How do you go about styling the undead? For What We Do in the Shadows costume designer Amanda Neale, the first thing you do is figure out what makes the character tick. Or not tick in this case, as vampires don’t have beating hearts.
"A clear understanding of character is the first thing. Then [I have] conversations with the director and writers on what they’re wanting to convey with the characters," Neale, who was thes costume designer for the feature film that the series is based on, tells us. "Then I look at the tone and aesthetic of the show. For me and my process, it’s important to have a visual understanding of the environment in which our characters live. My costumes have to feel real and grounded in the space that the character lives and breathes in."
Since these characters are vampires, and cannot exist in sunlight, that environment includes many, many scenes after sunset. The evening shoots were a particular challenge for Neale. The costuming had to be pleasing for viewers to look at, and functional enough to get the actors through Toronto's frigid winter nights while appearing to be unbothered by the cold.
"The weather and night shoots were our biggest challenge," Neale reveals. "Toronto winter is harsh and combining night shoots with the occasional stunt action made things tricky. Keeping actors warm during exterior night shoots made for some compromised design and styling. I was conscious that vampires are impervious to the cold. We tried our best keeping the cast warm whilst not looking overly layered. We had to be very practical in the design approach, ensuring we were covered with costumes that withstood the cold and harness work, and be usable pieces for the rest of the series."
Neale adds: "You have to be good at and enjoy jigsaw puzzles because there are so many moveable parts in costume design. You have to consider always what is right for the character, the actor, the shooting environment and the schedule."
The complicated jigsaw puzzle of designing costumes for What We Do in the Shadows also included a staggering amount of very detailed research. The characters outfits had to be both historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing. For this task, Neale had to turn to "varying forms of visual reference" to create the wardrobe for the series.
You have to be good at and enjoy jigsaw puzzles because there are so many moveable parts in costume design.
"We relied on historical portraits and looked at European and Asian battle armor over the past 800 years. Plus, fashion books—notably Alexander McQueen—and fashion house runways," she says. "We looked at images of actors, celebrities, musicians…people who over the decades have always inspired and who have maintained individual, unique style whilst maintaining a somewhat undernourished vibe."
Vampire roommates Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) come from different eras and have their own distinct personalities. We asked Neale to break down the looks and styles of all the vampires and their familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén). Her responses serve as a unique insight into the personalities of each character:
"His costume style was built around a tone of arrogance and vanity. I wanted Laszlo to have a timelessness quality. Laszlo is never immaculate because he doesn't need or want to be. He is our loveable rogue. Laszlo always had to match Nadja in appearance. Nadja dictates their style and Laszlo follows. Their combined style is not a copycat situation but a nod to the fact they have been together for hundreds of years and that their style has fused together over time."
"Military, dandy from the Ottoman Empire. Immaculate and self-obsessed by the image he cannot see. I always used heavier brocades and jacquards to help sell his status. He is the oldest in the house and maintains his regality through his dress, but we all know Nadja is the boss."
"Nothing is frivolous with Nadja. Her dress is practical and authoritative; strong and sometimes sexy without being overt. It is also anachronistic as she mixes up her silhouette."
"Conservative, practical worker who looks a little like Guillermo del Toro in the 1990s."
"A timeless shade of beige. My brief from [Creator/Executive Producer/Writer/Director] Jemaine [Clement] is he should like look he could be transported into the '60s and 1990s and not look out of place. Such a fun vampire."
In addition to creating the individual style of each character, it was also Neale's responsibility to portray the overall comedic tone of the series with her costume design.
"I think the costumes are important from an aesthetic point of view. But they are hopefully also interesting to look at while giving us the opportunity to add unscripted humor to a scene," she says. "Costume design for What We Do in the Shadows was important as it enables the audience to glean sartorial clues, to understand our characters more intimately than what our wonderful scripts could convey in a half hour. The costumes have their own narrative and their own back story for each character, giving the audience subtle details about each cast member."
What We Do in the Shadows premieres March 27 at 10 p.m. on FX.
Amanda Neale is one of New Zealand’s most respected and established costume designers. She has been a longtime collaborator with New Zealand filmmakers Taika Waititi and Robert Sarkies and has worked with other New Zealand directors, notably Jane Campion and Sir Peter Jackson.
Neale began her career working as a set costumer on large studio productions including Hercules, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Last Samurai and Lovely Bones. She moved into costume buying for films such as King Kong and Avatar. Between studio films, Neale designed costumes for lower budget New Zealand films. In 1998, Neale teamed up with Robert Sarkies and then actor Taika Waititi on the film Scarfies, which marked the beginning of a long-term working relationship with both filmmakers. Neale went on to costume design Sarkie’s Two Little Boys and the award-winning biopic Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story. Waititi and Neale continued their collaboration on a number of successfully acclaimed Sundance films Eagle vs Shark, Boy, and What We Do in the Shadows. Neale co-designed costumes for Jane Campion’s award-winning television series Top of the Lake and worked at WetaDigital as a costume designer for Steven Spielberg’s 3D-animated The Adventures of Tintin.
In late 2014, Neale worked in Sydney on James Vanderbilt’s directional debut Truth, starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and Elisabeth Moss. After filming Truth, Neale worked again with Robert Redford on Disney’s new adaptation of Pete’s Dragon, directed by David Lowery, starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Oakes Fegley.
In 2016, Neale designed costumes for the epic Warner Bros. film The Meg, directed by Jon Turteltaub and starring Jason Statham. She also collaborated with the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur on the film Adrift, starring Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin.
Neale worked on Wellington Paranormal, the New Zealand TV spinoff of the What We Do in the Shadows film.