Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

FROZEN RIVER: Interview with Abby O’Sullivan, Costume Designer

I recently talked with Abby O’Sullivan, costume designer of Frozen River, to find out a little bit more about how the costumes in this film came together.  Here is what she had to say:

How did you find out about this job?

I was designing for off-Broadway (theater) and was curious to transition to film. A friend forwarded me some information on an upcoming production. It turned out to be near my hometown, so I wrote a petitioning email (to them) to interview me.

What did you do to prepare for your interview?

I did a storyboard for who I thought each character was, and I pulled from their emotion, environment, and culture. This is actually my favorite part of the process. The storyboards have only gotten more elaborate.

How much prep time did you have?  Where did you prep?

Prep was very limited, just one week in upstate NY. (KB chokes) I rented a car and went through Vermont. On my way to the hotel, I hit every church/thrift store/recycling center I knew of. The remaining prep was done in our hotel room. Luckily, we had a handicapped-accessible bathroom that served as a fitting room.

Where did you do most of your shopping?

Prep was both in Vermont (Burlington Area) and Plattsburgh where we shot. It was Salvation Army mostly, and I may have purchased about 1/3 of our costumes at WalMart.

Did you make anything to order?

I mostly altered and teched the costumes.  Budget was limited and there were several script changes mostly revolving around stunts. Many items that required doubles were several sizes off and they had to be altered or in some cases completely rebuilt. Most items were clearance items so there would only be one size 4 and the double purchased would end up being a size 8 and altered.

How much age/dye/tech did you do on the show, and where/who did it?  (With a small crew and budget, I can’t imagine it was easy)

Nearly everything was teched; it was a tough one. My amazing supervisor and I never really slept. I teched it all in my hotel room or on set using mud, concrete, grass, you name it. I was very concerned with aging, and I did not want anything to appear new. Many doubles I dyed in several RIT baths and washed 5 or 6 times in Borax.

Once you started prep, what were some of the first things you did?  What was your methodology?

Once the script was broken down I began to look at the patterns of the characters. Your observation on Lila was exact. I wanted her depression and her environment to show through lack of changing and layering. I spoke with the director and production designer about their homes. Basically determining what was available in the area and, given the characters’ age range, where and when they would have purchased clothing. Ray’s tight jeans were in line with her constant application of mascara referenced in the script. They help her maintain a level of sexuality. Lila wears items that may have once belonged to her husband. I wanted her maternal characteristics to not be clearly stated in her garments.

Any particular strategies you used to stay within budget?  What was your budget?

Budget was $3500.00. (KB emits an audible gasp) I could not send out for tailoring or laundry so I saved money by doing it all myself. Hitting the dollar-a-bag thrift and church sales were a huge help. My biggest expenses were CRC rentals on police uniforms. The local police were amazing with loans as well which helped in cutting our budget. As for the reservation police costume, I built that up from Dickies and collaborated with the art department on a logo, which I then had embroidered by a local woman, and that saved a few dollars as well.

What was your collaboration with Melissa Leo like?  What did she bring to the table?  What was your collaboration with makeup/hair like with regard to her character?  And tell us about the underwear choices you made for her – I thought it was very interesting, this kind of conservative, but mismatched, newer-looking underwear, like she still had her pride…

Strangely Melissa and I are both New Yorker transplants from Vermont. We had many of the same references and “go-to looks” which was great.  She was very involved in her choice of underwear. On the day of (shooting those scenes) I brought several choices in; she did as well, and they were close to identical. We ended up piecing a few of each together for the final look. The underwear was in a way similar to her purchasing bubble bath. It was referenced in the script but was not as clear in the final cut of the film. Ray bought several kinds of bath products as she planned for the new home. It seemed like such a feminine choice, I wanted to make sure Ray still had a level of sexuality to her along with her harshness.  Melissa had a tiger tattoo overlay made at a local tattoo shop and she and makeup artist Crystal affixed it to her thigh as a nod to a wilder past.

What was your collaboration with Misty Upham like?

Misty is very open, and gave me great insight into reservation life. We developed the layering idea together. She saw it as a layer for protection along with necessity for the cold. Misty’s coat is far too thin for an upstate New York winter so the financial desperation she in some ways wears as a billboard as the coat.

Working with the Native Canadian/American population, did they have input or guidance that you thought was valuable?

