Wide Angle

A Gig at SNL Changed How This Costume Designer Works

Meet Brenda Abbandandolo, who designed the clothes for The Disaster Artist and American Pickle.

Black-and-white photo of a smiling young white woman, her head is resting on her hand.
Brenda Abbandandolo Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Brenda Abbandandolo.

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with costume designer Brenda Abbandandolo. They discussed her work on The Disaster Artist and American Pickle, as well as her time at Saturday Night Live. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: When you’re beginning a project, what are you looking for the very first time you read through the script or the screenplay? What are you taking notes on?

Brenda Abbandandolo: It depends why I’m reading the script. If it’s for an interview, I’m looking for the tone of the film—whether it’s a comedy, a drama. That gives me a sense of color, a silhouette, stuff like that. And I’m also looking for connection with the characters, things I can talk about with producers and directors, and things I can hook into. If I can step into a character’s shoes and feel like I know what will help an audience relate to the feel of this character. I put images together that can start to elicit conversations in an interview setting.

If I got the job, and I’m reading it, I’m probably trying to put a budget together or to get a sense of the size of the film. So I’m asking, what season is it? Do they need coats? How many layers of clothes? How many scenes have big backgrounds? Logistically, what will I need to get this job done, so I know what size crew I need, how much money I need, so when I talk to the line producer, we can negotiate the realistic logistics for getting the job done.

And then I go through again, and I want to know when these characters change, how many days? If there are 15 script days, but this character goes to a benefit one night, they’re going to wear two outfits that day instead of one.

When talking about your work on the movie The Disaster Artist, you said that process was pretty quick: five weeks of prep, maybe eight weeks of shooting. You were also the associate costume designer for Saturday Night Live, where you have a very short time to work on an episode. What was it like trying to compress a design process into that short an amount of time?

The good thing about working on SNL is that afterward you can tell producers, “Don’t worry. I worked on SNL. We can do anything.” And you can. At SNL, you can do anything because they have so many resources and everyone’s so good. It’s awesome, and sometimes it was really anxiety-provoking.

I worked on the digital shorts. You got the script Wednesday night, you would go in for the read through, you’d start to make decisions with the writers. Thursday you prep. And then Friday you shoot. So you knew that you were going to be going on Friday. You just hustled. You had a team, and sometimes you were there really late.

They have the most amazing costume shop. Those guys are the magicians of the show; they can spin gold out of wheat in that wardrobe room. So if you really can’t find it, they’ll build it for you. You have the best people building the most amazing things. SNL is pretty magical that way.

It must have really taught you how to make decisions in a hurry.

You have to. I came from NYU. I went to grad school at Tisch, so I came from this place where we’re doing all these theoretical projects, you’re spending weeks indulging all your senses, and you’re coming up with all these clever ideas. … Then you get to SNL, and you’re in the store, it needs to be back in a fitting in 15 minutes, pick the red or the blue!

In the theater, the audience is at a certain distance from the costumes, whereas in film the camera puts you right up in the details. In most film, you have a larger wardrobe department, a lot more support, hopefully some more money to play with than in a lot of plays. Do those things affect your process?

Scale is so different in theater and film. On one of my first film jobs, I costumed from head to toe, because I thought holistically about the character. I remember wardrobe supervisors saying, “This isn’t theater, you don’t have to worry about the shoes.” And of course, I would spend hours figuring out the perfect shoes, and they never made it into the frame. So I’ve learned to ask, “What’s the shot? Are we going to see this?” That’s where I’ll focus my energy.

To listen to the full interview with Brenda Abbandandolo, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.