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Interview: Production Designer Gae S. Buckley and Costume Designer Natalie O’Brien on the Distinct Look of ‘I’m Your Woman’

I’m Your Woman officially opened 2020’s AFI Fest before making its way to Amazon Prime Video in early December. Rachel Brosnahan stars as Jean, a 1970s housewife who is forced to go on the run with her baby after the disappearance of her criminal husband. The film looks like it came straight out of that area, and its subdued tone matches the loneliness of its main character. Awards Radar caught up with production designer Gae S. Buckley and costume designer Natalie O’Brien to discuss their work on this eye-popping period film.

Q: How did you become attached to this project and what interested you most about it?

Gae: We had both worked with this director before, Julia Hart. I had done Fast Color and Stargirl, and Natalie did Stargirl with us. We make a good team, I think.

Natalie: We definitely do. There’s a lot of respect and understanding when it comes to the way that we both work. It’s really nice because sometimes I’m prepping somewhere else, like I’m in Los Angeles and Gae is in Pittsburgh, and I get to come into her world. She creates a bubble for me to walk into it, which is magical.

Gae: What we do, as I’m sure a lot of art departments do, is we have a wall which is the whole movie in story order. It starts with location pictures and color swatches and paint and set dressings and fabrics. You can walk in and see the whole movie, laid out from start to finish.

Q: This film has a very distinct feel and look to it that suits its era. Can you tell me about the artistic vision from Julia that shaped this process?

Gae: Well, it always starts with Julia. When she’s writing it, it’s in her head. We will always sort of go back and forth with images, asking if this is what she was thinking. Sometimes, she’s really happy with what we present to her, and sometimes she’ll go, when I was writing it, I saw it like this. And that’s great to know, because there are so many directors who are actually not that good at telling you what’s in their head. Julia is very good at that.

Natalie: Yeah, sometimes you have to fill in the blank. Sometimes, she has this absolute vision of what she wants. For example, there’s one shirt that Julia wears when she’s in the diner. It’s this blue plaid button-up shirt. She wanted that shirt, and I was like, all right, I will search, I will hunt, and we’ll find it or make it. So we did. It’s really nice to be able to have pieces that you can really pinpoint and search for. Other times, she just trusts you.

Gae: Julia loves patterns like no director I’ve ever worked with. I look at our work together, and Natalie and I have a couple of favorite shots that we just love. One of them is Teri in that beautiful satin shirt in front of the gold wallpaper in the St. Francis Hotel. It’s just yummy to look at.

Natalie: Gae has some mesmerizing wallpapers. I don’t even know how you were able to get so many rooms done. You did the safehouse, you did two hotel rooms, you did the main house, and then every other place had amazing wallpaper.

Gae: Yes, there was a lot of wallpaper in this movie.

Natalie: And sometimes that can contrast very harsh against some costumes, but everything just worked seamlessly, so we were lucky.

Gae: Like your teal robe in Jean’s safehouse bedroom. On that marigold-colored chenille bedspread. Julia loves patterns but she also loves textures of fabric. She and the set decorator, Patrick Cassidy, work very closely together. I often will hover and listen, but the two of them have their own thing.

Natalie: I bring her a book of fabrics too and she’ll go through it, and she’ll touch it and look at it and then sleep on it. She’ll brainstorm the next day and be like, I don’t know, I was thinking about these patterns, and she doesn’t even forget a thing either. Oh, that one chenille with the fabrics going horizontally? And I’ll go, oh, which one, I have to go find it. She’s wonderful to work with.

Q: The houses are very bare-bones, but there is something that feels different about each of them. How did you achieve the look that felt distinctive and separate but also as if it wasn’t really lived in, even her own house at the start of the film?

Gae: You’ll notice the color of her robe, which Natalie and I had many conversations about with Julia. It doesn’t really match anything in the house because Eddie got it for her. We knew she was going to be going from the suburbs out to the outskirts and then eventually out to the bucolic cabin out in the woods, and the colors were going to get more earth-toney. That first house was a good opportunity to show the 70s. In our imagination, she had a designer, a decorator who Eddie had probably paid for to do her house. So it was all in yellows and greens, and then you put her in that great yellow skirt in the kitchen. But that’s the last time we’re in that palate, those brighter colors. The safehouse, from our point of view, Patrick and Julia and I wanted it to feel a nowhere place, out of time with the rest of the movie. It’s not really 70s in your face. There are a lot of older wallpaper patterns and color. We wanted it to be this frozen bubble that Eddie had kept waiting as a safehouse that Jean never knew about. That was the difference between those. The cabin, we wanted it to be sparse. It had been a hunting cabin in Art’s family, but also to be cozy, where Paul and Cal spent time as a child. Those were the three living spaces we created.

