Designing Costumes for Sundance 2023 Film ‘Fairyland’ in 10 Just Days

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Maggie Whitaker is the costume designer for the Sundance 2023 selected film Fairyland, which is based on the 2013 memoir by Alysia Abbott. Fairyland follows the lives of Steve, an openly gay man who moves to San Francisco with his young daughter Alysia in the 70s after his wife dies to navigate their new life. 

Maggie sourced vintage clothing from different eras that were reminiscent of what people wore in San Francisco and in the club scene in the 70s and 80s. Her goal was to illustrate the characters through their costumes. At the beginning of the story, Steve wears many neutral colors. As Steve begins life as an openly gay man, more color is added to his style as he blossoms into his true self. For Alysia, as she becomes an adult her style is inspired by the punk rock club scene and her dad. We even see pieces from Steve’s wardrobe earlier in the film become part of Alysia’s. 

For this project Maggie only had 10 days of prep time. She designed 137 looks between Steve, young Alysia, and adult Alysia and hundreds of period accurate looks for the background actors. As a gen-x pop punk club kid, Maggie had a solid foundation for her research. She understood Alysia’s inhabitation of club culture and could pull from her knowledge to create costumes for her. For Steve, Maggie referenced Queer San Francisco books, AIDS activism books, and fashion books. 

PH: Hi Maggie! As a production professional, what's one thing you're really looking forward to this year?

Maggie Whitaker: What a great question! I am really looking forward to focusing my work on more complex projects. I love my work in the last year, and I can’t wait for more of the films I wrapped in 2022 to be available for folk to see. I hope this year grants me more opportunities to flex my capacity to design in earlier eras and tell some more thorny stories. Right now, I have some great projects that I am in pre-production for, and I am looking forward to locking down more work for the rest of the year that keeps me just busy enough!

PH: Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into costume design?

Maggie Whitaker: My background and passion for live theater have always been in world premieres. I love developing work directly with the writer and director. My favorite direct collaborators have always been the actors, so moving into film works well with how I already like to be in the process during production.

Like most costume designers, I began by working in theater. My training was entirely from growing up as a theater rat in high school and college, and I have been designing in live performance since I left undergrad. I went to the University of South Florida for my BA in Costume Design, and later on, I returned and got my MFA in Costume Design from UC San Diego. Theatre and Costume design has been my road since I left my parent's house as a kid!

As a film designer, I didn't start getting film work until mid-2000, and my first feature design was in 2009. Before Fairyland, my big release was Shit and Champagne in 2021, which we wrapped up in 2019! I truly thought that I was about to make a big shift in my professional life in 2020, and in a way, that was correct, just … not exactly how I envisioned it at the time. So, when work started coming back to me in 2021, and it was the film work I had been hoping for, I was pretty over the moon to find that the intentions I was setting four years ago were manifesting.

PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow? 

Maggie Whitaker: The most important thing to me is that I love the story. It all comes down to the words, and if I can’t get behind the characters, their arc, and what the writer has set in motion, I probably won’t take the project. I don’t need a project to have a great costume moment for it to be something I want to be involved in, especially if the story is incredible. Add in a great collaborative team, and I am won over entirely!

This work is all-encompassing, and I want to help bring stories out into the world that need to exist, full stop. Whether that is because they are sending a message to the world or because the story is just that good, I want to be a part of that storytelling process. Now, if there happens to be a dream ballet thrown in… that is a nice bonus!

PH: How did you become involved with Fairyland?

Maggie Whitaker: I first got involved with the project through my mentor and friend, Aggie Rodgers. Back in 2021, she had me read the memoir, and I had fallen deeply in love with the story long before I even knew there was a possibility of being on the shortlist to design the film. By the time the project was moving forward, she and I were working together on a different feature, and she gave them my name as the designer they should contact. Once I had a chance to talk with Andrew Durham and Megan Carlson and state that yes, the memoir is, in fact, on my nightstand, thumbed through and tear-stained, they decided that I would be a good fit! 

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project?

Maggie Whitaker: For Fairyland, one of the benefits I had was knowing the communities and culture of San Francisco very well, especially the hippie/queer arts scenes that Steve and Alysia had lived in growing up because of my life here as a theater artist. I knew folks that had been part of those communities, which meant I could reach out and do direct dramaturgical research as needed. Plus, Andrew and I were able to talk easily through a lot of the references that were essential to establishing this world. 

This was especially important because we only had a little time to finish it. So what we needed to do was be able to work nimbly during pre-production, and often by taking our research boards and moving directly into building our racks for our principal characters.

Steve and Alysia would not have much, so we would be building limited closets, which helped to keep certain aesthetic constraints onto their wardrobe. We also were living in a story that did not have any real wear and tear or SFX issues on the wardrobe, so we could lean into vintage and unique garments and build out a world from extant and vintage pieces. In other words, we could put a lot of significance and spirit to their wardrobes and extend that throughout all of our leads, which made it possible for us to create a visually special look. No new clothes faking in as old; everything had the right vibe.

PH: What type of research did you do to honor the vintage clothing from the 70s and 80s in San Francisco?

Maggie Whitaker: I have a massive stack of books from this period, partly because of my love of collecting books and because I have been preparing for some projects that live in this same era. Andrew and I met early on and shared book sources, he introduced me to some new beauties that now live in my library- Idols by Gilles Larrain being one of the gems, and I pulled out my treasured The Cockettes-Acid Drag and Sexual Anarchy 1969-1972 by Fayette Hauser. The library of books that lived in our workspace on set grew, but those were the two most referenced books. Additional resources were family photos from Alysia Abbott, The GLBT digital archive was another great source. Truly, between Andrew being such a deep visual artist and my love of visual research, the stash of loose images was massive.

