Interview: Robin Fitzgerald, stylist for House of the Devil
House of the Devil does '80s horror right - it just happens to have been made in 2009. In the best film from badass horror director Ti West, everything from the clothes, to the music, to the credits in HotD capture the golden age of horror without looking low budget. West has a knack for the slow build. His films keep you tugging the blanket near your face without ever revealing too much of the lurking evil. He also has a knack for writing and casting scarily lovable female leads like Jocelin Donahue in HotD and Sara Paxton in The Innkeepers. (Both films are currently available on Netflix and come highly recommended by me.)
I develop a massive crush on Jocelin Donahue every time I re-watch HotD, and the dead-on, presciently trendy '80s styling is A major factor in my recurring infatuation. I spoke with Robin Fitzgerald, costume director in charge of shaping HotD’s understated, spookily charming style about styling the film’s perfectly '80s look, working with Ti West, and cutting her chops as a Playboy stylist. —Angelo
What does being costume director entail?
Ti had very specific ideas of what he wanted for the various looks of each character. We went together to costume houses looking for the perfect plaid shirt for the main character Sam as well as other bits and pieces to bring that authentic feel. Since Jocelin would be in the plaid shirt for the majority of the film, we wanted to make sure it wasn't too bold and that it was authentic to the time period. I really wanted everything to be from the early '80s, so nothing except Tom Noonan's [the scary old guy] wardrobe was contemporary.
Where did you find the right, '80s or '80s inspired pieces?
Most of the wardrobe was rented/thrifted in LA but I was able to score some amazing finds in Torrington, Connecticut where we shot the film. Thrift stores in that area are pretty untouched so I had a great time. I found Dee Wallace's coat at a small thrift store that was in a neighborhood house of a nearby town.
The "shirt" Sam ends up in at the end of the film is actually from Pirates of the Caribbean. I wanted something creepy and old for that look, but I needed multiples of it because of all the blood work we would be doing in it. There were a ton of those shirts at Disney's costume house so I knew I scored when I found it.
Funnily enough, when girls ask me how to get Sam's look from House of the Devil, I recommend the BDG high waist cigarette style from Urban Outfitters! Those are the closest thing out there to a legit early '80s jean.
My favorite costume from the film is Greta Gerwig's acid washed jeans. I've seen the film twice with an audience and I love how those jeans always get a laugh when she stands up at the end of the pizza parlor scene.
What did you use as a reference/inspiration for the '80s look?
To make sure every costume was authentically '80s, I looked all over for photos of real people to prepare myself. I even went to the public library and looked at old magazines from the early '80s on microfiche. I even researched in '80s style.
Ti never wanted to specify the year but we decided it would be around 1982/1983. Since movies are a great reference, I ended up watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High about 1000 times. I was so inspired by Pheobe Cates character Linda, and wanted to put some of those elements into both of our ladies.
Once all the outfits were established, my supervisor Lisa Hennessy made sure that everything went smoothly on set.
What’s the atmosphere like on set of a creepy horror flick?
We were shooting in the house at night for about two and a half weeks. We would be bused from the hotel to the house around 5pm and then finish around 6am. The cell reception was horrible at the house so the crew became very close. I actually met my husband on the film; he was the camera loader.
Ti wanted to use only crew for background actors so I ended up dressing a lot of them in '80s attire. A few people admitted to wearing their '80s swag off camera as well, which made me feel super proud.
Watching this movie a bunch, I've developed a huge crush on Jocelin (and the style is a big part of that) — did the casting help shape your wardrobe decisions? Did you talk to the actors at all about their styling?
We all developed a crush on Jocelin during the filming of HotD! She was not only beautiful and talented, but wicked smart and game for anything Ti threw at her. Because she has such a darling figure, anything I put on her would have looked amazing. She was a bit unsure about the jeans. When we saw the premier together I was so nervous, but afterward she made a point to find me in the lobby to tell me that she loved her wardrobe! There are very few people who can pull off a style that is not currently in fashion and make you want to wear it; Jocelin just happens to have that flair.
You mention how Jocelyn is basically in the same outfit the entire film. Was it a challenge to find a look that could endure the entirety of the movie without being either distracting or getting boring?
It was a challenge to find the perfect shirt in multiples. When you costume design a horror film or something with a lot of stunt work, the main focus becomes finding awesome looks in multiples. It's easy to thrift or buy on sale one-of-a-kind pieces, but you run the risk of ruining something and not being able to find it again. Because Sam doesn't get bloody in her shirt, it was okay to only have one but still risky since we would be shooting her in it for a week. I went to so many thrift stores to find that perfect shirt that would go well with the house, blending into each scene. I think the shirt we went with was a rental. Ti did a camera test with our top three favorites, and when he looked at them all later he was able to decide right away.
This film was a few years ago, but Jocelin's outfit (high waisted jean, plaid, Nike Cortez sneakers) looks like a girl I might see today walking around Portland or New York. Did you have any clairvoyant thoughts about the trendiness of the look, or did it seem super retro at the time?
I was really trying to make it look like a real girl from the early '80s. I think it was just a matter of the style came back into fashion.
You mention really digging Greta Gerwig's pizza shop look. Gerwig is becoming a big star these days. Did you see that mass potential while you worked with her?
There was a scene that was cut from the final edit where I realized Greta would be a huge success. It was the other half of the phone conversation that happens at the beginning of the film. Greta had this awesome tri-wolf print sweatshirt and '80s-style curlers in her hair. The whole crew was cracking up during the filming of the scene and Ti left it out because it was too comedic and threw the pacing off. I hope it ends up on a director’s cut or DVD extras. It was really funny and a glimpse into the actress she would become.
How did you come into this line of work?
From 2002-2004 I was attending FIDM and working at Starbucks and Diesel to pay the bills. At those jobs I met a nice woman who told me she was a stylist. I thought that sounded cool so I told her I would love to be an assistant if she ever needed one. Three weeks later I became the assistant to the Playboy stylist. It's funny because people always say, "Playboy? So you styled shoes and earrings?" But it was actually hard work. You had to use the clothing to manipulate the body, hiding and accentuating, etc.
From there I went on to assist costume designer Jayme Bohn who taught me a lot. I learned to stretch a budget, how to conduct myself on set, where to go to get what I needed, all the basics and more.
Ti West is one of my favorite horror directors. Was there any wisdom you learned from working with Ti? Or just any element of his filmmaking that struck you or stuck with you?
I've worked in the business now for 10 years and I can say that Ti West is one of the best. He knows exactly what he wants because he writes, directs, shoots, and edits his films. A lot of directors shoot too much footage for so many reasons. It ends up burning the crew and the actors out, so it's nice when you have someone that can move quick. If there is one piece of advice I can give to anyone, it's know what you want. And if you don't know yet, that's great! It's simple to try something, anything actually! You find out what you want by trying things and finding out that it's not for you.