Costume Designer Susan Matheson Interview – STEP BROTHERS

     June 1, 2008

If you’ve ever wondered who decides what an actor’s going to wear in a movie, or why a shirt was picked for a scene….this is the interview for you.

Back in October of2007 I got to do something really cool….I visited the set of the upcoming Will Ferrell comedy “Step Brothers.” If you haven’t heard of the film yet, “Step Brothers” stars Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as two grown men that still live at home.

Will plays Brennan Huff, a sporadically employed thirty-nine-year-old who lives with his mother, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen). John plays Dale Doback, a terminally unemployed forty-year-old who lives with his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins). When Robert and Nancy marry and move in together, Brennan and Dale are forced to live with each other as step brothers. As their narcissism and downright aggressive laziness threaten to tear the family apart, these two middle-aged, immature, overgrown boys will orchestrate an insane, elaborate plan to bring their parents back together. To pull it off, they must form an unlikely bond that maybe, just maybe, will finally get them out of the house.

While the synopsis sounds like gold to me, I’m even more excited as “Step Brothers” reteams Will with director Adam McKay. Perhaps you saw their last two films… “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” To me, both of those films are classics, and as soon as I’d heard about “Step Brothers,” I couldn’t wait to see it.

So you could imagine how happy I was to get the invite to the set. Not only would I get to watch Will and John interact, I’d also get to see how Adam McKay directs and I’d learn first hand how much gets improvised and how much is scripted.

In the next few days I’ll be posting my full set report, but until I get it done, here’s another interview I did and it’s with Costume Designer Susan Matheson.

During our time, Susan explained to all of the journalists on the set visit that she’d worked with Will a few times and she knew what he’d go for. She also explained how many shirts they really need for a scene and how they decide who is going to wear what item of clothing in the movie. While costumes might not be your thing…I actually found it quite interesting as I usually don’t get to talk with costume designers.

As usual, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio as an MP3 by clicking here.

Finally, if you missed the on set interview with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, you can read it by clicking here.

She started telling us the story of the movie…that’s when I started the recorder…

Susan Matheson: …living with his father and the other one’s a 40 year old loser living with his mother. Actually it’s the opposite way but anyway, one lives with his mother, one lives with his father. They’re losers. They can’t really hold down a job and their parents meet at a medical conference, fall in love and get married and they have to move in with one another. Initially they hate each other and the movie gets kind of wilder and wilder from there. What’s interesting about this movie compared to the other movies I’ve done with Will—I did Semi-Pro and I also did Talladega Nights—is that those were on a very, very large scale and this is the most intimate movie I think that Will has done in a long time. Most of the action takes place in a house and it’s amazing how much can happen in a house when you’ve got 2 very troubled 40 years olds that basically act like juveniles.

So they’re essentially stuck back in their youth and their heyday…okay so if someone’s 40 now imagine if their heyday was 15, 16 17 years old and then high school and maybe right after high school, so essentially what I was doing when I was looking at the costumes was I was trying to think about well I’m about the same age as these losers and what was I into and what were my friends into and you know there was a mixture of some new wave and it’s an interesting thing. So I was thinking about what kinds of things would juvenile delinquents really be into and one of the things is that they go on trips with their parents, so they’ve got a lot of travel shirts, you know, destinations of things they might have done. So if you’re still stuck in your teens mentally—the thing that’s interesting about the characters is they are very eccentric, but they’re not crazy. You’re still going to like roller coasters and John wears a t-shirt with a roller coaster and a Knott’s Berry Farm shirt. I’m going to show you some of the clothes and what I did with a lot of the clothes is try to get into the heads of the characters and also on eBay I bought a lot of vintage t-shirts—probably hundreds—and then I went through the process of trying to get legal clearances because it is an R-rated movie.

