After making its world premiere in Chicago on Monday, the Chance The Rapper-led horror film, Slice — from first-time feature director, Austin Vesely — makes the case as an '80s slasher flicks that also has a refined sartorial palette thanks to the costume direction from Megan Spatz.
Having previously collaborated with Vesely on viral music videos for Chance's "Sunday Candy" and "Angels," Spatz grounds the supernatural film in pieces that she refers to as "moving paintings" — like a bespoke Danish leather jacket, and an eye-catching souvenir piece — which she hoped would elevate the costumes beyond surface level, '80s tropes.
We recently caught up with Spatz to discuss her background, key pieces, and her inspiration for Slice's costumes.
Can you walk me through your background, and what interested you in costume design?
I started in performing arts when I was young, so I was always around theaer. When it came time for me to go to college I knew I didn't want to perform professionally, but I wanted to stay in the storytelling field. I went to Carnegie Mellon and at first was majoring in dramaturgy, where you are doing a lot of research into the thematic and cultural elements of a play and working with the actors, director, and writer to help them successfully communicate their chosen themes and message to a specific audience. It was incredibly interesting but very bookish - there wasn't a lot of tangible artistic output.
I had to take a costume design class as part of my major, and realized that it combined so much of what I love - color, character, research, design. I really love to build a cohesive visual world for a story. So I switched my major over and got my degree in costume design. After I graduated I moved out to Los Angeles and just started working and designing on anything I could. I was lucky enough to design some features (Unexpected, Southside with You, Saturday Church) that went to the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, and that opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of the opportunities I had moving forward.
Many people assume the job is just a lot of thrifting and/or creating bespoke pieces. What's an element of the job that the general public might not know about?
(laughs) Yes there's a lot of shopping and sometimes you do get to build things from scratch (something I love). I think a lot of times people don't see all the collaborative creative compromising that goes on. For example, I could really see the lead character in green tones, that's my initial creative response. Then the director has a vision of her walking across the street in a bright vibrant red, and the production designer wants to only see organic colors (greens, blues, browns) on the set but not on the characters, and the actor feels one way, and the DP feels another way, etc. etc. So then it becomes, okay, what are we all trying to say with each of our valid creative responses?
I want the green because the character feels grounded, solid, truthful, like a forest. The director wants the red because he wants her to stand out. The production designer wants the world to have a visual conflict so he wants the set to feel realistic and earthy and the people inhabiting it to feel elevated and surreal. So then maybe we all decide that the other characters only wear pinks, purples, oranges, and this character dresses in more saturated greens, limes, and neons, with small accents of more muted and organic tones. So she stands out like the director wants but also fits into the production designer's vision for the space, and I get to incorporate touches of a more grounded palette in keeping with my vision too.
Shit like that happens all the time. And I love those problems. You really get to create a world that way.
Costumes help the audience get lost in the story and allow the actors/actresses to disappear into their roles. How do you view the role of costumes for the overall film experience?
It really depends on the kind of story you are telling. Sometimes you want the costumes to completely blend in and not be noticed. If I'm doing a small, family-kitchen-sink drama, most of the decisions I make are going to prioritize actor authenticity and performance. Does the character have a small tic where they are always rubbing something between their fingers? Great. Then maybe they pinch the insides of their pockets and rub those together nervously.
So I'll wear down the inside of their pockets so that when they put their hands in, they'll feel how the fabric has been weakened in places due to their constant habit. In those cases it's less about the visuals, and way more about the performance, so I work with the actor to really make their costume feel natural and part of them.
If I'm working on something that's more heightened, like Slice, there's a much stronger emphasis on the visual. So then I work a lot more with color, texture, silhouette to create something that feels, to me at least, like a moving painting. Then, without even knowing it, the audience gets sucked into this visual world. Of course you still have to keep actor performance in mind, so it's a lot of listening to what they need and how they feel, and incorporating it into the world the creative team is building.
You worked with first-time director, Austin Vesely, on 'Slice.' Did he already have a distinct vision for the aesthetics, or was that something you guys worked on together?
I love Austin. We worked together on Chance's music videos "Sunday Candy" and "Angels." When he first told me about Slice he had a few specific ideas, and I tossed some ideas out and he gave me the thumbs up to just run with it. He really assembled a great creative team and just trusted us. Which honestly is one of the best ways to work with designers. I never felt micro-managed and I felt comfortable pitching some riskier ideas to him because he was such an open-minded director.
He knew what he wanted, so he just found people that he knew would "get it" and let us have fun. It was a wonderful way to work and felt so natural. I think he was able to pull out some of our best creative work because he gave us guidelines and tone, and then just let us have space.
