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HomeCraftsCostumes: Designers Roundup-Joseph Porro, Ghost Whisperer

Costumes: Designers Roundup-Joseph Porro, Ghost Whisperer

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With some 35 film credits under his belt, including Shanghai Noon, Independence Day, Godzilla and Stuart Little, costume designer Joseph Porro recently crossed over to the other side for CBS’s hit TV show Ghost Whisperer. Set in the present, it takes place in a fictitious East Coast town and stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as Melinda, an antiques store owner who can see and converse with the dead.Porro, who was nominated for a costume design Emmy in 2003 for his only other recent foray into television, the made-for-TV movie The Music Man, discusses the differences between designing for television and film.Below the Line: You’re known as a costume designer for films. How did you end up on a TV show?Joseph Porro: My resume was floating around for something else and Jennifer [Love Hewitt] called me to interview me. She wasn’t happy with the typical episodic designer who shops at the mall; she wanted something unique about her character Melinda. We meshed, and she was impressed with the fact that I brought in a whole slew of photos of “don’t dos” and ideas on how I could improve on them as well as make things better for her size. She saw I wasn’t afraid, and had total confidence.BTL: What are some of the differences you find, designing for TV?JP: I never realized, being a film designer, how difficult one-hour episodic could be. I did a sitcom about 20 years ago, which is the easiest thing to do because it’s a very controlled environment, there are just two or three changes rather than 10. But one-hour episodic is like shooting a two-hour movie every 16 days. So I do in 16 days something I’d normally do in 6 months. It’s very challenging. Nobody told me that being a film designer you can’t make everything. But that’s what I try to do, and fortunately I’m under budget, so I tell everyone to relax, I’m doing it.Also, when you do film, you’re just working with a director and actor, you don’t have 27 people voting on this bodice or those shoes. In TV it’s different. You can have six producers, the director, actor, and the big producers who sit in their ivory tower and call in after the fact to say they don’t like something. And they do that. We’ve had to do one episode all over again. This is the nightmare that costume designers have in TV: phone calls from above.BTL: Does the size of your team differ?JP: On my last film I had 10 people on set and 15 in the wardrobe, and we had factories making things too. That was 25 people. Now I have three on set, and four in wardrobe so I have about a third of the staff.BTL: What’s distinctive, in terms of costume design, of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character Melinda?JP: I’m very lucky as I love period and I love travel, and I’m designing an antiques dealer and a world traveler—Melinda’s best friend Aisha. I actually owned an antiques shop for many years and I’ve traveled extensively, so it’s like dressing old friends. With Melinda, she’s worn some of the oldest pieces an actor may have had in a one-hour episode. I buy a 100-year-old garment and recut it to work with jeans and boots. I just made a dress for her; the fabric was 200 years old, from curtains I bought from a French dealer from a chateau. Sometimes, if the original piece is too fragile, I’ll take it and replicate it and do it in a more modern fabric, like an 18th-century corset design but made in denim. So I’m mixing and matching old and modern.BTL: What proportion of the show’s costumes are designed by you, and made specifically for the show?JP: About half. Half are vintage or my designs. I have a full-time tailor shop working for me, which I insisted upon for this project. The studio was really nervous in the beginning but they’re letting me go that little bit further. I find with this show I’m prepping for three episodes ahead for Jennifer, designing stuff that’s not going to be worn for possibly a month. It might be partially a vintage dress that I’ll buy from a vendor, then I’ll buy fabrics, and I’ll say to the dressmaker we’re copying a portion of this dress, or just using the skirt. By the time I’m done you won’t recognize it. And then the next one will be a sketch. James Acheson, the designer, known for The Last Emperor and Dangerous Liaisons, taught me the English style of building where you do some original designs, but a lot of the time you would buy a vintage dress and totally throw away the body, just keeping the trims and buttons. We’ll buy an old piece and get vintage silk or denim or crazy cottons, and put it with the vintage buttons and it looks like an old piece. We’ve had to sew Jennifer right through to the last shot because things are falling apart. One of the oldest ones we had died on her body; when she walked back to the trailer it disintegrated.BTL: How do you find your sources for fabric and materials?JP: I’ve worked and traveled all through Asia, Australia, Mexico, Canada, as well as London, France, Italy, Berlin, Prague. I’ve built a lot of European sources. My crew is a mixed lot from all over the place. So I have a lot of good sources, a couple of really good ones in London, great sources in Italy and Berlin, North Carolina, San Francisco, and amazing sources who are hoarding fabrics from the old studio costume houses here in Los Angeles. Over the years you can get through the doors and get through to them.BTL: How do your designs help tell Melinda’s story?JP: I like using color to set moods for certain scenes. I’ve done that a lot on this show. I’ll use lighter colors at the top of the show, darker in the middle, and at the end they lighten up again. She crosses over the ghost and brings them into the light, so I’ll use positive colors at the end. In the last two episodes we shot, the cliffhanger at the end of the season, it started off depressing and sad and she’s nervous and edgy so I tried to do that with her clothes. I made them less fussy, dark sad colors, that help her work and set her in the scene.I think we have something going on that you’re not seeing on TV. No one’s doing anything like this. We get all these letters from people asking what is she wearing next week? Where did you get a certain outfit? And I have to tell them I designed it, or it’s 150 years old.BTL: Now that you’ve worked on a TV show for an entire season, what are your reflections on the role of a costume designer in TV versus film?JP: I have such a deep respect for TV that I didn’t have before. The film people tend to look down on people who do TV. You think of yourself as Oscar material, which is art, and they’re the Emmy, quick and dirty—until you get there and put yourself in their shoes. It totally changed my attitude for it. I watch TV shows now with a lot more respect. And that goes for the makeup artists and DPs and production designers. What they put together as fast as they do is amazing, it’s an amazing art form.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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