Visiting AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN Buckner Mansion and the Costume Designs of Lou Eyrich

     October 17, 2014

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This past weekend, Collider was invited to the set of American Horror Story: Coven in New Orleans for an event honoring the work of Costume Designer Lou Eyrich just in time for the show’s release on Blu-ray.  The Emmy Award winning costume designer was on hand to discuss her work on both Coven & the current season Freak Show, as well as the demanding schedule of being a costume designer for TV and the most challenging aspects of her job.  For a rundown of the event and interview highlights with Eyrich, in which she discusses the original designs for Freak Show’s villain Twisty the Clown, hit the jump.

The Buckner Mansion of New Orleans seems like a relic from another time. To the right of the mansion, workers buzz about fixing an electric line; cars, trucks and shuttles sit parked alongside the street; school children at the Episcopal school across the block jab their fingers into their phones – yet if you look just at the mansion itself, all these modern conveniences fall to the wayside and it seems like you’re staring into a time capsule to the 1800s. The 24,000 square feet mansion was first constructed in 1856 under the commission of cotton-king Henry S. Buckner. Impressed by Natchez’s luxurious Stanton Hall in Mississippi, Buckner hired architect Lewis E. Reynolds to build a home “twice as large and twice as elegant.” The Buckner Mansion was the fulfillment of that demand.

american-horror-story-coven-blu-rayThe mansion is a stately white with over forty pillars lining the outside porch extending 360 degrees around the home. A black 7ft honey-suckle gate surrounds the mansion keeping the unwanted out. A cursory Google search reveals the price per night to stay there to be an ungodly 4,700 dollars.

Today the landmark mansion has become a common destination spot for filming – most recently having appeared in Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head & Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But its most iconic ‘starring role’ was as Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies on the past third season of American Horror Story. This was what in fact brought me out to mansion – as the show was celebrating the week’s release of Coven on Blu-ray with a fan event held there.

Fans of the series lined up outside the mansion in New Orleans much too muggy weather (I had already sweated through three shirts at this point) dressed up in witch-like attire: pointy hats, black dresses, mascara and a lot of black eye shadow seemed to be the common interpretation. Once inside the mansion, members of the New Orleans Blackhat Society greeted incoming guests. The society prides itself as a “loose collective of Witches and Pagans from the local community”; although they are quick to point out that they are a “charity-driven organization” and not, I repeat not, a coven. They were all, of course, dressed in black.

A witch’s attire seemed to become the central talking point inside the mansion. Each room was adorned with various costumes and props from American Horror Story: Coven. Angela Bassett’s white voodoo priestess outfit, Taissa Farmiga’s black floral dress, Emma Robert’s black rugged coat, Sarah Paulson’s black Turtle Neck dress, the myriad black hats – all shapes and sizes – worn by each character… It became very easy to spot the common theme amongst all the costumes, the monochromatic blackness of the wears providing a nice contrast within the mansion’s white and clear design work.

american-horror-story-coven-go-to-hell-gabourey-sidibeLater on costume designer Lou Eyrich, admittedly exhausted half-way through shooting the latest American Horror Story season Freak Show, graciously took the stage to talk about all the surrounding costumes and her Emmy Award winning work on the show. Some highlights from the conversation are below:

How many hours it takes to do all the costumes for the show?

Lou Eyrich: Sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Ninety hours a week minimum… The show is really hard. It’s brutal. Every year I say I can’t do another one. We all say it. Because it’s too hard but then when they say it’s going to be [set in] a freak show, I’m like ‘I’m in!’ But we’re tired all the time.

You start at 5AM and you wrap at 2AM. There are thirty-six speaking parts per episode and all of them have seven to eight [costume] changes each. A lot of the cast gets flown in from New York and LA. You get them the day before they work. So the day beforehand, you’re up all night trying to get it done. They fly in and you meet them at 5PM and everything has to be altered. You have to find all of the accessories. You have to get [the costumes] prepped, aged and out to the trailer. The [actor’s] call time is 6AM so you have not even twelve hours. It’s very exhausting.

american-horror-story-coven-emma-robertsThe hardest part is to stay focused because there are so many things. Often we do double up days which means we’re doing two different episodes on the same day with two different sets so you have to remember who’s on this unit or this unit. It’s a lot of juggling and I’m lucky that I have some really great people — most of them local — who keep it all up. It’s constantly having to be on your toes. I’m always afraid I’m going to drop the ball but then again it’s just a TV show.

What’s the creative process of building a new world each season?

