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INTERVIEW: ‘Defending Jacob’ Costume Designer Johanna Argan

Johanna Argan is a costume designer who has worked on TV shows such as House of Cards, Hand of God and Good Girls, as well as several feature films.

Her latest project is new Apple TV show Defending Jacob (starring Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery) and we discussed how you make big stars look like ‘a normal American family,’ how a changing colour palette can reflect emotion and the influence of Annie Hall in creating Cherry Jones’ character, Joanna Klein.

[There are some vague references to events throughout the show, including the final episode.]

I’d like to start by asking you about the collaboration with creator/writer Mark Bomback and director Morten Tyldum, what kind of conversations did you have with them initially about the overall look of the show and how the costumes would fit into that?

One of the first things we discussed creatively was how to make these characters feel realistic. From my research, I brought them a mood board which was based on similar crimes that happened to families in Massachusetts. How did it take a toll on them? They always show pictures of families from before the crime, there will be that one iconic photo of who the victims were. I specifically concentrated on this one crime that happened in Massachusetts about two years before, not exactly the same, but it was between two High School students. I dove in and researched a lot of the background of both those families, I referenced court photos and videos and it’s almost as if they change overnight from the stress, the loss, the life that they knew is totally gone. We used those references to keep it reality-based.

Chris (Evans) and Michelle (Dockery) are big movie and TV stars, but I didn’t want people to keep looking at them like “oh my God this is Chris Evans, Captain America and Lady Mary from Downtown Abbey” I wanted the audience to feel like they were watching a real family. So the silhouettes were very specific, very streamlined, the colours were dark. We kinda wanted it to feel like it had been going on for so long that it felt a little seasonless. But the subtle placings of winter coats, the grey skies, the rain all played a part in the colour palette of the show. The great thing about having one writer and one director is that you have one cohesive look and one cohesive voice.

The other thing we wanted to stress was that there was the before – you meet the family in their daily life, Andy Barber (Evans) as the assistant District Attorney and Laurie Barber (Dockery), she’s a philanthropist working with children, I wanted her to feel very grounded and real. They both went to Yale, they had this history, but they’re also parents. So I didn’t want them to look overly flashy, we wanted them to be so relatable, that this could be any family in America going through this. So we meet them in the before, we establish that and then there’s the crime and what that does to the family. We begin to strip them down, their emotions take a toll, it almost becomes like they’re trapped in this prison. Then we expose them to the outside where they’re not supposed to have any emotion, they’re told by their attorney Joanna Klein (Cherry Jones); “you cannot show anything.” The only place that they can express themselves is at home, that begins to deconstruct them, every day becomes the same, they begin to dress in the same things because it’s the last thing that they’re thinking of. So it has a subtle affect on the viewer, you should be a voyeur watching this happen.

In the framing device (which usually starts each episode), Andy Barber is being interrogated by Neal Loguidice (Pablo Schreiber). Andy’s costume in this timeline is probably his darkest – he has a black shirt with no tie, which is contrasted with Neal’s pale grey suit.

Andy is in a very dark place, all of the brightness has been sucked out of his life and so we go to these very dark, muted tones. It was to create a contrast with where Andy was at in that timeline. Also, to show a subtle difference – Neal basically has Andy’s job now, he is basically what Andy was. So I tried to create a light and dark effect. We don’t fully realise until the end, but we’re starting with Andy at his lowest and ending at his lowest, in his darkest place, he’s trapped.

When you first introduce the characters in the main timeline of the show, you go for a lighter palette eg. Andy is in a white shirt and Laurie is in blue…

We’re finding them at the best part of their life, this is the before, so that’s what I’m trying to show. With Michelle – she has the most colour. Laurie is the person who is the most conflicted in the story, she doesn’t know all these details about her husband’s past, she has lived a lie. I wanted a lighter, brighter but still rich-in-colour palette for her, it showed a subtle happiness. She’s an everyday person, living her life thinking it is one thing, but we come to find it is something else. And you notice that I suck all of the colour out of her life and her and Andy kind of blend in together because they’re trapped. I also chose those rich colours for Laurie because they contrasted so beautifully with Michelle Dockery’s skin-tone and her hair. It also works well with the dark blue tones of the world we created for them.

In the first meeting with Andy’s boss (the DA Lynn Canavan played by Sakina Jaffrey) and Neal Loguidice (Pablo Schreiber) is there, it struck me in that scene in particular that you’re dealing with these two massive guys who have played gods and superheroes (Schreiber has appeared in American Gods and will soon be in a TV show based on the video game Halo) – how did you try to make them look more ‘normal’?

