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.
Do you have like a unifying theme or inspiration with each character, or does it get less with the more minor they are?
It’s sort of character specific and it really depended on the actor and what the teacher was meant to do. All together I think we have, we have a top eight, but then we have about a top 20 of teachers that are kind of either there. I guess you would call them day players, however, they’re in pretty much every episode.
Whenever we would have fittings, even if they’re only listed for having one or two changes, I would make them an entire closet, of which we could make probably a dozen outfits from. It’s really through the fitting process, what I thought they should be, what the actor thought they should be, and we would kind of come together. You’ll find it in the fitting. Once you’re doing the fitting, all of a sudden you’ll hit one thing and that takes you on a trek. Then you kind of organize a handful of outfits for that, because even if they were only listed as being in one episode for like two different script days, I would make sure that I had a rack of things for them, because inevitably all of these people would come back.
They would be like, “Oh, we’re adding this person to this scene.” Then, luckily I would have costumes to put them in, because if I hadn’t done that then we would be in a little bit of trouble and we didn’t have time to do that.
What were style notes for Miss Snodgrass?
Oh, man. Really, just to make her kind of low key, but also cute, and a little bit on the sexy side. I mean, it’s actually written in the script, “close ups of her ass.” At that point it’s like, let’s put her in a tighter bottom half and then we’ll kind of give her a little bit more of a bohemian upper half, and like kind of conservative, but sort of cute and quirky. And Georgia [King], the actress, really adds a lot to that, too. Again, it’s sort of a compilation of what I thought it should be and how she wanted it to be and how she held the costume and everything. I think she turned out pretty cute and pretty funny.
How about Doctor Brown?
I just wanted her to be just strong, pretty classic, pretty strong, and she agreed with that. As compared to my original sketches, it’s really close with her. Again, it was just the fit. It was just making sure that the fit was pretty dead on, and I think we achieved that pretty well, for her.
Okay, so why all the sweater vests?
I don’t know that I can answer that immediately. Well, it was just super fucking funny to me. I had seen them in old high school yearbooks and I had seen them in my research. I’m not sure if it was written in there or not. I don’t know if it was, but I remember bringing the sweater vest with something in my sketches to my meeting and I think they responded to that pretty well. That’s like Gamby’s thing and that’s also Russell’s in a completely different way.
Yeah, I thought about sweater vests, and then I didn’t realize that they both were wearing them, because they’re so different from each other, that you don’t make the connection in your mind.
Yeah, which is really funny, because in both of their ways, they’re almost dressing the same, they just have different ways of going about it.
We had matching Ashford sweater vests on my golf team in high school [of which I was the captain, nbd].
Oh my God.
Oh yeah. We thought we looked really hot shit in them too.
Cute. Real cute. Super dope. Yeah, I’m going to hold my comments on that one.
Yeah, feel free. Was there anything that got vetoed where you were like, “Oh man, I wish he would’ve used this or that.”
Let me see, I’m trying to remember. The volume is just so much. It was like a year and a half ago now, or more. I don’t know. I don’t really think so. I think everything kind of worked out. I’m pretty happy with most of the things. Pretty much we really didn’t have to deal with a huge approval process. It was like I sent things to Danny and to the directors, but I only had to send a couple of looks to HBO in the beginning, just for them to kind of see where we were going. Then I didn’t really have to go through the whole network approvals process, which is pretty great. We didn’t have time anyways. Oh my God, we would not have made any kind of schedule if we had to wait for approval.
Are there any times there’s like a minor character that you want to go nuts on but the directors like, “Eh, how about we just throw a Target shirt on them and start rolling.”
Sometimes, it depends, because the directors are very different. Jody is a little bit cleaner. I don’t even know how to say it. Jody’s a little bit more subtle in that kind of thing. Then when you get to the second season, David is like all out, just make it weirder. Whereas with Jody for background characters it would be kinda like, “Make it less.” And David’s like, “Make it more in the weirdest way you possibly can.” You can’t even understand. It’s just different. The main characters sort of keep the through line, but background characters definitely change from season one to two based on Jody and David’s requests.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started with costume design and how did you get involved with this show in particular?
