Sunday, August 5, 2012

Exclusive Interview: Audrey Fisher - True Blood's Exceptional Costume Designer

First publlished on The Vault -

I had been to see a panel on Friday at Comic Con titled Designing for the Undead which consisted of costume designers guild members Chrisi Karvonides (costume designer, American Horror Story, Carnivale), Audrey Fisher (costume designer, True Blood), and Alexander Welker (costume designer, Grimm) and costume illustrator Imogene Chayes (True Blood, American Horror Story) who talked about creating all those costumes for the great paranormal television characters we know and love.

At the Comic-Con Media, Culture and Design Panel- Friday, July 13, 2012.

Watch the video I took while attending the panel at Comic Con.

I had already contacted Audrey Fisher about doing an interview and after the panel, I went up to her to set a time to talk together. I met with her at her hotel on Sunday, July 15 in the morning and it was a delightful interview. I know I sound like a broken record when I say this, but I found her to be, just like everyone else on True Blood, extremely giving and kind. I enjoyed our talk together and was very flattered that she asked me to her room where I could meet her friends and where she could give me some photos to use for The Vault's charity efforts.

Below is my interview with the lovely Audrey Fisher.

How did you get into the business?
I was just sitting and talking with someone on Friday, at the signing before our panel and I realized that I have been doing this for 20 years. I designed my first show in NY in 1992.

Audrey with some of her True Blood designs on display.

Did you go to school for this or was it something you just fell into?
I went to theater school and that’s why I was in New York. I went to NYU, Tisch in the department of performance studies which is this very esoteric major that sort of mixes sociology, theology, and performance, theater studies and everything all mixed together. It’s a very brainy program and a lot of theory and not a lot of theater making. So what happened is that I thought I wanted to be a dramaturge, a German term, or the Germans developed it. It’s sort of like the person in a theater production is kind of like the editor; that’s what I thought I wanted to be.

A dramaturge or dramaturg is a professional position within a theatre or opera company that deals mainly with research and development of plays or operas. Its modern-day function was originated by the innovations of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an 18th-century German playwright, philosopher, and theorist about theatre.

Obviously it’s an even more specialized field and really, theater in America is very different from theater in Germany. So, I was going to this very erudite program but while I was there, I started needing to do things with my hands and I’ve always done costumes on the side. One of my colleagues was a German woman, and a director, and she did a production of Medea and she saw these crazy hats I was making in an art class and she asked me to do the costumes. It totally made sense because my mom and I used to make things in the garage and I was always sewing and making stuff for my dolls and we were always putting on little shows, so there was this tradition in my family of making things and making costumes, so it felt completely natural and I started doing it then and fell for it, hard.

How did you get the job on True Blood?
That was the most amazing situation. I had been working by then for over a dozen years in the industry, doing costuming. I started in New York in ‘92 and I did a bunch of small theater pieces there and then I went to Europe and did a couple of operas and some theater. Then, I came back to New York and did some bigger productions there and then I moved back to LA and became a resident design assistant at the Taper.  I started doing various jobs there where I met Merlina Root, she was doing a show at the Taper. She is the designer of “That 70’s Show” and "Twenty Good Years" and "3rd Rock from the Sun." So I assisted her in theater and she said what are you doing in theater, you should come and work in TV, and I said OK and I hadn’t even thought of it. She hired me on "That 80’s Show," and I assistant designed with her.  Then, she hired me onto “That 70’s Show” and during that show when we were wrapping, Danny Glicker came and wanted to buy the stock for the movie, "We Are Marshall." He and I totally hit it off and he hired me to be his assistant designer on that movie, "We Are Marshall."  At that time, Danny’s career was taking off and Alan Ball asked him to do "Towelhead" and then asked him to do True Blood. So Danny was the first designer for True Blood,’ he designed the first two episodes. Then, we had the writer’s strike and Danny suggested I take over because he was going to go on to do the movie, "Milk" and no one knew what was going to happen.  So, he basically said to Alan and the Producers, "Audrey loves the show, knows the show, I trust her implicitly, she’s great, so what if she took over." I never thought of it, it’s like a dream when an assistant sort of gets kicked upstairs like that. Now, it’s my baby. The minute I got it I thought, Oh My God, this is my big moment.

