“Dig up your coffins and dust off your capes,” FX advises in its promos for the upcoming fifth season of its popular vampire mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows.
Capes is the operative word for the Emmy award-winning costume designer of the series, Toronto native Laura Montgomery.
She and her team create the costumes for the vampire lead characters Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Lazslo (Matt Berry), Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), The Guide ((Kristen Schaal) and Nandor’s human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén).
Based on the 2014 Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement feature film of the same name, the series transported the centuries-old vampires from New Zealand to a rundown house in Staten Island, where they feud with each other and try to figure out the current-day world in which they live.
While each character’s clothing is rooted in the time in which they were born hundreds of years ago, Montgomery incorporates contemporary influences into her designs, particularly from the music world. Tupac Shakur, David Bowie, Nick Cave and even Liberace have inspired her work, which won her the 2022 Emmy for Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes. In addition to Shadows, Montgomery has worked on films including Shazam!, Molly’s Game, Poltergeist, Pixels and Suicide Squad.
Below the Line spoke with Montgomery over the phone from her home in Toronto. She told us how she was able to go to town with the costumes during several recent key episodes, including a wedding and a nightclub opening, and how the new season takes her creative expression even further.
BTL: You’ve been with the show from the beginning, starting as the assistant costume designer for Seasons 1 and 2 before becoming the CD in Season 3. How do you handle the continuity and costumes for each of the characters and at the same time put your own spin on them?
Montgomery: Amanda Neale, who had done the movie and had a longstanding working relationship with Taika [Waititi] and Jemaine [Clement], came from New Zealand and did the first two seasons of the show. She brought over from the movie the brilliant idea of vampires getting stuck in the period in which they were humans. Kind of like how humans I think get stuck in their heyday, style-wise, often.
So there was that framework in terms of their period, and they had really established closets as well that I was able to pull from. But having had the experience of how the show is shot, what looks good on camera, and what the cast is comfortable wearing, one of the things I really wanted to do was to try to lighten up the colors and the tones and add more shiny fabrics and then just have a little bit of fun with it.
Once you get into your third season, you have an established fan base and people really get to know the characters so we can kind of push it a little bit. And then in Season 4, I was given a huge license to just go wild when Nadja opens the nightclub and it was like, okay, all bets are off. We can do clubwear for Nadia and the Guide, which is so much fun.
BTL: I loved the Nadja’s nightclub opening with vampire rapper Richie Suck performing. There were so many extras involved, and my goodness, the hats.
Montgomery: I think the script says something about her wearing so many hats. It kind of started with Drag Race and Susanne Bartsch, who is a New York club impresario. She was a big inspiration for me because her outfits are incredible, with so much sculpture and interest and really fashion-forward looks. Then I just wanted to show as much of Nadja’s body as possible, not pushing her out of her comfort zone too much, but it was a great opportunity to have her not be in a full period skirt.
And so for opening night, we built this skintight velvet cat suit that laces up the front. I gave her a cape to go over the top, which felt very master of ceremonies with the presence of an opening night hostess. The cape had her signature puff sleeve and then a really full dramatic back.
And then for Richie Suck, I don’t know if you noticed that Tupac [Shakur] wore a pair of overalls that had “Thug Life” embroidered on them. So for him, we made these feather overalls, but we custom-embroidered “Blood Life” on them.
BTL: Let’s talk about how you do your research on what these vampires would’ve been wearing centuries ago. You mentioned Susanne, but are you inspired by any other current fashion trends when you’re designing for them?
Montgomery: A lot, actually. In the early days, I was a little bit more religious about trying to stick to the period, but then you have this freedom because yes, they’re stuck in their eras when they were human, but they live right now, they live in 2023, so they would’ve been exposed to all of the influences. So for Laszlow in Season 4, when he was kind of like Colin’s manager, and also because Matt Berry is a bit of a rock star too, Nick Cave was a big influence.
It can be something as simple as a color combination. I found a photo of Nick Cave wearing a mint-colored shirt, and I just thought, wow, that’s such an interesting color of shirt. And we did it with a kind of peacocky, green print suit which is very kind of ’70s David Bowie. And then we did a green velvet cape with a red satin lining, so there was a little bit of Liberace in there too.
BTL: What has been your experience working with Jemaine and Taika on the series as writers and directors and also when they’ve reprised their Shadows film roles as Vladislav and Viago?
Montgomery: I was a fan of Flight of the Conchords, and I saw What We Do in the Shadows in the movie theaters when it was first released. There’s a lot of other vampire research that goes into it, though thankfully I’ve seen Bram Stroker’s Dracula many times just for my own interest. But a lot of the work and reference comes back to that, even in the writing. And then working with Taika and Jemaine was incredible. They really brought the work to another level. There’s a lot of improv on set. I found that when Taika and Jemaine were directing, and Jemaine wrote quite a few of the episodes in Seasons 1 and 2, there was just more of an energy on set. Which is not to say anything disparaging about the other directors, but I think because it’s their material when they were on set, they’ll give the actors a line or two and say, “Oh, what about this?” I just found that the actors were really engaged and really responding more with the improvisation.
