Ep 13 | Erin Benach - Costume Designer: A Star is Born, Drive, Birds of Prey, Place Beyond the Pines

Credit: Warner Bros


Erin Benach: Did everything depend on the music, whether or not what rock star Bradley was Bradley’s character? What kind of singer-songwriter did the alley start out with? It’s like always figuring out who the alley was. The pre-pop star was a really fun and adventure.

Mike Battle: Hello, and welcome to Red Carpet Rookies. My name is Mike Battle, a film production Junior Working for Studios in London. In each episode, I bring you an advice and stories from film, TV, and content professionals to help demystify and democratize the industries for juniors and fans alike. Thanks for joining me. Let’s get started. Today’s guest is Costume Designer Erin Benach, starting on Indie film darlings such as Ryan, Flex, Half-Nelson Erin has weaved her way through a multifaceted career, including projects like “A Star is Born, Drive, Place Beyond the Pines, and recently Harlequins Birds of Prey, forging enduring relationships with collaborators such as Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Bradley Cooper. Erin is wonderful to have you on the show. How are you doing?

Erin: I am Wonderful. Thank you for asking.

Mike: Now, I like to ask my guests first of all what their parents do. Did that affect your career choice in life?

Erin: I don’t know if it affected it in a direct way. But maybe in an indirect way. My father is a real estate developer. So, he would find properties to build the buildings, varying kinds of buildings. And my mother stayed at home and raised my brother and me. I am still actually trying to unpack this because I’m raising my own children right now. Something made me very driven. I’m not sure what, but I was always driven when I was at the age of 13. I was being the best babysitter I could be, or the best counselor, or whatever I was choosing to do. I was not the best, but I would just say work really hard at it if that makes sense.

Mike: So, at what point did you want to become the best costume designer?

Erin: I knew that you sort of set me up for that. I don’t know if I want to be the best because...

Mike: I am the best costume designer.

Erin: That’s competitive! I’m not actually that competitive. I would say that around the time I was a graphic designer at Penguin Books. I was designing books; I was out of college. I had studied graphic design in college. I had been doing it for a couple of years, I had advanced nicely. I liked the people I worked with, I had great benefits. And I sat in front of a Macintosh computer on Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign for 10 hours a day.

There was something that clicked for me, and I said I really needed more. I need to get out there more. I don’t think I can stay behind a computer forever. So, I set out and started taking night classes at FIT, i.e., Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I started taking classes in fashion design. I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I have a passion for it, but I felt as if the fashion girls at college weren’t my type of people. I was really nerdy. I like to stay in the computer lab for hours and make stuff. I was into photojournalists, photographers, illustrators, and those were my people. The fashion girls were another group altogether. I felt as if they weren’t my people.

So, I never followed through in college, but then after school, and then I’d been doing graphic design for a while I decided to pursue it. So, I went to FIT for a few years. I completed 3 or 4 semesters of night classes. I have attended pattern making, illustration, construction, all those kinds of classes. Then, I started to realize that it was the movie characters, which was really the end for me. I was seeing and understanding that a character could be portrayed in different ways, by the way they choose to dress. Those were my connection to it.

So, I reached out to... I had a boyfriend at the time that he was a bartender at a bar called The Pastor in New York City. He had this producer that used to come in a lot. One day I was there, and I just said, Hey, I’d love to intern on a movie. Could I do that? And he said, Sure, let me introduce you to the costume designer, movie we’re working on. It was called the Baxter. That was the first movie I entered. I took 2 weeks’ vacation in America. They gave us a whole two weeks.

Mike: Wow.

Erin: So, I took my two weeks’ vacation from penguin. I went and worked for this costume designer for 2 weeks. And I was into it. I was excited. I went back to work after the 2 weeks. I realized I had to like, figure out how to make the shift. I was going to the set from 5 am to 9 am. Then at nine, I would like to quickly run off to Penguin, do my work there. And at 4:30, I’d leave work a little early, and I’d run back to the set and do more. That was like my school, my film school between that, and then as the years were going by, and I was meeting the costume designers from one to the next paying for them and then assisting them.