Different Sookie Looks
What’s fun about your job?
Everything is fun about it. I am kind of hyper and love everything we have to handle every day. I love the multi-tasking, and I love the pace. Sometimes when I wake up and I’m really tired, and I say to myself, I just can’t, then I remember what I have to do today. Hmmm, I have a fitting with Alexander Skarsgård, I have to outfit a bunch of faeries and then, I have to deal with this huge blood rig and then, I have to see Anna for a fitting, so I say, OK, I’m getting up now. So, even on my worst day, I remember this incredible thing that I get to do and I get paid for it.

Suzuki Ingerslev, True Blood's set designer, told me that she doesn’t have the incredible pace that you have to deal with; is this true?
It makes sense when you look at the amount of bodies and details on the bodies vs. the production design. They have a set and all the beautiful details, but they have one set and it’s a numbers game. I have to deal with physical people; underwear and socks, and rings, and earrings.  And then there are ear allergies and wool allergies and, "I don’t like this neckline" and "I look terrible in this color" and "I like this brand of underwear." There are just so many details and with production design it doesn’t have that element, so that just adds a lot of time to my docket. 

I liked when you said Kristin was your Barbie Doll.
She is. She is physically a dream in terms of putting clothes on her body. That’s pretty extraordinary with the cast; they’re all so extraordinary, they are amazing.

Kristin Bauer van Straten as Audrey's Barbie Doll

How much advance notice do you have to find items, like finding the Wal-Mart outfit and the onesies for Jason, etc?
The jammies were a total build; we made those from scratch since they just don’t exist.

And they were a huge hit.
Yes, and Angela Robinson wrote that, she wrote “he man onesie” and I was like OK, because I can’t like just call the "He man onesie store" and order it in a man size, we just made it up. Those are challenges that the writers sort of toss up that I’m happy to be able to satisfy.

It just depends, what I try to do is sort of hoard items and if I’m out shopping and I see things I like, I just buy it, I buy six of it.  Then, I have it ready to go and a lot of times, that works out. Because I’m always thinking about the color palettes and the silhouettes and scanning out in the world. Even now,when I’m out in the world it’s so hard for me to shut off the shopping because I’m think, "oh, that will be great for this and that would be great for that," so, I’m constantly thinking that way.

In the beginning of the season it’s best because we get like two scripts and then we get a bunch of synopsis so we try to front load and we see stuff that’s coming up and we can prep for it.

Kristin Bauer van Straten in Wal-Mart Sweatsuit

Ryan Kwanten in HeMan Onesie

Do you get synopsis for the whole season?
No, usually we get 2 - 3 scripts and a couple of synopsis at a time. However, you can’t work too far ahead on a synopsis because things change, so you don’t put too much effort into it. But that’s when my relationship with the writer’s room comes in handy because I can say, “Is this going to stay?”

Have you had that happen where something has been changed radically at the last minute?
I can’t think of something where it’s been that radical, but things have fallen away that we’ve started to prep for, but we’ve sort of hit a balance now where we don’t ever go too far ahead because we don’t want to waste money and time; we don’t have it to waste, so we try to keep it tight.

What costumes in season 5 required the most from you?
Oh, the Faery Club because we had to dress all of them. The same thing with 1905, the whore house, but the faery club took a long time for us to get to the articulation of the design.

By the time we got it we only had two weeks to manufacture all the costumes before it was on camera, so it was really high pressure and went into overdrive. We hired a whole second team of seamstresses, assistant designers, shoppers. PA’s and costumers, so we had a whole secondary costume shop working. We had to fit a 100 people and we had to get two changes on most of them because we knew we wouldn’t have those resources again. We knew we needed to bang it out so we’d be ready for future scenes that we didn’t know about. We wanted to make sure that each faery had a closet that we could rely on so we would know for example, she has another bra, she has another crown, she already has another selection of jewelry so that for the next time around we could pull out something and wouldn’t be stuck.