Everyone was having a lot of fun. I think everyone’s work was really elevated. And when it comes time for them to reprise their roles, it was like putting on a really familiar pair of shoes.
BTL: So you have gone from vampires to superheroes in Gen V, the spinoff of The Boys, which focuses on a younger generation attending crime fighting university. So, how do you devise costumes for characters like Golden Boy and Marie Moreau?
Montgomery: That’s one of the things that I love most about costume design is that you can switch it up. Sometimes I say it’s like you’re eating the most delicious meal of your life, but if you eat it all the time, once in a while you’re like, “Hmm, I’m craving something different.”
So it was a nice cleanser, actually. Kids are always fun to do. I love being able to do younger, contemporary costumes. For Shadows, we never go to the mall, but it was a fun break to be able to go to the mall and see what kids are wearing nowadays.
And it was nice to really develop a different skill set, especially with it being affiliated with Amazon and superheroes, you have to think in a different way. You have their character costumes, and then we don’t do the super suits. That’s done by Laura Jean Shannon. But we still have to have that mentality of stuff, like, what’s the action figure? Or what’s the Comic Con look, which is actually a similarity between Shadows and Gen V. It’s like, okay, what is the one look that fans are gonna really resonate with? And it’s a good exercise in distilling character, like how do you essentially translate who this person is through their clothes?
BTL: Can you tell us anything about the reboot of the legal drama Matlock, this one starring Kathy Bates in the title role that Andy Griffith played in the classic series?
Montgomery: Oh, I would love to. That was one of the best experiences of my career. It’s such a charming script. Kathy plays the role of Matlock, but it’s kind of a meta spin on it, where in the world it’s a legal procedural, but in that world, the TV show Matlock existed. They’re aware of it. And so, it uses all of her charm and folksiness. She’s kind of a fish out of water and going back to work in the law firm as a 70-year old former lawyer.
She gets paired up with two younger colleagues. What really resonated with me was the script touches on the fact that older women tend to be very overlooked in society. That becomes her superpower and she uses that to her advantage, the fact that she can kind of fly under the radar. Then at the end there’s a twist which grabs you and becomes a whole other thing. So I think it’s gonna be so good. I will absolutely be watching it.
BTL: Let’s talk about you winning the Emmy for Shadows last year. How’d it feel? How’d it impact your career?
Montgomery: Oh my God, I was shocked. Just shocked. I mean, to be up against incredible shows like the Star Wars and the Marvels, it was an honor to even be included and recognized. And so, I thought I don’t need to prepare a speech. When they announced it, I was crouched on the floor videoing because we were seated behind the screen so I could video having my name announced and that would be my memory of the night. I can hear people saying, “You have to go.” I was just in complete shock and you can hear on my video my husband say, “This is unbelievable.”
I was just really grateful, especially to be in that group of nominees I’ve worked with, including Christine Wada who was nominated for Loki and I saw her costumes beforehand at the Fashion Institute of Technology exhibit. They were exquisite. And then Meghan Kasperlik, who I thought was the shoe-in [for Moon Knight].
It was a testament to how much people loved the show and how much the show meant to them, especially during the pandemic. I think people just wanted something light and funny. And as for how it’s impacted my career, I don’t know that it has yet. I have a beautiful statue. I hope it opens more doors and opportunities. We’ll see.
BTL: And, of course, you’ve been nominated for several Costume Designers Guild awards as well, so congrats on that. But going back to the Emmys, do you feel extra pressure as a costume designer on what to wear for a big awards show like that?
Montgomery: I started designing my own dress, which is something I don’t know that I’ll ever do again because it was just not working out. We had found out maybe the week before that there was not going to be a red carpet, so I thought I’m not gonna win and nobody’s really going to see me in this dress. It’s not a big deal. So, two days before I was going to fly down to L.A. I had a window of like two hours in the morning to see what’s out there and buy something off the rack, not spending too much time on it. I found a dress by the Toronto label Greta Constantine. Stephen Wong was one of the designers and had moved into film and he was working with me on Shadows. So, I texted him and I was like, “Stephen, I’m gonna buy one of your dresses.”
BTL: So Laura, final question. If you were going to Nadja’s nightclub opening, what would you wear?
Montgomery: Oh my gosh, that is such a good question. I think I would assume I’m a vampire because I wanna show some skin. And I would feel nervous about doing that because I would just be a snack. I think I would wear long gloves, high heels and something shiny.
Season 5 of What We Do in the Shadows premieres July 13 on Hulu and FX.