What the Clothes in Only Murders in the Building Say About the Show’s Characters

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: Literally, day one, I walked into that costume department and it just my brain exploded, I was just like, I can’t believe that this exists and this is real, that this could be a career. Oh, I just get to like, sit down with a glue gun and like glue gun like faux fur onto a giant bear costume. Like, I mean, like once.

S1: Welcome back to working, I’m your host, Joon Thomas,

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S3: and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler,

S1: and whose voice did we hear at the top of the show?

S3: June we heard the delightful voice of Dana Covarrubias, who designs costumes for TV and film.

S1: What kinds of shows has she worked on, and why did you want to talk with her right now?

S3: Dana mostly works in TV, and she mostly works in stuff that’s set in the present day, so she did the costumes for a season of Inside Amy Schumer. She did Master of None. She did a season of Quantico. And now, though, she is doing the hit Hulu TV show Only Murders in the Building, which is a show I love and also has a very thoughtful approach to its design and visual style.

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S1: So what do listeners who may not yet have watched only murders in the building need to know about that show to get the most out of this interview? What kind of show is it?

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S3: Well, it is a half hour murder mystery comedy about three true crime podcast obsessives who attempt to solve a mysterious death in their Tony Old School gigantic Upper West Side Manhattan apartment building. It’s a huge hit for Hulu right now, in part because those three podcast obsessives are played by Steve, Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. Actually, the cast is stacked with ringers from the theater and comedy world, which only kind of adds to its appeal, but also, you know, the tone of its kind of complicated because it’s both a murder mystery and a comedy, and it could very easily have been kind of lazy and sticky. But it’s not. And particularly in terms of its visual style, there is a lot going on.

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S1: So you told me who’s playing the main characters, but what kind of people are the characters played by Steve, Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez?

S3: So Steve Martin plays a has been television actor who had a kind of Kojak like TV show called Brazos, and his character’s name is Charles Hayden Savage, and he’s become a kind of shut in since the end of the TV show. And then Martin Short plays a Broadway director named Oliver Putnam, who’s fallen on hard times after a disastrous flop about 15 years earlier and has not been able to really get work since then. And then Selena Gomez plays Mabel Mora, and actually her past is somewhat mysterious and uncovering. It is part of the story of the TV show, so I don’t really want to spoil anything. But she is the niece of someone who lives in the building who’s sort of squatting in her aunt’s apartment and slowly renovating it.

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S1: I see. I think you might also say that Oliver’s last show was a belly flop.

S3: It was. It was a belly flop. Yes, yes, it was a show called Splash, which it’s unclear whether it was adapted from the film Splash or not, but it was a musical. That’s their sort of version of Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. It was a very expensive fiasco that ended in multiple injuries and lawsuits.

S1: I am really excited to hear this interview, but first, I believe you have an extra segment for Slate Plus members. What will they hear?

S3: In fact, I do Slate Plus members. We’ll hear a bit about how Dana approached costuming, the characters who have to make a big impression in a very short period of time. These are the folks who have one to two scenes in the show, but you need to know a lot about them immediately. And we also talked about how she conquers being creatively blocked. I mean, they don’t they don’t call it costume designers block, but costume designers get blocked, too. So how does she deal with it and what can we learn from that for our own creative pursuits?

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S1: That sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly easy to subscribe to sleepless, and if you do, you’ll get exclusive members only content zero ads on any Slate podcast full access to articles on Slate.com without hitting a paywall. Bonus episodes of shows like How to Do It and Big Mood, Little Mood and You’ll Be Supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only $1 for the first month to sign up. Go to sitcom slush working plus. OK, let’s hear EyeSight’s conversation with Dana Covarrubias.

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S3: Let’s start with the basics. Who are you and what do you do?

S2: Hi, I am Dana Covarrubias and I am a costume designer and I just costume design. A show that just came out called only murders in the building was Steve, Martin and Martin Short and Selena Gomez, and it’s very exciting.

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S3: So how did you come to be a costume designer? Is that something you always wanted to do or were you like, bitten by a radioactive costume and then turned you into a costume designer?

S2: I was, well, you know, it’s funny. So I grew up in Texas, and I think that, you know where it all started probably was that my parents both had two jobs and their second jobs were working in a mall. So I literally was just raised in malls. I was in malls all the time. And as a kid, I remember I would just, you know, explore all the stores and I would be like, You know, I think like I remember being like five years old and like hiding under the clothing racks and like rubbing all of the fabric of the clothing on my face. And my mom would get really mad. She’d be like, Stop like that. Someone try to sell that, and I’d just be like rubbing. I was obsessed with like the textures. And, you know, I was just exploring this like whole area’s weird world of malls. And I so I grew up there a lot. I was in the mall all the time. And then I got involved in theater, probably enjoyed like middle school. I started doing like acting like musicals and plays and stuff like that and got really into in high school and ended up going to New York to audition for theater schools and got into SUNY Purchase. And I was there for about a year and a half doing sort of the performance side of it. And then I transferred to Fordham University at Lincoln Center, that sort of like the arts campus and then probably my second to last year there. A friend of mine who was directing a play asked if I could costume design his show. I had never done anything like that before. And I just fell in love. I was just, I think I think with performance for me, it was always like, it was always really hard. I would always get so nervous and like, you know, I don’t know, like any time I had to audition or anything like that, it was just terrifying. And as soon as I was like, Oh, this is a way I can be creatively involved but not have to be on camera, right or on the stage. It was great, and I just was fascinated by the psychological element of it. You know, thinking about why someone wears something, what is their budget like? Where, you know, where can they go to shop? How are they feeling that day? And how does that affect how they’re dressing that day? You know, all that kind of psychological stuff that goes into it.

