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CDGA Nominated Costume Designer John Dunn Talks Boardwalk Empire [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Costume design is incredibly important to the look and feel of any great TV series. The wardrobe of every cast member should add to the story and help us understand not only the characters, but the narrative on a deeper level. An excellent example of a show that did it right every single season it aired is HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. I spoke exclusively with costume designer John Dunn via email about how he got started in the business, the challenge of working on a period piece and more.

Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

TV GOODNESS: Congratulations on your nomination. You are in such great company. What does this kind of recognition mean to you?

John Dunn: “When I began on Boardwalk Empire in 2010, my main goal was to be a part of elevating the quality of the work being presented in period films and series on television. Despite the challenges, I wanted to see if we could bring things up a few notches. Why couldn’t we have the texture and beauty in our work of, say, a Visconti film? And five years and five nominations later, I look at the shows nominated in 2015 and see I was not the only one with this dream.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s find out a little bit more about you. When did you know you wanted to be a costume designer and how did you break into the business?

John: “I was studying acting and directing in the undergraduate theater program at the University of Illinois. In my final year, I took an elective class in costume design and that was the moment. I became absolutely fascinated with the concept of the information being telegraphed by what individuals and groups choose to wear. What was a person communicating by what they wore; as important, what are they attempting to hide? That has been the overriding theme that drives my work.

Soon after graduation, I was on a weekend visit in New York and my host, Tom McKinley, told me of a shopping position that had just opened up at Ray Diffen Costumes, a boutique costume shop. By weekend’s end, I somehow had managed to get myself hired for the position. Talk about trial by fire. I hadn’t spent more that four days in the city prior to this and had never been to the fashion district, so it was definitely a sink or swim situation. Somehow I survived and was able to learn so  much by meeting the needs and demands of many of the great New York stage and film designers.

And Mr. Diffen  himself had come from London in the 40’s with the mission to elevate the level of costuming he had seen on the Canadian and American stages. He was a huge advocate of quality work and solid design and finished out his career running the Metropolitan Opera costume shop. I may, in fact, be carrying on his mission a bit; striving to improve what was being seen costume-wise in the world of television.”

TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your credits and I know you’ve done a few films with Martin Scorsese. Is he the one who brought Boardwalk Empire to your attention? Can you talk about what made you want to work on this show?

John: “I was designing the original pilot of Mad Men in New York when I heard that Martin Scorsese was about to do a new HBO series set in the 20’s. It seemed like a no-brainer to pursue working on it. Scorsese’s work is always of the highest level whatever medium and I knew I’d be required to do my best work. This is such a collaborative art and you’re only as good as the people you work with on each project.”

Photo Credit: Christopher T. Saunders/HBO
Photo Credit: Christopher T. Saunders/HBO

 TV GOODNESS: Take me through your process. Is reading the script the first step or does it start earlier with something else? And then from there, how you go about crafting these looks/costumes?

John: “Always we started with the script. But many of my principals had long histories at this point, so that the story their clothing was telling had started long ago. What was different this season, however, was that be cause of the shifts in periods, we had to throw out everyone’s closet and bring them into the 1930’s and conceive their younger counterparts back in the nineteenth century . That was creatively stimulating and just great good fun.”

TV GOODNESS: It seems like working on a period show must present its own set of unique challenges. What was your biggest challenge on Boardwalk Empire?

John: “Disintegrating clothing was one of our biggest challenges. The 1883 and 1897 clothing doesn’t really exist in any meaningful quantity for a show like Boardwalk. And even the 1930’s clothing is pretty fragile at this point. But I like to put real pieces into the mix as much as possible; it bring an authenticity that the audience responds to and working as fast as was necessary did not allow for our shop to produce the large numbers of garments of the quality and detail I required. But much time went into make vintage pieces wearable for the duration of filming and beyond.

Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Maintaining a high level of quality was my biggest challenge; it’s a collaborative art and you can not  control what the camera’s eye will light on. Therefore you have to treat every costume element as if it may potentially end up featured prominently. That requires exhaustive vigilance.”

TV GOODNESS: How much research did you do for the series? Can you talk a little bit about that?

John: “We researched extensively in pre-production and through filming. Our individual scripts were often not released until two weeks before filming and the writers typically introduced entirely new settings and characters in each episode. In addition, we had a number of historic persons peppered in with fictitious characters so they all needed to be researched.

And for the final season, the series was set in three entirely new periods; 1883, 1897 and 1931. So it was back to square one after four seasons of early 1920’s. My assistant costume designers and I hit all the possible resources we could to build up our research materials for these new periods. This was done largely on the Internet but we made field trips whenever possible. The Research Library at Western Costumes, The Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, The Fashion Institute of Fashion, all were invaluable.”

TV GOODNESS: Other than the story concerns, did you have to keep anything else in mind when you were designing or coming up with a concept for a costume?

John: “There was ever so much murder and mayhem on Boardwalk; it required endless multiples of period clothing. That’s always a challenge when trying to provide quality work at the speed of light. I strove daily to not sacrifice detail in the pursuit of getting everything to set on time.”

Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Photo Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

TV GOODNESS: Is there an iconic look from the series that you’re especially proud of? Can you talk about it?

John: “I will always be especially pleased with what we designed for Steve Buscemi as Nucky and Michael K. Williams as Chalky. To my mind, the industry is inclined to pigeonhole artists into a narrow range of roles. I think the transformations of Steve and Michael demonstrated that actors often have incredible versatility and that it is important to support that sort of thinking outside the box. And, incidentally, I think the same can be said about designers as well.”

TV GOODNESS: What do you have coming up? Anything you’re allowed to talk about?

John: “HBO has a new series set in the New York rock and roll world circa 1973. I start on that in a few weeks.”

TV GOODNESS: Other than finding out the results of your own category, what are you most looking forward to at the CDGA ceremony?

John: “It’s possibly the only time in a year when I’m in a vast room filled with people who are so passionate about and driven to excellence in the art of costume design. I’m so inspired by the astounding work of my peers that I love participating of this one special night that honors us all…..and then it’s back to digging through boxes of used shoes in aisle 6 looking for just the right pair.”

TV GOODNESS: And, finally, what designer will you be wearing to the show?

John:Martin Greenfield, who built the suits for all five seasons of Boardwalk, made me a lovely midnight blue tux. Wearing a custom suit is a totally different experience from off-the-rack clothing and I wear it wherever or whenever I can!”

The 17th Costume Designers Guild Awards presented by LACOSTE will take place on February 17, 2015 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and will be hosted by Golden Globe nominated actress Emmy Rossum. The awards presentation celebrates outstanding Costume Design in film, television and commercials.

A selection of John Dunn’s costumes from Boardwalk Empire.

All images courtesy of Macall B. Polay/HBO and Craig Blankenhorn/HBO.

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