COSTUME DESIGN // "MO' BETTER BLUES" (1990)

Jazz Baby

Ruth Carter On Dressing Spike Lee's MO' BETTER BLUES.

Portions of this 1990 interview appeared in Millimeter Magazine

ruth carter

Morgan: What was your relationship with Spike in coming up with designs for the film? Did he have very specific ideas for you?

Carter: Spike was specific with me about certain things. When he writes he sees certain things, so there are key things that he will tell me. Like, 'I want the musicians in this film to look like musicians did in the '50s; I want you to look at COTTON CLUB because I want the film to have a similar jazzy feel; I want you to look at NEW YORK, NEW YORK, the way the costume designer worked in that, and compare the differences.'

He'll also tell me some specific things about certain characters. He'll say [of his own character in the film], 'Giant's clothes should be big like he really doesn't know how to fit himself in a suit.' He won't tell me that he thinks Giant should be in pinstripes or in hats all the time; he will give me that freedom, but there are certain ideas that he has that he'll communicate to me.

In one of our first meetings he asked me, 'Well, what do you think about Clarke and Indigo? I don't want one girl to be the good girl with the nicer clothes and stuff and the other girl as the hooker or something; I want you to play them as both equally acceptable.' And then I'll think about that and I'll come back and say 'Clarke may shop here and Indigo may shop there, and the difference is in how they spend their money. Whereas Indigo might be a little more practical, Clark might be a bit more trendy.' We communicate like that.

How do you begin the design process?

I do drawings. On SCHOOL DAZE I did like 70 drawings of different characters that I showed him, and on DO THE RIGHT THING, I did quite a few drawings as well. But on this one, because we weren't using the old style from the jazz musicians of the '50s and '30s and '40s, I decided to compile pictures and look through magazines and put together a book that paralleled the period and the contemporary, since it's a contemporary piece with the '50s styling. Because I'm going to basically buy this show off the rack. There were only a couple of items that I designed and had made, like Clarke's dress in the Dizzy Club, when she finally becomes a singer. So I didn't try to compete with Giorgio Armani and Versace and Valentino; I decided to look at what they were going to be coming up with for the fall and see if any of these designers were doing things that were comparable to what we were trying to do.

So that was one of the differences in the way we approached MO' BETTER BLUES as opposed to other films.

How much feedback do you get from the actors about their characters' wardrobe?

Oh, it's wonderful. Giancarlo [Esposito] I think feels closer to his character when he can see something on the street accessory-wise, pick it up and then he comes in, 'I found something wonderful, oh my God, this earring, look at it; this earring attaches to your ear, and then it has glasses on the other end, and I can wear the glasses and have an earring too!' So I like that.

In my initial meeting with Denzel we went through the script and we talked about colors. And most people know [what they don't want], 'Listen, I look awful in green, the last movie I did they put me in green, I hate green; please don't buy anything green.' He'll tell me little things before I start buying, and then in the first fittings we'll try on all kinds of things; some things don't work, some things work; and he'll say, 'You know, as I read the script or in the rehearsals, I really want to be comfortable. I like just to wear some loose pants and a T-shirt, I don't want to be dressed up.' So I'll take all of that in while I'm out shopping, and I'll see something that I agree with as well as what he will feel comfortable in. There's a lot of give and take.

By the final fitting, Denzel was in character the whole time, and he had his trumpet in his hand, he put on part of the clothes and started playing the trumpet and looking at himself in the mirror, and I guess he felt closer to the character at that point and could really feel comfortable as the character in the clothes.

And then we have people who are very easy. Spike gave me complete freedom on his character. I said, 'Hey this guy is like Sammy Davis, Jr.' I saw him initially with a lot of rings and jewelry, and then I said maybe it's not so much jewelry, maybe he'll have a floral tie and a pinstripe suit and another pattern somewhere, and his socks will be jazzy and crazy, and maybe he'll love shoes or hats. Because he's an easy size, especially since his things in this film fit him big, he was easy to coordinate on the hanger first, and look at it and say, 'Oh my goodness. this is really out there; let's try it on Spike!' And he tried on everything. There were some things he didn't like, like bowlers; he didn't want any bowler hats in this movie. 'No bowlers, that reminds me of something, I don't know what, no bowlers'. You know, so that went back to the store.

Another note he gave me, "I want everything from the socks to be in character; none of that 'We won't see the feet [in the shot].' When I coordinate, sometimes you say, 'Well, just go with the same black shoes, because it's going to be a waist-up shot; this time I was very conscious of always changing every aspect (aside from the underwear) on the characters because you never know when Spike will just think 'Let's shoot Rhythm Jones hitting the drum with his foot,' whatever you call that thing he steps on. And if I let something slide, that's when I'm caught!