After getting legal clearances then I went through the process of printing them up. So I’ll show you. Some of them are really, really amazing. I don’t know if you remember from Talladega Nights but Will had a Crystal Gayle t-shirt that he wore that was a shirt that I found in North Carolina at a vintage store and at the time everybody thought I was mad. I was like I don’t know if you remember in Talladega Nights he moves back in with his mother in that one too. So there is definitely a parallel in some respects. He moves in with his mother because he’s lost everything. He can’t drive anymore. He has a terrible accident. What I said to Will is you’re leaving the house in that one in a hurry without luggage so you’re going to have to wear your mother’s clothes. So I said what could we find in your mother’s closet that you could wear. I said how about this Crystal Gayle shirt? So I was trying to…now the problem is the Crystal Gayle shirt was so popular and she’s actually re-printing them now, that I was trying to come up for Will something on the level of Crystal Gayle. So, I’m going to show you what I came up with, okay? So hang on a second.

Q: Is it Juice Newton?

Susan Matheson: The thing is with Will is it has to be obscure. It can’t be too obvious because if it’s someone that has been used too much in a movie—like I think if I see one more movie that has an AC/DC t-shirt I think I’m going to throw up, because it’s almost become a cliché you know you can get legal clearance on them so a lot of movies will use certain bands over and over. And for me it’s to try to use things you’ve never seen in a movie and that when people see it they go “Oh my goodness. I forgot about them completely”. Especially for Will it has to be something that digs a little bit deeper than your usual movie fare. And he’s open and he’s game, you know. He’s a trooper. So I’m going to start in the beginning and show you some of these that I made.

Okay, so of course there’s Pablo Cruise. Pablo Cruise– I had a record album cover and the way I test it is I ask everybody in the production like “remember Pablo Cruise?” and they go “yeah, I remember the name but I really don’t remember their song”. And if they can’t really remember the song then it’s pretty good. So his character is a little more gentle than John C. Reilly. He’s a little bit sweeter and John has more of an edge, so with Will he has things like animals and some country music and things like that. Then I’m going to show you John and John has things like Biker and Magic Mountain you know, roller coasters, and so it’s a little bit different. Will has things like a lovely scene in purple of like 2 unicorn like white horses. And only Will can pull something like this off. I’ve worked with many people and he really is the only person who can honestly walk on camera wearing something like this and be straight-faced about it and work it. So he has a soft side and then we have a lovely old Kenny Rogers vintage shirt. I’ll show you, he has travel shirts. One of his destinations might have been Puerto Vallarta. And these are old shirts that I found that were really, really small, you know vintage shirts that I then blew up the graphics for his scale. He has a whole music video that he shoots in this which is sailing Bahamas.

For some reason the director became obsessed with this shirt because he thought it was just so bad that it was good. You know, there’s just something very juvenile about the choices. They’re not really sophisticated. Then he wears of course Mountain Dew, but most importantly, I bought sheets from eBay that I managed to (laughter) okay. I bought sheets from eBay for Star Wars because in the script it mentioned that at one point John C. was wearing a Chewbacca mask. So I was like okay let me see if I can find some Star Wars fabric. Well, you can’t. So I bought sheets from all over the world from this year of Star Wars trying to get multiple of the sheets because he has a scene where he’s sleep-walking and throwing food all over himself, so I could just make one, so I cut up the sheets and I made him pajama bottoms and I managed to find in Canada some sheets and in America—all over the place. They happened to match from the exact year and Lucasfilm was kind enough to say yes which I couldn’t kind of believe. I made him a bunch of pajamas from vintage sheets. Then, every time he gets dressed up he wears your classic—do you remember in like 1983-84 every guy on the east coast wore—had an oxford cloth shirt, button down with stripes or was plain blue oxford cloth and they would wear it with khaki pants and it was a uniform.

So I was thinking okay what did every guy wear? So even when they’re dressed formally like they probably would have dressed when they were 17 and told to dress nicely for an event by their parents. So the whole idea is that every time they go anywhere where they’re dressed nicely, their parents have had to lecture them and say you know what? You better get dressed nicely. So their idea of nice is a bad blue blazer with brass buttons and an oxford cloth shirt. Then Will has a whole sleepwalking sequence in a 7/11—not a 7/11, it’s like a convenience store where he wears United Way. Then, one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie, is okay, so you can imagine if you’re getting dressed up by your parents for an event, if you had to go to a job interview well, you might borrow something from your father’s closet. If you were trying to be really dressed up for a job interview, maybe just maybe you’d go into the job interview in a tuxedo.

