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Cynthia Summers On Creating The Many Guises of Count Olaf in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events.’

Cynthia Summers talks about coming into the world of the lemony world of Count Olaf and creating the look of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

 

For the Netflix show, A Series of Unfortunate Events costume designer, Cynthia Summers enters a world unlike any other. For season two, the show is darker but more adventurous as we travel with the child and Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris) to brand new locations and with that come looks ranging from the bizarre to pinstripes as we enter different situations. Read how Summers created the look for this season and watch the exclusive clip from Netflix as we go behind the scenes with Summers.

The look of season two is filled with such great designs from Count Olaf to the children, but let’s talk about how you came on board.

I was approached by the producers for season one but I had already committed to another project. When season two came around, I was available. I was really sad the first time I had to say no, so this time, I was really happy I could say yes and it was the beginning of a year and a half of collaborative costume making.

This show was so different to anything you’ve done before. How do you approach this because it’s not our “Everyday wardrobe.”

It’s definitely outside of my comfort zone if you will. I’d done Halo which was outside the box in creative work. Halo was influenced by the game and in the same sense, A Series of Unfortunate Events was influenced by the books and somewhat the movie. There were a lot of reference materials for me which was wonderful.

The designers that did season one did a terrific job of setting the tone and that was helpful. Barry Sonnenfeld and the production team had a clear vision of what they wanted from the show and again that made it a productive situation for me.

From the beginning, we had the characters on the page. We had Neil Patrick Harris who is so in love with his character from top to bottom. We start on the page and talk about what we’re thinking` of. We talk about the sets, the color, and the tone that we want to portray and we go away, gather ideas. I have an amazing illustrator so we’ll sit down with the storyboards and fabric that I think will spark and speak to ideas. Once we get an illustration that I’m really excited about, we go to the producers and make changes before we move forward on building it.

What’s different about this season is that it’s a lot darker but we have the adventurous side. How do you work with the color and the lighting when it comes to costume?

Our entire show was shot on a stage so we never saw daylight. We created our entire color palette within. It’s interesting you speak about the lighting because this was something that was so new to me. The lighting department uses a specific gel so everything you see in real life is much brighter and colorful. The filter they use to dumb down the texture and color was a learning curve for me because I had to work backward in a sense. I had to think that if there was a color I wanted to show on camera, I had to work ten times brighter or I had to make sure the fabric weaved a certain direction to catch the light.

We were able to create something so unique with the tone that is over the whole series. It changes slightly as the season goes on and informs us where the story is going as a viewer. Season two is bigger in every way because the kids have left and are going to different locations. We’re sort of doing a mini movie. There are more stunts, more background action and a lot more stories to tell. It gives the kids more range to be more adventurous and have them realize that they need to take physical action.

It’s a lot of fun, but it added more costumes and a lot more of those costumes. We were making seven to ten of everything. With the kids, they have photo double and stunt doubles. The baby had two doubles. We were also doing second units who were working on another stage at the same time, so it was in all sense of the word, a bigger season.

It’s so detailed when it comes to the costumes. We see everything. There is nothing to hide.

It’s so true and it was probably the bane of my tailor shop. There is a lot of time where they do a long shot and all of the dialogue becomes a waist up shot so you don’t see the back of them, but in this show, you’re guaranteed to see every square inch of that shot and that character. If you don’t see it there, you’ll see it on their photo double in the second unit. You can shoot doubles from a certain angle but you are guaranteed to see a lot of that costume.

I can’t not talk about Count Olaf and his look and the different looks.

photo credit: Netflix

 it all began. At the beginning of season two, we decided to do the first four of his disguises all at once. We had a fitting all at once for them. I got my storyboard artist and in four weeks we came up with the concept to try on Neil. It just helped me set the tone and to see if he liked it.

Coach Genghis was the hardest for me and it was the first one. The world and mindset as to how Olaf puts these together was confusing to me at best, as it is for everyone. Barry swooped in and steered me in to how he was thinking.

He steals his tracksuit from the gym teacher which is way too small for him because she’s a smaller woman. Then he takes the banner. Olaf’s thing is he’s always worried about covering his unibrow and thinks that’s what gives him away. He makes it into a turban. He has these great NBA style sneakers because he’s egotistical and thinks he’s a great thespian.

We had two concepts. One was your regular nylon style tracksuit but he’s so creepy that it felt better he was wearing a slimy velour tracksuit and that worked out really well. It was a great nod to where he was going in that season.

We get to The Ersatz Elevator. Everything there is pinstripes. All 250 background and main characters are in stripes of some sort. When Olaf first gets there, he isn’t in pinstripes so that gives Esme’s character the chance to correct him. He comes in and yes, that is a nod to Karl Lagerfeld. It felt so right for his character in that situation. Everything he does is not quite right. He has this smoking jacket, super high collar. He has these amazing high over knee leather boots, which Karl doesn’t wear. He moves into a pinstripe suit with the same boots, gloves and he leaves Ersatz in that outfit.

His next disguise is maybe my favorite, it’s Detective Dupin. It’s a costume that makes no sense at all. It was the hardest one for me to get. It’s the one that didn’t come to fruition almost immediately. The idea there is his disguises come out of the trunk in his car, and there was no sense to his costume at all, except he’s this jazz musician/detective and he’s put it together and who knows why? They go to a Western-inspired cultish town. I really loved that costume. I loved how Neil played that and the way he moves in it. It’s dirty because it’s been in his trunk. That costume was down to the wire. I delivered it the night before work.

photo credit: Netflix
photo credit: Netflix
photo credit: Netflix

The carnival was next. It was the showiest and everyone looked amazing. His ringmaster disguise came together from a lot of different sources. I didn’t want to put him in red because The Greatest Showman was in the works and coming out, American Horror Story had just done Freak Show. There was so much visually around so it’s a traditional way to go. We started off with a white tailcoat. He has the patent boots, his pants are a pale blue and white. I love his vest. It worked for Neil, us and the set. I think he had a lot of fun with it.

 

I loved the sunburst of the lining and how that contrast work.

We never saw it off. He was going to take it off and swirl it around, but the inside is this gorgeous starburst of pink and gold, but I don’t think we ever saw it. I was prepared to show every detail in case they were going to show it.

 

 

Sketches below from the season. All images provided by Netflix.