Behind NEON’s “Pleasure” with Award-Winning Costume Designer Amanda Wing Yee Lee

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our latest interview, we spoke with award-winning costume designer, Amanda Wing Yee Lee, who designed the costumes for Neon's film Pleasure. Following the film's success at Sundance 2021, Amanda also received a win at the 2022 Guldbagge Awards (Swedish Oscars) for her costume design in the film.

For Pleasure, Amanda knew she had to do due diligence in her research to make sure she portrayed the characters correctly and with respect. Director Ninja Thyberg was generous in sharing years of interviews and photographs of her time spent with professionals from the porn industry. She also connected Amanda with people within specific subgenres of the industry to talk her through their process, which helped hone in on the designs of each character. 

Amanda also recently completed work on Emily the Criminal, a crime thriller produced by and starring Aubrey Plaza, that comments on the current financial burdens millennials face in a realistically depicted and racially diverse LA full of immigrants who hustle for the "American Dream." In order to create the gritty and raw depiction of Los Angeles that director John Patton Ford had lived and written in the script, they mostly thrifted second hand clothing for the lead character, Emily, an artist working multiple day jobs to keep a roof over her head. She has a tough exterior that is calloused by disappointing loved ones and a system that is set up to keep the poor, poor. Her costumes reflect her illegal double life.

PH: Hi Amanda, how are you? Can you share a bit about how you got into the industry? What drew you to costume design? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Hi Briana! Thanks for having me. I have known since I was 12 that I wanted a career in film. My parents are both big time cinephiles so I grew up watching a lot of American and European cinema. For 10 years, I collected film books and educated myself on different world cinemas and film movements when I didn’t have access to film studies at school. At the time, I thought I would be a director. When I finally got to college and started filmmaking classes and spent summers making short films, I realized I was much more interested in all the visual elements within the frame so I changed course and tried my hands on cinematography and set decoration until my costume professor began encouraging me in that direction. Looking back, though, I was always drawing characters I saw in movies as a child. 

PH: Who are some of your influences? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: My earliest and biggest influence is, without a doubt, Wong Kar-Wai. My color sensibility alone owes completely to his longtime collaborator Christopher Doyle’s cinematography in all of Wong’s early films. In terms of costume design, Milena Canonera’s unbelievable versatility has always been something I long to model after in my own work. Whether it’s A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, A Life Aquatic, Dick Tracy or Marie Antoinette, her costumes make each fictional world come alive and yet they all look and feel so differently. I really admire that.  

PH: What led you to your latest project, Pleasure?

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: I have always been fascinated by stories about marginalized communities and am always on the lookout for projects with controversial topics and stories. I love films that make you question your beliefs and biases because safe stories rarely generate that kind of discussions. When I came across a story that does exactly that, by a female director who strove to collaborate with other talented women in telling it; to me, that was a dream realized. I couldn’t not seek it out. 

PH: Pleasure required a ton of research. Can you talk about what types of research you had to do? One of the really cool things about this project is that it's rooted in real-life experience. How did the people you talked with help create inspiration?

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: We were very lucky to have a director who dedicated years of research into her subject. From the very first meeting, Ninja shared with us a wealth of images and videos from her time spent on porn sets and conventions and connected us with a network of adult industry performers for our individual investigation. I met with award-winning performer Casey Calvert who gave me a lot of insight and guidance around where to shop and designers who work closely with the industry. I really owe my Guldbagge award to her and many others who generously shared their perspectives with me. 

PH: What was collaborating with director Ninja Thyberg like? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: It was a truly empowering experience for me, due to the largely female crew we had. In pre-production, Ninja also made space for us to have deep and vulnerable discussions about our experiences as women in different aspects of life which added to the complexity and richness of the story we were telling. I knew then that she was interested in all the gray areas of the industry, far from the clichés of what’s already been told. That was very exciting for me as a collaborator because I was invited to expand my purview beyond this industry. I believe what is depicted in Pleasure is not limited to adult film, it sheds light to much of the female experience, no matter the field, which sadly is more relevant than ever right now.

PH: Can you share some unique, minor details to the costumes that viewers might not notice, or understand? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Bella wears a number of graphic tees, albeit subtle, many of them I hope help set the tone of the film, for example “Girls Run Thangs” and “Equality”. Her fascination with Ava and ambition for becoming a ’Spiegler Girl’ are also shown through the use of the color black and changes in Bella’s silhouettes as she gradually rises to fame. 

PH: Can you talk through your process when having to create costumes for each character. What does it look like? Is it different depending on the character? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: I wanted to show how different each character is - especially the women at the model house. When Ninja and I talked about each of their backstories, it was clear to me that costumes would play a big part in highlighting their different geographic, socioeconomic upbringings and reasons for entering the industry since these details were not revealed in the dialogue. Each of the women also plays a unique role in Bella’s support system, so as their friendships grow, it becomes even more important to show their different personalities.

PH: Did you face any challenges while designing? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: There were definitely challenges but when it came to the design process, the whole creative team really connected and collaborated seamlessly. I am so grateful to production designer Paula Loos and makeup artist Erica Spetzig not only for their talents but also for how much we bounced ideas off each other’s designs and made sure all the visual elements were cohesive as a whole. We worked very well together and I’m really proud of how our designs turned out. 

PH: Throughout the years, do you have any favorite costumes you've developed? Can you share why? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Some of my favourite costumes to date were beautifully worn by actress Sydney Lemmon (Succession) from a short film I designed back in 2019 by award-winning French filmmaker Lara Panah-Izadi. I had the pleasure of working with her when she was selected by the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. It is set in the late 40’s, inspired by the life and struggles of French American sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. These were elegant and luxurious day dresses for Sydney played a wealthy respectable wife of a Count. We needed to understand instantly by her presence and costumes why her daughters were afraid of her so the collars and the cuts of her costumes were angular and severe. I remember the lovely and cheerful Sydney stepping into her costumes and instantly becoming stern and stoic. When you get to witness your actors’ transformation, it is truly magical!

PH: Finish this sentence...to be a great costume designer, you need to ___________. 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Immerse in the characters and understand their motivations, even if they are not likable or relatable characters. 

PH: Can you talk about your work on the upcoming crime thriller Emily the Criminal? 

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Emily the Criminal is a thriller by writer/director John Patton Ford that reveals a side of Los Angeles that we rarely see in movies. It is gritty, multicultural and often cruel and inhospitable for those who find it hard to make ends meet. It was very important to John that our version of Los Angeles is not glamorized, and nor are the people within it. The tone and color palette of the film are very specific and heavily influenced by French director Jacques Audiard’s films. I worked closely with production designer Liz Toonkel and cinematographer Jeff Bierman to create the underbelly of LA. There are a lot at stake for Emily and Youcef so their wardrobe are more utilitarian and uniform. While the overall designs were subtle, it was crucial to me that every look had to be intentional and lent itself well to the arc of each character in this film. Needless to say, my work here is drastically different from what I did on Pleasure. I cannot wait for people to see Emily the Criminal!

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