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HomeCraftsCameraThe Killer Costume Designer Cate Adams Makes Michael Fassbender Blend In

The Killer Costume Designer Cate Adams Makes Michael Fassbender Blend In

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Costume designer Cate Adams convinces audiences a guy like Michael Fassbender can walk through the world unnoticed. That’s not an easy task. The costume designer makes the titular character in David Fincher‘s The Killer an assassin who blends into his surroundings, almost like death himself in the big cities.

It’s a Fincher film in which the craftsmanship shines without drawing attention away from the story at hand.

Or, in the case of The Killer, the character. It’s more about point-of-view than plot, thanks to Andrew Kevin Walker‘s cold yet intimate, clockwork-like script as well as the impeccable work from crew members such as Adams. She makes the killer’s world and his wardrobe more tangible, both mundane and poppy.

Recently, the costume designer spoke with Below the Line about her beautiful, subtle work in David Fincher’s latest film.

[Note: This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.]

Below: The Killer is incredibly cinematic for a movie largely about boredom and repetition. How’d you want to or not want to strike a similar balance with the costumes?

Cate Adams: Well, if you watch any of Fincher’s movies, I think that the costumes aren’t telling the story, so he really wants everything to just blend and you don’t even think about the costumes. And so, that was a huge point for me, to make was that you are never going to look at him and be like, “Oh, that’s weird. Why is an assassin wearing that?” 

David always had in mind to have him look like a German tourist and look kind of out of place when we were in Paris. So, that was maybe the most out place he looks, but then he strangely looks like he fits in because everyone’s seen that person traveling before. So yeah, that was one of the biggest challenges to start. 

We started with the look in Paris and getting that look right and then figuring out what he would have in his closet. David made a point to say he wanted him to look as if he could get off a plane, walk into a store, either in the airport, out on the street, easy access to something he could grab and put on and change into. 

BTL: Did you buy any of the clothes from the kind of places you just mentioned? 

Adams: So in the script it had always said a bucket hat, but it didn’t say the German tourist thing. I learned about that when I first had a meeting with David, but Michael Fasssender wasn’t available yet. So we did a lot of fittings and iterations of his look in Los Angeles as we were prepping and figuring out the colors and what color he was going to wear there.

I had come up with all these boards of like, well, maybe he should be in brown because people wear brown in Paris, but then he won’t be in black. But then brown isn’t as menacing as black is. Brown is a little warmer and could just have more dad vibes, which is what David had been saying to go for.

I went through this whole thing with putting together browns, and there were a lot of browns in the shopping world at that time. It was like 2021 and in fashion coming up in the selling season. I put all of that together and then I had my team in Paris send me pictures of people on the street just in Paris. I just wanted fresh pictures of what everyone was wearing. 

I also had done some sourcing myself, and once I sent that to David, he said, “Put ’em in all light colors.” So that is how he deciphered what color he was going to be in, which was super helpful. And then we just went from there and we started sourcing every bucket hat in North America that could go in his palette he originally wanted, in case it rained the bucket hat to be waterproof or water resistant so that he wouldn’t need an umbrella.

A scene from The Killer (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: So, an extensive search for the bucket hat? 

Adams: Fortunately it didn’t rain when we were in Paris when we were filming, but I couldn’t really ever get the proper bucket hat in that color palette because it had to be that Parisian stone color of what you see on the buildings. And he didn’t want any kind of khaki that read too pink. Sometimes in the color wheel khaki will read pink, so it had to be that egg shell cement tone.

We just shop, shop, and shopped. My shoppers in LA went everywhere. The hat is actually this brand called Broner, and it’s a cotton poly rollup hat and it comes in wholesale boxes of different sizes. And my shopper, Jody, found that one at an army surplus store in Venice, and that just kind of became the hat. We had some others that we brought with us, but we pretty much sourced mostly everything here because I did fittings with a body double.

BTL: How’d the earliest of fittings go without Fassbender?

Adams: I found just someone who was the same sizes as Fassbender, who kind of had the same body type. We did lots and lots of different iterations of his layers and putting that all together. We had the shoes, the sketchers, and this German Tourist look and maybe a few photos of ideas for a Dominican look. But he also wears that Aloha shirt, that Hawaiian shirt. A big thing with the German tourist sketches is a floral shirt and cargo shorts. We were able to shy away from the cargo pants, which I was very happy about. But the floral shirts, I knew that they needed to be able to move, and because he’s doing yoga, he needs a pocket to put his iPod in.

BTL: And the Hawaiian shirt? What’d you go for there? 

Adams: I lived in Hawaii, so I know a lot about Aloha Hawaiian shirts, and we were able to source those shirts from a Hawaiian vendor online. We just went through everything and  found the light colors. And then I went to Paris with 10 suitcases, I think 10 or 12 suitcases and of clothes that David had approved. I had my Paris team look around there and go to sports stores.

There’s a store called Decathlon, and we went to Lululemon. David kept mentioning Ather. So Gap, Tommy Bahama, too, those were all the stores that we hit up. And then obviously we went through a lot of different Sketchers until we found the right one. And then we had a fitting in Paris with Michael, and it went great because we had already done a lot of prep work to get to that point. It was still a long fitting, but I feel like we really nailed it down in that first fitting of what he was going to wear in Paris.

