I always have to come from a centre of being true to reality, especially in apocalyptic stuff. You have to have that kernel of reality.
– Melissa Bruning.
In conversation with Melissa Bruning
In this episode I speak to costume designer Melissa Bruning about designing costumes for Joe Pesci, Jason Statham, Dwayne Johnson and more. Her filmography boasts Parker, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes and Love Ranch to name a few. You can catch my interview with Melissa Bruning on YouTube, below are some moments transcribed (loosely) from our chat.
Melissa Bruning welcome to the show please tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Melissa Bruning, I’m a costume designer, I decided when I was eight, I wanted to be a costume designer. My dad was an artist, my mom was an artist. Nobody said no. Nobody expected me to be a lawyer or a doctor. I started designing sets and costumes in high school. And then I moved, I went to Nebraska Westland University, which is a small, small university in Nebraska. And the advantage to that was that they let me design my own program. So I have a BFA in technical theatre, which meant I also did lighting, directing, acting, took history classes, took art classes, I was able to kind of just do, you know, whatever I wanted.
And then I interviewed at a couple different schools and was accepted to NYU Tisch School to design for my master’s in costume design, and manage to get a full ride. Which is the only way I could afford to move to New York and go to school and all that. And it was great. It was like, my adult life began.
I had all intentions of being a Broadway designer. Until I got there and realised what a closed system it was. It’s very hard there’s only a certain amount of theatres that do Broadway shows. And a lot of those designers work until their 80s or longer. I could assist but even as assisting on Broadway shows, I couldn’t make enough money to afford the insurance. I don’t know if they’ve changed it since then. But so I hit the 90s with independent films and fell in love.
Was there a film that you did that broke you into the mainstream?
So I did in the summer of 2000, I did Super Troopers and Kissing Jessica Stein back to back. And part of that was because also there was a union strike on and all commercials cease to exist. That used to be my bread and butter, I could style a commercial make, pension, welfare insurance, a chunk of change. And then I could do the independent films, which were no money and like 15 hour days. It was that summer that I did those two films that I also met crews from Los Angeles, that there are a lot of the people were crossovers.
They were New Yorkers who had moved to LA and they’re like, Oh, my God, you’re working out of a U-Haul truck. In LA, they have trucks and their studios to rent clothes. I mean, Kissing Jessica Stein, we didn’t have a space and there was so many clothes in the movie, that I actually rented a 24 hour storage space, like a like a 10 by 12. and we loaded racks into it. And that was my office!
I was able to come out to LA, my aunt lives in Pasadena. So I was lucky, I just packed everything up, came out to LA to try it out. And then 911 happened, and there was no theatre. There was nothing. It was like, I took this leap. And then when I turned around, there was nothing to go back to. And so it was only forward.
Do you have to audition for roles in films now or are people calling you?
I have an agent. And so what happens as you move up the studio ladder is that I’m everywhere (linked to) every project, it all goes through the agents, right? So, agents get a list of all the projects in town. And then they submit people to the list. And then on that list, the people who are putting the project together look at it, and they’re like, Oh, I know that person. Oh, I like that person’s work. Oh, okay.
So generally, they will interview three to four costume designers per project, right? When I was put up for Space Jam, my agent was like, Hey, are you interested? I was like, yeah. When you go in I get a script, I put together a PDF document of visuals, I take each of the main characters, and I just put together how I would do it and how I see it.
You go through, you put those together. And then anything else that’s specialised, you put some background and you create a presentation. And then I have little books of my own work that I hand around the room saying, This is who I am. You have to sell yourself for the project, or at least you should. And say like, Okay, this is why I’m interested.
For Space Jam – the first commercial I ever worked on was directed by Joe Pytka. Who directed the first Space Jam. Right? And so for me, it was a full circle moment.
I felt passionate about that. I felt strongly about the performers, I felt like I could give I understand the studio system. AND I know what the studio needs. Like, I know how the procedure works. There also was a motion capture element to it, which I’m very familiar with. So I understand what that language is and what the needs are when doing something with that. Like on this one. We work with Industrial Light Magic. I am a collaborator between the director and the producer, the actors and visual effects. I’m worried about that. I have to bridge that.