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S3: I mean, it sounds like it almost sounds like you. You approach costume design like an actor, right? It’s like, like what is reflecting of the character and they’re given circumstances and their their backstory and all that stuff.

S2: And I’ve taught myself over the years about fashion, you know, and learned more about designers and all of that. But originally, you know, all I thought about was the psychological approach. I think, you know, I had to really train myself and teach myself about designers. And, you know, a lot of people in this world in our industry come from the other side of the world. They come from the fashion world and they have all that knowledge. But yeah, it’s been sort of a self teaching thing, but I think that’s good. I think it’s better to come in my mind to come from the psychological point of view, because that’s, I think, more truthful and in the way, you know.

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S3: So once you realized you wanted to do this, though, you were, you were still in school for acting, right? So like, how did you then make that transition? How did you learn how to do what you do now?

S2: I just started asking more friends if I could costume design their Show’s and then when I graduated, I. I think I was acting in a student film like a small little budget, and I made friends with the girl who was the costume designer and I was like, How did you get into this? Like, this is what I really want to do? And she directed me to me, indeed.com. Do you remember that website?

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S3: I do remember that. Yeah, yeah.

S2: But it’s like so long

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S3: ago, I also studied theater in New York state. I am aware of many documenting that.

S2: So she directed me to that, and she was like, Sometimes they pose little jobs or whatever on there. So I looked on there and I happened to just find like just luck of the draw, like found a posting by a designer looking for an intern back when you could have interns. We don’t really do have interns anymore, but back then you could have an intern in the film world for being a costume intern on a sketch comedy nonunion TV show. And I applied and I got it. And literally day one. I walked into that costume department and it just my brain exploded. I was just like, I can’t believe that this exists and this is real, that this could be a career. And it just made everything was like, Oh, this is this is all my training. This is all the shopping. I just knew, you know, and then it was like, also has the crafting element like, I started sewing when I was young and my mom always was very crafty and we were always making things all the time. And I was like, Oh, I just get to like, sit down with a glue gun and like glue gun like faux fur onto a giant bear costume, right? Like, I mean, like what? Yes. I mean it.

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S3: It’s funny because, you know, the the last costume designer that we interviewed for this show started in a similar role on Saturday Night Live with sketch comedy. You know, she was talking about having to work that quickly making those big choices, which was hugely influential in her practice. Later, did you did you find that as well?

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S2: Yeah, absolutely. I think that because you are creating hundreds of worlds, you’re not creating one world, you’re creating hundreds and thousands of different worlds. You know, so on that that job was whitest kids, you know, that was like, Oh yes, job I ever did as an intern. And then I’ve also designed one of the seasons of Inside Amy Schumer and same thing in sketch comedy. You know, you have 60 sketches or 80 sketches that you’re producing in one season. You have to be prepared for all of them all the time. And so it just makes you just kind of like, you’re like, OK, I need to be the master of this schedule. I need to understand all the timelines. I need to have my hand in every little thing that’s going on and make sure everything is, you know, happening when it needs to happen and not be too precious about everything. I think that it really trains you to know where to focus your energy, which is, I think, one of the hardest parts of being a costume designer in film and television or just working in film and television. I think in general, it’s like knowing when something is important and when you should care about it and knowing when it’s like whatever. We’re going to see that costume for two seconds. It’s not a big deal. Let’s move on, you know?

S3: Yeah, yeah, that button might not be in the right. Yeah, it might. Yeah, might attach or whatever, but no one’s going to say, Yeah, yeah. Is there something particular about costuming for comedy that you feel drawn to or that you feel is particularly rewarding?

S2: I think there’s something that’s just so joyful about working in comedy, I mean, generally, like you’re in these fittings with these comedians and you are just I’m just like crying, laughing, like like just the whole sitting. And I’m like, This is just so fun. And then I think the other thing that I really like about working in comedy and why I keep getting work and comedy stuff is because I I really like to achieve that balance of making sure it’s not going to. Silly or too on the nose or too over the top, you know, like I think I have a good eye for bringing it back into reality and making sure that it’s based on something real and something psychological, you know, like that these are still real people, even though they’re hilarious and they’re comedians, they’re still right. You know, thinking, feeling real human beings and yeah, always approaching it from a psychological view versus just thinking like, what’s the funniest, you know?

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S3: Right? You know, I was thinking about that because in only murders in the building, it strikes me the costumes are a little bit heightened right there. They’re a little bit heightened. They’re a little bit, you know, they’re expressing some, some core essence of the character in a way that that is not exactly realistic. But there’s also this balance where if you go too far with that, then there is no coherent world being created and it’s just sort of, you know, yuks for their own sake or whatever. Yeah. And I’m curious about how you navigate that balance. I mean, have there been times we’ve been like, Oh, this is pushing too far, I need to pull this back or whatever?

S2: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s it’s that’s the number one job of a costume designer, and my mind is finding the right balance of where each project lies. And I think with this one. What was so interesting was that we had this combination of the sort of mystery world and the comedy world. And so finding that balance of like, you know, making sure that we weren’t going too far was really, really important. And I think the clearest sort of story to show how we did that was maybe with Marty’s purple coat look that he wears in the first episode.

S3: That coat is amazing, but it’s such a good coat. It’s I had a bunch of questions written down about the coat that we could jump there. Let’s talk about that coat.