Specifically, Joe Newell was amazing. She was one of the first person that I really properly assisted. She actually found me on the back. She replaced the costume designer who had actually been fired. She came in, and she was looking around that what is happening in costume department. She was trying to pick up the pieces from the last designer. She looked at me, she said, “you, do you know what’s going on? Come here.” She took me under her wing from that moment on. She was my mentor from the very start.

Mike: Lots of people would say that working for Penguin Random House is a dream job in itself. So, did people question your decision when you were leaving? I mean, the 1000s of people would want like that job anyway. And you’re going. I’m going to night classes.

Erin: It was a killer job. It was such a great job. My parents that I wasn’t seen, they said, you studied this, you’re doing this, you’re doing well in this. Why are you leaving? Why?” But I had no doubts about that. I was already peeking basically at the age of 23. I was peeking in that world. I didn’t see a future, and I thought, Wow, so if I’m just going to design the hottest books. It didn’t hold enough of a future for me. I knew that, and I felt pretty confident about that. The money part was very scary because I was going from a paid gig to a freelance one; maybe I would get paid. I didn’t know how much you were going to get paid. I was living in New York. So, that part was tricky.

Mike: Yeah, I’m sure. When I was looking at your credits, it looks like you became a costume designer quite quickly, maybe in Indie film stuff. Was it quite a quick jump? Or was it a rocky road?

Erin: I guess I don’t know how to compare it, but the route that I took at the time, which was the early O’s of the early 2000s, was a time when the independent film... If you could ascend and track along the indie film circuit, you could ascend quickly. I don’t know if the industry operates that way now. I don’t have the perspective to really know that. I don’t think it does, but I’m not 100% certain. New York is different than LA, and I live in LA now. So I think it’s not good to ask people from a different perspective entering in... How they feel about it, but for me, what I can say, I was able to join a group of people who were making independent cinema, who were going from project to project whether it was Half-Nelson. Moving along with like, I worked with Lynette Howell, for many projects, and Jamie Patricof. I kept working with them again and again, the same happened with the production designer, Beth nickel. We were together several times, so this our crew... It wasn’t every single movie, but there was, it would consistently be like, Oh, hey, what are you doing? What are you up to and then it would be like, Oh, the next project... It grew with this group of people, and I’m forever grateful for this group of people because they were my film student, pals, and they helped me start in the industry.

Mike: So, what would you say to younger people coming up who are, perhaps, in the question department or indeed any other one that finding some sort of group that you can move with? Is that good advice. I know, there’s some element of the right place at the right time, of course, in what you’re saying. But what do you think?

Erin: Yeah. I think so. I think this is an ideal way to be able to do it. At the time, I didn’t realize I was doing something I had no awareness of, but when I look back, I see that’s what I had done in that. It was a really great way to do it. I would definitely give that advice to people, find people that you... You should in general creatively jive with, love to talk and shop with. So, it’s a very organic process, for example, hey, let’s go get a drink. Then you talk about the set movies and characters. That’s your school is happening around you. I think that what got me through.

Mike: I guess “the best” you’ve mentioned there already. Potentially, the best example of that ascending group is Half-Nelson because, obviously, you are now designing a lot of movies. You’ve got Ryan Gosling, who people have heard of, and then you’ve got Ryan Flex who’s directing Captain Marvel. So that group has obviously spiralled up through the ranks over the years, not that there’s anything to go up. You know what I mean.

From Half Nelson, was there an atmosphere of you guys really working well together and something special about it? Because obviously, it went on to massive success.

Erin: I think there was. I don’t know if we were too aware of it. Because we were also new at doing it. We were all really young kids doing it. So, I don’t think we had so much awareness. We actually had a Half-Nelson reunion on zoom.

Mike: Oh really?

Erin: Jamie Patrick organized it. It was great. Yeah, we really all talk about how that film was the start of so many of our careers and what it led to. What everybody had done from the props person to Jeremy Ballon, Beth Mikkel, Neil long, the makeup person, and all of us, how we had evolved from that movie. So yeah, it definitely felt ironic. It definitely felt like we were peers making movies, as opposed to, you just everybody to a disjointed, different place.

