As a stylist, Trish Summerville spent years perfecting the art of dressing celebrities for music videos, commercials, and the red carpet. Then, with her first feature-film gig, she instantly became one of Hollywood’s most talked-about costume designers. Collaborating with director David Fincher (The Social Network, Zodiac) on 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Summerville transformed the formerly delicate-looking young actress Rooney Mara into fierce, multi-pierced goth warrior Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s hugely popular series of novels. It was an unforgettable look that rippled through the fashion world (Summerville also created a Salander-inspired capsule collection for H&M). This month, the designer’s sartorial talent animates Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games movie trilogy, which opens in theaters on November 22. Summerville spoke to Fast Company about her hands-on, highly collaborative, many-tiered process of making the kinds of movie costumes that tell a deeper story.
Summerville starts by breaking down a film script into days and scenes, and then divides it up again into principal characters, secondary roles, and extras. Then, she goes back and reads carefully for built-in information that might guide her. “If there’s any mention of wardrobe–taking a coat on or off, putting something in their pocket–or if it’s a particular season, I write notes in the margins. That way I know I need to have a jacket with a pocket, or I can figure out what temperature to dress the person for.”
When looking for inspiration, Summerville scours images in books and online. Some of it can be “disturbing,” she says: visual fodder ranging from tough Swedish street kids for Dragon Tattoo to insect exoskeletons used as a point of departure for Catching Fire. “I joke that if anyone ever hacked into my laptop, I’d probably get arrested,” she says. “When I started Catching Fire, the script wasn’t ready, so I read the book and went to see the [first] Hunger Games film. I want to be informed of who these characters are visually, what the world looks like, what we need to respectfully carry over, and what can be changed.”
Summerville’s clothes must express a director’s vision and help actors get into character–so she spends a lot of time with all of those people. “Fincher is very communicative and knows exactly what he wants or doesn’t want,” she says. (They worked on commercials together before he hired her for Dragon Tattoo.) “And I really love actors and respect their craft, especially when they’re willing to transform themselves. Part of my job is to make them feel comfortable, so they can slip in and out of this skin and draw something from the clothing that makes them connect to that character.”
She’s constantly communicating with other departments to ensure that the clothes work seamlessly with a film’s overall look. “I do boards to show how we’re visualizing the hair and makeup, and then we do tests to see how the colors look on camera,” she says. “I go see the production designer, so I can dress the characters appropriately to what their lifestyle is. If you’re living in a slum apartment but I’m dressing you in high-end fashion and there’s not a story line behind it, then it’s not telling a true story. And I talk to the director of photography to see what kind of camera we’re shooting with, because colors and textures and fabrics and prints read a lot differently.”
Some of Summerville’s costumes come from retail and secondhand stores, but much of her work is original, either sewn according to her sketches or created with designers as special one-off looks. “If we had the liberty and the time and the funds, most [costume designers] would want to build as much as we could, because then you get the fit and the exact fabric that you want. But sometimes it’s unnecessary,” she says. “Like, I would never build a pair of khakis. There are times doing music videos where you’re up in the middle of the night hand-rhinestoning because you can’t find anyone to do it or there’s no time. You do all the arts and crafts and sewing and dyeing and aging yourself. I like doing. I want to be a part of my crew; I want to know what’s going on all the time, and where the problems are. I have to be as close to the beating heart of the project as I can, so I can figure out if there’s a better way. You only learn that from working with the team and asking questions.”