S2: So that coat is this beautiful royal purple full-length Haider Ackermann coat. And you know, we took God. I think it was actually really scary. We were like up until, I think, the day before shooting that scene, or maybe two days before, and we still weren’t sure. Like, what? What is the coat like? Which coat is it going to be? And we had, I think, four or five racks of coat options for him, for that one look that we sourced from all over the world and we had the craziest. We had like really crazy ones. And I had like, you know, giant like four inch pale faux fur and crazy patterns like really avant garde and stuff with like, you know, straps hanging all over, you know, like, we had some really wild ones. But, you know, Marty was really insistent that, you know, that he kept being like, You know, I am, I’m the comedy like, I’m, you know, I want to be featured. You know, he didn’t. He wanted to make sure that the costume wasn’t going to overpower him. Roach is so important, and I’m glad that he, you know, those sometimes when an actor comes in and says something like that, it’s really wonderful because there’s sort of someone else like, you know, someone else might make the sort of funnier, you know, joke or call and be like, Let’s go with the big, crazy, you know, easy joke, easy laughs,

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S3: the epaulets and the

S2: yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So he was so it was nice that he was there to help sort of balance that world and say, like, no, it should still be real. It should still be. Why am I wearing this coat? It can’t be for no reason, you know, so we we came up with the whole concept of like that. He was coming from like a meeting with a director for a new show he’s trying to do. So he put on his nicest coat, his like most fancy, you know, coat. I mean, the man’s going into debt and he has this like $6000 coat. So but that’s we also justify it that we thought, you know, oh, he would have like tons of credit cards where he’s just maxing them all out to get the clothing he wants.

S3: And part of the thing with that character is that we don’t know he’s in debt at first. I mean, it just we think he’s, you know, wealthy, you know, he might not be as successful as he was, but but we don’t actually know at that point. I don’t think the straits that he’s in, that’s that’s actually kind of reveal at the very end of the episode.

S2: And we thought, you know, this character did have a heyday. You know, he had time when he obviously he has a beautiful apartment like he obviously had money at some point. So, you know, we thought, well, he would have some really nice pieces in his closet. But then, you know, we kind of looked at each of our main characters and thought, you know, how are each of them using their clothing as a tool to get what they want or, as you know, the clothing itself? How is it involved in the mystery?

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S3: Well, and there’s one way, of course, that the clothing is directly involved in the mystery, which is that they’re looking for someone who’s wearing a particular piece of clothing, a tie dye hoodie. Was that always in the script that it was going to be a tie dye courier? Was that did that grow out of conversations with you or

S2: no, it was scripted. It was always scripted as tie dye guy. And I wonder, you know, actually, I never thought that it was a funny phrase tie dye guy when I get it on the page. But as soon as Steve started saying it, I was like, Oh, that’s why they made it tie dye guy, because it’s hilarious when Steve says it.

S3: I will say this is our strongest suspect yet. Next to Tie Guy. And that’s the tie that we cannot forget about tie dye guide.

S2: But no, it was always scripted that but we again, like, you know, had tons of options and racks and racks and racks and not to give anything away about the show, but we had to also have many, many multiples of this hoodie. And getting a multiple of something that’s tie-dyed is not easy because tie dye is, you know, random, obviously. Like when you’re creating tie dye, it’s random. So we got the best we could matches, but that was sort of limited our options of like what we could find.

S3: Yeah, I mean, this is so fascinating because you talk about one piece of clothing. I mean, you said this as well with the coats that you had racks and racks of options, how do you not get overwhelmed by the choices? I mean, choice paralysis is a real thing that human beings face, right? So like, oh, this one’s green and red is green and red, the right swirl on this tie dye? Or does it want to be blue and yellow? Like, you know, how do you how do you stop that from happening?

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S2: Well, it does happen. It just does happen. It’s just part of the process. It’s always part of the process. And but I think the process is my favorite part of the job. So I think that’s really fun. You know, like, I like it when I love having those discussions with the directors or the producers or the actors being like, Oh, should we be yellow? Oh yeah, well, let’s try the yellow. Let’s try to, you know, we did with those hoodies like we did do. So we found one that we really liked. But then we were like, Is it too light colored? Should we try to die? We tried to diet. We tried to paint it. We tried to like over diet. But then we realized when you over diet, then like the yellow becomes a green and we didn’t want it to be green because we have to work with green screens. So it was like this whole, you know, it’s just it is a whole process. And you know, a lot of times you get to the end of that process and you’re back at square like you basically just go back to the original thing you bought. Right, right. All the time you spend like a month trying to figure something out and then you’re like, Oh, actually, just the first thing we had was what was best?

S3: Has that happened enough that you’re not annoyed by it anymore? Or are you just sort of like, Oh, well, we just had to do this. That’s how we had to get here.

S2: That’s that’s what it is. Yeah, I think you just have to accept that that’s very much part of the creative process in film world. And I think working in sketch comedy really trained me for that. I think I learned very early on like, nothing is precious, like you can’t you can’t put too much of your heart and soul into anything because it’s going to change because that’s just television. Like, they’re going to rewrite something and they’re going to cut something. And I mean, there have been more devastating like script cutting things for us that I was like, Oh, it is painful, but you take like a day, you’re sad about it. And then the next day you just have to move on. You just have to, you know, and then you just decide where to put your energy next. You’re like, OK, well, that’s done. So, you

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S3: know? Right, right? Was that something you had to kind of learn how to do?

S2: I think it came easily to me, I don’t know why, I think it just happens all of the time where, you know, people don’t really, I mean, maybe people do, but you know, I think people may not realize like how many opinions are involved in every single costume decision. You know, it’s not just me coming in and being like, I want it to be this, you know, it’s like the actor is very much involved in the fitting. The directors are very much involved, the producers are very much involved and it’s, you know, 20 people, you know, ultimately deciding.

