“Personally, I Like a Director Who Trusts Me to Do the Best Job I’m Trained to Do”: In Conversation with Costume Designer Wendy Chuck

“The Holdovers” (2023), directed by Alexander Payne. Focus Features


Costume designer Wendy Chuck has worked with Alexander Payne for the last twenty-five years. A collaboration of seven feature films that started with the blistering satire Election, continued with the paean of life that is Sideways, and which has recently given us one of the best films of last year, The Holdovers, a film that stands out through its compelling humanity, through not conforming to a traditional genre or to one particular view of life and people. In Alexander Payne’s sincere, unadorned and patient visualisation of the three characters (Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who are forced to stay together on the school campus over the holidays, we are right there with them, getting to know them and living it all through humour and sorrow, human frailty and hope. The communion is genuinely truthful, our investment in the characters is real.

What do the real people who are like these characters wear? There is hardly anything that helps actors more than the clothes they wear. Even the most everyday clothes turn into some sort of contribution, to both the actor and the film. That takes vision, skill and the art of collaboration. Paul, Angus and Mary’s clothes become the fundamental pieces to put their stories on, an intertext of sorts, and probably more than any other visual element, they have a defining role in getting us on this journey with the characters.

A couple of weeks ago, production designer Ryan Warren Smith took us behind the scenes to see how they recreated the 1970s and how they settled the characters, and us viewers, into that world, and in today’s interview, costume designer Wendy Chuck unlayers more aspects of filmmaking and character development. We talk about her long-term collaboration with Alexander Payne, why the movies of the 1970s were not where she turned to for inspiration for The Holdovers, how a costume designer can win an actor’s heart, and Angus Tilly’s jacket that she already sees it’s being copied everywhere.


Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


First of all, Wendy, congratulations on your wonderful work on The Holdovers! You’ve worked with director Alexander Payne on many films. Was there something different this time that gauged your interest?

Thank you. Im delighted that the movie is getting the recognition it deserves.

My interest is to always work with Alexander. He was the first director to hire me when I came to the US and I hope to work for him as long as I can and he will have me. He makes the kind of movies I want to watch. He sent me the screenplay for The Holdovers and from the first page knew I wanted to do it even though I knew it was going to be tough to pull off given the minuscule costume budget. I loved the screenplay and the fact that it was a period piece made it even more attractive. He had “promised” me a period piece as all our previous work together had been contemporary or in the case of Downsizing, contemporary/fantasy/futuristic.


”Personally, I like a director who trusts me
to do the best job I’m trained to do.”



Dominic Sessa as Angus Tilly in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


Which do you find more challenging, a contemporary or a period film?

There are challenges with both. For contemporary, there are multiples and sizes available which makes for easier accessibility, but people (actors, producers, directors) are likely to have more opinions and think they are helping. Period has a different set of difficulties given items can’t be shopped and need to be sourced from other places, therefore dependent of shipping, integrity of the cloth, fit and of course it’s unlikely that anymore than one piece can be found. Also a bigger budget is needed to MTO (made to order) pieces.


Are the directors usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution?

It can depend on the director. As their title suggests, they provide a “direction” which can include anything from character notes/fully fledged ideas/suggestions/ references to other movies or art or even colour suggestions. I try to work collaboratively. Some directors just trust me and let me run with my ideas which is very often in keeping with theirs, others “think” they should know it all and intervene in a way that is counterproductive, some are true collaborators and ideas bounce around between me, the DP, Production Designer, set decorator and the Director… Personally, I like a director that trusts me to do the best job I’m trained to do, which involves a collaboration with all of the department heads I just mentioned.


Dominic Sessa in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


Yes, a film is as good as the sum of its parts, as they say. Speaking of which, on The Holdovers the director worked for the first time with cinematographer Eigil Bryld, having previously had Phedon Papamichael as frequent collaborator. The way the DP shoots a film weighs heavily on the look of the film and on how a costume designer must focus on the clothes and on what exactly they want to be seen. Was your relationship with the cinematographer different this time? Did you have to adapt to a different style of filming?

No, I don’t recall adapting in any way differently. I like to show the DP the clothes before we shoot and we didn’t do any camera tests, so I think Eigil came to the department and I was able to show him the racks by character. Sometimes things happen on the day and I remember the day that Angus sits in the background reading in a tan sweater and noticed the chair was the same color and I brought it up to Alex and Eigil and they were happy to leave it as it was and it actually works that he’s blending into the chair as he’s starting to feel more comfortable there.


I was talking to the production designer, Ryan Warren Smith, and he was telling me how Alexander paid great attention to the film not to look brown toned, so he picked these classic colours of the time period (mustard yellow, navy blue & maroon) to offset all the brown wood tones, sending you location photos and colour thoughts.

Yes, that’s the best collaboration. I also sent photos of the rental clothes I was pulling which was indicative of the period. The absence of black and grey were noticeable.


Nebraska was shot in black and white. What challenges do the costumes for a black and white film present?

As it was my first time shooting in black and white, I looked for reference from early designers of B and W films to learn a few things. For example, yellow made a good white, and looking at colours in their tonal values was helpful… And having modern tech helped as I could take photos on colour and convert to B and W to see how they worked… I was very surprised to learn that it was going to be release in colour in some territories.


Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (May Lamb) in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


The Holdovers is not only a movie set in the 1970s, but it looks and sounds like a movie made in the 1970s. The filmmaking style, the sense of story, of character, the rhythm of the film, it has its own unique look. And the costumes play such an important part in making this world of a New England prep school in the 1970s so believable and authentic. How did you approach dressing the characters? Did you follow the script, did you seek for inspiration in archival work, in other movies?