So they’d go on these job interviews and he’s wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt. They go on these job interviews, both of them having borrowed tuxedos from their father’s closet and they even interviewed in like a sports store in tuxedos and both of them are in matching tuxedos, and what happens is that they decide that 2 people for an interview is better than 1. So they go to these job interviews, both of them, together in tuxedos, and everyone’s like who’s the other person? We’re only interviewing for one and they’re like well, maybe if you have another job. So they wear tuxes for a large portion of the movie. Then we come to Leo Sayer. Do you remember Leo Sayer’s song? “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”, right? He has a Christmas scene and he gets excited so he wears Christmas themed pajamas and he wears little sockies so he tucks his Christmas pajamas into the socks and wears a Leo Sayer t-shirt with it. Then they have a scene where—well, I shouldn’t give it away should I?

Q: Is it a big reveal?

Susan Matheson: Maybe. I can’t say. Okay, it’s a big scene. But this is a Judd’s t-shirt that I found a vintage one and I copied. I particularly like the airbrushed look of the women and to me this is close to the Crystal Gayle because it’s so kind of fabulous. Then on the back it say’s Why Not Me? And when you see the scene in the movie, okay, this movie is so sophisticated in some respects. It’s R-rated and when I first read the script I was like I don’t know how they’re going to pull this off. But, honestly, it’s very, very different than anything I’ve ever done with Will, because there’s as usual so much improvisation. But the scene where he wears the Judd’s t-shirt almost borders on black humor—you know kind of macabre, dark. There’s a lot of dark humor in this which is very, very different for Will Farrell, wouldn’t you say?

Q: Oh now I remember when he wears the Judd’s shirt.

Susan Matheson: And I’m not going to tell them, okay. When you see the movie I was watching them film this particular scene and I started crying with laughter because it was so dark that to see these guys acting like children, but it’s almost bordering on sophisticated dark comedy now, you know. So it’s very, very different. Okay, let me show you John’s clothes, so you can see a little bit of a difference. Okay, so walk down here and John’s clothes—now John C’s clothes pretty much take up the entire truck, because John in real life is very interested—I think he’s very interested in fashion and has really good ideas about his character. I love vintage clothes and he loves vintage clothes and so his side of the trailer has become kind of an archive of some of the greatest vintage t-shirts I’ve ever seen. As you can see we have mesh and I believe that no movie is a good movie without mesh. You’ve got to have a little mesh.

In Talladega Nights, Will Farrell’s father wears this Acapulco t-shirt that has mesh and I don’t know it’s because I’m exactly the same age as the characters so I have this memory. John, in this movie, plays the drums and I was like okay, if you’re playing the drums and you’re obsessed with playing the drums and you’re obsessed with your drum set well, you’ve got to have a touch of mesh. So the way the wardrobe trailer works is kind of like a library. The way everything’s hung in it is everything towards the beginning has a tag on it and it has a change number, the name of the scene, the number for the scene and the character name. So, we hang them in order so that if I wasn’t here or nobody was here and you had to run in in an emergency and find the outfit, just like a library, it has a filing system. So you’d be able to come in here and say I must have the Judd’s t-shirt and I must have it now. You’d be able to find it. After everything’s been established then everything else is unused stock or multiples. Starting at the beginning, well, I’ll show you his mesh t-shirt. This is Puerto Vallarta. PV. And he plays the drums in this; then the same thing with John, when he dresses up its kind of collegiate, prep school looking. He’s got whales on his tie and there’s also the same kind of juvenile aspect, you know. Knott’s Berry Farm, Charlie Brown, it’s very juvenile. I mean, you wouldn’t be seen dead in that t-shirt.

Q: You’re missing the shorts. You need to emphasize the shorts.

Susan Matheson: Oh, sorry. Yes. Little shorts, and he has a lot of sleepwalking scenes but this is vintage. Yes, some more shorts. Grand Canyon and then it says on the back Take A Hike. So everything is kind of a little bit strangely juvenile. He has a lot of cool vintage stuff but he wears a Kawasaki t-shirt. It’s all like he doesn’t want to let go of his youth. He has a couple of sleepwalking scenes and in the sleepwalking scenes—well, you may notice that he wears like tighty-whiteies but you know there like children’s like Garanimals. That was one of the big concepts that John had for the movie is do you remember Garanimals? On the label it would tell you what went with what. So he’s thinking I really love Garanimals because he’s got kids, so I just went with that. All of John’s clothes are much brighter than Will’s and he tends to match. So his shoes will match his belt and his belt will match his shirt and they’re all very kind of primary and bright. Here’s his tuxedo over here. So he’s running around—there’s a lot of sleepwalking sequences in this movie. It just so happens that both of them are sleepwalkers and there are sleep-driving sequences and I can’t give too much away but some of the greatest scenes in the movie are the sleepwalking ones because they get up to a lot of nonsense.

