Pain Hustlers is the fourth film that Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood has made with director David Yates, but only their first outside of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. One might think that making the jump from the Wizarding World of the 1920s and '30s to modern-day Central Florida would cause whiplash for even the most seasoned costume designer; however, according to Atwood, "It's funny, because it was kind of the same!"
"When we did the Fantastic Beasts movies, we always talked about everything in them like it was all normal. We didn't focus on any of it being magical, and we tried to forget that the characters had wands and could cast spells," she explains. "They became real to us in the same sense that the characters in Pain Hustlers are real."
Based on a 2018 article for the New York Times (and subsequent book) by Evan Hughes, Pain Hustlers centers around Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a single mother and high school dropout who lands a job at a floundering pharmaceutical company. Working alongside shady pharma sales rep Pete Brenner (Chris Evans), Liza finds herself resorting to increasingly unethical methods to get rich quick — unwittingly help kickstart the opioid crisis.
Atwood, a four-time Oscar winner for her work on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Alice in Wonderland, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, relied on the facts of the true-crime drama in designing the costumes. "Our process involved more actual photography, rather than original images and sketches." The entire time, she was in constant contact with Yates. "Every night I'd send David images for the next day, so that he could see everything," she tells A.frame. "It ended up being a much more truncated version of our usual process."
A.frame: What were the first conversations you had with David about the sartorial vision for Pain Hustlers?
The very first conversations we had were about the region of America that the film takes place in, because David's British, and even though he went to school in America a long time ago, at that point, he hadn't even been on a scouting trip to Central Florida. So, I grabbed a lot of pictures and examples in order to show him that the setting wasn't like Miami. I wanted to show him that it's a much more humble, downtrodden, working-class area of America. It was interesting for him to see it, embrace it, and look at it in that way, too. That was really where our conversations about the film began — with the roots of Emily's character and the Central Florida setting of the film.
It was really important to me that the people who were going to be in the movie — even if they were just in the background — had a certain feeling to them that felt true for the setting, which isn't always easy to do when you’re putting the background artists and principle cast members together.
Getting a bit more specific, I noticed that the colors of Liza's costumes seems to mirror her arc throughout the film. What was your approach to that aspect of the character's clothing?
We decided to have her start in soft, washed-out pastels and then we started punching color into her wardrobe, culminating in the yellow, green, and red dresses she wears, as well as the white outfit with the diamonds. That really marked the climax of that progression, and then we began slowly peeling it all away again until we got back to an almost black-and-white world. We didn't want any of it to be too obvious, and we chose to end the film in the market with Emily where she's in a world of color again, but it's not quite as vibrant. It's more muted.
That was a conscious journey we decided to tell, and Emily really wanted to do that. It's her journey with her character. She starts dark and then gets brighter and then becomes a bit more neutral toward the end. We really used her costumes as a storytelling device, and not just through the colors of her outfits, but also the angles and cut of them. They become more masculine and defined in a way the further into the film she gets. The menswear, meanwhile, stays pretty consistent throughout the film. It just gets a little more refined as we go along. Andy García's clothes are flashier than Chris's, but even his costumes really stick to the same palette and veneer of acquired wealth.
As a costume designer, the appeal of doing movies like Fantastic Beasts and The Little Mermaid is obvious. What's the appeal of a film like Pain Hustlers, which is certainly less fantastical?
It's the appeal of having so little to work with that you're forced to tell the story in a really different way. You have to tell it in the sense that there’s never a 'ta-da!' moment. You have to adopt a big-picture approach and focus on the journey of the characters. It's a different process. Little details become very important, and the simplicity of it all becomes more important. The costumes can't take over the story, because the story has to be the thing. That always has to be the most important thing.
What was your reaction to seeing Pain Hustlers for the first time and seeing your work in it?
Whenever I see the finished film, no matter what movie it is, I'm always shocked, because you forget how much there is in it and how much you did for it. In this case, it was really interesting to see how all the things we shot tied together visually with the locations and everything else. That always makes you think, 'Wow. It worked. Thank God!'
You've had recurring relationships with a few filmmakers over the years, including David, Tim Burton, Jonathan Demme, and Rob Marshall. What is it that draws you to certain directors and makes you want to work with them multiple times?
I think it's all a byproduct of my own process, which is different for everyone but requires me to feel free enough to show my ideas and change them if the director doesn't like them. I never want to be afraid to have a second choice in my back pocket if the original idea doesn't work. I'm not a big panicker. I try to keep my feet on the ground no matter what I'm doing. If something's going wrong, I like to be in the moment trying to actively solve the problem, rather than making a big drama of it. I spend a lot of my time around actors and directors, and with actors, it's really important to convey a sense of calm and support. You want them to feel like it's about them, not you, and I think directors like it when you're able to do that and just dial everything down a bit.
What is it about working with David, in particular, that you find so rewarding?
The thing that's lovely about David is that he's very, very appreciative of what everybody does on the film. He really likes talking to you about the costumes and enjoys that part of the process without being obsessive in a way that's unnerving or anything. At the end of the day, he’s very thankful for everybody, and he always expresses that in a nice way.
Are there any films or costumes from your career that you consider personal favorites?
I have a lot of them. I've been looking back at a lot of stuff recently, because I'm putting together a couple volumes of a book, and you kind of forget all that you've done and the movies you've made. Someone recently mentioned Gattaca to me, which was a little movie with a very limited budget. There was no time and no money while we were making it, and yet it stands the test of time, and that's a really beautiful thing.
When I look back, though, I think of films like Memoirs of a Geisha. That film was such a gift. When I look back at pictures from it, I'm just like, 'Wow. That was pretty nice.' All the Rob Marshall and Tim Burton films produced great stuff, and Jonathan Demme's films, too. I love That Thing You Do! That was an interesting world to step into. All the people I've collided with have made my costumes really stand out in different ways at different times of my life and for different reasons.
You've talked about how closely you work with actors. Is there a specific idea that an actor gave you on one of your films, or even just a moment during a costume fitting, that has always stuck with you?
I worked with Michael Gambon on Sleepy Hollow fairly early in my career, and he was an actor that I was really trying all kinds of ideas with. I realized halfway through the fitting, though, that he was such a great actor, so creative and so intuitive, that no matter what I gave him or put on him, it worked. It was really an amazing moment to be in a fitting with him and realize that. I got to watch that happen with Johnny Depp, too, where he'd go from being in Edward Scissorhands to being in Ed Wood and there'd be these moments in the fitting rooms where you'd suddenly see him become the character.
That happened with Eddie Redmayne on Fantastic Beasts, when I gave him a coat and I saw how he was going to move in it. I've had a lot of those moments with actors, and it’s always a kind of goosebumps-inducing thing. It's nothing ever too obvious or specific, either. Somehow, something metaphysically just happens in the room and you suddenly know where you want to go with the costume. Sometimes, it takes longer for that to happen and it takes a lot of tries. But even in those instances, you'll see the way somebody turns in their coat or wears their dress or how they walk in a costume, and you'll slowly but surely see the path. You'll see what you should do and what you shouldn't do.
Is there anything you still want to do that you haven't gotten the chance to yet?
There are so many things! I've never done an Elizabethan period film. There are still so many kinds of films that I haven't done. I've been working on movies for a long time, but it's always exciting to take on something new and dive into a new world. Every one is always different, which is what I love about this industry.
By Alex Welch