Every movie or television show has countless crew members whose creative contributions don’t get nearly the credit they deserve. But on HBO’s Vice Principals (which had its season finale this past week), it’s impossible not to notice the costumes. What would the show be without Lee Russell’s (played by Walton Goggins) collection of bow ties and sharply tailored sweater vests? Or Neil Gamby’s (Danny McBride) dorky short-sleeved shirts and collection of ill-fitting… uh… sweater vests?
You find the universal through the specific, so the saying goes, which might be especially true for comedy. Throughout their careers, Vice Principals creators Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green (all North Carolina School of the Arts grads, occasionally referred to as the “North Carolina Mafia”) have told stories set in parts of the South you don’t normally see onscreen. They neither downplay nor belabor the region’s inherent quirks, and tend to treat their settings with equal parts celebration and send-up, sort of doing for the coastal sweaty South what Alexander Payne did with the central plains. Small-town comedy lives in the details.
Obviously, costumes are a big part of creating that vibe, which is plain to see in Vice Principals. It looks like a fun job, and it just so happened I had an in. I met Sarah Trost a few years back during the press tour for The FP, the most gloriously surreal backyard movie wet dream ever, that she made with her brothers, Brandon; a prolific cinematographer who’s worked on Popstar, Neighbors, This Is The End, and The Night Before (etc. etc); and Jason, famously eye-patched star of The FP, and an indie film writer/director/producer. The FP was basically what you get when siblings make a goofy inside joke movie, if those siblings were also a third generation movie family and really good at their respective crafts like the Trosts. There’s more than a whiff of real-life Royal Tenenbaums precociousness there, if you replaced twee tweediness with genre movie cool.
Anyway, fast forward to now, and Trost, who was also a contestant on Project Runway a few years back, is designing costumes on Vice Principals (that the Trost posse and the North Carolina Mafia would eventually cross paths now seems inevitable). Which meant, basically, that I finally had someone to answer all those hyper-specific questions I had about the nuts and bolts of premium cable costumery. It was a learning experience. Huzzah.
Do they ever say officially where Vice Principals takes place [in the show]?
You know, I don’t know if they say, but it’s definitely meant to be regional, in the region in which we filmed, which is Charleston, South Carolina.
Did you have notes on that regional style?
A little bit. I think the only notes were from Danny [McBride] and Jody [Hill], were to make Walton’s character, Lee Russell, a little bit more of a dandy. I grew up in California, so I’m not entirely familiar with that whole thing. As soon as I got to Charleston, though, I was like, “Holy shit.” You have entire stores of just bow ties in pastel colors and that’s it. There are more shopping options for men, of that type. Like there’s more seersucker suit stuff than there is anything for women. You get like three stores for women on main street, you’ve got like 25 department stores for men, for like straw hats and bow ties. It’s fucking insane.
The bow ties, the seersucker, what did you study? Were there things that you looked at to try and come up with a good Charleston style?
I think it was just Charleston in general. It’s kind of hard to explain, but once you’re there, it sort of just happens upon you. Also, we were under tax incentive rules, so I couldn’t shop anywhere outside of state, which is a pretty huge obstacle, because they don’t really have very extensive shopping in Charleston or in South Carolina in general. Like I couldn’t shop anywhere other than Dillard’s, Belk, and the outlet stores, and maybe like some Banana Republic and J. Crew. We were very, very limited, so I had to be incredibly creative. We also had a really low budget for what it is that we’re doing, so I’m pretty happy they’re dressed in anything at all, honestly.
Did you get to go to Charleston before you started on this show, when you were making your presentation?
No. My presentation was in my interview. Then, it was kind of refined once we got there. I want to say I was there for a month, or month and a half, before we started shooting, so we had a little bit of time to get everything together. The first things we were doing, honestly, was we were building all of the football game episode. The first thing that we did was get all of the uniforms designed and all the cheerleader stuff. We made everything.