My relationship with him has progressed and I think we have a lot in common in terms of artistic choices. He basically will let me know when he doesn't like something and also let me know when he does like things. And on SCHOOL DAZE it was rougher; it was my first film, so he had a lot more to say, and I appreciated it because I learned from it. And this time I felt a lot more freedom to really create.

Did you do costume tests on film or video of the actors in their wardrobe to see how they looked?

I talked to Ernest about the type of gels and lighting that he would use, but I didn't test anything. I just utilized the actors' skin color and bought clothes that enhanced their own different shades. From watching dailies on other films that I've done I can basically tell which textures will work well, [with] what kind of lighting and backgrounds; sometimes I do camera tests but this time I didn't.

What was your background before you started on SCHOOL DAZE?

Theatre and opera. I was at Stage West in Massachusetts and then went to Sante Fe Opera in New Mexico, and then on to the L.A. Theatre Center. I did basically a lot of period pieces, and a lot of aging things, a lot of characterization, moreso than contemporary fashion. So this film has really been a growth for me because it's the most contemporary piece that I've ever done, aside from SCHOOL DAZE. But SCHOOL DAZE was college — jeans and sneakers and inexpensive things, and DO THE RIGHT THING was very urban, summer, hot. It was more characterization I felt in those two pieces, and although this did have some characterization it focused on fashion — fashion of the '50s and how it relates to what they have out right now.

Were there instances here where costumes dictated the characters?

I think Bleek's character was very simple; we used Yoji Yamamoto on Denzel, a Japanese designer — the lines are very simple and elegant. We used Armani on him because some of the Armani suits are cut like the suits were cut in the '50s — broad shoulders coming down very narrow. & Sabata Russo: He has very old styling and it's a contemporary look. So in that light I tried to get the designers together that portrayed the characters.

[For] Giancarlo, a lot of Jean Paul Gaultier, because his character is very flamboyant: he dates a French woman, and he's very European-acting, I guess. [And] Gaultier is very busy and avant-garde, so I zeroed in on that style with him.

The big guys were the challenge because there's not a lot out there for big men, so I got old suits from the '50s out of rental houses in New York.

What character was perhaps the most difficult for you to pin down?

It went pretty well on this one, I think because I had so many little meetings with Spike and Ernest and everybody. And I have so many clippings from magazines, and I said, 'Well, Shadow will be a little more colorful because of his skin color and his character wants to be out in front, so we'll brighten him up a lot more than everybody else.' So I sort of knew what I wanted. And I had a great crew who helped me along the way, so we had enough choices. We had the budget to have choices, so when something didn't work we'd switch to something else and try it out.

I think Denzel's character at first wasn't defined for the actor for me. I didn't know where he was going with the character, so that was a little hairy. I tried a lot of things on him at first, because I didn't know exactly how he wanted to play Bleek. I knew Bleek was the leader [of the musical group], but I didn't know what Denzel was going to do with the character. So through the fitting process he came up with the fact that he would wear his tie up above his shirt as opposed to tying it underneath his collar, and that would be the only little thing that he had going on there. He doesn't have a lot of pins on him, like Lefthand Lacey, Giancarlo's character, [who] has a whole lot going on.

It all happens in pre-production, and it's so important to communicate with the actors and have them in for fittings. You can catch them anywhere during rehearsals and say, Hey, put this jacket on. Hey, try these shoes on, you like these? Walk around in them for a little while. Let me see how they look.' So that there are no hold-ups. I like when things just keep rolling. Don't stop on my account.

Once the cameras do start rolling, does it happen that actors may not feel comfortable in their costumes?

Sometimes the actors do feel uncomfortable, but sometimes they feel uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, and wardrobe seems to get the [attention]. They can say, 'Well, you know, my suit doesn't fit right so I don't feel good today.' You know.

'If I had on different clothes I could act better.'

Right. 'My shoes!!' So we stroke a lot, and say ‘But you look great, you look wonderful.' Sometimes that helps their performance, too.

It's very important for me and I have had instances where I didn't have budget and I had to put somebody in something that didn't really fit right, on some video or whatever, so it's very important for me that the actor feels good. I have a job to do in terms of relaying a character with the clothes, but it's important for me that the actor, he's the guy in front of the camera, it's important that they feel that they are in the right clothes for the character. If it takes a discussion with the actors saying, 'Well, why don't you think that he would wear a white shirt, these are my reasons,' and sometimes when they hear your reasons, they say. 'Well, yeah, you have a point there. Maybe we can utilize my idea somewhere else,' and then in styling another suit or ensemble I'll incorporate their ideas.