Well, we’re like third or fourth generation film business people, so we grew up on movie sets. My grandpa’s a first AD, my dad does special effects, older brother’s a DP, and then my younger brother is a director and an actor and a writer. We kind of all ended up working together. I went to fashion school, but always under the guise of costume. I always wanted to be a costume designer. I started sewing when I was 10 years old, and I just started making things. When Brandon would make movies, and Jason would make movies, and we just kind of started making shit.
Then, I guess how I ended up getting in touch with these guys for this show, Brandon had shot that movie The Interview. We were downtown and Brandon invited my mom and I to go see it, which is funny to me, because I think that was the one time it was shown, because it never actually came out in theaters. They had their little premiere party, or whatever, and I met one of Brandon’s friends, who was the first AD for The Interview at the time. His name is Jonathan Watson, he’s a totally awesome dude. We met for like 10 minutes, we’re just having tequila, smoking cigarettes, talking shit, as you do.
Then like three months later, I mean, it was a ways later, he calls and it was like, “Oh, hey. I’m executive producing this thing with Danny McBride, do you want to come in?” I was basically like, “Yeah, I’m going to shit my pants. Yeah, I want to come in, are you kidding me?” I essentially just jammed on it. He called me on like a Thursday or Friday and the meeting was like on a Monday. I’m like, “Yeah, totally, I’m ready.” I just read the script and just jammed in a presentation and went in for the meeting and somehow got the job. Damn.
Was this like your most high profile costume designing gig, so far?
That I had designed, yeah. I had worked on bigger movies, in an assistant capacity. I was one of the designer’s assistants on the new Fantastic Four, which is not the best movie in the world, however, the costumes were pretty dope. It’s also like almost $200 million movie. I’ve definitely worked on bigger shows, but this is the biggest one that I had ever department headed.
The difference between being the costume designer and assisting, is that like the difference between coming up with a look and like sewing stuff that they tell you to? What does the assistant job entail?
It really depends. As an assistant, it’s whatever the designer needs at that point, so you could be helping them source, you could be like writing their emails, I mean, there’s so many different things. In general, you aren’t really going to be sewing or aging or doing any of that stuff on a bigger show, because you have an entire department of people that are already doing those jobs. You’re really just taking whatever the designer, whatever it is that they need to have done, and then delegating all of those things and making sure that you communicate to all the different departments within the department and making sure that everybody is cool.
What’s going on with The FP 2?
Well, we just finished filming Beats of Rage, The FP 2, which is the sequel to The FP. However Jason split it into six episodes, so we just did the pilot episode, which is fucking bananas. We just finished that couple days ago.
Where’s that going to live? Do you know yet?
We did a little sizzle reel and showed it to Danny, because we went over to Danny’s place for the finale, little get together finale thing at his house. We showed it to him, and he lost his shit. We’ll see. I’m not sure where it’s going to land, but I think it’ll land somewhere. We’re going to have to shop around.
How many of those guys [the Vice Principals crew] have seen The FP?
A lot of them. That’s one of the reasons I got the job, actually.
It’s kind of design driven, the whole thing.
Yeah. The second one is just… I can’t even watch the first one. You can’t even compare it. It’s crazy.
What was that like, working with your siblings and doing something that feels like a really high end, backyard movie, which I say as a high compliment. How much different is that compared to working on stuff for HBO that’s more studio and all that?
It’s just completely different. It’s like, when you’re working on a studio show of any type, it’s like, it’s a unique show, there’s certain things. When I’m working on, Vice Principals for instance, I have a crew of at least a dozen people, and everybody’s working and everybody’s doing their jobs. It is still not enough people to get everything done and I’m still doing a lot and I’m still working, 12, 14, 16 hours a day, however, I’m getting paid, I have help, all of those things. However, I’m much less restricted creatively when we do something like The FP.
This one Jason directed. This one, our friend Phil Miller was the DP and it just looks awesome, but it’s really just like, the three of us, just like building sets. I built every single costume with my own little hands. It’s like we just finished working for two months, without a day off. This is one of my first days off and I still feel like a zombie. It is so hard, but so creatively rewarding, because you so rarely get the opportunity to just do something creative and be like, “Let’s push it further.” Instead of, “Let’s draw it back.” “Let’s push it further. This isn’t enough. Oh, fuck that. We’re going to put more glitter on this. This is not colorful enough, this is not crazy enough.” Everybody’s pushing each other to make it crazier, but still appropriate in that universe. It’s pretty awesome.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.