One of the best-reviewed shows of the year, Mare of Easttown follows a blue-collar police detective from a Philadelphia suburb as she tries to solve a puzzling murder. Created and written by Brad Ingelsby, the limited series stars Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan, Julianne Nicholson as her friend Lori, Jean Smart as her mother Helen, and Evan Peters as Detective Colin Zabel.
Unusually for a limited series, Mare of Easttown gathered momentum over the course of its original run on HBO in April and May of this year. It was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, including nods for Winslet, Nicholson, and Smart. Ingelsby, director Craig Zobel, director of photography Ben Richardson, and editors Amy E. Duddleston and Naomi Sunrise Filoramo also received nominations, as did Costume Designer Meghan Kasperlik.
Previously nominated for Fahrenheit 451, Kasperlik began her career in the fashion industry before transitioning to television and film. She worked on HBO’s Emmy-winning series Watchmen and on the features, Crown Heights and 99 Homes.
She spoke with Below the Line from her current production in Central Europe.
Below the Line: When did you start on Mare of Easttown?
Meghan Kasperlik: I had a four- or six-week break after finishing Watchmen, then I interviewed with Brad and spoke with him about the script, the pilot, where they were headed. I just jumped right in.
BTL: How did you interpret what the look for the series would be?
Kasperlik: It was kind of the opposite of Watchmen. One thing we definitely talked about was making the town an authentic blue-collar, working environment, and having everything look real and kind of “normal” as possible. When I got to Philadelphia, I asked Brad what places should I visit. He said to go to towns like Coatesville, so I went there and sat in the Wawas and got a feel for the people in the area.
BTL: Is there something distinctive about that area as opposed to other blue-collar suburbs?
Kasperlik: I’m from a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and there’s an area on the west side that I used to get the job with Brad, images I used as inspiration because I didn’t quite know Philadelphia. So it’s similar, but I would say that in Coatesville and towns like that, everything has a little bit more of a worn-down look.
Also, the branding that people wear. It was very important to have the characters wear as many local brands as possible. Branded shirting, branded shorts, branded shoes. We probably have 20 to 25 different local shops in the show. Hardware stores, fire departments, coffee shops, record stores. That was important to me.
BTL: How many characters did you have to dress?
Kasperlik: I think we had like 143. The series was a rarity in the sense that we filmed in the area where the story takes place, so we did not have to entirely dress all the background artists.
BTL: How much prep did you have?
Kasperlik: We started pre-COVID, we had an eight- or ten-week prep, which was very generous. It gave us time to research the area. We started out making sure the main characters like Mare, Helen and Lori were really thought out. Then we could set the tone for the rest of the characters.
We started filming and were about halfway through before we were shut down for COVID. When we came back, HBO put in amazing protocols.
BTL: How big was your team?
Kasperlik: Not as big as, for example, the team on Watchmen or on my current project. Because of COVID I had a couple of different supervisors, and then additional people got pregnant pre-COVID and then during the shutdown, so it was kind of a revolving door. It was a relatively small department, ten to twelve people. I probably have 45 on my new project. But we were really tight, we worked really well together. My assistant Jennifer Hryniw was amazing, we made sure the full look of the show was really harmonious. And then of course we were collaborating with Ben Richardson and [Production Designer] Keith Cunningham.
BTL: How did that collaboration work?
Kasperlik: Ben, Keith and I talked all the time about color and texture. I would constantly ask Ben, “How are you going to shoot this? How are you going to light the room?” Things like that.
I love putting a lot of texture in my costumes. I wanted a lot of prints, but all of them very washed out and muted, like people had lived in their clothing. They’ve had that sweater for five years, so it was all nubby, but still had some color to it. Keith loves putting a lot of texture in his sets as well, in the wallpaper and wall coverings and photographs. There was a point where I thought, “Oh my gosh. We both can’t do all these prints — it’s going to look like an explosion!”
So I worked very closely with him and his Set Decorator Edward McLoughlin.”Okay, what set is going to have what wallpaper? Here’s a costume we filmed on Week Two that we’ll carry into Week 30.”
BTL: How was it working with Kate Winslet?
Kasperlik: We spoke before she arrived in Philadelphia. I sent her some mood boards to show the area, what I had been seeing. I did ask her, “How deep are you willing to go into really being this character? What are your thoughts on, not being completely unrecognizable, but definitely transforming.” And she was like a hundred percent in, which was so reassuring.
