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HomeAwardsFor Your ConsiderationMay December Costume Designer April Napier On The Synchronicity Behind Todd Haynes'...

May December Costume Designer April Napier On The Synchronicity Behind Todd Haynes’ Vision

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A scene from May December (Credit: Netflix)

Todd Haynes‘ provocative melodrama, May December, is a tale of identity. The characters at the heart of the film, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) and Gracie (Julianne Moore), are well-drawn mysteries. Haynes and his crew present intimate portrait of two women that, by the end, makes audiences question, what was authentic?

Without question, the costumes by April Napier.

Napier is the acclaimed costume designer and frequent collaborator of filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women). She’s one of Recihardt’s many regulars to work on May December, a challenging film that was a pure creative joy for Napier. Recently, the dapper costume designer told us about her experience on Todd Haynes’ most recent film.

Below the Line: The psyche of these characters and their identity can be so elusive. As a costume designer, psyche is so important to you. So how was that process on this film in which the characters are hard to define?

April Napier: It’s interesting, right? I mean, that was a big point for Todd is that it is a stylized melodrama. It’s about how we as humans have lacked the ability to actually face our identity or something. You think that it’s starting as it’s all about the relationship of Gracie and Joe, but then it transmutes into something else really, because then it becomes about Gracie and Elizabeth.

Obviously, Persona, Three Woman, and Autumn Sonata were massive influences. I hadn’t seen Autumn Sonata, which is also a Bergman film; it’s kind of a Mother-daughter thing and how they don’t understand each other, how they can’t see themselves or each other. So the whole thing began by… Also, Charles [Melton] is so fantastic, isn’t he?

BTL: He is. Understated even when the film around him, especially the score, is melodramatic to the extreme. 

Napier: You know where that came from, right? Todd sent us a list of things to watch, The Pumpkin Eater being one, which is a fucking fantastic film, and Sunday Bloody Sunday, and then this weird film I had never heard of called The Go-Between, which is set in the early 20th century. I kept being like, “Todd, I don’t get this reference. Like, Julie Christie and what?” And he’s like, “No, that’s the soundtrack because it’s an intimate, quiet story, but it’s got this crazy soundtrack. It leads you on, it seems ominous, but then a quiet subtlety is the ominousness of it.” They got the rights and ended up using [for May December], it’s the same soundtrack from The Go-Between.

A scene from May December (Netflix)

BTL: It’s so effective. I like that melodrama allows artists not to be shy, that you can go a little bigger. As the costume designer, did you ever feel that way?

Napier: I do like to keep things have a subtlety or a nuance when I make costumes in any film I’m working on. When Todd first approached me to do it, he said he is a very good friend with Kelly Reichardt. I’ve done three films with Kelly. And that’s how this project came to me was, because Todd asked Kelly, “Can I have April on this one?” He liked what I had done on Certain Women.

Certain Women has a delicacy in the costumes, but they’re very specific. There’s an idiosyncratic to them, them and this one being fundamentally contemporary. It was set supposedly in 2015 just prior to such a heavy polarity in the South.

I wanted to have a gentle hand in the transition of Elizabeth when she starts to embody Gracie’s character. So, we used a lot of palette transition, like Elizabeth comes in and she’s in monochromatic blacks, navies grays, and she starts moving into blushes and pinks and lavenders. At the end, they’re both in white, which was in the script. They come onto the graduation scene like two nights in white facing each other.

BTL: When it came to working with Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, and helping them build that on-screen relationship, where’d you start?

Napier: Julie came in first and we went through all of her changes and set up her whole transition of what she would be wearing. And then we kind of use that as a map so that when Natalie came in the next day, we knew how they would mirror each other and when the transition of Natalie would happen and when they would start to morph. So we had a map to a plan that we could follow and kind of match, so that when you see them transition throughout the film… I think it actually works really well. I’m really happy about it actually.

BTL: It does. There are times where maybe how they mirror each other could come off as broad and hilarious, but instead, it’s just clever and unsettling. A fine line, right? 

Napier: Because I come from the Kelly Reichardt world, it’s the idea of you don’t want it to just be normal. I rarely go to a store and shop for things. I mean, I do, but I like to shop vintage. I like to source things online. I like to go to costume houses. I feel like it has a more individualist element to it. Even if you’re telling a modern contemporary story, you can still have not a cookie cutter vision of that.

I did a film called Ladybird, and I just felt like you have to keep it quiet. As a costume designer, my job is to support. I don’t ever want to scream out. I don’t ever want to be about costumes. I don’t like costumes. If I’m going to get a pair of khakis for Charles, I’m probably going to rent them because they’re going to be old and worn out. I could buy a new pair, I guess, and wash ’em down, but why? They already have the story. They’re telling a story inside of them. They already have that kind of drape to them. They already have that kind of existence.

A scene from May December (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: Charles’ costumes are very sad in this movie. The way his shirts are a little too large, it’s just so childlike. When you read the script, knowing he’s stunted, did you want the same for his wardrobe? 