Natalie: They actually built the cabin!

Gae: And put in a furnace in to keep everyone warm, because it was really cold.

Natalie: Unreal, that cabin.

Gae: I hope it’s still standing.

Natalie: Me too.

Q: I’d love to hear more about Jean’s outfits. Do you have a favorite for her or for any of the other characters?

Natalie: Hm, a favorite. That’s always a tough question because you give birth to all of them, and it’s hard to call one your favorite. But I really did like the one Gae had mentioned when she’s in the kitchen making the egg. It travels from when she’s in the park smoking a cigarette with the baby outside. It’s this two-piece mustard cotton poplin outfit that was actually really vintage, and we added this apron for her when she’s cooking eggs in the kitchen that was also vintage. I was somehow lucky enough to find some matching mustard velvet shoes that were exactly the right color. For me, that all just tied together. It was also one where Julia was like, we need this outfit, where does it live? I said, let’s see where the right spot is, and what it works with, how her outfits change. In the beginning, she has a lot of money and is thinking about her outfits with all this time to do that. Then we can kind of lose that.

Gae: It’s one of the few outfits that you were able to put her in that was hers, in her life before.

Natalie: Something that she actually shopped and it was expensive. We only had a small window to do that because as we go on, it has to be things she grabbed at Bargain Mart that fit in a bag. It’s seven or eight outfits that she uses in repetition. Then she’s using cabin clothing, wearing oversized stuff she found at the cabin. That was one of my favorites because it tells a bit of the story of who she was and how much time she had as a housewife, and how much time she didn’t have later.

Q: And then we have Teri, who comes in midway through the film and is a completely different kind of person. What did you want to make clear about how she was going to look?

Natalie: She has a very kick-ass vibe to her, honestly. She’s hard and she’s strong, and I wanted to present that in her costumes and her wardrobe. We used some different textures on her. I didn’t use any leather on Jean, I didn’t want to any of that. We used something that was slicker on her, we even used a boot cut for Teri. She always wears her clothes really strong because she has a very built body. Marsha Stephanie Blake like to works out. Anything that we put on her wasn’t too tight and restrictive, so it didn’t show off too much of her body. Their tones were quite different. You could tell that Jean had more oranges and beiges and softer burnt colors, and then we had Teri in the emeralds and the darker blues.

Q: There is a real change of pace that comes in the film’s third act when all of a sudden instead of following a few people in isolation, we’re out in the world, surrounded by lots of people. What were the challenges and successes of having so many people together on a very different set than what you’d been working with for most of the rest of the film?

Gae: For our part, when she’s out in the bucolic cabin, when she meets Teri, that’s when she gains her strength. She makes the decision that they’re going to go into the city and look for Cal. She’d never really been in the city. Eddie wouldn’t let her drive or go to the city. She’s facing all these new dangers when they make that turn, and from that point on, we wanted it to be definitely urban. Everything up to that point, all the locations were isolated locations, either in parking lots of suburban areas, but nothing was urban until we turn that corner and she goes into the city. There was the nightclub and in Teri’s truck looking at the apartment, and then she’s walking all night in the rain in that fabulous sequined outfit with the fur jacket that gets wet, and she’s crying. That was the only time that we introduced pink into the color palette of the sets because it’s the only time in the movie where women surround her and nurture her, and give her a towel. She gets a little kindness. As strong as Teri is, she’s not that much of a nurturer towards Jean, early on, at least.

Natalie: Yeah, she can’t be, because so much has happened to her that she can’t really trust anyone at this point. When Jean has that moment when she’s just gone through so much at the nightclub and she finally gets to the laundromat, and there is that kindness from the older lady, it’s like, oh wow, this is the most tender moment of the movie. We haven’t seen anything like this, for another woman to be gentle and helping another woman. It’s something as simple as handing a towel and drying her off.

