Costume / mask design for "Watchmen" by Meghan Kasperlik

Costume design of “Watchmen” – interview with Meghan Kasperlik

April 8th, 2020
Costume / mask design for "Watchmen" by Meghan Kasperlik

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleadure to welcome Meghan Kasperlik. In this interview she talks about changes in the world of episodic storytelling in the last few years, technology advancements and what they mean to costume department, conversations around creating costumes that tell stories, and what happens behind the glamorous curtain of these productions. Around these topics and more, Meghan dives deep into what went into the first season of the highly acclaimed “Watchmen”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Meghan: My name is Meghan Kasperlik and I’m a costume designer for TV and film. I started out being fascinated with film when I was young, I loved watching movies. But back then, as a child, I never really knew that there was a possibility of working in the movies.

I grew up in the Midwest, so it wasn’t something that I thought was obtainable for a long time. When I got into high school, I became more interested in fashion and I thought I would be going into the fashion industry. When I was in college, I majored in fashion merchandising with a plan to go to New York. When I got to New York I was working in fashion PR and as a stylist assistant, working my way up to stylist for different projects, in commercials, magazines, etc.

I was styling and doing PR, and my roommate at the time said that a television show he was working on needed a costume production assistant. I asked him who was the costume designer, and not that I would have had much of a choice at the time, but it happened to be Patricia Field, the Costume Designer for “Sex in the City”. It was an exciting opportunity. I interviewed and I got the job as the costume PA. Since then I have worked my way up from the bottom.

I worked in the costume department with Patricia Field for 3.5 years, going from costume PA to the costume coordinator to the assistant designer. Then I started working with other people as the assistant designer, and then started designing.

Costume design for 7th Kavalry on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: If you look back at your first few experiences in the TV and movie world, was there anything particularly unexpected or surprising for you?

Meghan: When I was on a photo shoot for a fashion spread, there’s a large number of people involved. But it’s an editorial, so it’s much more contained. There’s not as many people building the sets on-site or not as many camera people. So when I got to be on film production, just to see the amount of crew in each department was fascinating to me. I learned about a lot of other departments and what everyone was doing and seeing that was educational because I learned so much. I’m a person who tries to absorb as much as possible within the setting, and so that was fascinating. It made me more interested in TV and film.

Because I had a number of years of experience in the fashion industry, that definitely helped me work at a fast pace and understand the pace of TV and film. That wasn’t a struggle or anything, but I definitely was able to utilize that to be able to achieve what I wanted to within each project.

Kirill: Is there anything that still manages to surprise you when you join the new production?

Meghan: Anything is possible [laughs], but I don’t know if anything really surprises me anymore. You have to expect the unexpected. Sometimes projects are achieved with a lot of work. It might be a bit surprising at first, but the magic of television is pretty remarkable. Not much shocks me. I’m un-shockable [laughs].

Costume design for the flashback sequence on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: You started in the TV world, then you were in the feature film world, and now you’re back in the TV world again. How much has this world has changed in the last 5-6 years?

Meghan: Television programming has evolved, and streaming services have definitely changed the game. So many more people are staying home to watch content that’s really interesting. It’s not just the Thursday night programming that was the must-watch. Now there’s must-watch television whenever you want. There’s a lot more content happening in television, especially with streaming services.

And there’s a lot more smart content happening. When I first started, it felt that people watched it to be entertained. But now I feel that much more of the content in TV now is making people think – and think outside the box. People are watching anything from dark comedies and dramas to documentaries, documentaries that are turning into features turning into miniseries. That is fascinating and there’s much more of a platform for a lot more ideas. That huge growth helped the industry, but it also made people aware of smart content – which I think is important.

Kirill: As technology evolves, viewers at home can afford getting much better and bigger screens, and the productions themselves are constantly pushed to use higher-resolution digital cameras. And on top of that, viewers are probably getting used to expecting that “cinematic” feel from the episodic shows they’re watching. Does that make your job more complicated?

