Interview: Costume Designer Allison Pearce Discusses the Looks of ‘Paint’

Brit McAdamsPaint sees Owen Wilson play Carl Nargle, a painter who has been stuck painting the same picture of “Mighty Mount Mansfield” for many years. He seems to be stuck in a specific time period, and this part of the screenplay is what struck costume designer Allison Pearce when it came to crafting Nargle’s costumes:

“The world has evolved and changed around him. However, mentally, he’s still this James Brown, superstar kind of painter that everybody talks about in Burlington, Vermont. I think it was important to me to show that through the costumes, he has not progressed at all in his look, hairstyle, or even the van he drives. Part of building that world for me was wondering what Carl would have looked like at the height of his career. When talking with director Brit McAdams, he probably was inspired by maybe movie stars from the ‘70s and the ‘80s. So we were looking at Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, really California-looking ‘70s actors or musicians. I know Gordon Lightfoot was a big inspiration for Brit, musically and aesthetically. Carl’s look was glamorous in that era, but it’s now outdated compared to everything else.”

Of course, one who watches Paint will immediately notice that the main inspiration for Carl Nargle seems to be Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting. On that specific inspiration, Pearce explained that “The Joy of Painting is so ingrained in my psyche. I grew up watching it. My mother is a painter; she does pastel painting, so I always was struck by how Bob Ross’s outfits were when he was painting. He never wore a smock; he wore buttoned-down shirts. He did roll up his sleeves, but they weren’t what I consider appropriate painting dresses. When I looked at that, I thought it was an interesting idea for Carl Nargle. He’s playing into that rock star vibe, and Bob Ross was an amazing inspiration.”

On collaborating with director Brit McAdams, Pearce stated that the director “trusted me a lot when it came to the other characters. I believe he wanted to set the movie in 2011, but it has a lot of flashbacks. The main story shows Carl having all of these romances with multiple women. Through these romances, those characters, for example, Katherine [Michaela Watkins], who had dated Carl in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, also become stuck in that aesthetic. She wears things that look like early ‘90s grunge, like that’s more of her vibe. With Wendy [Wendi McLenon-Covey], she is wearing the same Juicy Couture jumpsuits in the present as when she and Carl were in love. Carl affects all these different people through how they dress and express themselves because they’re all stuck in that period when they were romantically entwined with Carl. That was written in the screenplay, but it was up to me to figure out exactly when those characters are stuck.”

On working with Stephen Root for Tony, the PBS boss, Pearce expressed that James L. Brooks‘s Broadcast News was a big inspiration for him:

“I didn’t really watch many PBS shows, but I wanted him to look like his hometown. I wanted to focus on his color palette and textures. He wears a lot of corduroy sweaters and knitwear, which makes him very relatable. That takes away his authority over Carl and the rest of the team. Tony is the boss, but not a lot of people respect him. I think a way to make it translate that through his dresses was to make him more like a high school teacher. When I met Stephen Root, he was super on board with that. Tony wears blazers that don’t really fit him very well. He’s trying to posture as a boss, but he’s not really making it.”

In crafting the costumes for Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), there needed to be a clear difference between her style of painting and Carl’s, which led Pearce to “come up with these backstories about why Ambrosia looks the way she does. In terms of her dress, compared to everybody else, she’s quite colorful and plays with a lot of patterns. She has a lot of knitwear or reimagined pieces, and we wanted her wardrobe and dress to translate into how Ambrosia sees the world. She’s taking things and reimagining them. She is wearing different clothes that have augmented pieces. In my mind, Ambrosia grew up crafting things at home with her grandmother up in Vermont, and she had maybe a craft room, and she was taking blankets or old heirloom quilts, cutting them up and sewing them onto her clothes, or adding patch pockets to this jacket with an old blanket. She was reimagining these precious things around her, and I think that’s definitely what that character does with her painting show.”

On the challenges that arose while crafting costumes that defined the past and the present, Pearce explained that “when you think of the whole frame when you’re shooting, it has to make sense, color-wise. Every costume needs to coalesce, and you want to create this beautiful, textured, and detailed tableau with your characters. I had to be specific and poignant when choosing the costumes, especially when dealing with an ensemble cast. There are so many fantastic actors in the film. Specifically, they’re all in the scene together when we’re at the PBS Vermont station. Wendy’s character wears many pastels and jewel tones mixed in, Tony wears more earth tones, whereas Ambrosia wears many bright, fun colors and textures, which all need to make sense together.”

Paint is now playing in theatres.

[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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