Do directors handpick you as well? I know you’ve worked with Taylor Hackford a couple of times on Love Ranch and Parker and Matt Reeves on the last two Apes movies?
Yes. And that’s what you hope for. My goal is to work with people that I love collaborating with. It makes it worth doing. It’s exciting. You’re a fellow storyteller. It is the closest thing to doing theatre to me. Because when you’re in theatre, it’s the director. It’s the lighting designer, the set designer, the costume designer, we’re the closest voices around the director. I’m helping saying I can give you this or I could do that or something’s not working right here. Well, this is my take on it.
When I auditioned for Taylor Hackford for Love Ranch, I had like this 100 page book. And this is pre-really a lot of computer stuff. I went through every possible character. Also I had been to New York, I went into microfiche, I got the original Rolling Stone articles. I said, I can do this, I can do that. I can do that. And Taylor says, ‘Listen, I’m impressed. But I’ve got Academy Award winning costume designers wanting to do this project with me. Why should I pick you?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m the best.’ I said, ‘I’m young. I’m vibrant. I understand the sexiness appeal of this. And I feel like I can be a collaborator with you.’
And what was it like to work with Joe Pesci? I loved that snake skin leather jacket he wears. Did you have that made?
Of course we made it. Joe Pesci is pretty much like my size with like the sleeves about an inch longer. I mean, I adore Joe. This was quite a while ago when we shot this. And he used to tease me. He goes, ‘You look like Renee Zellweger. Did you know that? Don’t fuck up your face.’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t have that kind of money anyway.’
But he’s not really interested in acting right?
No he golfs every day. Yeah, he has a putting ranch at his house. He’s only interested in golf.
I liked Love Ranch, did that go under the radar at the box office?
You know what, it’s so sad the recession hit and Capitol films went under. Taylor barely, barely was able to release it. Some people were like, “you shouldn’t release it.” Because he had no money for the music. He could have easily left it, just walked away from it. But he felt like people had worked so hard on it. There was so many young actresses that wanted to be able to be showcased. For me it really was a huge thing for me to have that movie open.
And what was it like also working alongside Matt Reeves?
When I met with Matt Reeves, for Let Me In, we had such a symbiotic thought for the whole piece. I was like, I understand these characters. I went to school in Nebraska and I whipped out my Junior High yearbook from that year. And he was like, oh my God. We collaborate very well. And it’s a nice relationship, like even on War for the Planet Apes when we were dealing with the military, he wanted it to look like Vietnam.
But the reality is the uniforms didn’t look like that.
And I was like, ‘Well, what if I like just muck them all up? Just make them look filthy, we dye it down. We grey it out?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I want. This is the visual in my head.’ But in a way that makes logical sense. You know what I mean? I always have to come from a centre of being true to reality, especially in apocalyptic stuff. You have to have that kernel of reality.
Did the apes wear any clothes?
So in Dawn for the Planet of the Apes, I had designed all these gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous stuff. But it was sort of like, we think we can “render” fabric. But every time you did any individual piece, it was like a million dollars, right. And then once you have that piece, you could replicate it as many times. But they didn’t quite know if they had the technology to make it work. And we did some headdresses. The hardest thing was like, how do you tell Cornelia from Caesar? You know, because female apes and male apes don’t really look much different. So, you know, we had to kind of play around with some of that kind of idea.
… and it wasn’t until on War for the Planet of the Apes, the technology had increased. And so the coat on Bad Ape Steve Zahn’s character, there was an actual one, and then he would wear it over his mocap suit (an optical motion capture suit). But there was also one built in ape size. I had a four foot three Caesar built like a miniature. And so we would drape and do things on there to get the sizing. So what I did is, I made one of those, and we texture it, we paint it, we do everything, and then that gets scanned into the computer, and then they break it apart and put it together.
But it’s you know, I don’t the technology is getting better and better and better. But it’s hard to see. You don’t want to do things that move. But a puffer puffer vest, with some texture to it is something that translates easier.
Is it harder doing costumes where the same principle actor is wearing the same clothes throughout the entire movie?