Meghan: I’m looking at the last few years, and each year that I’m in this business it becomes more and more apparent that the costume has to be prepared to be seen at all angles. Just because it’s written a certain way in the script does not mean that that’s way the way that it will be filmed and shot for television or for film. I need to ensure that every angle that the camera could be on that costume has to have everything in place – the correct color, texture, fabric. All of it has to be able to be seen on camera.

You can’t say that they’ll never see that button or the back of the waistband of the pant. They will see it at some point.

So while I’m creating the costume and checking it in the fitting to see the angles, that is definitely something I have to be more aware of. It also makes it more exciting. Now we’re seeing design details that maybe we didn’t see 10 years ago because of the way that the television programming is being filmed – like you said in more of a cinematic element. So it is very important to make sure that it’s all looking like it should at all angles.

Costume design for Hooded Justice / American Hero on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: One of the areas that interests me is at the intersection of the art of storytelling with the technology advancements. Are there any aspects of your job that are getting easier or perhaps more economically feasible with the latest iterations with various technological tools?

Meghan: Technology is bringing huge advancements in costume design and other aspects of production. There are so many pieces that have been 3D-printed or vacuformed. You can make armor out of plastic that looks like metal in the way that it’s painted.

The silhouette in general hasn’t changed very much in the last 50 years, so it’s more about the advancement of technologies and what you can fabricate. Being able to create a two-dimensional print onto a spandex, and take that to create something like a superhero suit is a huge part of costume storytelling in the sci-fi category.

Take the Spider-Man costume as an example. When I worked on the “Amazing Spiderman 2”, we had to 2D print all of the textures onto that costume, while still seeing the texture in a flat spandex fabric. it still has to be acrobatic, it still has to be a fitted suit. So even though that technology has formed in the last 10 years, each year brings a new advancement, and it excites me. I’m constantly looking for new ways to challenge myself, and it’s great to see all the new costume design technologies that are coming.

On “Watchmen” we did a lot of vacuforming for all the sculpted pieces. Embossing has been around for a long time. The silk embossing and the fabrications we were using for some of those pieces looked very hi-tech, and that technology has been around for years. But instead of it taking a number of weeks to produce, that can be produced in one or two days now. So advancements for all departments are definitely helping us tell the story, and as far as my department goes, I find it really exciting.

Costume design for Hooded Justice on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: Looking back at all your productions so far, what was the most challenging costume?

Meghan: When we did “Watchmen”, one of the challenges wasn’t so much about the design aesthetic or doing a drawing of the costume. It was how it was produced, and that was for Hooded Justice.

We have two characters who are both Hooded Justice. There’s “American Hero” story and then there’s the Hooded Justice from the ’30s-’40s. When we were doing the costumes for both, I wanted to make sure that they didn’t have high-tech fabric, but still could stretch. I wanted to make sure that the actor and the stunt player could have full mobility and not worry about anything that any of the costume ripping. But the amount of stretch that was necessary wasn’t available with the technology of the ’30s.

The question was how could we make it look like the ’30s in fabrication, keeping it simple but also be iconic. That was a great challenge. When we filmed the “American Hero” story, I wanted the color red and the color purple to be different from when we did the Hooded Justice that was in Episode 6. It wasn’t decided until right before we were filming that we were doing the Hooded Justice in Episode 6 in a black-and-white format. Anytime you do black-and-white, it changes what color the true color is, so that was a great challenge.

We also wanted to make sure that the costume was simple but impactful. The technology didn’t actually play a lot into that. I had to almost strip all of the technological advances that I knew, what I have been taught over the last ten years – and go back to the basics. It was a good lesson in going back. For other costumes on that show we used more tech fabrics and applications.

Costume design for Sister Night on “Watchmen”.

Kirill: If we’re transitioning to talk about “Watchmen”, how deep did the scripts go into the details of the costumes, especially given how important costumes are for those characters?

Meghan: We used the graphic novel as the basis, an inspiration and a starting point for a number of the characters. Sister Night, Looking Glass, Red Scare, Pirate Jenny – all of those characters were new characters. Even though we were going off the basis of the graphic novel, we still needed to have simplicity to those costumes.