I don't think that designers are dressing mannequins; they're dressing people, and the actors interpret the characters in some way that you may not be thinking in your own interpretation. So it's important to have that communication there. And I've had instances where it's been very hard when the actor didn't know the character they were playing; they hadn't decided themselves, so the clothes were very difficult for me because they were looking for it within the clothes and they didn't really know, [and] it's a big conflict. But on this one, the actors were great, they were very cooperative, very professional. I had literally no big problems at all. No fits.

Did that surprise you going into the film, given that it is less dictated by period fashions and perhaps more by the actors' personal tastes?

I was a little nervous. I had never worked with Denzel before, I didn't know what he was going to be like — he turned out to be a charm. A lot of people I knew, too — Giancarlo was back from SCHOOL DAZE, Steve White is back from DO THE RIGHT THING. I had already developed relationships with these people, so they could talk openly with me and say, 'Can I have something else, can I have another shirt? Please???' So it made it easier as opposed to them going to somebody they didn't know, or me responding in some way like I was a costume diva, which I am not.

Because it involves a jazz ensemble, you're not just dressing individuals, you're dressing a group that has to appear together on stage; were there considerations taken for that?

Definitely. I try to make sure there's a color balance. Even though everyone has an individual look I try to make sure there's a little piece of purple here, and there's a little piece of purple over there, accessorize in this way and that way and all that kind of stuff. There are things that I would have done differently, because a lot of times you don't have every piece right away and you're constantly shopping in the first few weeks of production, so you're changing things and you say, hmm, he should have worn the grey suit and then the black suit, instead of the other way around. But it's not horrible. I guess you're your own worst critic. There's always things you would do differently.

I look for that balance, because they are a group, just as if I were styling a real band, how they look together on stage. But a lot of times, they all looked very individual, and that's what I think we did in terms of the '50s styling; everyone is individual and I as a costume designer tried to optically bring that aesthetic into the film and make everyone balance, in terms of color.

I was shocked, because [although] Spike went shopping with me on SCHOOL DAZE and on DO THE RIGHT THING, he didn't go shopping on this. Even though he is not a costume designer, it's kind of nice, you feel like it's your master class with Spike Lee. Because there are little things that he wants to include and I think he enjoys it.

Does he feel perhaps that you no longer need a master class? Is that why he didn't go out shopping with you on this picture?

Well, for him I think this was bigger, more to think about for him, so he didn't really have time. I think he would have liked to, because I think he likes clothes, and likes fashion. Actually he had one of my assistants take pictures of shoes all over New York, he wanted 100 Polaroids so that he could look through them and shop for his shoes as the character Giant. So we did that. He has fun shoes. Like two-tones and animal print shoes and stripes and all that kind of stuff. And then he started walking with a limp and I thought, 'Oh, perfect!'

I do a lot of TV pilots and videos and stuff. I'm just starting, [and] I feel I really have a long way to go, and I feel blessed that Spike has worked with me on three projects because I've learned so much from working with him and at times when it seems like he's being hard on me, you know within the thick of it, I'm really just trying to take care of whatever, getting the guys out there, you know, 'Why are you sitting down and getting coffee when nobody's dressed?' I have to run and get my people to get on top of it, I look back at all that and say, He's doing all this for a reason, and I'm learning from him as well.

And everything is so different. You start a new project, you're starting all over again, and it's nice because last year when I did I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA I left them towards the end of their production period to do DO THE RIGHT THING, and I felt like 'Oh wow I get to start all over again; all the mistakes I made on SUCKA I will not make on DO THE RIGHT THING,' because I've learned. On everything I've learned a little bit more, and I feel I've grown every time. [Now] I look at some things in DO THE RIGHT THING and I say, 'Oh my goodness, what was I thinking? I mean they're okay probably to anyone else, but I'm thinking 'Oh man, that should be blue!'


Postscript:

Carter received Academy Award nominations for MALCOLM X and AMISTAD. Since then her credits have run the course from comedies and musicals (WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, THE GREAT WHITE HYPE) to period dramas (ROSEWOOD, COBB) and science fiction (SERENITY).


For Related Articles on MO' BETTER BLUES by David Morgan:

  • Interview With Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (for Millimeter, 1990)

  • Interview With Editor Sam Pollard (for Millimeter, 1990)

  • Interview With Production Designer Wynn Thomas (for Millimeter, 1990)


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