I said, “You know, we’re not going to make Mare the most flattering figure.” In this business, we alter clothing to flatter the body, to make everyone look their best on camera. I told her instead I wanted to make sure that her t-shirts might hit at a point that’s not the most flattering, that the sleeves on some of the sweaters might be a little bit long, like Mare pulled them on so many times that they’d been stretched out. She was all in, very excited.
We had two massive fittings when she came to Philadelphia, and we kind of went from there. After the first week of filming, we really had the character.
I wanted to make sure that all the characters on the show repeated items from their costumes, from their looks. In real life, people don’t have a Sex and the City closet. On a daily basis, they may wear the same things. Like I’ll wear the same jacket, I’ll wear the same jeans a couple of times a week. So it was very important to make sure everyone repeated, including Mare. So although she has 47 to 53 changes, she was wearing the same jeans, the same shoes, the same jacket for a good chunk of the story. It was really about making it look like she was a normal person.
BTL: Did the other performers get to adjust their looks with you?
Kasperlik: I worked with Jean Smart on Watchmen, so I wanted to make sure she looked nothing like that. When she came in, we had a really good concept for Helen. When she was putting on the clothes, she said, “You know, something’s missing.” And I said, “I know, I can tell, we just don’t have it quite there.”
That’s not unheard of. A lot of times when the actors get to the location, they see the costume department first, while they’re still developing their characters.
Jean said, “What if you give me a fake butt?” Which I thought was just brilliant, because Jean is a very slender woman with a great figure, and a little extra padding gave her character a little bit more of a pear shape. When you see her in Hacks, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, she’s a Glamazon.”
BTL: With someone like Detective Colin Zabel [played by Evan Peters], you have to show that he’s from the area, but not part of Mare’s group.
Kasperlik: Evan and I had a different idea for the character when he came in for his first fitting. Evan’s inspiration was kind of a Chinatown thing, better suiting, a mixed color palette of browns and taupes. After spending a couple more weeks in the area, we knew it wasn’t quite right. So we went back and reset him.
He’s supposed to be a hot shot from a neighboring town. A lot of the guys are getting their suits at Macy’s or the Men’s Wearhouse. Zabel needs to be getting either the nicest suit there, or just one step above. Maybe he went to a different store, still local, and he needed to have a hint nicer suit. Versus a lot of these guys are just throwing on a sports jacket and a pair of trousers and going off to work. We wanted Zabel to look a step above, so he didn’t quite fit in with Mare’s world, but not so dressy that he was like a Wall Street lawyer.
BTL: You had a similar problem with Guy Pearce, who plays a teacher and writer.
Kasperlik: I definitely think the guys were the most challenging to me. They all had to have different looks, but they had similar jobs — construction, carpenter, masonry, whatnot. With Guy Pearce’s character, he couldn’t be so out of reach to Mare, and vice versa. He’s an academic who’s maybe written only one book, used to be getting all the ladies when he was younger, and now is just a little tired and over it. I tried to make him as simple as possible in his dressing, so he wouldn’t stand out. Still have a little texture in there, sweaters and jackets with basic shirting underneath. Someone Mare would be attracted to.
BTL: Do you think the COVID protocols affected your creativity?
Kasperlik: HBO set everything up so that we really felt safe. Workflow wise, it was more work. Creatively, I think we all had to be a little bit more creative in our choices. We couldn’t just throw things together on the day. We really had to plan for everything. If you have additional stunt doubles, you had to make sure to have all the necessary sizes. Because the script took place over such a long period of time, we had multiples on a number of costumes. Where protocols affected us was in the day-to-day of wearing costumes. If one was used on Monday, making sure it was clean for Tuesday, or else have more multiples. Which means we had to age more costumes, so we had to have our Ager/Dyer Troy David on longer.
BTL: Have the protocols loosened on your new project?
Kasperlik: We wear a little less PPE. When we were doing Mare, we had to wear gloves and gowns, and the cleaning was different. It’s still challenging, I wear a mask and goggles and all that stuff. I get tested three times a week, which I’m very grateful for.
Quite honestly, it’s been hard to obtain clothing. Stores don’t have the selection they used to before COVID. And we don’t have the fabric or other resources that we need to do our jobs. I’m building a ton of made-to-order, and I can’t get the supplies I need in a timely fashion. Instead of two days, shipping is taking two weeks. Everything is a lot slower. A lot more thought has to go into everything.
The entirety of Mare of Easttown series can be watched streaming on HBO Max. You can also read Daniel Eagan’s interviews with Director Craig Zobel, Production Designer Keith Cunninghamhttps://www.btlnews.com/crafts/production-design/mare-of-easttown-keith-cunningham/, and Cinematographer Ben Richardson, ASC.
All photos courtesy of HBO, except where noted.