In the graphic novel, the costumes for the Minutemen are simplistic because they were supposed to be from the ’30s and the ’40s, but the graphic novel was created in the ’80s. That was the jumping-off point.

As far as the scripts go, the description of the characters were not necessarily detailed in the script. It might have been a conversation that I had with Damon. Certain characters like Lady Trieu or Pirate Jenny were just names in the script, and I talked about that with Damon separately. I had a lot of creative liberty and freedom to pitch new ideas for those characters, which was really exciting.

Costume design for Pirate Jenny on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: How different was this experience to work on a show when costumes are such a big attention magnet?

Meghan: I definitely didn’t think about how important the costumes were to the story when I first started the project. I was trying to figure out what I could do to help the story, and how could my design aesthetic help take the inspiration from the graphic novel and make it into the story that Damon and the writers wrote.

With that said, it was halfway through that I realized that these costumes were important. So I wanted to make sure that we were paying a lot of attention to the details. Once I started seeing how we were filming the show after the first episode, I knew it was important to make sure that the costume was just the way that I wanted it to be from a 360° angle. It needed to be able to be visible. That was very important and I made sure that we were paying a lot of attention to the details after the first episode. I knew it was special.

The writing was so remarkable, so we had a lot to work with and helping tell those stories.

Kirill: What kinds of discussions went into the costumes of individual characters, like Sister Night that pays a bit more attention to get costume compared to Red Scare or Looking Glass?

Meghan: Sharen Davis did the pilot, and these three characters were from there. I adopted that from her for the rest of the season, tweaking them slightly after I came.

Obviously, Sister Knight is our hero. She’s the star of the show, and I knew there was a lot of character development. In the graphic novel, the Minutemen created their own costumes. They saw their own costumes and created them based on the resources the had. That was something that I discussed as being very important. I wanted to make sure that the costumes looked and felt right, not something super high-tech Batman vacuform.

With Red Scare the idea was to look at what he had at home. He might have had that jumpsuit that he puts on together with the red mask. That’s how he created his costume. Sister Night puts more thought into it. And Pirate Jenny was like a punk protester meets Keith Richards. When I developed her, I wanted her to have a cool edge that was different from the other guys. But if she was going to wear dark tones, she also couldn’t be Sister Night.

Each person had to have their individual persona, but I wanted to make sure that it had a little bit of a backstory to who they were. We discussed some of the characters with Damon more than others, and for some of them he let me pitch my ideas. We had these different discussions, but it was all supposed to be “home-made”.

Costume design for the flashback sequence on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: How did you approach making costumes for larger groups of people, like the police force, members of Cyclops or the 7th Kavalry? How do you look at those groups and find the balance between uniformity as a group and individuality of each person?

Meghan: Because of show spanned a hundred years, there was a tremendous amount of research that was done to ensure that we were close to history. And of course the story is centered on the real historical event of the 1921 massacre in Tulsa. So in those instances, we were making sure that was historically correct – like the 1918 scene during World War I.

When it came to something that was a flashback to a time that wasn’t our current day, I was making sure that those time periods were aesthetically and visually correct. That was fun because there’s a lot of research that went into that. Then you obtain the costumes, while perhaps others have to be replications. In Episode 6 we used a number of vintage pieces, and there was a mix between vintage and custom-made pieces, and fabrications that would be similar to what was of that time period.

When it came to the cops, there was the uniformity of the police and making sure that they looked like real cops. But then the yellow mask is still a part of the uniform for them, but it is something that makes them stand out. We understand that that’s not the current world that we are living in. In New York the cops were using black masks like that for a little while, but that was outlawed. I can’t remember off the top of my head what year that was and they’re not permitted to do so anymore, but that was a jumping-off point for those masks.

With the 7th Kavalry the idea was to use plaid. That way if you have a couple of characters in a restaurant or a bar, and they see another person with a little flash of plaid on or a plaid jacket, that would be an easy signifier to show that they were part of the 7K. That’s how that came about.

