Amanda Needham knows what looks good. The 27-year-old native Portlander is the costume designer for films including The River Why and Wendy and Lucy. She’s also contributed her talents to help such diverse directors as Gus Van Sant and Bruce Campbell. And she happens to be pretty tight with Neil Kopp, her boyfriend and the winner of the Piaget Producers Award at this year’s Film Independent’s Spirit Awards for his work on Paranoid Park and Old Joy. Shy–but far from a wallflower–Needham is making her way in the world of movie-making. Willamette Week was lucky enough to work with her on “Lights, Camera, Fashion” in between some of her commercial jobs (Nike and Michael Jordan) and beginning work on local director Matt McCormick’s first feature film, Some Days are Better Than Others. Here’s what she had to say during a break in her busy schedule.
WW: When did you first get involved in fashion?
Amanda Needham: I was 16 when I worked on my first shoot. A friend of mine was asked to do makeup on a job he wasn’t prepared to do, he asked me to help. I shot with them and stayed on as their personal stylist. They paid me pennies, but I was able to pay rent and learned very quickly that I loved creating looks for print.
When did you first get involved in film?
My first film was a low-budget children’s film called Uh-Oh! I was an art PA [personal assistant]/set dresser. I was living in Los Angeles, staying with a friend who at the time was a prop master. He introduced me to this production designer that needed an assistant. I prepped and worked the first week basically as a slave. The next week the production company fired the production designer and gave the job to me. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I didn’t sleep for a month and was so stressed out I had clumps of hair on my pillow.
When did you realize you could make a living at it?
You can make a living?
What does a costume designer do on films?
We bring the director’s ideas into fruition, but also have to find a balance between all of the other powers that be, whether that’s money, or whatever, and the varying interpretations of the material at hand.
How important is costuming to a film?
Well, very. It’s crucial in telling a story and developing the characters, [but] filmmaking is historically very budgeting-conscious, so things that aren’t absolutely necessary get cut.
Do you make most of the stuff or do you find it in stores?
Usually we find it in stores, but that’s entirely dependent on the story and where it takes place, and of course what the budget is.
What percentage of a film’s budget is usually spent on costuming?
This depends entirely on the picture, and what its scope is. Slacker or something like that is probably around 1 to 5 percent. Gladiator, who knows?
Is it easy to go over budget?
This is a complex issue that is on every department head’s mind at all times. I try to choose projects that are led by reasonable people with reasonable expectations. If it were going to be impossible to stay within budget, I would probably find a way to pass.
Is it easy to get clothes given to you for free for the movies you’ve worked on?
Yes, because movies get seen, so usually people are eager to get involved.
Do you get to keep the stuff or do you have to return it?
The production company provides money to shop and it’s up to them to decide what happens to the clothing we buy.
How important is fashion to your daily life?
Not very, but I feel better if I look good.
How long is a normal day on a film you are the costume designer for?
Ten to 16 hours.
What has been the hardest request to fill for a film?
We had to double a 1970s bombardier jacket in just two days with such incredible detail. Again, I was a balding mess, and it was on the night of my birthday.
Do you see yourself doing this in 10 years?
I have no idea. It really depends on what kind of day I’m having. Running a B&B ...with a garden...on Sauvie Island? I would love to give a stab at writing something myself–although working with the great directors, it feels a bit intimidating. I do personal styling with women in between jobs and it’s inspiring to see growth on a more intimate level.
How important is it that you have a good relationship with your actors?
Very important. Anybody you work with creatively, there has to be a level of comfort.
Do they have to like what they are wearing to look good in it?
Not always, but I strive to find the balance.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t?
Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood. I admire the work they create and the loyalty they have for their crew.
Is Portland a good place to be doing what you are doing?
There is a limited market here, but yes, there are many interesting and creatively liberating projects as well as movies from L.A. The important thing is to be part of the process that trains people and makes Portland known as a place with capable people.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to do what you do?
Be kind to everyone you meet in this industry. The PA helping you is the person that will eventually hire you. Also, come with a thick skin and a light heart.