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After having served as an assistant designer and co-costume designer on projects for costume designer Michael Wilkinson, Christine Bieselin Clark opens her first major feature film as costume designer later this week with Ender’s Game. Christine was recently named one of the "10 Hot Costume Designers In New Hollywood" by Entertainment Weekly. I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about her journey of becoming a costume designer, some of her incredible accomplishments, and her designs for Ender’s Game.
Ender's Game, Costume Designer Christine Bieselin Clark
Tyranny of Style: How did you first become interested in costumes?
Christine Bieselin Clark: "I'm a theatre rat. I am. I grew up on Long Island. My house when I was a kid was just about an hour outside of New York City. On occasion, when my mother could, she would take us all in to see shows on Broadway. And that was it for me- I was smitten. I would see Sarah Jessica Parker in Annie on Broadway when I was 6, and that was it. I wanted in. I didn't know how. I just wanted to be with those people. No one in my family is in entertainment. I come from a bunch of blue-collar workers. I just started doing high school theatre. And then eventually went to college, got my degree in theatre. It was pretty clear from early on that's where I wanted to be.
T/S: How did you make the leap from theatre in Long Island to working in film in L.A.?
CBC: "It's a very sordid story. Even after my first year of community college I started doing summer stock. And I was doing kind of regional theatre all around. After I graduated I ended up in Charleston, South Carolina. I was actually managing the costume shop at the college in Charleston. And all of that was to get away from a boyfriend. I had to run away from New York. And then I found a new boyfriend in Charleston and I couldn't leave. It's all about a boy in the end. And then I stayed in Charleston a little over 3 years. And that's when films started exporting from Los Angeles. At the time, in the mid-'90s, they were shooting in North and South Carolina a lot. So, that's how I hurled myself onto a film crew. And the rest I suppose - it was epic. If there was any sort of series of dumb mistakes I could make in my 20s that would lead to a career in my 30s, I guess I did that."
T/S: It paid off!
CBC: "I mean there was a lot of ramen that was consumed over the years. A lot of very penniless days, but I mean I had a blast. Theatre has always been a blast. All those people, that community, it's always been amazing for me."
T/S: So how did you make the transition? You're doing some film in Charleston, and then you moved to L.A.?
CBC: "I did! They were doing a lot of small films and movie of the weeks. You know, The Hallmark Channel was shooting all over the South East Region. And I had done a handful of projects and just felt like that's what I wanted to be doing. And I knew what the limitations were going to be in the region I was in. So I sold my little crappy car, and with $600 I moved to Los Angeles. I didn't really know anybody. See, a series of dumb mistakes in my 20s."
T/S: No, brave! So after you got to L.A., how did you bust in?
CBC: "I got to L.A. and I called every person I had ever worked with on anything in the South East that was from L.A. Anyone who was ever on a film crew that I worked with that was in Los Angeles, I just started knocking on doors. Eventually that led to some work on some indie films as a costumer and then as a supervisor. And for a while I was even doing alterations on The Drew Carey Show just to pay the rent. Just a lot of years of really small jobs and one just leading to the next and then fifteen years later this is where I am."
T/S: Were you in the union yet when you moved to L.A.?
CBC: "No, I was not. And it was a very tricky thing to figure out, how to get into the union. It's sort of one of those catch 22s- you can't work on something if you're not union and you can't get into the union unless you work on something that is union. It's very strange. It took me forever to try to figure it out. And for me, I actually got into- there are two costume unions here, and I got into the 705 which is more of the crafts union, earlier on. But I knew that wasn't really the union I wanted to be in. I knew a lot of people who wanted to be designers but kind of fell into that union and never got out. Plus, it’s thousands and thousands of dollars to get in. So, I figured if I'm going to do that, I'm going to do it once. Right? So I am actually one of those crazy people who said no to the 705. And then it took me three more years to get into the Costume Designer's Guild.”
T/S: How did you accomplish that?
CBC: "What I ended up doing was doing a lot of small features and praying to God one of them would get released in a theatre one day. And if you actually design something where your name is in the credits as the designer and it is released theatrically, you then are eligible for review by the Costume Designer's Guild. Then you have to pack up your portfolio and go and have these interviews and be reviewed for acceptance if you meet that criteria. A big waiting game and then I finally got the call, 'you're in, please write a check for $5,000.’ It was like $5,200 and I actually had to take out a loan!"
T/S: What was the one? What was the movie that did it?
CBC: "The movie is called Series 7 that I shot in New York, actually, for Killer Films. And it was a really, really micro budgeted kind of thing that I just loved so much. I thought it was the coolest script. I got paid nothing. But in the end it ended up being the biggest payment of all- it's the movie that got me in! And then you're trying to work and pay of this big debt that you have."
T/S: Looking at your resume, you worked on several projects with Sophie de Rakoff and Michael Wilkinson. How did you make those connections?
CBC: "I wasn't even in the union when I met Sophie. Sophie's actually the way I got into the 705 because she was doing really small films and I was supervising for her on these small films. I just got introduced to her by a friend of a friend and she was looking for someone to help her with a commercial. And then I did a bunch of films with her. And then we sort of parted ways because I wanted to pursue designing. And then I went off and got into the Guild on Series 7 and then came back and assisted her on union films. So we sort of have a circular relationship. I did Legally Blonde- part of that movie with her, and then Shall We Dance, and then In Her Shoes. And the costume supervisor from In Her Shoes got hired by Michael Wilkinson to work on Sky High. He was looking for an assistant and she said 'oh, I was just working with Christine on In Her Shoes and you should meet her.' So I kind of met Michael from working with Sophie. I didn't even think about these things until you were asking and it seems so serendipitous and strange and fortunate and horrible all at the same time. And then I worked with Michael for years and years and years."