Kirill: What kind of challenges were you facing when you were working on the masks, as far as allowing the actors to use at least part of their face to convey emotions?

Meghan: That was a big challenge. The same mask can look different on different people’s faces because of their facial structure and the shape of their head. That is something that we definitely had to work with and play around with. We had these test models and we also put the masks on ourselves to see how different it would look.

We needed to make sure that the mask wasn’t touching their mouth, so that the sound department wouldn’t need to ADR every single word that was said. We needed to make sure that it wasn’t moving around in action sequences. There was a lot of back and forth to figure out what would be the best option for having these masks, how it would fit structurally on the face and still being able to do all of the acting. There was some trial and error there.

But after having them on a few people we definitely were able to figure that out quite quickly.

Costume design for Adrian’s spacesuit on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: How different was it to work on the characters on the Jupiter’s moon Europa? How did you approach creating that spacesuit for Adrian?

Meghan: The only thing that was scripted was that it had to be made out of the buffalo that he shot, so there was the buffalo fur in there.

I did a lot of research on what spacesuits looked like in years past, and even on scuba diving suits in the ’20s-’30s. I knew that the set was probably going to be a bit rigid, but it was also going to have to be on a green screen with rigs in it to raise him up. There was a lot of factors to make sure that we could create the suit.

I knew that I wanted it to be two pieces for easy accessibility to get in and out of the suit. It doesn’t necessarily look like two pieces because I put a leather corseted cinch belt over it to seamlessly pull it together. But I wanted to make sure that it was multiple pieces. I’ve worked on superhero projects before, and if a suit rips or tears and it’s one entire piece, you lose the whole suit. I wanted to make sure that if we ripped a piece, we didn’t have to make an entirely new one. It also was easier for the actor.

Then when we got to the boots, the helmet and some of the vacuform pieces. We’ve worked with Ironhead Studio which is based out of LA. They created those custom vacuformed pieces that looked like metal but weren’t like that at all. The metal was important because the idea was that the costume was created from the English manor that he was living in. I wanted to make sure that the various pieces that the suite was made out of were coming from the manor.

Kirill: It sounds like you have a lot of discussions not just inside your department, but also across others, like art department, camera, visual effects and others. How much of your day was spent in meetings on this project?

Meghan: We had meetings all the time. Every day there was a meeting for one of the scenes or the episodes or what not. There was a lot of work that went into it. It was well planned out, and I think that’s how we were able to produce a show that was looked pretty seamless considering the amount of work with all the departments that went into it.

Kirill: In Episode 8, Angela (Sister Night) meets Jon (Dr Manhattan) in a bar in Saigon, Vietnam. How did you approach designing costumes for this combination, or perhaps a clash, of two cultures – the original one that traces its roots hundreds if not thousands of years back, and the occupying one from another continent?

Meghan: We had that discussion that Vietnam is the 51st state, but it’s still Vietnam. How long has Vietnam been the 51st state? How Americanized is this 51st state? There’s definitely a bit of America there. When we did the flashback scene, the Americans hadn’t been in Vietnam for 50 years. Maybe they’ve been there for 5 years. There’s still military presence. There’s Americans that are living there, but there’s also the Vietnamese community who has been born and raised there, and they’re now becoming Americanized.

The first thing that usually happens when America is coming into a culture is its pop culture. It’s entertainment. There was that Sister Night video. There’s music and other things that Americans are bringing in.

But as far as the clothing goes and what people are wearing, it still should be pretty true to what the Vietnamese culture was. It hasn’t been completely Americanized compared to what it would be after 20 years. It’s step by step in that way. After our discussions of having that, we kept the Vietnamese community pretty much in what they would have on – with a few pops of different colors. But it was important to make sure that the standard shape and the basics that the Vietnamese people would be wearing was pretty true to what it was.

Costume design for Vietnamese police on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: I can’t not ask the Lube Man. How surprised were you about that character being there, and about how well-received that character became among the viewers?

