What outfit do you put on when you feel inspired? That question faces two very different painters in Brit McAdams’ quietly delightful film, Paint, without taking away from the comedy. Costume designer relied on character, atmosphere, and circumstance to create the specificity of public broadcasting television.
Paint winks at the very specific world of PBS broadcasting and the people who inhabit it. The tones might be hushed, but they never lack an authenticity or depth. It was Pearce’s job to help aid the real-life worldbuilding by taking inspiration from the production design to create these costumes.
“The station and where they work was a big inspiration, and that wasn’t a functional building,” Pearce says. “Our production designer, Todd [Jeffery], chose colors that me, Todd, and Brit [McAdams] talked about. Lots of mauves and sage greens. We looked at Broadcast News and To Die For as color inspirations. They were palettes that looked dated. For me, I wanted to play around with playing around with matching the people who worked there with the décor. Wendi McLendon-Covey wears baby pink and mint green, and those are the colors on the walls. The director of photography loved me.”
Owen Wilson’s Carl Nargle has a very specific look. In almost every scene he is wearing a button-up shirt, so he is very much a character who relies on what he knows and what makes him comfortable. Shall we say that Carl…doesn’t paint outside the lines when it comes to his own closet? There is nothing wrong about knowing what you like, and Pearce had to carefully calibrate Carl’s costuming journey.
“The inspiration was definitely, button-down-wise, from the Bob Ross world,” Pearce admits. “Why would you wear one of those while you paint? That seems dressy to me. Something that I found interesting was Ross’ pretty tight fitting jeans, and this idea of Carl being stuck in this era of when he was coming into fame. We identify it as the late ’70s, and we thought that his idols might be some Laurel Canyon rock stars and actors. I looked at Warren Beatty in Shampoo or Steve McQueen’s personal style. Gordon Lightfoot was a big one, because Brit really likes his music as well. Owen brought his dog, Wayno, on set a lot, and the first thing I put him in was that baby blue button-up that is in all the promos. One of the pairs of 511, orange-tab Levi’s from the ’70s, and Owen thought we nailed it from there. He goes through over 30 changes in this movie, and one of the things that I found interesting is that it has a very Wet Hot American Summer vibe because of all the flashbacks. When you flash back with him, the look feels the same, but it might be a less exciting version of it. He might wear a plaid western snap shirt. Story-wise, we see him stay stagnant, but once he enters his sad phase and he’s been phased out, one of the things we did was put him in a shirt that had nothing on it. We wanted to take away his mojo.”
One of Carl’s first shirts is one of my favorites. It has an autumnal feel that taps into Carl’s love of his hometown. Some of Carl’s denim shirts had detailing on the shoulders and chest, and Pearce reveals that her and the team did a lot of the needlework themselves.
“I wanted to use that one in the first scene since he’s talking about nature,” she says. “It’s such a big inspiration for Carl and his love of Mount Mansfield. He gives everything a name. I wanted to try and use that poignantly from the beginning. We did a lot of embroidery. I was able to find a fair amount of vintage or I found vintage that was blank. I put Mount Mansfield on the back of one with a sunset, and we did some of the patchwork ourselves. Owen fits into a Western shirt, for sure, so it was about making them special. He is low-key about his look.”
When Ciara Renée’s Ambrosia arrives on the scene, she musses everything up at the station, and Carl begins an immediate downward spiral. There is a sense that Ambrosia takes pride in everything that she makes, and she would never, ever throw anything away. If the sleeve of her sweater got caught on a nail, she might, perhaps, make it into a vest. There is a true sense of whimsical creation with everything Pearce dresses Ambrosia in. This is a character that loves to play. When we see Carl leaving the station, we notice their clothing and their style could not be any different.
“It’s kind of a sweater vest with a cowl neck,” Pearce says of an outfit worn by Ambrosia in a scene between her and Carl. “That was a poncho that I thrifted, and I transformed it a little with some knitting on the side. What I wanted to do with Ambrosia is show how her clothes were another creative outlet for her. In my mind, I came up with this backstory that she grew up crafting, and she has these women in her life–like her grandmother and her mother–who did it with her in a craft room in her house. To her, when you see that she paints a UFO with blood in the first episode, nothing is sacred to her. I wanted to see her using heirloom antiques and blankets and things that were knit and crocheted to put them into her look. She would put spins on things that would seem nontraditional. There’s a cream jumpsuit that she wears with a lime green turtleneck that has these sides that were made of an antique blanket. Those pieces were so beautiful, because someone made those with their hands and we reworked it. It didn’t have to be crazy, but I wanted everything to look like Ambrosia did it herself. I was part of the design team on Saturday Night Live, and I learned how to make incorporate the costumes into the joke. It’s part of the punchline, and that’s so exciting to me. Ambrosia’s looks are total sleepers, and it proves that she’s kooky as hell.”
As Carl struggles to find his passion again, it’s beautifully represented in his clothes. In an awkwardly amusing sequence, Carl accepts an offer to teach, but he clearly doesn’t have the skills to mentor. He is wearing something totally different than anything he’s worn so far in the film, and Pearce had to strip things down to basics.
“It looked like he was really grasping to something to hold onto,” she says. “He’s in a really dark place, and he’s got nothing to teach. I imagine Carl reaching into his closet and putting on something that he knows will be a hit. And, of course, it doesn’t really work. Something that, I think, Carl brings to the table as a teacher is simply him in the room being there–in his mind, at least. He’s showing up to show up, and he’s putting on something to wow people.”
Pearce loves a lot of Ambrosia’s closet, and I admitted that Carl’s maroon robe (when he’s at rock bottom) is the item that I would take for myself. Pearce has her eyes on something else, as well/
“Michaela [Watkins] now owns all of Katherine’s sweaters, and I loved those,” she admits. “There is a blue and pink fair isle cardigan that she wears, but there is also this horse girl cardigan. It has leather buttons and it’s from the ’70s with a big horse on the back. It has patch pockets, but it didn’t make it into the movie. I love a vintage sweater, and if, by chance, Michaela didn’t want it, I would happily add that to my closet.”
Paint is now available to rent.