On top of that, I’m a fashion history nerd, teacher, and collector. There is a substantial collection of my personal wardrobe archive in the film, thanks to my own habits of keeping pieces for a rainy day! A fun fact about the 70s and 80s fashion in the film and in general is that it references earlier eras, especially when you look at subculture fashion. So when you are in Paulette’s house in their first apartment in San Francisco, you can see clothes dipping all the way back to the 1930s because folk was thrifting pieces and wearing vintage clothes as fashion well before it was fashionable. It was deep subculture queer inspiration that would then feed into the mainstream vintage fashion enthusiasm we find normal today. It also shows up in the 80s with the vintage oversize blazers and pieces worn by teen Alysia and her friends before it became synonymous with 80s fashion. (think Pretty in Pink)

PH: Can you dive deep into some of the character costumes you developed? Where did your inspiration come from?

Maggie Whitaker: Scoot McNairy came prepared for Steve and gave me a handful of amazing ratty plaid shirts to throw into his line, which we relied heavily on to build out his story. We spent a couple of hours before we started shooting, fitting, and sketching out the overall look of Steve. Then each week, we would look at the shooting schedule and figure out what was coming up that we needed to tweak- the looks we had not established yet that we might want to make some different choices with, and we would fit more looks. That way, we kept a collaborative dialogue going on all throughout the film. 

For Alysia, we had two actors playing this role: Nessa Dougherty (little Alysia) and Emilia Jones (teen Alysia). Even though they were taking on half a movie, their costume story was a full film! Like the Scoot process, we did these big pre-shooting fittings where we would spend a couple of hours trying on look after look, talking through the options, and working out how we would tell the story of their growth from beginning to end. 

For Nessa, the big shift was how her clothes changed once she had outgrown all the clothes that her mom and dad would have picked out to clothes that were being bought by her dad and Munca, her grandmother (Geena Davis). Those shifts also show her going from this softer/hippier/floral place to a more urban kid in the 70s. 

Emilia, she steps off the bus, and we are in the 80s! While we covered two more acts in the movie with her story, it became four micro acts: High School, NYU, Paris, and Home. For Emilia and I, our first sketch out-fitting collaboration let us understand how we were going to make all the major beats to get us from that first bus stop to taking care of her dad. We knew we were going to be fine-tuning throughout the whole shoot, but we had one iconic piece that became non-negotiable for the full run of the film- a cheap little goldfish bowl ring that was part of my kit. Sparky, the goldfish, can be seen on her finger as long as she is in San Francisco (and not clubbing- because he is too precious to lose on the dance floor.)

PH: How did you navigate having only 10 days of prep time?

Maggie Whitaker: Ten days is one of those things you say to folks after they see the film, and you hope they are sitting down. To be able to create this film from scratch in 10 days is a wild story, but it meant that we hit the ground running on day one! I had a killer team first off: Anna Prisekin was my assistant costume designer, Ryan Thurston was my second assistant costume designer, Ting Xiong was my key costume, Jean Frederickson was my tailor, and with the four of us, we just BUSTED through the prep. We had to get racks of wardrobe pulled from TheatreWorks, deals worked out with vintage shops to put stuff on memo for the run, and shop a ton of pieces. I went down to LA for fittings and more shopping and rentals with about two days to spare before we got our principal talent in town and began our final fittings in time for principal photography.

Add to that moving our costume shop and having to set up twice over at our HQ, plus that our core team (myself included) was coming off another feature, so that ten days of prep was with no downtime from a prior huge project, and the whole journey looks even more insane. But we did it. And once we got running, we had this amazing group of costumers that came on throughout the shoot- Pamela Smith, Kinsey Thomas, Carmise Bentley, and Aureolis Stetzel all pitched in and helped us out on those big days with background and tons of wardrobe needs.

PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?

Maggie Whitaker: I’ve been working as a self-representing entity for my professional life, and I’ve set my goal to get an agent and build my work life beyond California. I love my golden state, and we have the best weather and produce, and I am feeling pretty confident that this year should pick up some wind in my sails for work beyond our gentle borders.

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?

Maggie Whitaker: Thank you for asking that! I'mI'm looking forward to designing and shooting a sequel to a brilliant film I designed a few years back. The sequel, like the original, has a bit of a wild name- Champagne White and the Temple of Poon, the original being Shit and Champagne. The script is fantastically fun, and it's a love letter to sexploitation/women in prison films from the 70s with a distinctively drag sensibility. Very camp, with lots of broad comedy, and like the original, it's a drag film without the characters playing drag queens. They are exactly who they are, just larger than life! My collaborations with D'ArcyD'Arcy Drollinger (writer/director/lead actor) are some of my favorites because not only does he create engaging worlds to play in, but he is incredibly kind and giving. He makes it possible for everyone to have a voice in the creative process, and I love the work I get to do on his projects!

Additionally, I'mI'm remounting a world premiere of a play I opened in November down in LA this spring- Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious, by Dustin Chinn. It will open at the Chance Theatre in April, and that should be a lot of fun. I don't have to redesign the production, but I do have a new cast, so the existing design will be reimagined to fit our new actors. It will also be an opportunity to refine the concept and have my designs connect to a new space.

Finally, this spring, I am designing a new translation of Cyrano for the stage with another long-time creative partner, Josh Costello, at the Aurora Theatre. Getting to move from the 1970s to the 1640s feels like a great change of pace; I've been living in the 20th century so heavily in my projects lately. It's good to remind folk that I have the capacity to design beyond the last 100 years and flex a little!

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