Absolutely.  Our actors are from a local reservation just north of the border. We discussed general attitudes and practices, and occupations on the reservations. Smuggling is so frowned upon that was not something we discussed very much, which helped to establish the outcast nature of Lila.

The French Canadians – really awesome.  But the duster on Jacques Bruno – tell us about how you arrived at that costume choice.

Odd one. Actually Mark Boone Jr. (the actor for who played Jacques) was also once from that area and he brought that coat in. Living in a border area you are pretty familiar with French Canadian taste: lots of leather and fur, not of tremendously great quality around there. His business requires a connection with international traders. This led me to think he spent a bit of time in Montreal.  It seemed it would have been something he had picked up to represent himself as more metropolitan to both the underworld he worked in and as a fear tactic for the more rural business he did.

How cold was the coldest shooting day on the show?  How many days did you shoot, and how many were interiors vs. exteriors?

20 below I think; it was brutal. My supervisor was the ultimate trooper as it was only the two of us. We shot for just under a month. Interiors vs. exteriors, I would say it was 3/4 exteriors.  It started out frigid cold and then we hit a huge thaw. For a minute we all worried it would turn to slushy river and we all would lose our jobs. It soon froze back up.

What were your facilities like – did you have a normal trailer, or were you working out of a cube truck, or something else?

We prepped it all out of our shared hotel room and had only a rack and few boxes on the unit truck. (KB faints)

I am sure a lot of Frocktalk readers would like to know how you were able to transition from costume supervisor, or assistant costume designer, to costume designer.  How did you do it?  Do you still go back and forth?

I started as a fashion designer at nineteen and slowly transitioned when I started designing for private clients. I got a few jobs off-Broadway with my portfolio and sort of pushed through. I interned for a costume designer as an assistant for a few days while I was building for her. From there I just read books on breakdowns, and watched her a bit. Frozen River was my first key feature (meaning first costume design credit). I went on to supervise a tiny bit to learn continuity and I started working as an Assistant Costume Designer, as well. After Frozen River, I worked nonstop for two years and just gathered what I could (about) designing.  It came pretty naturally from fashion, and I come from a family that had a bit of design (history) in it.

I work now as a Designer, and after joining the union, I work as an Assistant Costume Designer sometimes to gain experience. You learn so much from other designers, and I find it a great way to vary keying.  I lucked out on Frozen River; I met a woman who came on as an unpaid supervisor. When we reached Plattsburg, I renegotiated her a rate and title to supervisor and I got the lay of the land.  She is fantastic and we have since worked together on many projects, collaborating whenever possible. Her name is Martina Melendez she is now a union supervisor in New York and Los Angeles.

Do you have an agent now?  Are you based out of Canada or New York?

I do actually: Mira Yong at the Gersh Agency… and I am a full-time New Yorker.

Anything you’d like to share, stories or experiences?

Ooohh many, many.  I’ll stay mum on a few. But here is a brilliant one I will share about exhaustion.

Martina and I slept approx two hours one night, woke up and rushed to set for the final day with a pair of teched muddy corduroys for the smuggled Mandarin girl. When we pulled up to set we looked down in horror to realize that the pair we brought was actually the unteched double. We flew back at breakneck speed to the hotel to get the muddy pair hanging in our “storage/shower”. We raced back to set, she put them on and walked around. When she was almost up (called for work) she looked clean. At this point we both thought we were nuts: both pairs are now clean? So I ran out and teched the second pair on a muddy beach as best I could. She put them (the newly teched pair) on and 5 minutes later that pair was also clean!

We could not figure out the deal and the entire time the actress was getting coffee, chatting, having no idea two women have apparently lost their minds and were staring at her non-muddy tush. Finally she walked by and brushed against something and I realized what it was. We had always had the right pair, it’s just that the pants had stretch in them and as she moved, the wales of the cords were stretching and sloughing off all the dirt she had acquired in the previous scene.
Pretty hilarious. Three hours, two changes, two near-breakdowns (in wardrobe) and not only did no one notice but it never showed up on camera… too dark.

Any sketches or tear sheets, research material you’d like to share?

Unfortunately they are all in my book and not scanned. However, www.abbyosullivan.com will be updated soon will the scans.

Thank you, Abby, for your insight!!!  I can’t believe you did this movie on $3500, prepping for one week, working out of the production truck in freezing weather.  That takes a lot of patience and strength!  Great job!!

— KMB

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