Sky High, Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson, Assistant Designer Christine Bieselin Clark
CBC: “I just saw him last week and we went to breakfast and were just sort of catching up and cracking up about Sky High and what like a crazy little wacky movie that was. And sort of what happened to us. It was a high school for super heroes. It was so cheesy, and campy and silly and we like killed ourselves trying to make it as good as we could possibly make it. And then we just started off on this sort of interesting journey that led to 300 and all these crazy movies."
T/S: You are saying “this little film,” but the costumes looked really impressive. The suits and everything were very professional.
CBC: "For us, the journey that Michael and I have now gone on as designers- that seems small to us because we were all in one place. It was like one room of people working, and shopping, and doing. And now we're working on stuff where you're doing crazy things- there are a million vendors, revolutionizing technologies, and I don't know what we're doing. It's crazy.”
300, Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson, Assistant Designer Christine Bieselin Clark
T/S: How would you describe your working relationship with Michael?
CBC: "Ours was always so much more of a creative partnership. I think there are a lot of designers who put the personal assistant into assistant. They want someone to kind of hand hold them, and that was never the relationship with Michael. With Michael it was always about sort of delegating things because the designer's plate is just so huge on a movie like 300 or Watchmen. You can't possibly do it all, but you don't want to break out stuff to people who don't have your creative aesthetic in mind. So he basically-- our relationship is we start together. We are the first people on a movie together just doing tons and tons of research to kind of support whatever Michael's design vision is. It is my job to help him find the visual references to convey that in our meetings, to help illustrators visualize it so we can express it to people. It's a very intense partnership from the beginning, as far as the design goes. So ours was never really (laughs) you know ‘drive me to the meeting’ or anything like that. I was a smaller scale designer for him, to help him realize bigger things."
T/S: Once you've helped him with the research and the designs are complete, what piece would you play to help him execute the designs?
CBC: "It depends, you know on movies like Babel or Rendition I would source things or shop things. I am always in the fitting room with him. And my job sort of becomes hunter/gatherer alongside him. And then he would execute a plan and it was my job to follow through with the cutters and the drapers and the fabric sourcers and whoever to make sure that whatever he needed to realize the design was being implemented. You become like the arbiter of his designs. Always making sure that all of the pieces that need to go into being successful are followed through on, because he's on to the next thing that needs to get done and I am kind of the cleanup crew to make sure it does actually get done."
Watchmen, Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson, Assistant Designer Christine Bieselin Clark
T/S: What piece do you play once you move to set?
CBC: "I have to say, the way movies are being made right now, we are constantly in prep. It is not all done before we start shooting. The casting comes late. If we don't start shooting a character until day 20 of a 40 day shoot, they'll probably give us that actor on the 10th day of filming.
T/S: A lot like regional theatre.
CBC: "So much! (laughs) So, Michael would then be heavily involved in establishing things on set, so I had to be the facilitator of making sure that all of those things were still going through the machine while he still had to do his job of establishing things on camera. You almost become more necessary. Whenever he can't be in two places at one time, it's like- 'so which place are you going to be in? Because I have to pick whichever place is more important to the producer or the director.’ And then I would go to whatever that other place may be. If you could clone yourself, that's kind of what you wish your assistant could be.
T/S: What was the discussion behind moving you from assistant designer to co-designer on Tron?
CBC: "Tron was a very interesting scenario because they really, really, really wanted Michael to do this film. It was with Disney, who we had worked with before. And it was with Jeff Silver, who was the producer Michael and I had both worked with on 300. And so Jeff knew us, Disney knew us. Michael went and had a meeting with the director, Joe Kosinski and they really wanted him to do this film. And I was kind of off doing my own thing at this point. I had been designing things and doing other things. I didn't assist Michael on Terminator. We kind of were moving on separately at that point. And they really wanted Michael to do this film, however there was a major conflict to scheduling for Michael with another film he was already slated to do. So, we kind of came up with this harebrained idea that if we went in together and had this design phase for three or four months with the producer and the director, that Michael could then move on to his other production and I would be able to execute the plan. Which was not dissimilar to what we had already done before, it was just on a much grander scale, with much more design involvement from me as far as my own ideas. So, that was the way that all happened. And I had to go in and have an interview and meet with everyone and they gave me the sniff test. And Jeff Silver who we had both worked with vouched for me and they said 'I think this can work!'”
Tron, Co-Costume Designers Christine Bieselin Clark and Michael Wilkinson
T/S: How would you describe the difference between being an Assistant Costume Designer and being a Costume Designer?
CBC: "I think as the assistant designer you are really hero support. You are the Robin to their Batman. You are very much invested creatively in what the designs are and the execution of those designs, however you are not driving the car. Your designer may be doing something that you think is crazy, as far as the design goes, but you've got to support it. You have to be invested in it. But with that also comes the fact that you are not in the front of the line. If the shit hits the fan, they are not coming after the assistant designer. The level of responsibility and accountability that comes with heading a department is gargantuan. You're talking millions of dollars. Our costume budget on Tron was over $10 million, for the costume department. The costume budget on Ender's Game was close to $4 million. The level of stress that you have for being accountable for not only bringing something visionary and interesting- a design that the director, producer, and the studio are jazzed about, but then executing it on time and on budget that's what the designer wears. As the assistant designer, though you're fully invested and responsible for those things as well, it's not your plan, really. It's not your designs. There is a level where you can just kind of take a step back and be a worker bee. Whereas going in and being the designer you really have got to be on your toes 24/7.”
Christine gives viewers a closer look at the Light Suits from Tron Legacy:
© 2013 Joe Kucharski