S3: And then and then there’s stuff like, you know, the lighting and camerawork, the color palette of the set and your decisions influence all that other stuff at the same time.

S2: Sure. And then there’s another even within my department, there’s the whole decision making process where, you know, I I have shoppers that are like full time shoppers that work for me and assistants and system designers, and I will come up with the concept and the design, and then I will give that information to them and then they go out shopping so they might bring something back. That’s something that I wouldn’t have personally shopped. But I see it. I, they get it. They use their design brain. They go and get it. And then I see it. I’m like, Oh, I didn’t even think about this. This is amazing. This is perfect.

S3: Well, then I imagine being able to have like a ton of different options is really helpful for that. You know, if if the budget was lower and it’s sort of like we have three things than it, then it becomes the stakes get much higher for each individual decision.

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S2: Yeah, that’s true. If it’s it’s very you feel very lucky when you’re working on a bigger budgeted projects because I think in my mind, I guess what doesn’t what helps me not be stressed is just knowing that, you know, I’m in New York City. I’m never five minutes, 10 minutes away from some kind of store and I have a credit card, right? Like worse comes to worse if all hell breaks loose. And like, you know, an actor hates something or a director is like, This isn’t going to work. I hate everything. You know, I’m just like, OK, I’ll be back in 15 minutes, you know, like, and you you learn to be like an amazing quick shopper and quick thinker. Yeah.

S1: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Dana Covarrubias. One of the things we would love to do on this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a question about preparation, setting the mood so you can do your best work anything at all. Send them to us at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three or four 933 W o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now, let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Dana Covarrubias.

S3: I would love to talk to you a bit about the costumes for Charles and Mabel, since we’ve already talked about about Oliver, what were the conversations that led to you? I would say Charles Steve Martin character in some ways is the most restrained dresser of all of them. So. So how did that costume and, you know, very specific color palette and things like that evolve during the pre-production process into what we see now?

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S2: We had a Zoom meeting very early on in Prep, and Steve mentioned that as a character. He said there was, as ever, been a movie or anything he’s ever been in where he wore jeans. So that was sort of the first sort of insight into what he wanted for Charles and what we, you know, how we were going to approach that character. But he was just like, I’ve just never worn jeans. I think I should wear jeans. We’re like, OK, cool, great. And then otherwise, I think, you know, it was very like Steve has a similar way of dressing where it’s just it’s kind of repetitive in a way where it’s just a really nice buttoned down, really nice blazer, jeans and sneakers. And that’s kind of his day to day look. And so we sort of took that and figured out how to make it a little more in our world. But the main thought process behind his character was just that he basically wants to, you know, he finds comfort in his clothing, that he’s looking for stability and he’s looking for repetition. And he’s a character who is sort of, you know, they’re all stuck in the past in some way, each of them and the way that he is sort of reliving his past is by dressing in a similar way to how his character Brazeau’s dressed. So we sort of thought that the hat would be like a bit of a, you know, callback to his Brazeau’s detective character and that he’s sort of mimicking the silhouette that he was famous for in the 90s and that he, you know, we had all of his shirts made by Anto Beverly Hills, who they are shirt makers for television and film, and they made Steve shirts for the jerk. And ever since the jerk, they have been making Steve shirts. So we sort of thought, you know, that would be an interesting thing that Steve actually does in his real life, that we could also say that Charles is doing where you’re used to a thing, you know, it works. You know, it fits. They have your measurements. They just do a perfect shirt for you. So he has, you know, we I think we ordered, you know, something like t shirts in all the colors, tons of different patterns, and they’re the exact same shirt. And that’s it. And then it’s like, OK, so we, you know, Brazeau’s, when he was when Brazeau’s was on television, you know, Charles had his shirts made by Anto. And so we sort of thought, Oh, Charles would just continue getting his shirts from Anto, right?

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S3: So that’s interesting because so it sounds like the way you brought Steve Martin’s clothing into the world of this show is to kind of just heighten the repetitiveness of it a little bit because he’s someone who’s trapped in all of these routines we see in the first episode. He makes the omelet over and over again and throws it out. And so this is like the clothing version version of that of that. So even if the color of the shirt is different or whatever, the cut is exactly the same. It’s always referencing the same silhouette.

S2: He just sticks to what he knows, and that’s he’s one of those people. He’s like, put himself in a box and he’s just very happy in that little box. He’s just very comfortable.

S3: You know, some designers, when they first get a script, the thing they’re looking at is, how many outfits am I responsible for? You know, they immediately were going to that right? What’s the budget? How many outfits six months before or what season is it? What are the what are we used to see in script analysis, the given circumstances and the environmental factors of the world or whatever? What about you when you first read a script, when you first got the script for Only Murders in the building? What is your eye immediately drawn to in that? What are you thinking about right off the bat?

S2: I think I’m always thinking about mood like I think I really I always read a script first for pleasure, you know, like as an audience member, I always just do one pass first where it’s just I’m just trying to get into the mood of whatever the script is giving me. I love it when script writers put in notes about music. Yeah, I really like. And then sometimes I’ll put on music and I’ll read the script to the music. And it just, I don’t know, it just gets my creative brain going when I just for some reason when I have music going right, you know, I did that show Master of None. And Azeez would in every scene put a song that he wanted to be playing under each scene. And, you know, all the music changed later on in the show, obviously. But it just gave such a insight to, you know what, the mood of the project. It was so I think, yeah, I’m always looking for mood first and just general sort of design concepts and looking really deeply at the script and I guess that the like psychologically like seeing that omelette thing and thinking like. Oh, he’s something what’s going on with him? You know, if he’s making this omelet over and over again, you know, or there were little notes about Selena’s character, you know, wanting to protect herself, like wanting to make sure that people leave her alone. And so, so from that, we decided that her costumes were like going to be a kind of armor that she would like protect herself from other people.

