Costume Designer Mary Clair Hannan talks in the exclusive interview about the life of a costume designer. The ins and outs of working in film today and how the work of a good costume designer is to think beyond the clothing and tell a story through the art. Her work can be seen in the new film starring Shailene Woodley in "The Fault in Our Stars," which will be release into theaters Friday, June 6.
Mary Claire Hannan was born in Marin County, Calif. and moved over the bridge to San Francisco at the age of five. At this time San Francisco was as eclectic as could be in the arts says Hannan, "It was all Europeans and very progressive artists, like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead - a lot of music there."
Her inspiration first came from her love of theater. "By the time I was ten years old, I knew I was crazy for anything theatrical. So, it just took me a while to find my niche."
In school she did plays, sculpted and was editor of an art book, "I was just that kind of a student. When I went to college, I wanted more than just business, I wanted an artist's venture. So, I took off and went to Europe. I lived in Europe for several years and lived with a fashion designer. We worked with Runway. He had a huge sense of beauty and making things very beautiful, and I was the one always trying to give it character. When he was dressing the runway models in these beautiful long gowns, I was always saying 'what if she was pregnant and had groceries in her hand?' That's a woman!
When Mary left Paris she came to Los Angeles and finished her education at FIDM, "I was there nine months and they gave me a degree."
Breaking into the film industry was not easy for Mary. "I knew nobody in Los Angeles. Even though I had experience it's really connections (you need) and I had none."
Mary worked at an exclusive designer store name I, Magnin, "There were many designers coming in to buy clothing for the stars. One day a girl came in and she was buying for New Kids on the Block and I told her I knew the floor and I asked if I could just pull the clothes. She let me pull a bunch of clothes for her. She went back and sold the items to the director, then she came back to me the next day and offered me better money to work for her. That's how I became one of the most sought out little assistants because I would work and work and work - like a little maniac. Then a friend met someone on an airplane that needed an intern and I got the job. It took a lot of baby steps."
The biggest break Hannon got was an interview for a first assistant position a film that was paying $400 a week, it was a job for an up and coming young Hollywood director named Quentin Tarantino. The film was "Reservoir Dogs."
Hannan described her experience on the film, "The designer left to do a Hallmark job in London. I was left with the picture, but she had already designed it. I was just running it and just adding details."
She continued, "The designer brought me back again to assistant design this time for 'Pulp Fiction.' Now Quentin Tarantino, who was just this fun kind of kid, was getting all this notoriety for 'Reservoir Dogs.' She (the designer) took off two weeks before we went to camera. So, that job was left largely in my hands. And as a result I created a relationship with Quentin Tarantino."
The process of being a costume designer is more complex than one might think. Hannan described the first step once she lands a job, "You get a script and the very first time that you read the script it is important to note the emotional place that script is meant to take you. You remember that emotional place. So, when you go to design it you capture that same feeling the script gave you the very first time you read it. When you read a script over and over again you begin to see other layers of character, context and symbolism. But, it's the very first time you read it is the most important.
According to Hannan, "'The communication I do with the director is more of intuitive listening. I give them sketches and photographs. We can reference anything. We even reference paintings, I've sat with Quentin Tarantino in a bar and he has said, "this is what the bar is going to look like in 'Jackie Brown,' take a look around." Your referencing life, where ever you can get it from.'"
After the director agrees with the costume designer on the sensibility and tone of the script (is in melancholic? is it sad? is it super happy?), then the script is pulled apart page by page, each character is counted and then the number of scenes and number of outfit changes. There can be hundreds of characters. Hannan speaks of her own process, "I still put this down by hand on paper, a lot of my crew put it on the computer using the program called CostumePro. Then you talk to the production designer (to get a sense of the colors of the sets). There is a very practically side to it, but at the same time what you are really trying to deliver is where is the character and where is the character's emotional space at a given moment?"
I asked Hannan if men or women were easier to dress. Her reply was, "I think men are easier to dress. It's more subtle. Maybe because their careers last longer. There is a lot of pressure on women and we try to cater to that, they constantly need to reinvent, and look sensational to a point of perfection. There is a lot of pressure on female stars and we are there to accommodate."
Hannan's most recent project was the Shailene Woodley film "The Fault in our Stars," which is set to be released on June 6. She described the film, "It's about teenagers with cancer. They're ages average anywhere from the age of 12 to 22, and I met dozens of them. They are fighting for their lives every day and at the same time they are trying to become young adults. They all had different kinds of cancer: lung, blood and muscle cancer. Some of these children were in chemotherapy. All of sudden they are living in a world of life and death, living life on the edge, and when they're only 17-years-old. It was quite a privilege for me, to be introduced to that human spirit."
Summing up her objective as a costume designer Hannon says, "I actually consider myself a storyteller. Almost above and beyond costume designer. Although my films are contemporary, if you look at them you can see that I am really studying the human condition. I am striking very different demographics, many types of people, interesting lifestyles, and choices. It really keeps it interesting to me. My plight is to tell the story and I do it through clothing. I know clothing, I understand clothing, I have been around clothing my whole life but that is why I consider myself a storyteller."