Ruth E. Carter: The Costuming Master (INTERVIEW-Part 1)
If you ask the average person who they think of when you say “black cinema”; names like Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, and Denzel Washington come up. With the exception of outspoken people like Spike Lee; most of the names you’d hear would be in front of the camera. And if someone behind the camera is noticed, it’s because they’re a writer, director, or producer. Costume design is one of the most important elements of story telling. Especially in the current era of film making where the look is what sells the audience before anything else. One of the most important contributors to black cinematic history is two time Academy Award nominee, Ruth E. Carter. FanBros recently interviewed her ahead of the release of Marshall:
Her background is a bit unique when compared to other Hollywood stories. You typically hear about the person who was waiting tables until they got their big break. Ms. Carter has always been a costume designer. It wasn’t always paid work, but it’s what she has always done.
This has been the only job I have ever done. In college I drove and ice cream truck one summer, but back then I decided costume design is what I wanted to do. At Hampton University there was no costume design curriculum, even though there was a little theater that we performed plays, musicals, and other things. There was a theater department which I was part of but there was no one teaching costume design. I decided to make up my own curriculum and I basically was the costume designer for every play, musical, and extra curricular programs that were happening. And I was the go to person for the sororities and fraternities.
By the time I had graduated, I was invested in becoming a costume designer. I didn’t know a lot about the profession, but I did look it up in the library and see what the salary ranges were like and all of that; so I kind of had my sights set. I did internships after college, one in Sante Fe with the Opera and one back at home in Springfield, MA at Stage West. Those were very enriching, and I got a lot of training that I did not get on my own as a theater student. I did get some training as a theater student at Hampton. But when I became an intern for the Santa Fe Opera and Stage West, I really got the nuts and bolts of the professional world. But I wasn’t making any money for a year and half. I came out to LA and started working in theater, but LA is not a place for theater. Theater isn’t big in LA but movies are. I met Spike Lee in LA and that’s where the ball got rolling.
One of my biggest desires was to work for the Negro Ensemble Company back in the day. That was a place I felt was doing really good plays and they had interesting creative people working for them. I grew up in the era of For Colored Girls. My took me to New York to see Broadway plays all the time. I would go to plays on church bus trips as well. I saw For Colored Girls, The Wiz, and that sparked everything off. It pushed me towards drama class and I really enjoyed it. By the time I went to college, I was ready for it.
My career has been one that has had a passion for telling the stories of African Americans. However, I have done all kinds of stories. I’ve done Cobb, Teen Beach Movie, I did all kinds of projects that weren’t necessarily African American. But when I started out, that’s where I wanted to do be. I wanted to tell our stories and be a part of our stories. I was a young girl who came up poor in a single parent family with 7 siblings. So I always thought there was a story in my heart.
You’ve been a part of a lot of significant films that many of us grew up on. What was that transition like going from stage play to opera to your first film?
It was great, it was huge. They’re two different mediums and two different aesthetics. In theater you have aesthetic distance, where the eye loses detail the further away you get. So on stage you have to make things bigger so that they transfer to the eye. In film, the smallest minute details can be larger than life. You can explore cracked nail polish or a snag in sweater and it becomes character. I did not know that when I did my first film which was called School Daze. But School Daze was very broad; you had sororities, fraternities, JigaBoos, WannaBes, and Gammites. This allowed me to be theatrical because it was a theatrical film. That helped me when I looked at dailies with Spike. In the early Spike Lee days we would shoot a day of film, then we would all head to LIU to watch dailies. Spike would order pizza to the lecture hall where each department would attend the viewing. I have done 12 movies with Spike Lee, and those early experiences are what taught me how to dial it down from the theatrical to film making.
Can you describe what kind of research goes into a period piece like Marshall, Amistad, and Malcolm X?
The beginning is knowing your timeline, especially when it comes to a biopic. Even for Roots, I had to establish a timeline. When were they born, when did these significant things happen in their lives. When you have your timeline, you have your beats kind of like a script. The timeline helps you decide which direction to go in with the research. If Malcolm X starts off as Malcolm Little and he’s going to the dancehalls, he’s doing his Lindy Hop, wearing zoot suits, and we see a lot of street scenes in the 40’s; that’s the direction you go with the research. Then we go from Detroit Red to Satan while he’s in prison which is where he meets the muslims and converted. There’s a transition of color, time, and period. Those kinds of things help you know what to look for but it all starts with the scripts, acts, and timeline.
The nerd community is filled with many people are interested in designing costumes, do you have any advice for those who wish to pursue it professionally?
You have to make sure that it’s a passion of yours. There are days filled with joy and creativity, then there’s times where you have to do what someone else wants which may not be the thing that you would do. There are so many layers to being in the costume profession, that I think understanding that you have a passion for it first because it will help you stay with it and get you were you want to be. Because once you get into the profession, you may decide that you’re better at painting, sculpting, or something else that’s a niche for you. So I think the first step is understanding that this is a passion of yours because without the drive you will not get very far.
Photography credit: Barry Wetcher / Distributor: Open Road Films