The Faery Club

It’s amazing too because that scene wasn’t really that long even though a very important scenes.
I think for every department it’s a heartbreak when we don’t have the camera lovingly dwell on each thing, but of course there’s so much packed into each episode, they have to edit so tightly so, those long lingering shots, the wide shots, often end up on the cutting room floor because they have to get to the action. And, people want to see the actors close up and their reactions. I actually was very satisfied with how much we saw the faeries this season.

And Hadley looks so cute in that scene with the little crown on her head.
She’s so adorable and cute.

Hadley - Lindsey Haun

How’s the budget? Do you have to work with little or do you think you have enough to do what you need to do?
That’s one thing about having started from the beginning you can look back. I recently was sorting through some files and found my season 1 files and noticed that the budget has doubled. I was laughing. My first episode that I designed of Season 1, episode 3, the cast list wasn't long and the budget is half of what it is now. I took it into my supervisor, who is sort of like the project manager, and we laughed so hard because now the cast list is like 20 principles and 20 day players, so we laughed about that.

I’m not interested in wasting money or spending a lot for doing something I could do for less. It’s always a balance between time and money; that’s it. It’s just a continuum. I simply can’t afford very expensive designs, for example, I can’t shop at Saks Fifth Avenue all the time. I can do so occasionally though, if I find something on sale for say, Pam.

But, also it is Bon Temps?
I do have that interesting split and I think that the reason I could be on budget is because half the people's [costumes], I can get out of Good Will, out of Kohl’s or JC Penney’s which we have done over the years, but then, where I spend the money is on Chris Meloni and Anna. This season, Anna had to have a lot of different options as her pregnancy advanced. As she got bigger, there was a lot of work we had to do to make sure she was comfortable, a lot of different sizes of everything, a lot of different choices. I had to reserve my main funds for the top ten [cast members] and of course, the vampires. Especially this season  their clothes were very high end so I had to make sure I had the money for that.

But, still I do a lot of tricks. A lot of the dresses that I find are knock offs of designer stuff, like the purple dress that Salome just wore. That beautiful curvy dress, that’s a knock off of a very expensive designer actually, Roland Mouret and then, Black Halo knocked him off and then, French Connection knocked Black Halo off. So, it looks like a very expensive designer dress, but it’s actually French Connection, which I think was maybe under $200. That’s how I can do it because things are knocked off so quickly now, allowing me to give the impression of a very luxurious costume when in fact it’s affordable for the budget.

We kind of thought that True Blood would go on for another year. I personally would like it to go on forever, but yesterday, at the True Blood Panel, Alan said that it could go on for many years, so I presume you’ll be there until the end. What would you like to do when it does end?
I’m just starting to think about it and the future. Obviously season 6 is happening and I’m there, but for me the key is the interesting and amazing scripts. I’d love to travel, go on location, and do a film. The thing I think would be hard for me would be to do something that is really bare bones because that requires so much work on the designers part, it’s like sweat equity. I think that would be hard to do because I’m used to a really logical and efficient way of working. Therefore, I would have to find something that was logical and efficient because I don’t think I could go back to stuff that’s so poorly funded that you’re not really spending the money you really need to make it look right. And that doesn't have to be a lot, but I feel like I want to work on productions that are smart, savvy and then have an incredible script.

Do you have any aspirations to go back to the stage?
You know the thing about the stage is that I haven’t been able to afford to go back because, at least the productions I used to do, the pay is really low.

Well, that's fine because we like you in TV and, HBO specifically. It seems they are very supportive, is that true?
Yes, it’s an incredible company, especially when I’m here (Comic con), and I see the way that they support me as a designer representing the show vs. colleagues from other shows. For example, they produced this incredible handout with a sketch of Jessica. I hired a sketch artist, my sketch artist Imogene, and they tiled together some stills and it’s this beautiful 8-1/2 x 11" and it has True Blood on it and I signed it and Deborah Ann also signed it.

Below is the photo Audrey talks about above. She gave me a small pile from her inventory for use in our fundraising. I so enjoyed talking with her and learning more about the costume designer's job and the process.  I have the utmost respect for the designers and those who work on this show making it even a better experience.