Gae: I cried at every take. And it was raining. It was just such an emotional day.

Natalie: It was an emotional day, I remember. You’ve got to remember – as we were going on, it was getting colder and colder in Pittsburgh. It was icy and freezing cold. All those people at the nightclub that had to run outside, it was like two o’clock in the morning. We had to fit them all without jackets, because no one’s going to be grabbing them. Everything with the setting has to show as well.

Gae: When we were in the city, the nightclub just reminded me of Jean walking out in that big wide shot where you see people just scattering and running. I’m not sure how visible they were, but we were also trying to put a lot of women’s rights and women’s movement posters up behind her as she was walking because this is the moment where supposedly she is gaining her strength and fighting back. That nightclub was something else, though.

Natalie: You killed that nightclub, oh my gosh!

Gae: And Bryce Fortner (director of photography) almost got hit in the face when he was doing the steady cam, chasing Jean through the crowd. Some extra knocked him out!

Natalie: There’s a lot of tough stuff. That was a hard one. You really transformed that nightclub. Even that room with White Mike, I came in and I was like, this is the same place?

Gae: Yeah, that was a Ukrainian social center, that old building. It had white walls and didn’t look like a nightclub. But the back room set was actually a ceramics studio that we turned into the back room. It was a lot of work.

Q: The cars are a big part of this film. What was your role in creating and crafting those?

Gae: They were great, and they were real. We had many meetings with the picture car coordinator. When we first went to Pittsburgh, we were misled a little bit in thinking that we were going to have access to the hundreds of cars that had been used on Mindhunter, but in fact they had all been shipped out of state. We got a couple of them, but we mostly had to start from scratch, gathering up cars, and the extra’s cars. But the hero cars, like Cal’s car and Mike’s car, those were great. Some of them we had to have reupholstered with that beautiful fabric. We had a lot of them painted. Julia really wanted Cal’s car to be blue. It was very specific shade of blue, kind of close to a shade of blue that we painted a truck in Fast Color, now that I think about it. We had to paint all the cars, obviously, and reupholster them.

Natalie: It’s so important to know what the characters are using and driving. That’s always a question that you ask. Sometimes people forget to ask but for me it’s a direct relation of what they’re going to be wearing. If Cal is going to be driving a full Cadillac, then maybe I would have put him in a suit or something fancier. But it makes much more sense for the character.

Gae: He was perfect in the turtleneck. And Teri driving that truck…

Natalie: Oh, I love that. It makes sense. It’s like their purse, something that’s their main accessory. It has to reflect them completely.

Gae: With her gun in the glove compartment box.

Natalie: Exactly.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you in your research, whether it was looking at films, photographs, books, or other media, anything about the era that informed these characters that you didn’t expect?

Natalie: I’ll be honest, I had to do a lot of research for the 70s. I think everything that I found was like, okay, whoa, this is when that happened and the arc of the 70s. I remember, Gae, you were sending back and forth these images of fur jackets, and I was like, ah, ding ding, this makes sense. And it will look wonderful when it’s raining and she’s going to be almost like wet dog sad as she’s walking alone and wandering through the streets. This is kind of perfect. It will hide a gun, it will hide elbow pads. And it will keep her warm. Even though she’s a champion. She runs around in high heels all day and she’s in short sleeves. It was like fifteen degrees at night, I’m not going to lie about that. It definitely did the trick. We would cut her undergarments underneath to keep her warm under that.

Gae: From my point of view, I was actually around in the 70s so I had memories. Granted, high school and college, but still. I went to nightclubs in New York and Ithaca, so I kind of remembered what it looked like and what people looked like. I came to it from a totally different point of view than most other people on the crew. Patrick Cassidy, the wonderful set decorator, we would go through the gold room, and we’d pick up some great piece of pottery, or a pillow, or a chair, and were like, I had that! We were going to make T-shirts, I had that! The people our age on the show.

Q: What’s next for you?

Natalie: We have another project with Julia coming up after this.

Gae: It’s a sequel to Stargirl, for Disney Plus.   

Natalie: We’re going to shoot here in L.A., with Ms. Julia Hart, so it will be getting the team back together. Our DP Bryce will also be working with us.

Gae: We’re all family now.

I’m Your Woman is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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