When you do an apocalyptic film where they’re wearing the same thing, most the time, you don’t have one, you have 30, right. You have different degrees of distressing. And then it’s them, it’s their photo double, it’s a stunt double, sometimes two stunt doubles. And so each of these layers of clothes have to be exact duplicates of each other, even though they’re not necessarily the exact size. But then you also have a progression. So we start in the woods. And then this happens. Then there’s another layer of muck, and then there’s another layer of muck, and then they get all washed off, and then what kind of muck is left on that. And then you’re not shooting an order. Thank God I have a really great team.
From Melissa in further correspondence about the Gary Oldman (Dreyfus) outfit,
I believe that shirt (above) is Rag & Bone, but maybe James Perse? Sorry it feel like another life. But the jacket he wears in a different scene (below) is Sandro and it’s gorgeous. I love their clothes. The pants might be Taylor Stitch out of San Francisco. It’s a great little boutique.
Even for the Rock in Rampage, Dwayne Johnson. What level of him getting hurt and distressed (reflects in the clothes) what level is this t shirt and then we test (and ask) Is this enough? Now add, add some more, and then once you add it, you can’t go backwards. So it’s like, okay, I need 50 Rag & Bone T-shirts in this style. Go. Everybody is calling all over the world trying to get in as many as you can so that you have your own little warehouse, right? So it’s the design and then the technical application of what you do to make it look seamless.
Do you ever think about like the sustainability on a film set with the amount of duplicates that have to be made?
Yes, but in Los Angeles, and other cities, too, we have warehouses that look like football fields full of clothes. So if you wanted the clothes from Waterworld, they’re at Western Costume. If you ever go to Warner Brothers, there’s a tour of the costume department. It is amazing. They have costumes going back to the 20s that you can still rent. I mean, you can go in and see the archive all these things.
There was one time I was at Western Costume, I was looking at some 1920’s stuff. And I could see Susan’s Brandon’s name sewn into the back of a costume from Pretty Baby.
And sometimes we introduce the public to brands that they may not know, which I think is good. I order brands from all over the world. And then hopefully, that creates a recognition for audiences in the US, or quite frankly, because of Netflix now, anywhere. We don’t throw anything away. It’s all used. If we don’t use it, we return it.
Do you use your own tailors or the tailor shops at the studios?
They have very good tailoring chops at all the studios, sometimes they are far too busy. It just depends on how much is coming through. Also on films, I have my own independent tailor sometimes one, sometimes two With Space Jam, I had to create an entire shop. I had two costumers, one costumer that was in charge of the look of the background and the other one that was pretty much just fabric. All she did was source fabric, got dye fabric, get fabric made to recreate all the characters at the Space Jam game.
I know Space Jam was a huge saga with regards to getting clearances, do you try and steer clear of graphics because of that?
There’s always been a thing with artwork. You know, people can get sued for using artwork. But when Warner Brothers got sued for the tattoo on The Hangover on Mike Tyson from his tattoo artist, it scared the legal world because it was it was like millions of dollars.
I never heard about that.
Yeah, they didn’t clear the tattoo. They didn’t pay the tattoo artists for doing that tattoo. I think they just assumed that it was his design. But it wasn’t. It was an artist in Vegas. And he sued them. And so now, anytime an actor comes in, I have to do photos of any tattoos they have on their body. They have to sign a legal agreement and we have to find out who did the tattoo, either pay them or get permission.
If we can’t find it, they have to be covered up.
Which then changes the costume because if somebody’s got tattoos all up and down their arms, they can never wear short sleeve. It also goes into artwork too, right? So it’s the same idea. If you are an artist, and this is your original design, then you need to be paid for it. Yeah. Or waive it.
Credits and Further Reading
With thanks to Melissa Bruning. Her next project is a short film that she wrote and directed entitled A Ghost Story. You can find out more about Melissa Bruning through her website and of course be sure to follow her on Instagram. The podcast is available to listen on iTunes, Stitcher or Spotify or in the player below.
In preparation for this episode I bought the Planet of the Apes trilogy on Blu Ray through Amazon. I also watched Love Ranch on Amazon Prime. This is also available to buy on Blu Ray.
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Just curious, your favourite APES movie from the recent franchise?
— From Tailors With Love (@tailorswithlove) March 16, 2022