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S3: Can you speak a little bit more about that? So what is what is the nature of that armor? How does that? How do we see that armor reflected in the show?

S2: You know, one of the things that was interesting in my interview for the job was that John Hoffman, our show creator, mentioned that he saw there’s a apparently put a photo of myself on my website and I’m wearing like this big faux fur coat and like boots and a hat and winter hat. And he just loved that photo. He was like, You just look so like New York tough girl. And and he was like, I kind of like that vibe from evil. And I think that it’s just something that New York City women understand about how you need to dress in the city you like. And Selena character, Mabel, says this in the first, her dialogue in the first scene. But she, you know, all eyes are on you and you have to navigate how to protect yourself. So I think we were thinking, you know, she’s wearing these like sort of coats that are like, really big and kind of act as like a shell around her. And then the sunglasses and then the headphones and then the, you know, the hat and the like really heavy treaded combat boots. You know, it was all sort of like an armor layer to protect her against this outside world that she’s kind of running from.

S3: You mentioned having, you know, early conversations with with John Hoffman is the showrunner. So those first conversations? What do you like to know from your directors or your showrunners or whoever you’re interfacing with at the beginning of your process, like when you go into those first meetings, what can they do that sort of most helpful to you?

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S2: First of all, I just have to say that John Hoffman is the best. He’s like the sweetest, smartest creative, amazing person to work with. I’m trying to think what he did because I just love interacting with him. He’s just so clear. I think that’s what it is. I think just having a very clear vision. So I think when we started the process, he had like a I mean, it was mood boards or it was I feel like there’s some video component. It was like a whole like presentation thing that he had. And I think I saw it after I was hired, like we had like a meeting with maybe myself, the production designer Kurt Beach, and maybe the composer was there too. I can’t remember, but a bunch of the creative heads were there, and he kind of did like a little presentation for us, which was amazing. I’ve never had anyone do that before. And it just immediately told us where we needed to go, you know, and like where we needed to start and how we could start. And that was just super hopeful and it was mostly, I think, just images. You know, it was just like, maybe he played a little bit of music and maybe it was. It was just images and it was ideas on casting. You know, like a lot of that hadn’t been cast. We had the main three people, of course, but like the rest of the cast, hadn’t come in yet. So, you know, but he had like sort of headshots of people he imagined this character might be. And so that just gave us a very clear idea of where he wanted to go with the whole look. Super helpful.

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S3: Do you do a lot of sketching before the shopping period? You know, do you do a lot of that?

S2: Generally, I do mood boards just with imagery search, and that is my favorite part of the job I could do. Like forever and ever and ever. I like if, yeah, I just love finding images and putting together mood boards.

S3: It’s so fun. I love research too, and we talk about research and time on the show. So what is your research process like? It’s a favorite part of your favorite part. Drop some science on us about, Oh

S2: God, I love it. Well, it’s a combo, so a lot of it is out on the street. You know, a lot of it is physically going to whatever neighborhood or, you know, place where the show is taking place and finding, you know, in this case, like going to the Upper West Side and finding a building that’s similar to the Laconia and just people watching, you know, I lived in New York for 20 years almost. So I definitely already have all that sort of stored in my my mind’s eye from living here for so long. And it definitely as a costume designer, you’re constantly talking and telling yourself to remember things that you see. You know, you see a guy wearing bowling shoes with a three piece suit and you’re like, Why is he wearing bowling shoes with three piece suit? That’s amazing. I need to remember that. So you’re always you have this catalog in your brain, but sometimes it’s nice to get a refresh. So I usually go to that place and. Just have a coffee and just people watch, and that is that’s the first thing I do. And then and then the mood boards, I mean, I it’s mostly scouring the internet for good images, images that I feel like makes sense for that character. But sometimes it’s an image of a piece of fabric. Sometimes it’s an image of like, it can be like, really tonal. It can be just like a chair, an empty chair on a stage that just has like a mood. And I think like people are like, why does how does this affect the costumes? And I’m like, I don’t know. It just does like it does. It’s like, it’s just the mood of it. Solitude, solitude. Yeah. But yeah, so a lot of my mood boards, you know, I’ll definitely always have. I usually always find photos of the actual actor who’s playing the character. So I usually do a mood board for color palette for each character that’s just about color palette. And then I do individual mood boards for each character. And I mean, every character, I mean, every character in the entire show. And like even background, you know, if there’s like a really specific background type, I’ll do mood boards. You know, obviously for our show, there are concerns that other people living in the building were specific, very specific thing. I even I gave them all jobs. I think I went I went really crazy with it. But Jamie Babbitt, who was one of our producers and directors, she loved it. She was like, You gave them jobs. She was like, What do they do? And I was like, Well, that guy is a tech guy, like, she’s an accountant. Like, that guy was like, really, he was married, but he got like, he made all this money in the stock market. Then he divorced his wife, and now he has a 20 year old girlfriend. You know, it’s like crazy stories.

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S3: It’s so funny because that’s again, what an actor does, right? You construct you invented backstory for your character so that you can know what your character’s actions.

