“I really feel like my career found me,” says The Kite Runner costume designer, Frank L. Fleming. He was in college studying business when a friend told him about the internship program at Spike Lee’s production company, Forty Acres & A Mule Filmworks. “Fashion came naturally for me,” he adds. “It was one of those lucky happenings.”
Lee’s Jungle Fever was Fleming’s first experience on a film, and a formative one. He credits the director for the internship with the film’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, as instrumental in his costume design career. “He has given so many of us an opportunity that we never would have had,” Fleming said. Not only did Fleming learn creatively from Carter, but he also received practical knowledge on the business aspect of running a department and “dealing with getting what you need to get the job done.”
“Ruth was instrumental in making me think on my own feet and develop,” says Fleming. “She’s not one to just hand-hold, yet she’s very supportive and loyal.”
Working with Carter on Malcolm X and Amistad taught Fleming about how to approach a period project. But, he says, “The Kite Runner is unique because it portrays a culture that was not my own.” As a person of color, Fleming has concerns that people might assume his experience is limited. “It was very important to me not to be typecast as an African-American designer who only does African-American films. We can see the world with eyes that are varied and respectful.”
Fleming has been working with director Marc Forster since he designed Monster’s Ball. For The Kite Runner he strove to achieve authenticity to the culture and the book. Fleming did research in the Afghan community as well as online. Although he hoped to have costumes manufactured in Afghanistan as a way of helping that nation’s economy, with 11,000 people to dress, the small groups there were unable to provide the numbers of costumes needed. Ultimately he turned to China to make, dye, age and ship the costumes.
Although Fleming had the script about a year in advance, once production started, everything happened quickly. “I got hired on a Friday. By Tuesday I left for Beijing to find an assistant. Then I flew to Kashgar. Within a three-day period of time, because of this one translator, I put together two sewing schools, about 50 students each,” says Fleming. After showing the sketches and confirming the job could be done within the limited budget, Fleming flew to Hong Kong the next day to do the bulk of the fabric shopping and set up a shop with the Beijing crew. Within two weeks, Fleming was in Kabul for actor fittings and more shopping.
“I had 12 weeks of prep, but it felt like two weeks because so many decisions had to be made so quickly. It was challenging, but I was trained to do it. I’ve had great experiences working with some great designers.”
With his work on The Kite Runner, Fleming is poised to join their ranks.
– Mary Ann Skweres
Written by Mary Ann Skweres