peeks of her heritage. I wanted to keep her changes slim and reuse and rotate most of her looks. This was to show that whatever fit in her luggage when she arrived at the Borden’s is all she would wear.
Kristen was also really involved with her character and was absolutely on the same page.
Q: Do you have any fun stories or memories you can share from working with Sevigny and Stewart?
A: They are two powerful, strong and smart women. It was glorious to see them bounce off one another. But both have different energies on and off set.
For instance, Chloe would like to be in her corset ahead of time and be in character. Whereas Kristen would sneak her jeans and vans underneath her petticoat and would sometimes try to skip the corset. I’d only let this fly on close-ups and she was great about it.
Q: The film contains murder and intense sex scenes. What challenges did these cause you?
A: Murders always contain blood, especially in Lizzie Borden’s murders where she is axe murdering an entire family. This means we needed doubles or triples of the costumes.
For instance, Lizzie’s murder costume had three different variations of blood. One from the first murder of her father, one from butchering the pigeons, and another after it has come off and she hides it (I think this scene was taken out in the edit). Of course all are challenges, but when you sign up for an axe murdering film full of blood you plan ahead.
Sex scenes are always tricky, especially with two women in restricted 1890s clothing that is not easy to come off while rolling around in the hay in a barn. But the ladies are such pros, as is director our Craig William Macneill. It went smoother than expected.
Q: Where does Lizzie rank in the challenges you’ve had so far in your career?
A: Pretty high up. This was definitely a blood, sweat and tears project (pun intended) but one that I would do all over again if I had the chance. A huge cast with over 30 changes for Lizzie alone, quadruples for all the murder scenes, a pretty low costume budget, a 28-day shoot and the majority of Chloe’s costumes real authentic vintage. I had my plate full, but I am happy with the way it turned out.
Looking back I would say one of my biggest challenges was The Little Hours, a film set in Medieval times with Benedictine nuns in a tiny Italian town. Everything was sourced and hand crafted, and we had a ridiculously comical cast including Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly.
Then there was Honey Boy – the film Shia LaBeouf wrote about his life. It was an unforgettable whirlwind adventure. It is beginning to feel like most of the indies I have done have been the biggest challenge…
Q: You have an incredibly impressive and broad C.V, but two of the films that really caught my eye were ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ and ‘Ingrid Goes West’. Can you share any memories from working on these two projects?
A: Most people find the films I have done to be pretty strange and eclectic.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was a long time ago, but we created a real film family. That is what Ana Lily Amirpour does. She creates a bubble for her films that keeps you living and breathing the film, almost like one of the characters, while you are working on it.
She is an incredible leader and beyond fearless. We had next to no money, only incredible artists that really believed in the story and how well Lily was going to tell it. I am happy to see that it has become such a cult classic.
Ingrid Goes West was an absolute blast to create. I had so much creative freedom and our director Matt Spicer had an incredible vision that made designing it an absolute adventure. I had worked with Aubrey Plaza prior to Ingrid Goes West on The Little Hours so I was already acquainted with how she works.
She is immersed when it comes to her characters and that is a dream to work with let alone to design for. We were in constant communication, going into the smallest details about Ingrid. I even became a social media stalker to live through the character myself. I wanted to make it as relevant and true as possible. I even contacted all of the ‘It” Instagram brands and got them to send their designs for the film to make it that much more authentic.
Q: Speaking of ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ and given that it is October, I bet the professional costume designer outdoes everyone on Halloween. Is that the case?
A: Oddly enough, for the past 4 years I have dressed up like a powerful or historical man. I do not know why but there is something so sexy about dressing up like someone very far from your real self. I dress like a new person every day at work so dressing like Andy Warhol, Siegfried and Roy or Beethoven (my plan for this year) feels like an even bigger stretch than usual, especially because I get excited to stuff my pants with a real big sock.
Speaking of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Halloween, the absolute coolest thing for a costume designer to witness in their career is when one of her film characters is an actual Halloween costume on the streets. It makes me feel all warm, fuzzy and spooky inside.
Q: How did you get into costume design and working on films?
A: Right out of high school I started with high fashion styling and it got so stagnant working with models. I like the psychology behind characters, why they do the things they do and how they celebrate their look or emotions through their costumes.
I got my real training on set at 21 years old when I was a set costumer and assistant to the designer on The Bold And The Beautiful for about two years. That is how I got in the union and worked my way up just like anyone else. It helps that my real and only love is designing.
Q: What are the main joys and strains of your job?
A: When the director is on the same page as I am. When you see your favourite look for the first time on monitor. When you make the actor feel even more the part. Reliving what you made a year ago with all the people that you love when the film finally comes out. Researching until my eyes go numb, shopping until the shop closes and kicks me out.
All joys have strains attached, but all of the strains tend to be forgotten once the film is all said and done. Then you are left with a beautiful piece of art to add to the timeline of your career.
Q: Who do you aspire to and what kind of work would you like to do in the future?
A: I have my own grind. I am not aspiring to be anyone, just trying to flex all of the muscles I have and learn as many tricks as I can as I go along.
I have yet to do a western, so now I am currently on the lookout to tackle that challenge.
I love anyone with a fresh way to tell a story. I am open to working with all directors as I will always take and learn something from them and add it to my designing ammunition. Of course, down the line I would love to do one of those huge blockbusters – but only if it is a kickass story. I will not work on something I do not actually love.
Q: Lastly, you mentioned the project with Shia LaBeouf, and IMDB says you also have projects coming up with Emily Ratajkowski and Aaron Paul. Can you reveal anything about those?
A: IMDB does not lie. Actually, I have two films with Emily coming out and she is an absolute dream. I think the trailer for Welcome Home just came out – so you get a little taste.
As for Honey Boy with Shia LaBeouf, I have a feeling that we made something unforgettable and mesmerising. Alma Harel, our director, and Shia are both strong storytellers.
At the moment I am currently filming a Disney movie called Stargirl. This is costume heavy with a marvellous whimsical cast. I cannot wait to share about it in the future.