He wears Bruce Lee. And they do a music video and I kind of dressed them like they were from Miami Vice a little bit, you know? A little bit George Michael meets Miami Vice. And the music video they don’t have any money so they borrow clothes again. And they wear their mother’s jewelry, so you see this owl here? The idea was if they were going to wear bling they had to have borrowed it from their mother’s closet. So they’re both wearing kind of female gold jewelry but they don’t think there’s anything weird about that. Okay, let me show you some of the t-shirts I made for him. One of my favorite t-shirts that I made for him was this Yoda one which I found is pretty old and I copied it exactly including the back. The problem is we need multiples. I can’t use a vintage shirt even if it fits him because a lot of these sequences there’s a huge amount of stunts in this movie. So a lot of these sequences he needs 15 of them because he’s eating breakfast cereal while he’s sleeping and pouring milk all over himself. So I had to get a lot of these t-shirts. I’ll show you some of the other ones I printed and then I think Will will take you onto the next stop. You’ll see with Star Wars to get to the one we used—Yoda—I had a lot of other…probably had 20 different Star Wars shirts because it has to be the perfect one, you know?

Q: Did you ever do a sequence where you ran out of shirts?

Susan Matheson: Not in this movie, but anytime you’re working with water—I did the movie Blue Crush. We ran out of stuff on Blue Crush because the thing is we would often shoot people going from dry into the ocean becoming wet and then they’d shoot it over and over and over and over and you’d be on the beach and suddenly we’d be in trouble and you’d have people with blow dryers, you know, trying to dry clothes. As far as wardrobe goes that’s the worst situation—any time there’s water. With this mess with the breakfast cereal and the coffee grinds and everything else it sometimes gets so messy that you just want to keep it messy and then you’re okay. You see here’s travel shirts—It’s Better in the Bahamas, Cincinnati, and then you saw the Grand Canyon.

Q: Is it just John that wears the mesh shirts?

Susan Matheson: Yeah, he just wears a couple of them. A Viper. He might be wearing this today I’m not exactly sure but yeah, Six Flags, Magic Mountain. But honestly a lot of their interests are things that I’m still interested in today. I mean honestly who doesn’t stop liking roller coasters? If you stop liking roller coasters, there’s a problem. And Fender by the way, you were into Fender—look at this vintage Fender t-shirt. Isn’t that amazing?

Q: Oh cool.

Susan Matheson: I think it was an 80’s Fender because the colors were so 80’s but anything to do with music or his beliefs. They were very into Kung Fu and so not only was he into Star Wars but they’re into Kung Fu and there’s some sequences where they’re practicing Kung Fu so that was why he had the Bruce Lee shirt.

Q: Does he wear a headband when he’s playing the drums?

Susan Matheson: Well, funny that you should say that. Yes, we have headbands and wristbands and he sometimes sleepwalks with wristbands on. Yeah, here’s some of his belts are very colorful so you can see how it matches otherwise it’s the exact opposite. It’s been really fun because it’s been trying to get into the head of these kind of juvenile delinquents that aren’t juveniles and without making them look crazy, because there’s a fine line. Initially I was stepping over the line and you have to keep a youthful sensibility without making them look like they’re truly deranged. So that’s those 2 characters. I’m going to take you guys to the stage now with Will and you’ll meet Clayton Hartley who is the production designer. Clayton and I have worked together now 3 times. As I told you, the crew on this movie has done many, many, many movies together, so this is my 3rd movie with Clayton back to back. We did Talladega Nights, Semi-Pro and Step Brothers. So it’s a very tight knit group of people and a very nice group of people. Generally people who work with Will are easy-going and happy people

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