Inspiration comes from everywhere.. and research can be the most fun part. Costume houses, vintage stores, year books, music of the era, libraries, and now we have the internet at our fingertips. A good assistant can be the best asset for research. There were some references in the script as well as knowing some double costumes were needed for certain scenes will dictate what you can use for a certain look, for example we needed doubles in natural fibers for scenes with and around fire and times when a photo double is needed. Alexander tries to eliminate the need for this and for a period piece such as this it’s disabling for a designer on a tiny budget.


”To me, movies of that time are another person’s
interpretation of the period, so they are less important than
photos of real people and events. I also made a playlist
of the top 100 music of the years to get me in the mood.”


The 70s were a furtive creative period in American cinema, and a culturally rich period in general as well. Were there also any films you watched as reference?

To me, movies of that time are another person’s interpretation of the period, so they are less important than photos of real people and events. Even though I was living in Australia in 1970, I was a teen that lived through it and had the recall. I spent time with a friend and colleague who had attended one of the schools that we shot in and, to me, that was more valuable than watching movies… I also made a playlist of the top 100 music of the years to get me in the mood.


The film itself has a great soundtrack, composed music as well as needle drops, that reflects the time period. Have you used music as a source of inspiration before?

I have not.


Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


Costume design is a key element in plot development and helps the actor form an identity of his/her character. But what exactly goes into the work of a costume designer today? How much ready-made shopping, how much vintage and how much making did the costumes in The Holdovers involve?

My workroom team was busy doing alterations, so I had to keep my builds to a minimum. I’d estimate 70 vintage/20 ready made and 10 builds.


What did you have to make yourselves? And was there a vintage find that you felt you absolutely had to have for a certain character?

I had found some great pieces for Lydia Crane, but in the end they were too fashion forward and had to strip her look back, but finding her party dress was important and having to ask “Who is she out of the school environment? And in the comfort of her own house AND because it’s a party?”


Carrie Preston as Lydia Crane in “The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


Also, it was important to have the right coats for everyone, especially the boys, knowing it was deep winter and a coat would be a statement piece… And the right jackets for the boys in school once we decided to not have a uniform. I didn’t realise that finding their sizes would present such an issue as they are not adult sizes, especially the 2 small boys Ollerman and Park, and there were no tweed blazers in their size…


Why did you decide against the uniform?

Not having a uniform helped to define individual characters, not that it was the easier choice. In fact, the opposite.


”The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


“Paul Giamatti was comfortable in his shoes, I made sure of that.”


Is it true that nothing can make actors feel more comfortable or uncomfortable than the clothes their characters are wearing?

True, but don’t forget the shoes… you can win an actor’s heart with comfortable shoes. And all those high heels you see, ladies take them off between scenes and pop them on just before they shoot!!!


Does Paul Hunham feel comfortable in his shoes (both literally and figuratively speaking)? What do his clothes tell us about him?

Paul Giamatti was comfortable in his shoes, I made sure of that. As to the character Paul? I think he was comfortable in his academic “uniform”.


Even his hat and duffle coat are such a big part of his character. Did you particularly look for those clothes as part of his “uniform”?

Yes, those elements were so critical in forming his character as well as his “rumpled corduroy” that it was important to get that look, then embellish from there. I chose to repeat that look to be his uniform even though it may have changed in colour and texture.


”The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


Dominic Sessa. A newcomer and such a presence on screen! Barton is a traditional prep school and all the boys have to abide by a certain dress code. But somehow Angus’ wardrobe looks even more preppy than the other boys’. And when he is in the bar with Paul and has that altercation with the two local guys, they say to him, “You’re a fancy little prick, aren’t you?”, just by looking at him, instantly recognising him as a Barton boy. How did you approach dressing him? And his winter jacket… I feel like it’s already a classic, that I would like to reference again and again. Where did you find it?

I think his jacket was a rental, I don’t remember from where and I see it’s already being copied out there for sale. As stated previously, it was about getting the jackets just right and we tried many on him. Somehow, the one with the chevrons was the right one. He is as preppy dressed as the boys in his class, but does contrast with the other holdovers.


“The visual language is immediate
and signals the character before he opens his mouth.”


The varsity jacket on another one of the boys, Jason Smith, is wonderfully used to describe the character, as he is into sports. It’s also mustard and green, as in the colour palette for the film.

And another reason to not have a uniform… The visual language is immediate and signals the character before he opens his mouth.


”The Holdovers” (2023). Focus Features


There was another coat that caught my attention, in the most subtle way: Mary’s. Is there a military element to it? That was my impression, both the first time and the second time when I watched the film.

Oh, I didn’t notice that, but a lot comes through on a subconscious level I’ve noticed when I work with Alexander, and that coat does tie her to her son. I had that one made and sweated on it getting to us on time. In fact, it was delivered to set just before the scene was shot and the second one was delayed in the blizzard as it was being shipped from LA. It was based on a vintage find that was in a different colour.


You were trained in fashion. What made you interested in costume design?

I craved the limitless possibilities of Costume Design and to not be tied to a particular fashion, era or gender that is so often defined by fashion forecasters… But that was in the 70s. Currently, fashion and the fashion shows are an abundance of creativity and imagination… impractical to wear, but exciting visual art. This is where I’ve landed and still prefer to be.


Thank you, Wendy, for your wonderful contribution to the world of film.




Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (2023), directed by Alexander Payne. Focus Features



The Lost Daughter: In conversation with costume designer Edward K. Gibbon

The Holdovers: In conversation with production designer Ryan Warren Smith

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