Mike: That’s really cool. That was the first time you worked with Ryan Gosling. Now, you’ve worked a lot of times over the years, and you’ve cultivated a really lasting relationships. How does it work, from your perspective as a costume designer, where you have to enhance inhabit quite a vulnerable place with these actors? How do you build those relationships from quite a vulnerable place for them, arguably?

Erin: What a good question! You really getting in there? It’s important because... I don’t know if people realize how vulnerable that part is to movie making, the characters, the actors. They’re real people themselves. They have their own insecurities and things that they want and don’t want to share. Yeah, I would say that is the best way... It’s interesting. There isn’t a special sauce or a secret recipe that I can say plainly, but I think it’s just about being very much naturally yourself. Everything that I would do had to feel genuine to me, both from my opinions about the character, about the script, about how we were going to portray it, it has to feel genuine to me in order for... I think  for them to trust me. I could definitely talk more about it but I think different actors have different ways and methods. I think, I don't know if I'd call it a skill but it's something I lean on a lot is I love talking to people and hearing their experiences in life. I think I want to share in the actor’s experience, so I’m there for them.

Mike: Of those collaborations, I think my personal favorite and many people’s favorite is “Drive,” which we all love. And the question I have to ask, sometimes there are questions I just have to ask. And I have to ask what the story of the birth of the jacket is? We need to know.

Erin: We need to know and share. So, I have said it before, but I wonder if I’ve ever spoken it before. Anyway, when we were starting to do the Movie Drive, I quite frankly did not quite understand the movie we were making. The script was not the movie type. Sometimes you read a script, and you’re saying, Oh, I can see the movie. Then, you make a movie, and it is not the movie you read about. Sometimes you get a script like “Drive”, and then there 2 things didn’t match up for me until one day Ryan came to the wardrobe trailer. It was early, maybe on a test shoot day. He played me the chromatics, desire, and a couple of other Italian bands. For me, at that moment, it all clicked. I went Oh, the tone of the movie, the colors of the movie, the vibe of the movie, it all came together for me. So I think, somewhere around that time, we started playing around with things. Sometimes, Ryan brings in some inspiration pieces because he’s been thinking about the character for even longer than I have. Sometimes actors come in, and they’ve just been hired. You have been at the project as a costume designer for way longer. So you have the wealth of information. Sometimes the actor has been planning with the director to do this movie for 3 years, and you walk into their experience. So, it’s always different. But in Drive, he had been talking to Nicholas for quite a while, and they would drive around in a car and listen to that music and talk about making the movie. So, he brought a couple of inspiration pieces, one of which was this Korean souvenir jacket. It was satin, it was not white. It was navy blue. It has beautiful embroidery on the back, like dragons and really beautiful detailed embroidery. They were jackets, the soldiers buy them in Japan and bring them home from when they were stationed. So, he put it on, and it was hideous. I mean, it was too big. It was bulky, and it was not attractive. But the jacket itself was just really cool. I looked at it. I think that after the fitting photos he said, the jacket is hideous. But there could be a really cool version of this. And that’s when I started making and turning it into more of an 80s cut pattern. We started from scratch and just started building a jacket that had inset sleeves and straight shoulders and implemented all the best elements of that souvenir jacket and then molded it with my idea. Then we tried satin colors. You can’t imagine, we tried every color in the rainbow during a test one day with our DP. It was tricky because we were shooting a lot of night shootings a lot of dark exteriors are inside the car, interior exteriors. Our DP was really worried about white, satin and shine in the shot being distracting and really difficult to write with. I felt for him. My husband is a DP so I always feel for the DPs. We were playing, after we did this whole day of test rides, we tried every color in the palette of percent. He came back and he said, you know what Erin, the White is the best and I’m going to make it work. I said, okay, Newton Thomas, let’s do this. Ryan and Nicholas, were happy about it, too. And so we want to have the...

Mike: Amazing! I think one of the things that are really interesting about that jacket is how culture is influenced by films. Now there are a lot of guys all dressing up like in Halloween and things like that.

Erin: Oh my god. I know, Bob called me a year later. She was asking how do you feel about influencing men’s fashion right now? I said, Wow, What?