Lou Eyrich: [Creator Ryan Murphy] always pushes me. I’ve been with him since 1999. I’ve done most of his projects. First we meet and he tells me the premise of [the season] and what his overall vision and tone of [the season] is. Then I go away and do my research and then I do my tone boards for each character and then we meet again and we go through each board.

What are the biggest challenges in costuming?

Lou Eyrich: We [have] a ton of multiple [costumes] because of all the stabbing and slicing. Every time we do that, we have to have five of the same thing. We’ll find the perfect outfit but then we’ll need five so it’s a lot of Internet work and a lot of phoning in favors. Then you find out you can’t use [the costume] because you could only find one dress and you needed five.

Has an actor ever come up afterwards and said the costumes gave him or her a better sense of the character?

Lou Eyrich: I will humbly say – it happens all the time. But that’s because I’m obsessed and I talk to the actors before I ever fit them. We talk about the character so when I’m going through the sketching and designing process I think about what they have in mind. Like Danny Huston – who played the Axe Man — had a lot of input. He actually sent me pictures he thought would work. He did his own research on the Axe Man and he brought a lot to the plate for our first fitting. We had a matter of days — three days from when I talked to him to the day he shot and all his suits had to be custom made — four each. So it was very fast and furious but we nailed it and because of his collaboration he got what he wanted and wrote me a very nice email afterwards.

How did that big red dress Myrtle (Frances Conroy) wears before she gets burned at the stake the second time come about?

american-horror-story-coven-sarah-paulson-francis-conroyLou Eyrich: That was a big deal because it was scripted that [Myrtle] comes out in a red dress and screams ‘Balenciaga’ – so we all thought it had to be a Balenciaga dress. We started researching and we couldn’t afford a Balenciaga. Ryan said ‘It’s not literal. She’s just saying it as a crazy Myrtle thing.’ So we were then able to broaden it out. We actually searched in town but nothing was eccentric enough for Myrtle. So then we hit online and my shopper Bob found it. It was the perfect thing. It’s a Carolina Herrera. But there was a lot of stuff in the press afterwards saying ‘That’s not a Balenciaga dress.’ and I was like ‘Well – it was never meant to be…’

For Freak Show, what are the biggest influences?

Lou Eyrich: Faded glamor – as if at one time Elsa Mars had this great freak show carnival and now it’s a dying art. They’re out of money and they’re being thrown off the land. We were going to do very ‘Dust Bowl’ sad neutral tones. All beige and rosy. Then we started doing the fittings and since we knew we were shooting it here [in New Orleans], a lot of the outside is this green grass and these colorful buildings. We decided to shift it into something much more colorful — Technicolor like the old movies of the 50s: Todd-AO & The Greatest Show on Earth. We started watching those movies with these splashes of polka dots and stripes and shiny gold and greens. I’m really glad we changed [the original designs] because it looks much more interesting now on the screen.

How did the look of Twisty the Clown come about for Freak Show?

Lou Eyrich: It was a big transition from what I originally thought it was going to be to what we ended up on. A lot of it came once we met the actor [John Carol Lynch]. He’s a very tall man. He and I collaborated more than I would have because we knew we were going to be shooting in July and August here and it gets so hot. I had designed this one piece but then we decided [John] needed to be able to get out of the costume quickly when they said cut and when there was going to be a twenty-minute turn around. Get him out quickly so he wouldn’t get so hot in the costume. So we had to do two pieces with easy access to get it off. But the premise is that this is a costume he’s been wearing since the 30s. Something happens and he flees and you don’t know why but now he’s wearing the costume.

american-horror-story-freak-show-jessica-langeHow did that blue suit of Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) for the “Life on Mars” musical number come about?

Lou Eyrich: That’s one of those things where I think it’s going to be one thing and then I have to shift it. We had a different outfit designed for [Jessica Lange] and one day Ryan [Murphy] turned to me and said, ‘Lulu we need a blue suit for Elsa. She’s going to sing Life on Mars.’ It was the dressing room scene the first time you meet Paul – our seal boy – when he comes in and says five minutes Elsa and she turns and she’s got that big blue eye shadow. And I’m like ‘What’s with the blue eye shadow?’ I thought I need to design the suit to match that. We took the Bowie suit from the early 70s and we made it 40s and more feminine. We gave it the big shoulders and the big lapel. Then we did a little Marlene Dietrich twist to it and put [Jessica Lange] in a tie and did the androgynous thing. But it wasn’t [Jessica’s] favorite outfit. She got used to it but at first she was like ‘Wait – what? And I’m doing what? And I’m singing what?’ But now it’s become quite the sensation, I hear.

American Horror Story: Coven is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD everywhere. The newest season of American Horror Story: Freak Show airs on FX Wednesday night at 10PM.

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