Familiar with George Clooney as an actor, and even as a producer, costume designer Jenny Eagan got acquainted with Clooney as a director on Suburbicon, a dark portrait of quintessential ’50s suburbia. Working for many years as an assistant costume designer under Oscar nominee Mary Zophre’s tutelage, Eagan has become a master of designing costumes—for any environment, and any time—in a way that is seamless and organic.
Speaking with Deadline, Eagan discusses her approach designing two looks for Julianne Moore—who plays twin sisters Rose and Margaret in the film—and the uneasy uniformity at the heart of Suburbicon.
Suburbicon marks your first go-round as George Clooney’s costume designer. What led to this collaboration?
I was an assistant costume designer for many years, and I worked with George, as an actor, on several Coen Brother films, so I was kind of part of the fray and the family. I also did a movie with him that [Clooney and Grant Heslov] produced called Our Brand Is Crisis. After that film, Grant came to me, so that’s how it all came together. It’s a very familiar thing, but it was a wonderful opportunity. The subject matter, the period—all of that was very exciting.
What was the directive from Clooney as to how the costumes would look?
It was very much on the page, I have to say. He’s very trusting of people in their positions—with myself, of course, with Jim [Bissell, production designer] and [cinematographer] Bob Elswit. They have a communication, but it was sort of there, feeling those advertisements from the ’50s. That beautiful, colorful—for lack of a better term, perfect—family lifestyle. It was about the “Happy Family ‘50s,” if you will.
What kind of research did you go through in preparing for the shoot?
I start with the Internet, but I think you get a lot more from books—I have special bookstores that I have been to for years and years that are very helpful in knowing what they have in stock, what’s out of print, and things they can find for you. It’s a very open dialogue with them about what I’m looking for, and they bring to me an inspiration that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of.
I still really like “old schooling.” I like going through magazine articles or newspaper clippings from years back, because it gives you things that you wouldn’t necessarily find on the internet—little, special things. But a lot of it, too, is working with the team that I have who were very collaborative together, finding fabrics, and building as you go. The characters come alive, too, because you can start in one place, and then once you get to know an actor and how that actor feels about playing that part, it evolves while doing it.
Working on Suburbicon, were costumes sourced or created from scratch?
There’s a lot of great things in costume houses that are readily available, mainly for your background and a lot of the atmosphere around. You can find a lot of things, and things that may not be usable because they’re not in such great shape, but they’re inspirational, and you can make them, seeing how the pieces come together.
The color palettes really pushed us in a particular direction. Having that palette was really, really strong, and it helped because you can go all over the place. If you find the palette and the general silhouette that you want to have for men or women, it puts it into a box, if you will, and makes it a little bit easier. From the beginning, doing all that research really helped, so that your team can all work together, and find all those fun pieces.
[Inspiration] comes from collectors, people that I’ve known through the years, and finding those pieces. There were a lot of catalogues that we drew from, because this was more of a suburban atmosphere, rather than a New York City dwelling—more Sears and Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward. JCPenney catalogues were very inspiring for looking for what the people in the suburbs might order. People tend to look very similar when you’re in the same place.
Most of Julianne [Moore]’s clothes were made, but they were based on previously existing [clothing], or styles. You just take this detail and that detail, and you mix it all into one to give yourself something different, but also something that is indicative of period.
What was it like working with Moore in crafting two characters for the film, Rose and Margaret?
In the beginning, we weren’t sure how to differentiate between the two of them. Rose was the one narrating in the beginning, who had a sister that was in a wheelchair. She was still together, understanding that once Rose passed away, then Margaret’s changing her look to emulate Rose, as if, “Well, I’m going to be just like her.”
We had that conversation about, “Or, is she the more glamorous of the two?” We pushed that envelope a little bit about Margaret being the more glamorous of the two sisters, once she had that changed look. It was fun to find out in the beginning that she was going to play both parts, because that made it a little bit more interesting, and you could have fun with that character a little bit.
Matt Damon put on weight for the role of Gardner. What was it like collaborating with him on his character’s look?
