Monkeys Fighting Robots

Karyn Wagner is a veteran costume designer with projects like The Notebook, The Green Mile, and the recent Waco mini-series on Paramount Network under her pincushion. Subtle details separate good movies from great films and Karyn is part of that unsung group of film productions that enrich a story without a word. It’s obvious that a costume keeps films from being awkward, all-nude productions. But to understand the importance of a costume, consider superhero movies and TV in the 70s as opposed to today. It’s not just the effects that make the difference. Someone has to make an actor look good and for more than 30 years that’s been Karyn Wagner.

Monkeys Fighting Robots spoke with Karyn Wagner about her career, working on Waco, and how a costume tells a story.

Waco miniseries on Paramount Network

When last we left Karyn, she was doing extensive work on Preacher. As a big fan of graphic novels, it was a joy for her to work on the comic-turned-TV show. But now, her talents shifted towards creating the early 90s outfits for a group of Branch Davidian cultists in Waco, Texas. What’s the leap like from fictional Preacher to factual Waco? “I was trying to honor Garth Ennis and the creative team on Preacher. I was trying to modernize that look but still stay true to their work. Whereas Waco was this very specific historical incident and everything I picked or touched had to be germane to that exact story.”

As Karyn explains, Waco involved a lot of different people which means a lot of different styles “There were very specific people in that compound, but then the FBI, Border Patrol, and over a dozen other law enforcement agencies were there. Everyone was there.”

Making her job as costume designer a little more challenging “Weirdly there was this town within the town of these people called ‘lookie-loos.’ They came to spectate the siege, and most of them stayed through the entire siege.” Karyn notes a disturbing member of these spectators “Timothy McVeigh who committed the Oklahoma city bombing years later.”

“So, it was walking a knife-point of accuracy.”

The melange of people included “… a fortune teller … There was a guy who showed up in an all-white suit and sang for three days. There were groupie girls who thought [cult leader] David Koresh’s music was awesome.”

Karyn adds, “Everything had to be specific.” She takes a moment to compare it to her work on Preacher “On Preacher, things are ironic, and a little uglier. If you look at the costumes on some of the background characters of Preacher, everything just doesn’t work on purpose. There’s a tiny ironic air to it. On Waco, I couldn’t have an ounce of that because the tiniest millimeter wrong in any direction was going to throw the viewer. So it was walking a knife-point of accuracy.”

“I have this weird little voice in my head … “

Here’s where we get into Karyn’s world and delve into the fabric itself. “Fabric plays a huge part.” Karyn shares her superpower “I have this weird little voice in my head that tells me what fabric wants to be made into.”

Karyn’s mutant ability started at an early age too “This started when I was about three or four. My mom would hold up a bolt of fabric and say ‘what do you think’ and I would say what it could and couldn’t be made into.” Ignoring her daughter, Karyn’s mom would “… go on to make what she wanted and then never wear it because it wasn’t right.”

“Some people can commune with animals and trees;
I talk to fabric.”

We don’t choose our superpower; it chooses us. “Some people can commune with animals and trees; I talk to fabric.” Karyn lets out a joy-inducing cackle.

Back to Waco “I recreated a lot of David Koresh’s outfits for the series.” Googling the cult leader will bring up an image of him in a “Black, tight, terrycloth, v-neck t-shirt with this sort of 60s looking stripe across the chest. I thought ‘that’ll be easy to find.’” Karyn and her fashion hunting troops scoured stores and found nothing. “So, I told [directors] John and Drew what I needed to do, and they said go.”

Every detail in filmmaking can add or subtract to the whole. For Karyn “Fabric choice, the weight of it, the way it moves or doesn’t move, the way it folds or hangs; all those things contribute to the creation of a character.”

“It’s part of the hustle.”

To aspiring filmmakers out there, if the industry is one thing, it’s a constant barrage of curveballs. What happens when there’s a casting change? “It happens all the time. I was working on a series recently, and they recast the actor at the last minute. Everything for him had been made by hand.”

The solution to this problem is simple say Karyn “You scramble.” We laugh. But Karyn is serious “You call in everyone, you try to get the new actors measurements ahead of time.”

The bottom line is “It’s part of the hustle.”

“I discovered that guards didn’t start wearing uniforms in
a widespread way until the 50s. The Green Mile
takes place in the 30s.”

But the challenge of dressing actors is affected by the person wearing the clothes “You do have to make subtle adjustments. It’s not just as simple as buying the same shirt in a different size. That has a ripple effect.”

At the same time, for some films, history, and creativity clash a bit. “When I made The Green Mile I did research trying to find pictures of prison guards. I can’t find any. I can’t figure out what’s going on. I realized I was seeing guards in photos; they were dressed in depression era clothes. I discovered that guards didn’t start wearing uniforms in a widespread way until the 50s. The Green Mile takes place in the 30s.”

“So, I put a milkman hat, in blue instead of white,
to add this friendly shape.”

In talking to Frank Darabont about this dilemma, “I proposed that we invent uniforms. Frank looked at me and said ‘Yes, do that!’” Naturally, the next question is, how exactly do you invent 1930s prison guard uniforms? “So, I ended up taking elements from different uniforms that were around in those days. The uniform itself turned out great, but it was a little too military. So, I added a milkman hat, in blue instead of white, to give it this friendly shape.”

The hard visual division between prison and guard in The Green Mile provided a brilliant contrast between the characters and their personal connections. “It’s a perfect example of how the costumes have to be so subtle, but they have to say so much.”

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