Napier: Absolutely. He had to be really childlike when he’s wearing. When he is sitting on the roof and he is smoking weeded with his kid and he’s wearing that rugby shirt, it was Abercrombie and Fitch. I was like, oh, that makes sense, because he kind of stopped growing up somewhere between 13 and 16. We just washed the fuck out of it and dyed it down and made it be like, that’s his kind of home shirt that he’s in. But it makes him still look childlike.

We also wanted to emulate tao define that in the South. There’s a uniform. Everyone wears a polo shirt, everyone wears a blue button down. Men specifically have a khaki pair of pleated shorts. They have a khaki pair of trousers. They all wear like a uniform. People had told me about that before I got there, and it was true. They really have a uniform.

One thing that Todd had said in the beginning was, we cast this guy, Charles Melton. I’m like, “I don’t know who Charles Melton is.” And he was like, “It was surprising to me. He’s so striking and we really have to make him more plain in some way.” Charles, I think, gained 35 pounds. The first fitting he came in, he was like, “Look at how the fat I got.” And we were all like… I think he did in the end, put on 35 pounds. He was really wanting to be chubby and soft. 

BTL: For the stepson, George, did you check out the punk scene in Savannah? 

Napier: Not really. Now I feel like especially in 2023, 10 years after our film, everybody has an access to this fucking thing. So everybody has alternative, whatever that machine can tell you what to do. But a lot of it is more square, for sure. There’s interesting people there, but a lot of the younger people, there’s the Savannah College of Art and Design.

BTL: Interns?

Napier: We had a lot of interns, several interns in our department, every department did of people who were in the film department and wanted to learn how to make film. So yeah, they’re mostly kind of young white kids that are going to art school.

A scene from May December (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: How were the interns on this? 

Napier: Awesome. They were really great, actually. I think it was more difficult because I came in and my assistant costume designer came in and then I couldn’t find a supervisor to run the machine there. And so, I brought mine in from showing up Kelly’s last film from Portland. And the producer was like, “I don’t care who you bring in, I just have to put ’em up. It’s just price of a ticket.” She came in and it was mostly fell on her. She was the one that had to organize it and interact with them, and they were all taking it for credit.

It wasn’t like someone that would just be like, “I’m here five days a week, what do you need?” and she could train them. It was more like, “Leah could be here Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, but then only on every other Friday.” So, you’re trying to run a department. I think it was hard on Jade, our supervisor, but my assistant and I and Jade had all done Kelly’s last film in Portland before showing up. Chris Blauvelt, who was our cinematographer, also came from the Kelly camp because [cinematographer] Ed Lachman couldn’t. A month before the shoot, he broke his leg and couldn’t do it.

BTL: Oh, I didn’t know that happened. I’m sorry to hear that.

Napier: And then Todd was like, “Good news, bad news. Ed can’t do it. I’m bummed, but Chris can do it.” And I was like, “Kelly, you’re really pimping us out over here!” And so, we were all in such synchronicity, and Sam Lisenco, who is the production designer, Todd kept saying, “This is phenomenal. I’ve never had this kind of experience on a film set before where there’s so much synchronicity.”

Everyone was feeding everyone else’s department. Everyone was communicating with each other. Everybody was on the same page. It was really like a family. It was really; it’s not always such a joyous experience when you’re filming. Certainly, there’s difficult times as well, but it was joyous. It was nice also to think about the costumes in contrast to Sam’s set, because I feel like that house kind of becomes its own character, as well.

Well, it certainly had its own color palette and it kind of dipped into some kind of ’90s vibe with some weird furnishings. I knew that my stuff couldn’t be too period. I tend to lean period. I look at a lot of Tina Barney photographs for references, and I did on this as well.  I often dip into a lot of different references. Nicholas Nixon had this whole photo, had this book called The Brown Sisters, where it was his wife and her three sisters. He took a portrait of them every year, all the way for 40 years or something. I also think that vintage stuff is so contemporary. Anyways, now suddenly everyone’s gone vintage loco.

BTL: Vintage is contemporary, right. What about shoes in the film? I ask because you’ve said before, you always design from the toes up. 

Napier: Well, with Natalie, you begin with vegans, so you can’t use any leather. So, that’s a challenge. We also had to consider their height differences. We always wanted them to be kind of even so we couldn’t put heels on Natalie in scenes because they’re not that dissimilar. Five-three and five-five, something like that… They’re kind of close. But she wears those VEJA trainers when she first arrives, like a tennis shoe, but it’s a vegan tennis shoe. 

BTL: Do you think her character is a good actress? The fact that the movie she makes is probably bad, I mean, it’s a good laugh.

Napier: The filming at the end, it’s so weird. Todd had said the whole time, “It’s got to be a bad TV movie that they’re making.” So, that’s where it gets more arch, and she’s got a bad wig on. It just gets more broad in the Italian director’s version of it. But in the main part of it, I always thought, no, she’s a good actor that’s coming to do this thing. 

May December is available to stream on Netflix. 

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