A24 seems to be pulling all the right strings as a distribution/production house. Having now worked with them, does their thought process differ from others that you've worked with?
I think A24 is so successful because they prioritize the art and the story over the potential commercial appeal. They don't cater to the lowest common denominator and have faith that their audiences are smart and appreciate a well-crafted film. It's working out well for them!
I wish larger studios would follow their example and tell more stories that may seem untraditional in ways that are more experimental. Look at how diverse and creative their catalogue is! I feel like that's when film really thrives. When you have so many different ways of telling stories, why follow a format? A24 gives their filmmakers room to experiment. Similar to Austin's collaboration style, they just give people space to make their art, rather than trying to mold it into what they think it should look like.
In terms of specific pieces, how did you decide on Chance's leather jacket with shearling collar?
That jacket! I feel so lucky we got that jacket. I knew that I wanted to incorporate animal textures into his wardrobe, so I was on the lookout for garments that had those elements. I wanted something leather-based with fur detailing so I naturally went to biker jackets. I wanted something classic and I discovered this amazing company in Denmark, Pelechecoco, and they were able to provide us with some jacket options. I loved working with them because they make all their products sustainably using vintage leather - so no additional animals are harmed and every single piece is one-of-a- kind.
We didn't have a big budget so I couldn't drop a bunch of money on one piece of clothing. Luckily they were so open and were able to gift us that hero jacket Chance wears, and some on top for his stunt doubles.
That aesthetic was also prominent in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman. Is there just something cinematic and universally cool about leather with fur trim?
I loved the costumes in BlacKkKlansman, especially that coat. I mean, leather and fur is so texturally yummy. You have the tough rubbery sheen of the leather mixed with the softness of fur. But the fur texturally is so deep and dynamic. There's something very primitive about the combination. They just complement each other well.
The trailer suggests you guys really leaned into the '80s vibes. In real life, what pieces dominated the era?
I focused a lot on comic books rather than a time period. Comic book characters tend to borrow from lots of different styles and time periods, that's why their costumes look so specific and unique. We wanted every character to stand out in their own way.
I did look at the '80s a little bit, but we really tried to incorporate more contemporary elements too so that it didn't feel dated; it felt styled and specific to our world.
That being said, we did borrow some '80s styles: bomber jackets, cuffed jeans and boots, ripped up tights under shorts, etc. But hopefully we mixed it with enough other elements that it doesn't feel like an aesthetic slave to a reference. I also pulled references from the 1940s, 1960s — [and] specifically 1970s Southwestern styles in Texas and New Mexico — and then contemporary Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and New York. It's a melting pot for sure.
Zazie Beetz' work jacket has a bomber/souvenir jacket quality to it. How did you guys come up with that?
Like I said, one of my top sources for the design of the film was comic books. I wanted everything to be a bit heightened, and every character to have some sort of iconic element - like a superhero costume. They already had the logo when I started, so I needed to find a way for it to exist on a jacket that didn't overpower it.
I went for a satin bomber because I wanted that shine and it would elevate the jacket to support such a large embroidery piece. And especially because we see a lot of that jacket at night, Zazie needed to stand out and the sheen of the jacket would catch the light well. We knew that we wanted this pizza place to be something iconic, so creating a jacket that everyone could quickly associate with was key. I'm very proud of it.
A lot of the crew ordered their own personal ones too, so by the end of the film I think we made about 30 jackets.
You can't mention the '80s, werewolves, and red jackets without mentioning Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Is this coincidental or did you guys want to pay homage?
It's coincidental! I think what was more important to Austin was creating a strange world with it's own set of rules. I'd say he was much more influenced stylistically by directors like David Lynch. It's a weird movie...I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. I'm very excited to see what people think!
When you're doing a horror film, do you have to consider how the costumes will "accept" the fake blood?
Short answer is "yes." There's a lot of different kinds of fake blood. And depending on how it's being used in the scene, we make our choices accordingly. Sometimes you need to use a kind of blood because the color is the best, or it sprays out the best, but maybe that's the one that's not washable. So then you have to make sure you have enough multiples of whatever is going to get bloody.
What's your major takeaway from the 'Slice' experience?
I'm amazed that we were able to create such a crazy world on such a small budget. We had to get really creative in a lot of ways but I'm heartened to see how successful it came out. It was a lot of fun to work on. I am really grateful I had the opportunity to work on something so unique.
For more on costume design, read our interview with 'BlacKkKlansman's' Marci Rodgers.