Mike: So cool. I think the reason that people really as it is that... I guess in “Drive” he represents a bit of an outlaw. Interestingly, you seem to be drawn to that a little bit because also “In the Place Beyond the Pines,” you were also designing an outlaw. I’d like to hear what your opinion is on the notion of “I’ve heard you talk about silhouettes, the importance of silhouettes.” How do you design an outlaw? What’s the silhouette of an outlaw?

Erin: What’s the silhouette of an outlaw? I don’t think there’s a silhouette of an outlaw. Because every outlaw is different from a different time period.

Mike: You know what I mean.

Erin: I do know what you mean. I totally get it. My first question is, where are we? When are we? That’s your first way into any character? Then the second question is if you could imagine being in that place, let’s say somewhere you’ve been in your own personal life or let’s say in the 1800s, but let’s say it’s 1992. You think back, and you just think about the guys that we know. For example, In Place Beyond the Pines, were bad boys, and they were scary. That you’d maybe cross the road to the other side if you saw them walking down the street. You draw on your own personal life and personal experiences, and then if you’re researching, and you’re doing it with a period piece or a future piece, you’re really getting into the head of the character and into the head of the culture. You’re trying to figure out and create a backdrop to then make your outlaw beat out of it.

Mike: So, to take it from quite powerful masculine characters to powerful feminine character, Harley Quinn, who you’ve been dealing with recently, on Birds of Prey, was it slightly nerve-wracking to go into it, given that you were the second costume designer to be dealing with that role? Obviously, Margot Robbie had played here before.

Erin: Definitely, the previous costume designer had done such a great job at establishing that character in the real movie time out of a comic book. So yeah, there was a nerve part. I thought way more about what the fans want than I’d ever thought about in a movie before. I wanted the fans to love it. I actually cared what the fans liked and loved. So, firstly, I did a deep dig into that culture to learn and understand what people reacted to positively and negatively. I didn’t want to let them down. But yeah, I approached it with my second pass. I said, let me just approach this as I would do any other character. What are the motivations of Harley Quinn? What is the daily life of Harley Quinn? What does she struggle with? Who are her friends? Who are enemies? That’s how I jump into a character. Margo was really obviously the biggest help with that because she knew the character the most. So, we would talk about that a lot. I’d asked her questions, and we talked about that and she re act. How Harley would walk. She said, she sees down from the window. She takes that. She would do would re-act, how she would do it. That really helped. These things are everything. I remember Selma Blair in a movie called the Poker House that I did. In our fittings, she was always so brilliantly in character. Actors will do it, but it will be subtle. But she was really amazing at embodying the character in the moment. I remember that when for the first time I understood that and how much it helped the process in the fitting room, and in the design of that character. So, it’s very collaborative.

Mike: How did the caution tape jacket...

Erin: It’s going to sound I was very stoned when I did it. But it wasn’t.

Mike: I trust you.

Erin: I was in deep research and pulling all this reference imagery. It was super fun. It was Burning Man meets Raver, Roller Girl, 70s, Pop Stars. There were all these amazing references. We had walked into this cool shop where people are good at etching with leathers. It’s such a great place for that. You have all these artisans that do this thing. So I went into one person’s shop, and I had seen she had made a fringe-like sweater jacket, with all this fringe coming off of sweater yarn. It was so beautiful the way she had made it. It was so awesome that my assistant, Michelle, and I walked out. We sat down in loading dock. if you can picture it as a shop, it was a shop next to a loading dock in deep North Hollywood. We sit there. There are all these ideas in our heads, we’d gotten. We’d seen all the stuff. We’re looking at these pictures. And we said, why don’t we do the body of that biker jacket and make it clear. We did like streamers with the arms. It was just the beginning of that idea. Then the caution tape was something... I can’t remember if I came up with it for the helmet first or the jacket first now. I was designing that helmet for the Roller Derby Costume. We were trying to think of ways... I wanted to tap into that Punk Rock culture and anti-establishment vibe of Harley. I just loved that the caution tape and ruining the caution tape, that’s being establishment and then tearing it up or spray painting over it. Something that just takeovers, and we don’t give up, basically. Okay, enough for the caution tape.

