Quarantining at home before the Christmas holidays, Virginia Johnson was fresh off the set of her latest film project in Toronto working as the costume designer for “The Man from Toronto,” where she had been since August.
Though the film was initially slated to film in Atlanta before filming got shot down in March, the decision was made over the summer to move things to the titular town. Filming during the pandemic, especially crossing an international border, presented some challenges, especially for the costume department.
After completing the mandated quarantine period, she got to work figuring out how to do her job. Usually, she’d travel to different cities to get what she needed and do fittings with the cast. Because of the quarantine regulations, she was pretty well limited to Toronto.
The process between costume designer and talent is usually fairly collaborative. While the script can be informative and the director’s vision is taken into account, there’s also the designer’s vision and discussion that takes place between the designer and the talent.
“One of the things I do, especially with actors that work a lot, that have a huge presence with a huge body of work, I like to look at that library of work and see how have they dressed in the past, what are the silhouettes that have become iconic for them, and try not to do those things,” Johnson said.
In this film, she worked with talent like Kaley Cuoco, Woody Harrelson and Kevin Hart. Johnson didn’t want Hart, commonly seen in polo shirts, wearing something like that here. After they discuss what a character might wear and get to the fittings, which were done stateside before quarantine, the next step is to make sure they’re comfortable.
“We don’t ever want what they’re wearing to be what hinders them from being able to give a solid performance,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a graduate of Anamosa High School, was involved in productions both at the high school and at the Starlighters theatre, but those were volunteer efforts, she never really thought she could make a job out of it.
“I didn’t even know what I do today was a job when I was in high school,” she said. “I’ve always loved clothes. I’ve been sewing since I was a kid.”
Johnson spent her undergraduate at Drake University and while there, she got a work study job in a costume shop for three years that “opened up this whole world to me that previously didn’t know existed,” but she still didn’t see it as a future. Then, the summer before she graduated, she took a job at Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, Ill., and was hired to run the costume shop. From there, she kept finding jobs, working with small shows and companies across the Midwest, like the Iowa Shakespeare Festival.
After that, she was advised to get a graduate degree, and the jobs just kept getting bigger. She started working with one of the largest public broadcast companies in the country in Boston, Mass. The jobs gradually got bigger as she worked both as a costume supervisor, who handles the details when it comes to sourcing costumes and had what was need on set, and designer, focusing on the overall vision working with production designer and director, on various projects.
Johnson said she was lucky to work with designers as she was coming up the ranks that trusted her as she learned how to flesh out a film’s world through costuming. She cited the Johnny Depp film, “Black Mass,” where she got to dress a giant crowd of extras for a St. Patrick’s Day parade and then dress people for a Miami night club, as a film that helped her expand her toolbox. Starting out in “smaller” projects also helped her learn on the job.
Johnson decided in 2016, after working with director Peter Berg on the film “Patriots Day,” to focus completely on costume designing.
“I just really, really love Pete. He just trusted me every step of the way on ‘Patriots Day’ and every project since,” she said, with the pair able to have open conversations. “I’ve just really appreciated since our first collaboration the fact that he puts 100% of his trust in how I want to interpret the clothing in that world.”
Making sure that she had her actors in the proper attire was an in-depth process, including interviews with survivors of the bombing, interviews with government officials and first responders and looking over tape and news footage of the event.
“The most important thing about those conversations was building trust and wanting them to know that whatever we portrayed as them was coming from a place of caring,” she said, saying the crew was honored to be creating something to immortalize the moment.
When working with a real-life story, even if the individuals can’t remember what they were wearing, Johnson can make more than an educated guess.
“You may not remember you were wearing a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch jeans, but I can look at photos and look at the cut of those pants and determine, based on who you are, what your socioeconomic background is, where you probably shop,” she said.
When trying to dress people historically accurately, there can be a difference between what someone thinks people might have worn and what they actually did, and a costume designer never wants to take an audience member out of a film based on a poor clothing choice.
Even with the havoc the pandemic wrecked on productions and releases, Johnson had three films she worked on released in 2020.The first, Netflix’s “Spenser Confidential,” was her third collaboration with Berg and was a “really fun” experience. Johnson said that she particularly enjoyed coming up with the clothes for Winston Duke’s character, Hawk.
“I don’t think that would’ve been there if I hadn’t been comfortable showing Pete some really out there silhouettes,” she said.
The second film for Johnson to come out in 2020, “The New Mutants,” got its theatrical release. On one hand, the costuming is made somewhat simpler by the fact that costumes were only made for essentially six characters, five mutants and their medical overseer. But being an action film presented some unique challenges. Each costume needed a “mutant” version, compatible with the characters’ transformations, including working with the prop department on actress Anya Taylor Joy’s character Illyana’s special arm.
When shooting action sequences, multiples of each costume are needed both for the actor and their stunt doubles that can work in harnesses.
Finally, a second Netflix production, the adaptation of “Hillbilly Elegy” starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, allowed Johnson to work with costumes from multiple eras, due to flashbacks in the film’s narrative. During the process, Johnson and her staff went over generations of research to determine the right types of outfits for the film. During that process, Johnson said she likes immersing her staff and the connected staff into the time they are portraying.
“The hallway to the costume office started in the ‘40s and moved all the way to 2011,” she said. “It’s just a really cool way for people to physically walk through that time and see how people dressed.”
In her work, Johnson has never forgotten her roots or where she came from, something that really helped her connect with this project.
“It was helpful that I’d gone to high school in Anamosa, Iowa, and wasn’t from the big city. We can’t separate ourself from who we are, even in the art we produce, and so I feel really fortunate that I spent summers in Anamosa with my grandparents,” she said.
While productions were shut down, Johnson was also trying to figure out how to navigate the pandemic as a business owner, running her shop gather here in Cambridge, Mass., a fabric, knitting and sewing shop complete with online classes for those wanting to learn. She was inspired by the fact that she found herself visiting local yarn and sewing shop whenever she visits a new town for work.
“Making movies can be an all-encompassing line of work, and I’ve really leaned on my hobbies to remind myself that there’s more than a job,” she said. “I never wanted to wish I had tried it, and it has been a source of joy and community.”
Johnson said she feels lucky to have created a connection with the community and an online presence prior to the onset of the pandemic, which has helped the business weather an uncertain climate.
As the calendar turned to 2021, Johnson said there weren’t really any type of films she’s looking to design for, choosing to find projects and stories she connects with on a deeper level.
“I just really want to tell compelling and interesting stories with interesting actors and passionate directors,” she said.
Circling back around to her most recent project, that’s why she decided to spend five months in Toronto.
“I just felt that after the year we’ve all been living, that the world needed a little laughter,” she said.