S2: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But yeah, I literally make a mood board for even like a day player who has like three lines. I’ll make a mood board for that person, but it because I just. Otherwise, it can feel like if you don’t have something in mind, when you’re when I’m sending my shoppers out or when I’m shopping or in the fitting, then it kind of I feel like things get cookie cutter, you know, like you can very easily just go into like, oh, just put them in a navy polo and some khakis and call it a day, you know, like. But if you take 10 minutes to sit down and research and think a little bit more deeply about who this person is and where they’re coming from, it ultimately just makes your design so much more full and rich.

S3: So is there a kind of project as a costume designer that you haven’t worked on yet that you really want to do? Like, do you really want to do opera or do you really want to do a period piece? Like, is there? Is there something that you haven’t done that you that you really want to try your hand at?

S2: You know what it would be like a dream dream job that movie her way like future, but like a subtle, like a really subtle future, you know, is beautiful. Like, I thought that design was amazing. Amazing. So, yeah, I think I think I love science of sci fi. I love sci fi.

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S3: So, yeah, me to be televised.

S2: Yeah, it’s the

S3: best thing about those those Blade Runner, the original Blade Runner costumes were it’s the noir stuff, but there were shoes on their head and they have all these crazy patterned clashes.

S2: Oh my god. Yeah, I mean, it’s just sci fi. You can just, you know, fifth, I’ve probably seen the movie for an element like 5000 times the

S3: cigarettes, right? With the long filters than the teeny bit of cigarettes that

S2: think, I mean, just every the stewardesses on the the whatever the ship is that they take over, those costumes are just like, you know. But yeah, I think something doing sci fi would be amazing because it’s, you know, you’re really starting from scratch and you have to think about, you know, beyond the psychological part of it, you’ve been thinking about functionality, you know, thinking about, like in this world, what fabrics have been created. And of course, you know, in the future, we’re all going to be wearing something that’s like smart, probably. So it’s you know, in what? In what way is my shirt? Can my shirt read my body temperature? Is it cooling me down? Is it, you know, so you get to think of all these like cool tech elements that could possibly exist in the future world?

S3: That’s amazing. Well, Dana, thank you so much for joining us this week and telling us all about your process.

S2: Thank you so much. It’s so fun.

S1: Isaac, I really enjoyed that conversation. And then it just seems like she would be a very cool person to work with. We often talk about collaboration on this show, but Dana seems to find working with others truly generative. And as someone who can be a bit of a hermit, I find that quite inspiring and I was a little bit jealous. I was also struck by how important first jobs can be. Hers was on a sketch comedy show where you just need to have a lot of different looks and you don’t have the time or the money to make everything perfect. And that seems to have really shaped her way of working pretty significantly. She really knows how to prioritize.

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S3: No, yeah, that is very true. And you know, Brenda abandoned alone, the costume designer that I interviewed last year here I’m working, also started in sketch comedy. I mean, it seems like it’s a pretty good trial by fire. Frankly, you have to work really fast. You have to do everything from, you know, costuming space aliens to something very realistic. You know you you don’t have a lot of time for your inner critic to take over and hamstring your process. I mean, it seems like a pretty great place to start.

S1: Do you think that things that you did early in your career have shaped the way you work now?

S2: I mean,

S3: yes, I’m sure they did in that everything you do in the past shapes the present to you, but to think about it in more specifics, I do think training as a director and working as a director taught me some ways of reading that are really focused on dramatic action and on structure. And those are things I really care about a lot as a writer. And so, you know, like a lot of what I’m doing in my book is like managing narrative tension so that people still want to keep reading it or you know what causes what to happen. And really articulating that that chain of incident in a really clear way. And that’s a lot of that comes from just learning how to read scripts as a director. I think also, you know, the other thing you do as a director is it’s a lot of how does everyone contribute from their own point of view in their own creative discipline in order to create something that’s sort of larger than any one person and, you know, any one department? You know, the play you create is sort of more than the script. It’s more than the actors, it’s more than you. It’s bigger than you. And that doesn’t translate exactly to writing a book because so much of it is you on your own. But the idea that you’re making something that is bigger than yourself and you are in fact serving it and the different components of it, you know, somehow it transcends the different components of it to be this new thing that that’s a helpful way of thinking for me, too.

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S1: And before we stray too far away from the start of Dana’s career, she mentioned she got one of her first costuming jobs via Mandy dot com. You said you’d used it to. What was it?

S3: Well, I actually haven’t used it, but I knew people who hadn’t gotten jobs from inside of it, actually. It does still exist. Mandy Gqom is a job listings site for mostly non-union gigs in TV and film for actors and people of various creative departments, including costume design. So if you’re starting out in the industry, Mandy dot com is a pretty good place to look, too to think about sort of very entry level jobs.

S1: Well, and Dana’s career doesn’t only seem to have been shaped by her earliest costuming jobs, but also by the things she did before she found that field. So in her case, that was acting and training to be an actor. As I mentioned last week, I have a good friend who worked in theater and opera costume shops for decades. Her training was more in costume history and craft, which is probably more relevant to opera, where directors are often setting familiar works in different eras. So you need to be able to quickly signal to the audience. It’s Othello, but it’s set in Chicago in the 1960s. Right? But Dana’s acting background takes her in a different direction. Very psychological more about what characters are signaling with their clothes like why is that guy who’s wearing a hat? Why is that woman trying so hard to push people away?

S3: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you can really see that in the work. I mean, you could really see that in particular in only murders in the building. I mean, you could imagine a world in which you push that too far. Like, Oh, he wears red because he’s a violent man or, you know, whatever. Yeah, but it’s far more delicate and complicated than that she does for the characters. Would a lot of actors do they invent backstory? They think about what the character wants and why? And then she takes it that extra step of, you know, what clothing are they wearing, what they might have chosen in order to accomplish those things in order to get what they want, in order to have the effect they want to have on the world. Whether it’s getting through your day without being harassed on the street or convincing someone to invest in your play. I mean, that’s the basics of acting right there, but it’s really wonderful to see it reflected in this other medium.

