In HBO’s Watchmen, costume designer Meghan Kasperlik found the opportunity to put her stamp on a classic comic book world, first brought to life by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore.
Created by Damon Lindelof, the gritty drama is set in an alternate reality, exploring episodes of racial violence erupting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the police face off with a white supremacist group known as the Seventh Kavalry. Putting themselves in the middle of this mayhem are a number of superheroes, each with their own idiosyncratic fashions.
In her first interview with Lindelof and executive producer Tom Spezialy, Kasperlik didn’t know what series was being made—and while she’d seen Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen, she wasn’t as familiar with the graphic novels on which it was based.
Pitching herself for the project without seeing a single outline or script, Kasperlik was immediately drawn to the project by the involvement of Lindelof and HBO. “Knowing Damon’s other projects, I knew that it would be something unexpected,” she says, though the series’ compelling qualities didn’t end there.
“It spanned a hundred years. There was a sci-fi element to it. We got to custom-make a lot of costumes and have a lot of creative liberties, based off of a general story, but also something that historically happened, like the 1921 Tulsa massacre,” Kasperlik notes. “So, it was really, really fantastic.”
When the costume designer boarded the project, she found the scripts to be an amazing surprise. “The writing was just so well done,” she says. “Sometimes there was description of characters, and other times, it was just the name of the character, which gave me a lot of creative freedom to pitch ideas.”
In contemplating the series early on, Kasperlik came to understand that she’d need to strike a delicate balance with its costumes. “At first, I think I wanted to take it a little bit more into an extreme or sci-fi element,” she says, “then going back and making sure that it was grounded.” In the original graphic novel, which served as a bible for the show’s aesthetic, it was clear that each superhero was responsible for his or her own wardrobe. Thus, each of their costumes in the series had to be crafted to appear homemade.
While Kasperlik worked with the majority of Watchmen’s visually distinct characters, it’s important to note that she was one of three designers on the series. In her designs for the pilot, Sharen Davis laid a visual foundation for such characters as Looking Glass and Regina King’s Sister Night. After the pilot was shot, “I came on and tweaked a number of characters. Then, we filmed a few things that, by chance, ended up in the pilot,” Kasperlik says. “So, it was a collaboration.”
Then, there was designer Charlotte Walter, who oversaw a unit in Wales for Episodes 1 through 3. The British designer was key in developing looks for the eccentric inventor Adrian Veidt (otherwise known as Ozymandias), as well as the servants that inhabit his luxurious estate. Picking up with Jeremy Iron’s character in scenes shot stateside, Kasperlik was afforded the chance to craft some of his most opulent and bizarre looks.
Most memorable, for Kasperlik, was a space suit made entirely out of buffalo. “I worked with Ironhead Studio to build the helmet and the boots, and a couple of the other pieces. What was really exciting is that in the helmet, there was a full air filtration system,” she explains. “It is a design element that will not be seen, but it was just so cool that it came out that way.”
Introduced in Episode 4, Hong Chau’s Lady Trieu is one of the standout characters that Kasperlik oversaw throughout the series’ run. While not a superhero, Trieu is a force to be reckoned with, as a trillionaire dubbed the Smartest Woman in the World. “When I first started designing for her, I didn’t have the full story. I knew that she was from Vietnam, that she was highly educated, and that she was going to live in a vivarium. I knew that she would have been the richest-woman-in-Silicon-Valley type, so what is she wearing? What is her persona?” Kasperlik says.
Dressing Lady Trieu in lighter-weight, architectural fabrics, in a white-and-green color palette, Kasperlik gave a great degree of focus in her designs to the mystery surrounding the character. “She was very hidden to the community and people didn’t know a lot about her, so I thought it would be fantastic to have her in turtlenecks and gloves,” the designer says. “Because what’s under there?”
Among the biggest challenges Kasperlik faced during the Watchmen shoot was Episode 6. While shot in color, the episode would appear mostly in black-and-white. This meant that the designer would have to pay close attention to the color of each costume, in terms of the way in which it would translate to a black-and-white image. “Because it was the period episode and we custom-made all of the principal clothing, all of the stunt clothing and then the background was in a lot of vintage clothing, we had to be able to have a lot of texture that was seen in it. But anything that I didn’t think would look good in black and white, I instantly took out,” she says. “We either remade it, or we altered the background to have a lot more texture that would really come through.
“I’m a designer that likes a lot of texture, so we already had a lot of that,” the designer adds, “but we also needed a little bit of flat color in there, just so that the texture wasn’t overpowering.”
From a broader perspective, a primary challenge had to do with Kasperlik’s recognition that every detail of every costume would read on screen. “In the fitting, I had to make sure to walk around the actor completely, to make sure that the hem was where it needed to be; everything was fitting properly. Then, also, was it going to not overpower the story? Was it going to be cohesive with everything?” she says. “There was just a lot of making sure that it was working for the actor, the story, [and] the stunt. “
In retrospect, Kasperlik has only fond memories of Watchmen, describing her experience of the shoot as one of creative empowerment. “Also, seeing what the show has accomplished, and the message that it has had, and also bringing people the knowledge of the historical events that happened is really exciting,” she says.
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