Film and television are collaborative in nature, bringing career specialties together to make art. Motion Picture Costumers Local 705 has many classification and specialties under its purview alone–the Supervisor brings the costume arts all together with the Costume Designer to work as cohesive team. Our new Business Rep and longtime Supervisor David Swope seemed the natural choice to tell us all about the key role of the Supervisor.
How did you get into costuming?
I started as a PA in Houston, Texas. I was wrangling background and locking up the sets and that kind of thing. I moved to Los Angeles shortly after because I decided it’s really what I wanted to do, and L.A was the place to be for film work. Originally, I was on track to become an Assistant Director, but I decided that really wasn’t my thing. I was interested in the costume field, so I became a Costume PA. I did a season of Equal Justice, then worked in a costume rental house named CRC for a while. I worked about three months and I decided I really wanted to just try doing television shows. So, I went on to my next job at Beverly Hills 90210.
I interviewed for a set job. I had never done set, I was completely green and I didn’t get the job at first. 90210 called me in later to work with background actors for a week and the week turned into eight seasons. I did set for four years and then I started supervising. Once I started supervising, I never really went back to set costuming.
That’s how I got into it. I didn’t really go to school for it, I didn’t study it beforehand, I just learned as I went. I had no idea what I was doing when I started. I didn’t understand continuity or editing, I made some mistakes along the way. For example, I’d go in and change up the collar on a men’s shirt at a time when you shouldn’t be changing up the collar and then it showed up in editing. I learned. I figured it out. I became a Costume Supervisor over time.
What does a Costume Supervisor do?
There’s a lot. Let’s just start from the beginning–the Supervisor hires the local 705 costume department. A lot of Costume Designers have a say about who they want to hire, so you decide on a crew as a team. The Supervisor helps the costume crew negotiate their deals and tries to get the best pay rates for the crew. The Supervisor needs to read the script and understand the filming schedule, so they may create a budget for buying, making and maintaining costumes.
The Supervisor must keep an eye on all the needs of the costume department. They make sure the crew has the help needed to get the job done. This means working with every department on a film or TV project—Props, Make up and Hair, Transportation, Art Department, Construction, Production to name a few.
What was working on Beverly Hills 90210 like? Eight seasons Is almost a third of a career in television!
The costume team was very divided back then. The men dressed the men and the women dressed the women. Now it’s mixed, everyone helps on set. For a show that large we were a pretty small crew, four or five Finished Costumers, a Custom-Made member and our Designer. We would have all the Beverly Hills Beach Club background and all the high school kids, and we had lots of extras and my set partner and I, we just did it. Somehow everyone was dressed and in front of the camera on time! It was all fun. It was hard, but it was easier than most of the shows I’ve done. We were a tight knit group.
What came next?
After Beverly Hills I continued as a supervisor on several shows: X Files, Roswell, Jack and Jill and West Wing. My next long-term gig was Cold Case.
Cold Case was a huge show; we did a different period every week. It wasn’t like we had a storage room full of 1940s clothing like a normal period show–we had a different period every week. There were great big scenes with lots of background and somebody got killed in period clothes every week. So, we had to have multiples of the costumes since they got bloody. Gosh, it was huge.
There were times when we had everybody in town sewing custom costumes for us, especially a big circus episode we did once. Our Custom-Made crew altered things to look vintage when we could. We also rented huge amounts of things from costume rental houses. We had a costumer at Warner Brothers and their job was just returning costumes all the time. The show jumped around in time so much it was hard to keep up! One week, it was 1950s sailors, the next week it was 1970 roller disco and then it could be women’s suffragettes. You never knew.
As the Supervisor, I spent a lot of time doing budgets and hiring costumers and figuring out schedules. We had lots of fittings with a very large cast. So, you had to figure out who was going to do the fittings, who was going to load the costume trailer we use when filming on locations, who was going to put all these costumes away at the end of the episode…it was a lot to keep track of.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time working in television?
One thing I’ll never forget, I was so green and so new and we were shooting on the beach for Beverly Hills 90210. I was trying to be a Set Costumer on the beach all by myself. To get the shot we’d be moving down the beach following the actors. I had a really hard time keeping all my stuff together. I had my little chair and my continuity notes, my set bag, my supplies and all that stuff. It was like, “oh my God, I can’t keep all this together. We keep moving down the beach, my stuff is back there– I need my stuff. I can’t keep up!” I’ll never forget that feeling of being so new and just trying to keep up with everyone.
What inspired you to become the Business Representative for Local 705?
I just was ready to give back to the union. We needed a fresh take, someone the members had seen out and about over the years. I’ve been in the Union for 27 years, but I’ve always been open to trying new things and expanding my skills as a costumer. It’s so easy to get set in one way of thinking and working. I’ve also worked in costume houses in addition to film and television; I felt like I could bring some real work experience knowledge into the union office.
That’s how I wound up here. It has been a journey and will continue to be. It’s challenging, fun and there’s more to it than I ever expected. The industry is changing rapidly and always will. I think it’s always going to be evolving, we’ll have to keep on top of it in new ways.