[Sundance 2022] Interview : Michelle J. Li, costume designer on Chaperone

Zachary Quinto and Russell Kahn appear in Chaperone by Sam Max, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jordan T. Parrott.

Chaperone, starring Zachary Quinto (J.J. Abrams Star TrekAmerican Horror Story) and Russell Kahn (Hundo), is one of the most visually and thematically striking shorts we caught at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

From first-time director Sam Max, whose previous work in theatre and playwriting has lead to the realms of filmmaking, Chaperone is an eerie, emotional journey of a young man and his black-clad chaperone as they embark towards a potentially final destination.

In addition to our interview with cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott, I had the pleasure of speaking with costume and production designer Michelle J. Li. Li’s superb work can be seen in short and feature films including festival favourites Dating & New York and Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, which was one of my absolute favourite films of last year.

From our interview to her work on-screen, it’s clear she’s a joyful, passionate artist who strives to ensure both the cast and crew are on-board with her visions for each project’s costuming.

With your background in fashion, what is it that drove you towards working in the realms of film and television as opposed to more straightforwardly in fashion and clothing design?

I actually went to school for costume design, so my experience in fashion design is actually quite limited. The thing about costume design that I really love, and what drives me as a designer, is working within the realm of that script. With working in film and television, it’s really the collaborative process and the creative process; that you get to go on this journey along with the director or with the actors, and then being able to flesh out your vision alongside them. That is constantly, ever-evolving and endlessly exciting.

Chaperone is quite deliberately ambiguous – there’s not a lot being explained directly to the audience, and it’s a limited runtime to communicate key ideas. What were the key aspects of the characters and the story that you aimed to communicate through your costume design?

One of the things that we spoke about in our initial creative meetings is that within the scope of the short film, the time-frame that passes is quite limited. It’s probably within a twenty-four-hour period. Through the costume itself, not much can change – the outfit is only one outfit, because it’s only the span of a single day.

Something that we really worked together on is the idea that the character that Zachary Quinto is playing as the Chaperone, the role that he inhabits within the realm of this script, is sort of like a Grim Reaper. We were working together, and I came to this idea that it could be interesting if I dropped these subtle hints of this impending death or this deliberately vague relationship between chaperone and client in which the chaperone is wearing dark sunglasses, he’s dressed in black, there is three-point stitching on his gloves – all these subtle hints to allude to the idea that he is somewhere related to death.

The Grim Reaper, as you know, has the face of a skull. When you’re wearing a pair of dark sunglasses, it kind of gives that impression of a silhouette of a skull. With the three-point stitching on the gloves, if you’re looking closely, it kind of mimics the natural ingrains of the hands and the bones. So that was a really fun, subtle way that we could introduce the roles of that character.

We started to discuss how we can bring to light what kind of person Client is, because not many pieces of dialogue are discussed; there’s no exposition for what’s about to happen. The theme and the concept of what the short is about is assisted suicide, right? We chose the colour grey, and I really like the colour grey because it lives within this neutral realm as a colour. It further enhances the ambiguity of the state that Client is in.

Moving it towards a baggy silhouette, it’s casual, but it’s also inconspicuous in a way that if you were in New York City and stepping out for the day, no one would really take any notice of where you might be going. So that was a really fun way that we worked together to bring to light the circumstances of what was happening.

I read a previous interview of yours where you discussed being a teenager, and one of your inspirations that really blew your mind was the work of Eiko Ishioka in films like The Cell. As somebody who had the same kind of experience being shown The Cell for the first time by my partner, I’d love to know what other creative influences you feel really left the most meaningful impression on you, whether that inspiration has been tangible influence or simply creative methodology.

I draw inspiration from so many different resources. I consume as much television and film as I can if my schedule allows, but where I draw inspiration from a lot comes from comedy. I watch a lot of comedy television shows, and I love having a Dirtbag Comedy, in which the main character isn’t necessarily someone who is perfect.

A flawed main character is really interesting to me, because when you’re working with costumes, you’re able to pull through those threads that bring us closer to the character. So, televisions like Fleabag and PEN15, where you’re able to work within the realm of comedy, but you’re able to subvert the genre through the costuming or even the way the show is being filmed. Doing something like that is something that I would really hope to bring further into my career, because it’s oodles of fun and you get to work within the character, the time periods, and figure out a way to bring it all together.

Speaking purely for myself, costume design is an aspect of the creative process in film and television that I’m sorely lacking in knowledge and deep understanding of. It’s not until you sit down with the beautiful, enormous art books that are often released alongside films, especially blockbuster pictures, that you’re able to sit down and read these fascinating explanations and breakdowns by production designs and costume designers. You see how much each piece had so much meaning and effort put into them.

Being able to speak to creatives like yourself is so enriching and rewarding, because although your work is literally in front of the audience, the nuance is not necessarily perceived right off the bat. Have you found that working on films that have landed at festivals like Tribeca and Sundance has opened you up to a much larger audience to discuss your work in a way you might normally not have?

It is really, really exciting. I’m counting my lucky stars every day that the projects that I have worked on are getting so much attention and acclaim. The collaborative process that I mentioned at the start of our conversation? That’s my favourite part of what we do as designers. Being behind the scenes working as a designer and being able to elaborate on what we actually do is such an important part of the process to me of sharing my art with the world.

It’s like Oz, right? Being able to pull back the curtain to take a look at how it gets from concept to stage, because it’s not as easy as just going to the mall and shopping and putting it together like that. You have to always go back to the script, and what the script has given you in terms of the characters and their psychology. What can we glean from the subtext of their dialogue in the lines, and the stage directions of what the environment entails? Or what their costumes say about them? What can we pull from those little pieces of subtext to bring out what I do into what makes it onto the screen?

I think that it’s a wonderful thing that I’m able to work on so many projects, and have many people come up to me like yourself, being able and interested to ask me about the creative process. Because it is kind of convoluted, and it is sort of like, “what is it that you do?”. But I think it comes a lot from the conversations that you have with the director and the actors. I am definitely the type of costume designer who loves listening and taking input from an actor.

My goal as a designer is that if I can make sure that the actor is confident and comfortable in what I’m dressing them in, then they’re able to bring their performance to the next level – ultimately creating a better product at the end. And so it’s always really special being able to work so closely with the talent and the creative producers and the director to make sure that we’re bringing the best to the screen.

What’s up next for you?

I have a few feature films that are currently in the process of post-production; you know how that takes a bit of time from when you finish production to when it actually makes it out to the larger audience. Some films I’m waiting on to currently premiere: I just finished shooting one in New York City a few months ago called Meet Cute, and it’s a travel rom-com starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davison. It’s one I’m really, really excited for because it was such a fun process to work on. That was my first union feature as a designer, so it was such a luxury for myself. I’m just over the moon about how that process went, and I can’t wait for that to come out and for everyone to see it.

The same director as Meet Cute is actually doing another film I worked on earlier in May of 2021, called Acidman. Both of these films are hopefully coming out later this year. But that one stars Dianna Agron and Thomas Haden Church, and is the story between a daughter and a father reconnecting after some lost time. So that one is more of a drama.

But both of these, I’m really excited to show my work on – they were really exciting in very different ways, being able to work with the same director in such different capacities and on different budget levels. It’s great being able to work with a collaborator over and over again, who’s trusted, and so I’m excited for those two things to come out.

[Sundance 2022] Interview : Cinematographer Jordan T. Parrott on Sundance short Chaperone

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