Mike: That was awesome. And you mentioned “Punk Rock Culture,” I guess there is punk rock vibe to her. How did the music influence you when you were doing “A Stars is Born?” Did that also come into the costumes?

Erin: Definitely, yes. In fact, sometimes I would just wait for the music before I even started an outfit. Which was harrowing because they were writing music up until the minute before. It was crazy. I will tell you that I really thought many times that there was no way. What we’re going to be able to shoot that scene with, what’s the music? What is it? So, it was crazy the way it came together and so brilliantly. So, everything depended on the music whether what kind of rock star was Bradley’s character? What kind of singer-songwriter would do Alley start out as? It always figuring out who Alley was the pre-pop star was he really fun, adventure, figuring out. Karen Murphy and I did the production designer. I would go over to her house at that time she was renting in LA. We would just sit there and really trying to create a character. I mean, I’ve never really done it. So in Tandem with a production designer, it was a cool experience. Karen and I were friends. Actually our daughters are friends and they were playing in the backyard. We were sitting there saying, do you think she’d be like leopard print? You know, and we would just be like sharing pictures you’d be pulling off of her computer and I’d be pulling off my computer, we’d be like, and we were just like, we were just like massaging out a character really. And it was great.

Mike: It definitely came across on the screen. How was your first meeting with Gaga? The first, the first fitting.

Erin: Oh my god, terrifying. We met we had a meeting first of Karen and I went together to her house. Don’t think super funny. I mean, I’ve been to many actors’ homes before, but this experience was definitely a little bit different. I mean, it wasn’t it wasn’t actually we sat down in a kitchen. And we looked at all the imagery that I put together, and Karina put together and we really just talked about stuff. And Stephanie is great. She was like, we could communicate so easily. We’re, I think, like, from similar places. And like both grew up in New York. And you know, we talked a lot about like sort of the New York like music scene and during that time and yeah, we really just talked about artists, different kinds of artists and different kinds of sounds and different kinds of clubs in downtown New York and yeah, that was it was nice. It was great.

Mike: Did you find it hard having your lead actor also as your director...was that a difficult balance?

Erin: Oh my gosh, I actually find it way easier. Because oftentimes, I’m actually dancing between. So let’s approval one away, think about it, you know, I mean, we have this very delicate as cost of batteries is very delicate, like balancing act of like director, fulfilling director, and also fulfilling actors, you know, wants and needs and then my own. So we’ve got this, you know, and a DP sometimes weighing in, and then the production designer doesn’t usually weigh in like that, but it’ll still affect the process, you know. And so we it’s, that’s a, it’s actually like a miracle that we actually get costumes approved. If you think about how many people’s, they have to sort of approve this one outfit or this one look. And so, you know, an actor is obviously very feel very personal towards it, they’re in literally wearing it. So it you know, you don’t want to you don’t want them to feel bad or sad about something. And then, you know, that’s the director’s vision. So you want to make sure they’re fulfilled, and then I have to feel good about it, because it’s my work. So it’s a very, it’s a very tricky thing. So with Bradley, it was just one less. It was very simple. It was very simple. I mean, I think it was it was it was great, you know, and we and we also had to, you would think it would be like straight shot, but it wasn’t I mean, my first fitting with Bradley, I put him in, I was like, I did tight leather pants, tight, low waisted leather pants, like all of zeppelin. And like, tight, low, like slinky shirts. I mean, I had a totally different vibe for him. And then and we liked it actually. And then it looked amazing on it. But you know, it just wasn’t right for the music once the music started to come through, evolved, and we massaged it and we evolved and evolved, it evolved.

Mike: That’s awesome. Now I’m gonna ask one more question before we go into our quick fire, because we haven’t got too much time. And I like to ask my guests. If there’s anything you would like to change about the industry? What would you like to change?