Yeah, Pablo Schreiber is 6 foot 5 and while we were shooting that, he was preparing his body to be the Halo guy. The big challenge was that we wanted these guys to look like real people. The other thing was that when we introduce Loguidice (which is pronounced Lo-Judas), he is fighting for Andy’s position. So he’s a little bit slicker, a bit showy and it’s to compensate for his place. We do a flashback to him and Andy at a bar and he’s getting notes from Andy and his style shows that he’s not at Andy’s level yet. It’s not about money, it’s about presenting yourself. Andy is giving him notes such as “look at the jury in the eye.”

Another thing I researched was that when Joanna Klein tells the Barber family “don’t make faces, think about how you dress” I wanted them to be very monochromatic, very tonal, there’s no flashiness to it at all. They’re supposed to look like a family who’s relatable, who can’t show any emotion and Andy would know these things because his job is to know what the jury is thinking.

You mentioned Joanna Klein there, played by the wonderful Cherry Jones. She has my favourite costuming of the whole show.

Thank you! I’ve got a lot of comments about her, people love her. She was fun to dress.

Could you tell me a bit about creating her character through costume?

Originally that part was supposed to be a man. I read that character as someone who fights for the underprivileged, just a very whip-smart, Cambridge (Massachusetts) type, who has been around that collegiate environment of Harvard Square. We come to find that she is married to a woman, but I didn’t want to play on that. I wanted to make her feel very neutral, her job as an attorney is to be very neutral. There was that one great tweed jacket that I found, I knew what I wanted, but there wasn’t really a character out there other than Annie Hall who suggested her to me, but if I’d shown that to them, they’d have said; “we don’t want Annie Hall!” so I had to do it in a way that the influence was there, with the buttoned-up tailored shirt. It’s a play on masculine and feminine. But her job is just to be neutral and get the information out there, it’s never about the attorneys and what they look like. Because Cherry is so striking to look at, I thought giving her a pair of glasses and that signature jacket was key. She wasn’t a woman who was going to wear a skirt to trial, this is her uniform. Her button-down shirt, her two to three blazers, trousers and very sensible, comfortable shoes. She’s a woman of the people, who she’s looking to fight for.

At the start of the trial, the family look they’re going to a funeral. Was it a deliberate choice for the start of the trial in particular, to make them look at their darkest/lowest point?

I think it’s mainly not to attract attention. If they look too bright, it’s like they’re not taking it seriously. If they look they’ve put too much effort in… it’s just a whole thing about not standing out. Laurie wears pretty much the same things, I’ve just pulled them out of her wardrobe from different times in the show. I didn’t want it look like they had brand new outfits. I took a green blouse that you see in the first episode and I paired it with a pair of black slacks. I didn’t want it to look purposeful or too constructed, like they’d formulated a plan. They did what they were told. Everyday people don’t go out and buy clothes for a trial, that’s the last thing they’re thinking of, they see what they have in their wardrobe. Andy is very schooled at this and Joanna has talked to them about it. They have in their subconscious “show no emotion, show nothing” so these simple silhouettes and these darker colours, they accomplish that job.

In the final episode, the action moves to Mexico and the family’s costuming has much more colour eg. burnt orange is used on both Laurie and Andy and there’s a lot of white too. That’s the first episode where we see anything outside of Newton, obviously there is a really different colour palette in Mexico…

There’s three time markers through all this, the before, the crime and then after the trial. After the trial, I bring a lot of lightness back into the family, we go to Mexico, I pop them up in colour, it’s supposed to be a happier time for them. It never really leaves them, but it’s their moment to try to forget about it. I put a lot of white into Laurie’s outfits, just a lot of lightness. We see Andy the brightest he ever is. Of course, the DP (Jonathan Freeman) still wanted to maintain our blue tone, but it’s the one place we hyped up the colour in the whole series.

They were excited, they think they’ve left all of their troubles behind them. They see it as a new chapter, a new start. We never get to see them in a brighter, happier place and they’re making every effort to do that. But they can’t escape it, so they end up back in their prison eventually, back to the dark.

I chose the rusty, burnt orange because Laurie does subtly wear those colours back in Newton too, they’re just much darker. She wears it at Doctor Vogel’s office, waiting in the lobby, she wears it to dinner. It was a good contrast to what Andy and Jacob wear.

Jacob changes the least out of all the characters, he’s sort of anonymous, it’s to create the whole question in people’s minds “did he or didn’t he?” His emotions change the least and when he does show emotion, we question whether he’s lying. So Morten, Mark and I discussed that he should change the least, because he’s the person who we don’t know, he’s the shadowy figure that we’re all following.

Fiona Underhill
Fiona has been writing reviews for JumpCut since the start of 2016. She has branched out into doing interviews, articles and covering various festivals, including Sundance for us. She is now one of the Content Editors. As well as writing for JumpCut, she is a regular contributor to MovieJawn and has bylines at: Girls on Tops Tees, Much Ado about Cinema and Screen Queens, as well as being a member of WFCC and OAFFC.

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