Okay, two questions: One, what does the presentation physically look like, and two, was there a unifying theme that you presented at that presentation?
For the most part, what my presentation looks like is sort of like a weird, I want to say, slightly more R-rated, grown-up version of like a Napoleon Dynamite. I took maps of the country, and I took composition books and cut them up, and I took all of the sketches that I did, I did them on notebook paper — whenever I do a presentation, I gear it towards whatever the theme is of the project that I’m doing, so [being that Vice Principals is set in a high school] it was like, Post-it notes, and teacher’s notes, and all of that kind of stuff. I had just recently, right before that interview, I had found my old high school yearbook, so I actually copied off backgrounds from my high school yearbooks and put those in backgrounds of things and it was pretty funny to me. Yeah, so I just got kind of super specific with it.
As far as whatever my unifying theme would be, it really was in the details. The majority of it, you have pretty self-explanatory characters and the shapes are going to be pretty similar, I think, no matter who was designing it. For me, it was more all of the detail pieces, like [Gamby’s] little keychain that pulls out. Or, he’s got these terrible short-sleeved shirts with clip on ties, but we actually made sure that you could see the t-shirt showing through underneath – shit like that. Making sure that his shoes are of a certain aging and the pleats. With Russell, all the different weird little patterns, and everything, that should not go together, but weirdly does go together. It is all the tiny, little detail pieces that, I think, make it, and that’s how I presented that I would go about it. I think that’s what got me the job.
You sort of already answered this, but with Russell, the wardrobe’s half the character. Could you go into how he was described to you and what the vision was that you came up with?
He, I think, I don’t have it out in front of me, but on the page [the description of him was as] just sort of some kind of a late thirties clothes horse, but if the clothes came from JCPenney. It was something like that. It was like some kind of super fashionable, but not very expensive, which is kind of where we went, and I think it works out. We do have a handful of more expensive pieces, but the majority of the stuff that he is wearing is actually not incredibly expensive clothing. It’s just all about, which I did say in my interview too, is all about the fit for him. It’s all about making sure that he has very close, very good fit. That is what’s really going to differentiate him. As far as Gamby, his clothing, like, it fits him, but not in the same way, because Gamby’s clothing sort of makes him look like a dump truck.
Which was on purpose. Both of the styles and both of the fits actually affect their posture and their walk, and that’s something that you really want to achieve with costume design. Walton just brings so much to it. I mean, he really got into it and he loved it. I’m very happy that he trusts me as a human, so that’s good.
When he got to see the wardrobe, how much do you think that affected the performance?
I think it affects it a fair amount, but he already had a pretty fully-formed character together. He already had a stance and an accent and hand gestures and all these things. He had everything pretty well patterned out. I think getting into those outfits really was sort of like the nail in the coffin. It just sent it to town.
I assume he was the most fun character to dress on that show?
I think so. I would say, until the second season, which I won’t say anything about. This first season, I think he was probably one of the most fun. Especially because he just kind of, once we had it figured out, he just completely trusted me, and then we didn’t really have to worry about it. He’s got like a couple racks of clothes and then I would just sort of rearrange them into different outfits throughout the course of the season.
Oh, so that’s a consideration? You actually imagine how many different outfits the person would actually have?
Oh, yeah. you definitely have to break down how many outfits they have, because on some shows they’ll just do one outfit and then you’ll never see it again. However, on this show we wanted it to be more like real life, where you have a closet and you wear different variations of the same thing over the course of a few months. Maybe you’ll have something new here and there, but it’s like we didn’t want anybody to just have like shotgun new clothes every, single time. It just, it doesn’t make any sense for this universe.
Right. It seems like on some shows, like a sitcom, or something, it just seems like the person’s just dressing the little kids up like they’re going to be in a catalog. They just want them to look good, like in this too-clean generic sort of way.
Yeah. That happens a lot, and I try to avoid that, so hopefully we succeeded.