In A Good Person, the latest film from Writer-Director Zach Braff, Allison (Florence Pugh) endures a tragedy that causes her to retreat within herself and grapple with opioid addiction. She gradually comes out of her shell as she reconnects with Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the man who was supposed to be her father-in-law, and his granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor).
Below the Line recently spoke with the film’s Costume Designer, Tere Duncan, about her working relationship with Braff and the input she received from the film’s leading lady. Duncan also addressed Braff’s attitude regarding what the character of Allison should and shouldn’t be, and how she should never look like she was really trying as far as her outfits were concerned.
Duncan also discussed her affinity for contemporary costuming and the way in which her work can help drive storytelling in collaboration with filmmakers and actors, and how clothing can symbolize a desire to change behavior that might not be so easy to shake.
Below the Line: We first meet Allison at a very high point in her life, and then things get extremely different for her after the first scene, and her wardrobe very much reflects that. Did you approach the costumes chronologically?
Tere Duncan: Yeah. Even though we don’t see a lot of that, I did start in my mind with who she was before, because that informs what happens during the bulk of it. Who was she before, and then how [does] she change at the end of the film? One of the things that I wanted was that her clothes before would be modern, clean, and [feature] fewer prints. Even that part where she puts the suit on to go try to get a prescription from her friend, that suit is actually one of her old suits, her work attire. During the bulk of it, we wanted it to be haphazard, and mixed prints, and confused.
One of the things that Zach said was that he didn’t want it to be a recovery film where we just show her in a super-degrading way. He didn’t like in some of those films how, when that’s happening, no matter who they were before, all of a sudden they’re in gray sweats and a gray plaid flannel. That’s not how people get there. Of course, she wasn’t homeless. I actually did keep color in and kept more in that part of it. I used color and mixed prints to make it more confusing. Toward the end, I took the color out of it a little bit. She’s in neutrals and creams and white. It’s a new start.
BTL: Her clothes do seem to have a lot of personality, even if that personality is aggressive, non-committal, or, as you say, confusing. You don’t know what to make of it, which is a good metaphor for how she feels about her life.
Duncan: Yes, and also, from the scenes that her mom is in, she spends her time on the computer and in front of the TV. She’s just buying random stuff on Amazon and watching YouTube tutorials. It’s almost, now that I think about it, the way we were in lockdown. You just find yourself saying, “wait, what am I wearing? What have I done?” You’re not really paying attention because you’re not leaving the house and you’re not presenting yourself to anyone. It’s just you and where you’re at.
BTL: You mentioned Zach’s input. He’s very intentional in films like Garden State about how the characters look. What else did he contribute to this project?
Duncan: One thing I did like about him — [and there were] lots of things, of course — is that he is [really] into character and who they are. He’s not afraid of mixing patterns and throwing color in there. He really likes it. He doesn’t want it to be boring. Sometimes directors can be a little afraid of what you’re doing. He’s like, ‘bring it. Let’s go for it.’ For Molly Shannon‘s character, in some of the tear sheets that I showed him, he was like, ‘she seems a little put-together here.’ I think it was because it was JCPenney or whatever, but there were models wearing them. My assistant and I went to Walmart and took pictures of people shopping. Then he was just like, ‘this, this is exactly it.’ It was just too put-together and not a real enough person for him [before]. He really likes those details and finding who they really are and where they’re at [in life].
BTL: When I think of Florence, I think of costume dramas like Little Women or The Wonder, or even Black Widow, where I can picture what she’s wearing. Did she have input into her outfits in A Good Person?
Duncan: Yeah, she was great and really lovely to work with. She also said she’s never been more comfortable in a movie because she’s wearing PJ bottoms half the time. She actually had one really great idea, which is that she wanted at some point to be wearing activewear. [Allison] has good intentions. She’s going to get up and work out. Quit the drugs and all that. That happens to people not addicted to pills, too, where they put their workout clothes on and never seem to get to the gym, or to do any sort of exercise. She wanted that to be in some of the things, and I thought it was great.
We would throw a sweater over it, or a cardigan, [so] you might not notice, but she’s wearing workout pants, and a sports bra that you can kind of see sometimes. She had good intentions, but she’s just not there. I liked that idea of hers, and she was really an easy collaborator. It was very fun. Because we were doing something off of what was expected with her character, we just went for it. Sure, she’s on the bike in the robe, and she’s going to go out in PJ pants and just throw her shoes on. There were never really outfits. It could never look like an “outfit.” No thought.
BTL: We also get a very different character and a different generation with Ryan.
Duncan: Yes. That was interesting to do, too, because of the ages that Celeste plays. It starts when she’s 14 and then at the end, she’s 17. Those years are important, and your style probably changes 10 times during that formative period. I did try to reflect that. That character was really fun, too, because she’s sporty, so I did Urban Outfitters and lots of cute leisurewear that’s out there. She’s such a good actor and a really good sport. I’m going to keep repeating it: everyone on this, it was an embarrassment of riches as far as the actors go. They were all really lovely.
BTL: Morgan’s character wore pretty much what I would expect him to wear. Was he the easiest?
Duncan: Since he played a former cop, we wanted to keep him almost still in a detective uniform. He’s wearing sportscoats a lot. Some of [them], you could have just added a tie and he could have gone to work. I thought of it as his armor. His process of keeping it together is to make a uniform and keep it tucked in. He’s retired now but he hasn’t gotten sloppy. He’s not necessarily rigid, but it contrasts [with] this teenager coming into his life. He’s so on the straight and narrow, and then here comes this whirlwind. He has to take care of a teenager now.
BTL: Were there any other characters you feel like you put a lot of effort into?
Duncan: Nathan, the ex, we always thought of him as — and this [will] sound simplistic — the cute boyfriend [who] got away. When you’ve broken up with somebody and you see them and you’re like, “damn!” He needed to look like the one that got away. When you’ve had a breakup and then you run into them, it’s a gut punch.
BTL: Do you appreciate the opportunity to work with contemporary costumes, or do you prefer the challenge of something like period or sci-fi?
Duncan: I like all of it, but I do like contemporary because you can show things that people will unconsciously relate to a little more easily. They can identify who these people are. If you’re going off the beaten path, then they know that as well. Not that it’s not fun to create your own world or to go into the past — I love that, too — but you’ve got to create the whole world and then show them how you’re veering off from that. When it’s contemporary, you know.
BTL: Looking at your past work, I noticed two memorable independent films: Nancy and Abundant Acreage Available.
Duncan: With Nancy, Andrea Riseborough was another great collaborator, as well as Christina Cho, the Director. It’s contemporary, and it’s in this world where there’s this person who is either hiding something or something is a little off, and that was fun. With Abundant Acreage Available, Writer-Director Angus MacLachlan is just the sweetest man. That was interesting because I wanted Amy Ryan and Terry Kinney to look of the earth, to match that house and where they are, and the three guys that come, I had them in sports team colors — very chemical colors, not [of] nature, just to show how they’re interloping on there.
BTL: Do you have anything else coming up at the moment?
Duncan: There’s an Amazon movie called Música that I did, which stars Rudy Mancuso, who is a musician and also the Writer and Director. It’s kind of a musical. It’s hard to describe, but I think it’s really interesting, and I’m looking forward to seeing that one.
A Good Person is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of MGM.