Costume designer April Napier (Certain Women, First Cow) on the warm, collaborative environment Kelly Reichardt cultivates on set. This is an excerpt of our Reichardt ebook, Roads to nowhere.
While far from flashy, the costumes in Certain Women have always stuck in my mind because they feel so representative of the characters. I can’t think of Laura Dern’s Laura without thinking of her long, sweeping cashmere coat, as elegant and sophisticated as Laura herself. The same is true of the uptight, cosmopolitan Gina and her restrictive, blue, running suit; the lonely Rancher and her practical, baggy, checked shirts and heavy ranch-hand gear; and the strapped-for-cash Beth and her mismatched, floral teaching outfits that look too adult on someone with awkward, teenage energy.
First Cow is a period piece set before the invention of the camera, so creating those costumes required a deep dive into research to understand what the characters should wear. The task was intimidating: dress a small town full of expats from different cultures, as well as a number of Indigenous characters who populate the land on which the film is set.
The mastermind behind these costumes — as well as the equally fantastic costumes in Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017) and Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019) — is the brilliant April Napier.
While she comes from the more fashion-forward world of music videos and commercials, Napier has made a film career of subtle costumes that communicate so much character. In fact, she told me that she’s very conscious about not making her characters look “too cool” if they’re not supposed to be — something particularly difficult when dressing the thoroughly cool Kristen Stewart who plays a fish-out-of-water law teacher.
Especially in a Kelly Reichardt film, where characters rarely speak their feelings, we learn so much about who they are through how they choose to express themselves with clothes. “Costume always supports the acting and the story,” Napier insists, but I’d argue that, in Certain Women, Napier’s costumes are doing more than just supporting the story. They are a vital part of the story’s fabric, a key piece to the puzzle of understanding the women at the centre of the story.
Seventh Row (7R): What does your process typically look like?
April Napier: I usually get sent a script, and then I have some ideas about what I think it would look like or what the characters would look like. I tend to do a mood board before I meet the director, but then I’m always listening, of course, to what their take on it is, how they see it. I tend to use a lot of real references: photography and history books, more than magazines, sometimes cinema. I read the script and ruminate about each character, differentiate them and what makes them special.
Costume always supports the acting and the story. You have to really get into the psyche of the character. You have to think of a special thing that they might have or would have been given long ago, or one certain thing that is special or close to them.
I tend to work from the feet up. The shoes, I think, are really grounding for the characters.
Watch our costume design masterclass with April Napier and Grace Snell
7R: What do your mood boards look like?
April Napier: I used to make books. I used to go through books and make photocopies and then have a hard copy, which I kind of prefer, like a lookbook. More recently, in the last seven or eight years, I just make some kind of mood board on The Great Internet and send that along to [the director]. I tend to use references that are more naturalistic or realistic, but it depends on the project, of course.
I did this film called Thumbsucker (Mike Mills, 2005), and since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to choose projects that are more naturalistic or more realistic or grounded in story as opposed to… Well, I come from a music video background, so that was more fashion and style and kind of superficial. Now, it’s become more important to me to do things that are story-based and reality-based.
Kelly Reichardt mug: ‘Sorrow is just worn-out joy’
7R: How do you collaborate with Kelly Reichardt?
April Napier: I’ve done two films with her. She usually makes one book that’s kind of your colour palette or your guide for the film, and then she shares that with myself, the production designer, and the cinematographer, so everyone is dealing with the same palette and mood.
The paintings that were the most important to her on Certain Women were the paintings of Alice Neel. She sent me an Alice Neel painting for each character, which would be specific in colour and tone.
Kelly’s a special creature, because Kelly has a legacy, right? Her films are [about] quietude; they’re empty spaces. She has a singular eye, so you know what you’re going into when you’re collaborating with her. She’s made a family. She has had the same producers since Wendy and Lucy (2008), and she’s had the same cinematographer and the same first AD since Meek’s Cutoff (2010). The last two films were made with the same production designer.
It’s often melancholic when you finish a project. You’ve been together in the trenches making these projects together, so you become a really close family. When you leave, there’s a bittersweetness about it. But it’s especially so with Kelly, because she’s really built a family where we all love each other. If someone needs help hauling the camera equipment up the hill, the producers jump in, and they take it up. Everyone helps each other, 100%, and so you feel very safe and supported and trusted.
Because of that, I think Kelly can allow everyone to have complete freedom. Certainly, she’s the captain, and she gives us the tome, the one book that’s going to be our palette and our bible through the whole thing. On First Cow, I put outfits together in Los Angeles while she was already scouting in Portland. I would send her pictures. I would do a lot of references and send her moodboards. She would see the ones that she liked, and we would have long Skype discussions every week about it. She’s also so trusting. Once she’s found her collaborator, she 100% believes in you. It’s a really special, special family to be a part of… THIS IS A PREVIEW. READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN ROADS TO NOWHERE: KELLY REICHARDT’S BROKEN AMERICAN DREAMS.