A scene from The Killer (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: You answered so many questions, thank you. What’d you learn from that first fitting with Michael in Paris? 

Adams: Well, I knew obviously you can do as much research as you can, which I did to figure out his body type. You know what? The very first fitting was frightening. I’m just kidding. I wasn’t so much nervous about Michael, but David was in the fitting and I’ve never had that before. I’ve never had a director in the fitting. And also, you have to understand that how I got this job was that Gigi Williams, who’s the makeup artist who works for David, she knew that David was doing another project. I had worked on Mindhunter season one as the assistant designer, and I worked really closely with the designer. And then I went on to do my own thing.

I went on to design the TV shows, network, TV show, and then I had a baby and just figuring it all out. But Gigi was like, “Oh, David’s doing another movie and they’re looking for a designer and I guess Trish Summerville, the incomparable Trish Summerville, who did Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, couldn’t do it. She was on another project. I’ve been dying to work for her for years.

Jen Stark, who costume designed Mindhunter, who is a mentor of mine who also I love and value, she was busy as well. So I got an interview with David and I thought, okay, well I don’t know how this is going to go. I never really had a lot of communication with him before because it would always go through the costing designer. And so, I was like, you know what? I’m going to get a meeting alone with David Fincher. I’m just going to bust my butt to be prepared for this and hope that everything goes well. So that’s kind of how that all came to fruition. And then I had the meeting, it was like two hours long.

BTL: Obviously, it went well, but what did you learn from that first meeting?

Adams: About a week later I got a call that I got the job. So moving forward, I have never worked for David as the costume designer, so I’m learning as I go, but I’m taking all the time that I put in on Mindhunter, and that I know what he likes, what he doesn’t like. I also know a lot of the crew who worked for him. I just knew that the prep had to be prepared. The prep, he emphasizes that prep is the biggest component of the film.

He doesn’t like surprises. He doesn’t like when we’re shooting to just someone be like, oh, I think they’re going to wear… no, that is not how he works. That’s not how it’s done. So, that way you have plenty of time to put on any fires out and to make any changes. He doesn’t want it done that day while we’re filming.

So fast forward to this fitting, I’m like, holy shit, David Fincher’s going to be at the fitting. Oh my gosh. But it went really well because he and Fassbender have a rapport, and it was great. He was really helpful and he knew what looks that he wanted. David knows everybody’s job better than you do, so he’s like, “Try this, that jacket with this shirt.” I kind of just took his lead, and then the following fittings with both of them, I just knew to be really prepared.

A scene from The Killer (Credit: Netflix)

BTL: Like you said, David doesn’t want the costumes to tell the story so much. Also, you could argue this is a character arguably without an arc. Did his lack of growth influence you at all? Was it mostly just about profession and locations? 

Adams: Well, it’s almost like the end is the arc because he’s relaxed and he is in linen, and he finally closes his eyes, I guess you’d say. Our show moved really fast, and to be able to really narrow down, we really just started with Paris figuring out what his look was going to be. And then that led me to be like, okay, he’s got this Aloha shirt on. He’s probably going to wear things like this in the Dominican so he can kind of have pieces of his home wardrobe stuck into his on-the-go wardrobe. Anything that doesn’t require a lot of work and time.

I just kind of made a palette for each place. I knew in Paris he wanted him in light colors. I knew in the Dominican he was going to be in light colors, and we didn’t want to use any black in the Dominican. We tried really hard not to use black besides the time that he goes into the taxi stand.

Going to New Orleans, he’s in those lighter colors. Everyone in New Orleans really doesn’t dress in; it’s not a lot of dark. It’s still like those brown, warm, spring and fall colors. And then going to New York and Chicago, it’s winter, so it’s going to be all dark colors. We wanted him to blend in then. So, I think there was just a really specific palette that we established. Once we knew those color palettes, then I figured out what he was going to wear in each place.

BTL: Were any colors off limits? For example, no red?

Adams: I actually have that all written down. Hold on a second. [Checks notes] “No Red.” Yeah, no red. I don’t think David… maybe there’s a little red in Benjamin Button and there’s burgundy in The Social Network.

BTL: I get the impression he hates red.

Adams: Oh yeah. Well, most people do, but yeah, no red. 

BTL: He’s a very pop culture conscious filmmaker. Did you two have any specific influences for the protagonist? 

Adams: Oh, Hunter S. Thompson with the bucket hat. I actually pulled a lot of images of Liam Gallagher from Oasis. Always wearing bucket hats; he kind of has it like I don’t give an F attitude as well.

I think David had mentioned Liam a little bit in the first meeting. He’s like, “Well, think about Liam Gallagher’s persona.” It’s very similar. He could be an assassin. He could be a psychopath. I mean, you never know. But I definitely took a lot of influence from his looks because that’s what he wears or what he’s worn since the 2000s until now.

BTL: Those parkas… He likes what he likes.

Adams: I feel like that’s the same with the killer. He knows what he likes. I mean, he is basically wearing iterations of the same clothes in every city.

The Killer is now streaming on Netflix. 

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