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S1: Mood boards are a huge part of Dana’s creative process. She had me absolutely convinced of their importance and their usefulness to her. But I have to say images, they just don’t do that for me personally. Do you use any similar techniques to get you into the right frame of mind for a project?

S3: No. I tend to use things like music or text, actually, you know, specific pieces of text, the movies, you know, things like that. It’s not the still image I love. Still images you love looking at photos. I love going to the museum. You know, it’s nothing against the still image, but it doesn’t inspire me in the particular way that a mood board inspires Dana. Or actually, we have a guest coming up in the future who who also uses mood boards a lot, she said. So I don’t know whether that’s because I’m a writer, not a designer or whatever. But as a director, I like to see the designer’s mood board because it’s a really good way to have something to talk about. But I do not make them myself. I even like this this sort of dirty secret, I guess, but I even like, you know, those pages of photo inserts in the middle of the book of like a non-fiction book, I often skip them. Yeah, it’s just like, it’s not actually a thing I respond to, even as I love graphic novels. I love comics. I love going to the mat. You know, it’s not like imagery befuddles me. It’s just not how I get creatively inspired.

S1: It’s same with me. And in fact, you know, these days when you read e-books, they’ll often put the images in a separate file and many’s the time I’ve just never opened them. I think if I do, generally it’s like it’s a biography and I don’t know what somebody looks like, and I just kind of want to spy on them almost. Yeah, totally. But I’m the same way.

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S3: Yeah, it’s funny because, you know, obviously we have one of those inserts in the method. I mean, like, I had to choose the photos for one of those, which is a weird thing to do because I had to sort of like play the part of someone who wanted to see these pictures and then figure out what they wanted to see because it’s actually a necessity. Like readers tend to really like that. And in fact, there are people who will buy the book just because they like those inserts of photos. They, you know, and it’s just a completely foreign reading experience of what my own is. So I had to do a little bit of acting and get into the headspace of someone who you know really wants to know what Lee Strasberg looked like when he was middle aged. Or, you know, whatever it is.

S1: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So having know, watched a few episodes of only murders in the building, I have to say I’m in love with the setting a big New York apartment building full of people. And, you know, in that particular type of building, almost all of them will be rich. Some of them will be famous. There are still, though, going to be a few people who’ve held onto or looked into their places so you can always be running into new characters and they’ll get to dress a little differently as far as Dana’s job goes. And I love that she created backstories for all the other concerns. You know, the people who live in the, ah, Konya apartments. I love that.

S3: Yeah, yeah. I mean, she even creates backstories for, you know, extras, you know, and I think that’s really fun and kind of moving actually in a way. And it makes every space in that show feel really full of life, which I think is actually one of the big creative challenges of making TV and film right now during the pandemic. You know, the casts are reduced. The number of people you can have on a shoot is smaller. A lot of the spaces, even in only murders in the building, a lot of those backgrounds are actually green screen. The actors are in front of a green screen. And so making it feel like an organic lived in a world that is actually populated by individuals, not ideas of people, but individual people is a real creative challenge. And I think the way her working methods address that challenge is really fascinating. Of course, again, you can understand if it’s pushed too far, every character looks too interesting, then you don’t know what to pay attention to, right? That’s like the the like lower tier Wes Anderson film problem. Everything is so interesting. You’re just sort of like, What am I actually supposed to be paying attention to here? But she avoids that. It’s it’s a balance that you have to keep, but I think she stays on the right side of it.

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S1: So only murders in the building. It isn’t just set in New York, it also features some of the amazing actors that are based here, some of whom are most known for theater. I’m thinking, for example, of Jane Hardshell, who’s an absolutely magnificent actress and who I didn’t recognize in this show for several minutes because, as Dana said, she’s usually cast in super dowdy roles. And here she gets to a really gorgeous outfit, very like statement glasses. It’s really striking appearance, and I’m just glad that these days we have more chances to see these fantastic performers on our TV.

S3: Yeah, totally. I mean, the show has household names like Nathan Lane and there, but it also has those really extremely skilled theater actors like Jane or Michael Cyril Creighton, both of whom I’m lucky to say I have worked with actually in both very, very brilliant. And I mean, some of that is just the pandemic has made scary. Easier people are less committed, you can get a bunch of people into a room. The show is structured in such a way that no one is working too many days in a row. You know, it’s a very cleverly designed show in that way to kind of take advantage of what’s available. But some of it also, I think, stems from a desire on everyone’s part because it’s there in the writing, too, to make all of the denizens of the building as interesting as possible and to establish what’s interesting about them as quickly as you can. You know, you think of there is the the down on his luck therapist who’s right, the neat therapist, the needy therapist who keeps talking about how he takes Venmo in case people need an emergency session. I’m Dr. Grover Stanley, and I’m sure we’re all grieving the loss of Tim Cono if you need to talk privately about Tim or whatever. I live on six and I take Venmo with therapists. It’s always a fun suspect. Plus, he’s desperate. Always good due to that character is like four lines, but you know, all you could just imagine a whole world about him, just even in those four lines.

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S1: Totally. And making a show in New York provides costume designers with the reassurance that if the worst comes to the worst, they can always find something in a store within an hour, you know, from leaving the set to returning with the perfect costume. And that’s a huge contrast with making a show in a rural setting or really in many of the cities.