Erin: I think there should be a better process for newcomers to come in the PA process is sort of messed up now. Because I can’t hire a PA is on studio films really are you’re allowed to hire one. But because you are allowed to had to have one in your department that one usually has like two years’ experience. I mean, if you’re in a big movie, you have one position of the PA to fill, that pa better be really good. You know, like, you can’t groom somebody, if you’re you’ve got that one position. So I, I, you know, when I was coming up, it was better. You could have a couple of CPAs they were supporting the rest of the department. But they got to see and touch and do everything. And so yeah, it’s really hard. Now, the rules. I mean, it was meant to like protect pap’s. But I think in some ways it harms the process. So you know, I don’t know what the solution is, but, but currently, it’s very hard for newcomers to come in.

Mike: It’s interesting, particularly for people who listen to this. Now to finish it up. I’m going to do my little quick fire questionnaire, which is my own Exactly. Bullet, bullet, bullet. And it’s my homage to any access studio, which I presume you’ve seen before. So say whatever comes into your head. Are you ready Erin Benach?

Erin: Let me take a drink of water. Mike battle, by the way, where did you get that last name? I mean, that is I mean, could you tell me a little bit about It’s incredible.

Mike: My dad is from an Irish family. And they’re all battles. But there’s lots of battles in America. Lots of pastors in Central America. Central being central us. Yeah.

Erin: Interesting. I don’t know. I haven’t heard the battle before I remember. Okay, I am ready.

Red Carpet Rookies Quickfire

Mike: Okay, let’s do it. Number one, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? meditate? Tim Ferriss. Number two. Do you have a favorite film?

Erin: Yes. Oh my god. I’m literally blanking on it in this exact second. But Ryan Gosling did the remake of it with Denise Villeneuve. The Baba help me. Blade Runner. Thank you. I don’t know why I always want to say like Battle star Galactic, but no, it is my favorite movie Blade Runner. The original was shiny on. I absolutely adore that film. Everything about it from the realistic future history, historical future of it. I love it.

Mike: I know that there’s a second part of that question, which is if our listeners were to listen to you today, and then watch one of your movies tonight, what should they watch?

Erin: Loving. It’s just very prescient for this time in America right now. Anyway, and it’s a beautiful story about Richard and Mildred loving being able to get married as a black woman and a white man in America in the 60s

Mike: Awesome. Number three what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day for an early call time? if any at all? I know I haven’t done one in so long because the COVID I’m thinking about how

Erin: uh, I think you know, your crew needs you there you just think about your sick customers setting up for the day and you’re on sets and then going out of what is he wearing? What were they what jewellery what is what’s gonna you know, you have to be there.

Mike:  Number four, which job in the industry? What do you do if you weren’t doing yours? writer? Cool. Number five, if you could work with one person living or dead? Who would it be? This is a big one. I know.

Erin: Denny Villeneuve. I’m so excited to see the movie that they did do Dune with Kurt and Bart are the costume designers of it. And I from the trailers I literally my mouth was like watering, like just like drool was coming out of the side of a knob that looks so beautiful. I’m so excited to see it.

Mike: I think number six, what is a book that everyone should read? Sapiens? I’m finally if you want an Oscar, who do you think?

Erin: So there is this woman J Zimmer. At Penguin Books who at the time when I quit penguin to go actually commit to doing film. She said to me, thank me at the Oscars, number one and number two, she gave me freelance work, book design work to do at home. So at night and the weekends when I wasn’t working in the movies, I was book designing and I was still able to make money doing that. So I could make ends meet between the two jobs. So I would think Jays image she has actually since passed sadly, but I still think her and my parents because good catch. Thanks, right. My mom and my dad for giving me the drive and for supporting me along the way.

Mike: Wonderful. And on that note that brings us to a close about interview. Thank you so much for your advice for juniors listening and also an insight into both indie film darlings, and massive motion pictures. Thank you so much, Erin Benach. Thank you for listening to another episode of Red Carpet Rookies. To help us grow, please do subscribe and drop us a rating on the apple podcast store on your iPhone or online if you're an Android user, and of course, any support via our Patreon page or Merge is amazing. So if you'd like to help, please do head to redcarpetrookies.com and follow the links. If you’d like regular updates of what's going on. You can also follow Red Carpet Rookies on Instagram and Facebook or RC Rookies pod on Twitter. Have a great day and we'll see you next time.