Meghan: I didn’t know what it was when I read it [laughs]. It was a surprise to everyone. Then we had the discussion about what the Lube Man had to do and how he had to slide under this grate. The description was that he lubed himself up and slid. So I said that if you’re going to do that, you have to put the person in latex. I didn’t even think about special effects and being able to do it with a different costume on.

So my suggestion was latex. We tested it out and it ended up working really well. And it became so popular.

Kirill: Does it surprise you sometimes what gets popular, and what goes forgotten and doesn’t find its audience?

Meghan: Sometimes, on certain productions. But when Lube Man came on set, everyone was very excited about it. There was no explanation of who this character really was in the story, and everyone was excited. I knew it would be something because the reaction that we had from the crew members. People were really talking about it. So I knew it would turn into something popular.

Costume design for Lube Man on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite character or your favorite costume on this show?

Meghan: Creatively, the show was very fulfilling. I was proud and excited to be a part of the project. I’d definitely call out the presence of the Sister Knight costume and the Lady Trieu costume. I was excited how Pirate Jenny and Ozymandias turned out.

I was proud of the Episode 6 with the flashback. It was really a film within itself. That was exciting because we custom-made all of the principal characters and stunt people, and then the background was wearing a lot of vintage pieces. It was exciting to be able to do that as the costume designer.

And you get to be a part of the show that’s making such a huge impact on people and making people aware of history of what really happened. That is probably the really exciting part of the show.

Kirill: When you meet somebody at the party, how do you manage to convey this complexity of what it is to be a costume designer?

Meghan: When I’m meeting people at events and parties, I like to find out about them. I feel that that helps me to not only learn about the person, but it’s also good for character development. You’re learning about different professions, thoughts, possibilities and interests. Those are people that I’m more fascinated in than talking to the same people about the film business, because we work in it every day [laughs]. To us who in the film business it is second nature, so I’m more interested in talking to someone who’s maybe a painter or a teacher, and learning about them. So that’s what I try to do at events.

Costume design for Red Scare and police force on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

Kirill: Hollywood always presents itself as a glamour industry. How much of it would you say is glamour, and how much is long hours and the proverbial blood, sweat and tears?

Meghan: It’s about 10% glamour and 90% everything else [laughs]. It’s exciting to go to premiere parties and to watch award shows. But to get there it takes really long hours. You give up a lot of your life for this business because you’re not able to make it to weddings, funerals, birthday parties, your friends’ events, going home to see your family, etc. You’re working anywhere between 12 and 16 hours a day every day, five days a week.

You find yourself in a state where your health is not where it should be, because you are physically and emotionally drained. That’s probably true for a number of people that work in this business or in any business. The hours are really long, but the magic that happens when you’re on set is pretty exciting, and it fulfills people.

I love my job. I love coming to work. I don’t mind working 14 hours a day. I don’t mind not being able to do necessarily what some of my friends are able to do because of my work. It is a choice that I have made and I’m very happy with it. But it’s definitely not glamorous. I don’t think people realize that sometimes I have to be on set at 4AM and I don’t get home until 9PM. I have to be there when the actors are coming in in the morning, or sometimes we have fittings if an actor can’t come in, or we’re shooting on a location that’s far away and we have to travel there. I complained to my brother that I need to get there at 4AM while he was complaining that he needs to be at work by 10AM. I can only laugh when I hear that.

Kirill: If you knew ten or so years ago when you started working what it would involve, would you still be making that choice to go into this industry?

Meghan: Absolutely. I’m not afraid of getting up in the morning, or hard work, or any of that. I would absolutely still be here.

Kirill: If you won the lottery and you wouldn’t need to worry about money anymore, would you still be in this creative field?

Meghan: I’m definitely a person who, if I had all the money in the world, I would still work. I’m not one to shy away from that, and I quite enjoy my job. I enjoy working and I definitely would not stop.

Costume design for Lady Trieu on “Watchmen” by Meghan Kasperlik.

And here I’d like to thank Meghan Kasperlik for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of costume design. You can also find her on Instagram. The first season of “Watchmen” is available for streaming on HBO. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.