S3: Yeah, or on a smaller budget, right? I mean, one thing I was I was thinking about during this interview is that like, Oh right, this is a show that, you know, Hulu’s put a lot of money into, right like that creates certain resources. Not every show is the budget where you can like, I’m going to buy 50 coats them, return all of them or, you know, whatever. And that’s not to say that that makes it everything easy. I mean, money makes some things easier. But but that’s just simply to say that, you know, different processes work for different environments and different conditions. And one of the things that the kind of process that Dana likes to work with, which is one that is iterative, which is one where you know, you’re inventing a lot, you have a lot of options and you’re inventing a lot on the spot. You do a lot of background work on that idea, but then its actual realizations a little intuitive. You know that there are certain conditions that make that easier than others.

S1: Yeah, sure. Well, listeners, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show if you have. Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. That way, you’ll never miss an episode. And no, let me tell you how awesome a Slate Plus membership is. Slate Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Full access to all the articles on Slate.com. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and How to Do It. But I also hope you would like to support the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate.com. Slush working plus.

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S3: Thank you to Dana Covarrubias for being our guest. This week was a really wonderful conversation. Thanks for joining us. An enormous thank you to our stellar producer, Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week with June’s conversation with actor Tom Meissen. You might know him as Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow. Until then, get back to work. Hey, Slate, plus, listeners, Isaac Butler here, we had a little bit extra with the Dana Covarrubias interview that we couldn’t bear to part with, and so we’ve put it here for you to listen to it. Thank you so much for all your support. Hope you enjoy it. There’s a lot of cameos in the show or, you know, characters who have one or two scenes. But we need to know a lot about them very fast and a lot of that comes out in their clothing. I’m thinking about, like Michael Cyril Creighton as the cat loving tenant or Jane. Howdy, Shell’s Co-op board president. Yeah, you know. So can you talk a little bit about it sort of approaching those costumes like we have one shot to establish so much information about this character and maybe get a little giggle as well, you know, like, how do we do it?

S2: Yeah. Oh my god, I think that that’s like, really where you’re my my costume designer brain just gets so excited. I just I think I have a very it’s so hard to explain, like I feel like I am in a fitting and you have, you know, you have your like two or three racks of options for your character. And as you’re for me in my design process, it’s as you’re trying those things on that you really find it, you know what I mean? I think like with Jane, we had a bunch of options and, you know, some stuff felt too stuffy, you know, too over the top. And then we put her in that beautiful, I think it was a Stella McCartney dress, and she just it looked she just looked so rich. She felt so rich. She was like and she had like this great cleavage and she was just like, I look hot and we were like, Yeah, Jane, you do.

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S3: And I could just see her doing that. That’s oh,

S2: yeah, yeah, well, and she was like, I always have to wear like schlubby, you know, like, she’s like, my costumes are generally, like, very like, not rich, like, not sexy. So it was really fun to like, put her in these like designer pieces. Yeah. But yeah, I think I mean, it’s something that you definitely focus heavily on, and I just think it’s one of in my in my process, at least, it’s kind of just a thing I just know when I see it, which I know is like a hard thing to explain. But it’s just sort of like when it’s right, it’s right because you need it to be. Again, that balance, especially in comedy, where it feels real and feels like something someone would actually wear, and it needs to be like nuanced and maybe like distressed or broken down or a little dirty. So that doesn’t look brand new. You know, like all these little things like it has to be rooted in some kind of reality. But at the same time, yeah, I maybe get like a little chuckle in there. So it’s just like finding the perfect combination to achieve that.

S3: So do you ever get stuck? Do you ever get whatever the costume designer version of Writer’s Block is?

S2: Oh, for sure. Definitely. Yeah, definitely. And that’s why it’s amazing that I have a team of 15 to 20 people because whatever I’m stuck, you know, I just go to my amazing assistant or shopper or, you know, anyone on my team and I’m asked for their help, you know, and I think, you know, something that I really try to do as a head designer, as a as a boss, as someone who’s like running this department is to not micromanage at all because I really think that again, you’re just adding more depth to your design, the more voices that are involved. So, you know, I’m not one of those designers. It’s like, you know, making my who’s offended. They say, if my assistant has an idea or like wants to like, you know, has you know, I love that I’m like, Yes, give me, give me, give me the idea.

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S3: It’s great. But at the same time, it strikes me that it takes a certain amount of confidence because you also have to know at the end of that, you’re still going to be capable of making the decision and that it’s going to be the right decision. I mean, I know that decisions made with a lot of other stakeholders, but still that you’re not going to get jammed up with a bunch of suggestions. You know, you can evaluate them and figure out what the best one is.

S2: Yes. And that is is, you know, as annoying as it can be, I think for, you know, the whole, of course, you know, in costume design, we do we in television, we have to do a lot of returns. You know, we’re shopping and then we are returning, probably. 80 percent of what we shop or something, you know? You know, and we don’t wear it, we don’t use it, we just have it for the fitting and then return it if it doesn’t get chosen. But that I think, you know, you can do all this. You can do all these mood boards. You can do all the research. You can look very deeply at the scripts. But in the fitting, really, that’s where you’re creating so much of it in my process, at least. So I love being able to have all those options. And then that to me, is where I can clearly be like, no, like I can just take, you know, like I get three racks of options and then I spend, you know, 30 minutes before the fitting, taking everything out that just, you know, honing it down and honing it down and honing it down. I think in my process, at least unfortunately for my team, like I’m one of those people where I need to see something to know that it’s not right. Which is, I think, a good way to go about it. You know, I think once you see it, you just know you’re like, Oh, it’s not, it’s not going to work.

S3: All right, that’s it for this week. Catch you next time. Thank you again for everything you do to support us right here on morning.