The two of them are true collaborators and really open to what you bring, because you’ve done a lot of the work before you actually meet with them. They absolutely bring things to it, but they also understand that we’ve set up a look. You don’t want to do too much with him, to take away from the character. He’s got a lot on his mind and his job is pretty mundane, day in and day out.
He’s kind of that guy—he’s really not that interesting of a man. So it’s like, “Well, let’s keep his wardrobe basic. He wears the same white shirt every day with short sleeves, almost like he buys in bulk.” It makes it simpler on him, and I think that was also [reflective] of the times, where there wasn’t a lot to men. It was a very simplistic time, showing him in the suburbs, keeping a very simple life, not drawing attention to himself because of what he was doing.
What choices did you make when it came to color?
When I started, Jim and his team were [already] going, and it felt just right, the color palette. Not only did it take from advertisements, but it’s almost like it was ice cream, the sweetness of this suburban town. How could that come across? It was colors that felt nice to the eyes, or could relate to things that were happy, all these soothing colors that made these people seem to be [good] people.
Then, all this terrible stuff is going on at the same time. So, it was kind of that overall tone and setting that would give the audience…”It’s so sweet, a place you’d want to move to. Come on, you’d like to come to Suburbicon. Right?” That’s what it was, really, staying within that.
Was it a challenge to costume all the extras that appear within this community?
It was fun because it was almost like you were creating one character for that, like all the men in the town hall meeting for instance. If you had a chance to really look at it, they were the same men—the same men, with the same job, and wore the same clothes, just in a different color. I wanted to paint this picture where all the women and all the men were essentially the same kind of people, and you, too, could be a part of this place. It became a formula for the costume team, finding these similar things in different colors, or in different shapes.
What was the collaboration like between departments? Is there a call and response throughout production, or are these decisions all laid out in prep?
I think it’s organic to each project. It depends on how much advance notice there is. If you’ve worked with people before, you kind of know their thinking and how they approach each project. But it’s also very important to me to approach any job with open communication. There’s an overall palette and tone wherever we go, whether it be to the grocery store or the beauty shop. You just get on the same page where you are under the assumption: “Well, this is what he’s going to do.” Because you feel like you’re all in that same world.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on this project?
In the beginning, it’s always working with somebody new, working with a new director that doesn’t know your capabilities, or you’re not sure what they’re going to do. What are his expectations of me, and am I fulfilling those expectations? Wondering which way he’s going to go. So you might go a little bit farther, try on a lot more, go a lot of different directions to give him options and to prove yourself, if you will.
That starts in the beginning, and then everybody gets comfortable and the communication opens up a bit more, and you can be a little bit more direct. Do you want this or this? And you start to understand what he responds to. I think those are the biggest things. The thing is, with Grant and George, they’re such a professional, well oiled team that you feel like you have your answers. It’s such a pleasure working with them because it’s all there. There’s changes of course—there always are—but there’s plenty of time with those changes that are thought about, so I felt very comfortable with that.
You’ve been commended by your peers for your ability to create period costumes that don’t feel like costumes at all. What’s the secret to achieving this kind of realism with costumes?
I didn’t know that this job existed until I started in this business, quite honestly. I’m from the Midwest, so I always come from a very simple, grounded place, and my research always starts from where does this take place, what part of the country or what part of the world, what are the people like there? This one specifically was a little more hyper-real than most things I’ve done in the past. Also, whether it be a background person or a principal, I look at who they are. You create their backstory, rather than thinking, Well, this is what’s on the page. Sometimes, that’s not who they cast. They’re all from the page of course, but then you look at that person and you’re thinking, This feels more like the person that they are, whether it be their gait, the way they carry themselves, or the way they speak. I always like to give somebody true-life stories.
I guess I was never trained about anything else—I just learned everything while I’ve been around. I take real life and apply it to the work, which I think, in aging things, is very important. Because nobody’s always walking around in brand new clothes. Giving life to the clothes, it’s that lived-in feeling. I think that adds to the realism, as well. These things are always the most important, trying to come from a real-life perspective on the whole thing.