A few weeks ago, Starz, the network that’s launching a brand new series of Torchwood, sent out a press release trumpeting the new coat John Barrowman would be wearing on screen. Between releases trumpeting new trailers, online games, and more, it stuck out to your faithful garment-challenged MTV Geek writer, but we put up a – some might say snarky – post, all the same. And then almost immediately, were corrected about certain details over Twitter by the designer of the coat, Shawna Trpcic.
Turns out that I’m the ignoramus here, and Trpcic gracefully agreed to an interview to chat more about why the changes in the coat were important. It also turns out that Trpcic is the costume designer behind pretty much all of your favorite geek shows, from the dusty future of Firefly, to the superheroes of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog. And now, Trpcic is creating a New World with Captain Jack, Gwen Cooper, and some mystery enemies called “The Soulless.” We chatted with Trpcic about all of that, and also got some info on Joss Whedon’s long waiting in the wings feature, Cabin in the Woods:
MTV Geek: Let’s talk about Torchwood, which you’re working on right now… There’s a lot of new characters, of course, but you do have some pre-existing characters: Captain Jack, Gwen Cooper, etc… What’s it like trying to adapt another designer’s looks to American TV?
Shawna Trpcic: I just updated them - slimmed them down and accentuated their bodies. Actors work really hard at keeping in shape, why hide it! I love the human figure, and love to show it off.
Geek: I’ll be totally honest, I’m pretty ignorant about the intricacies of costume design, but Starz was clearly pretty excited about the new look for Captain Jack’s coat. Other than keeping John Barrowman cooler with lighter materials, what’s different?
ST: I took about two feet of fullness out of the coat... I found his torso, and then swept the "skirt" of the coat out to give it that romantic cape like feel.
Geek: You’ve had a lot of long coats in your work, from Torchwood, to Angel, to Firefly, of course – why are long coats so cool?
ST: I guess it’s the cape like feeling you get from them - like making Batman more accessible to modern fans!
Geek: Ha! Okay… This may continue to paint me as “dumb guy who doesn’t know enough about costume design,” but what’s different in designing something set in the modern world like Torchwood, versus, say, some of the more scifi/fantasy focused series you’ve worked on in the past?
ST: With shows like Firefly there is no established look - you invent the world, then create within it. I would do extensive research "boards," photos of what I was thinking - and present them to Tim Minear and Joss Whedon to get inside their heads; to make sure I was picturing what they were.
Geek: So then what was your idea going into Torchwood? Everybody seems pretty natural, but other than the previous Torchwood characters, were there any looks you were going for? Lauren Ambrose’s in particular, seems pretty distinctive.
ST: Again I just love the human figure. I love to show off the strength of the man behind the suit, the sensuality of the woman, their power. So I work very hard to develop their best qualities and show them off!
Geek: Without spoiling anything – since most people haven’t seen the series yet – can you talk about the Soulless a bit? Was that something you worked on? And if so, was the look of the mask dictated in the script, or did you bring a bit of the look there?
ST: I did many sketches to "sell" the look to Russell T. Davies… He approved two, and Props and I worked them up, and one was chosen!
Geek: It’s always fun to see the (previously) immortal Captain Jack in other time periods… Are we going to get to see any of that in this new series? Any time period you lobbied for?
ST: Yes! You get a look at him in another time period… It was dictated by Russell and Jane [Espenson].
Geek: Anything particularly crazy coming up in the show, costume-wise?
ST: The period episode, and other locations that involved specialty costumes.
Geek: Okay, that’s pretty spoiler free… Let’s talk about some of your previous work. First of all, you’ve stuck pretty much to the geek side of things. Was that something you fell into, or by design?
ST: I fell into it, I suppose, because my portfolio was full of things I love to do; and fantasy and comic and very much a part of my life!
Geek: Firefly seems like it was your big break… You had been working for a while before that, but there, you really created the look of a world. What was that like?
ST: I started under designer Jill Ohanessian on the pilot, and then got to take over when she left to design Six feet Under. It was an amazing opportunity - a new world every eight days. There’s nothing like it… It was an amazing time.
Geek: The great thing about the look in Firefly is that it’s a mish-mash of cultures and time periods, but feels consistent… That must have been tricky, to walk that line properly. What were you main influences?
ST: China and US as the only two superpowers to survive the death of Earth, and their influence on the rest of the world cultures as they settle the New Worlds.
Geek: Clearly, the costume design on Firefly – possibly more than any other show I’ve seen recently – was very visible, and has stuck around far longer than the shows length. What’s your reaction when you walk around and see a band of Browncoats, or someone in a Jayne hat?
ST: I squeal with joy every time I see a Firefly costume at Comic Con! And now Dr. Horrible costumes are everywhere…
Geek: You were hands on with a lot of Inara’s costumes, I think? Is that correct? And if so, do you have a favorite?
ST: I designed a new dress every eight days… I loved them all and she was so much fun to dress! I loved redesigning my wedding dress for the “Shindig” episode.
Geek: Moving on to Angel, you created the look for Illyria… What was the thought process that went into changing Amy Acker from mousy-girl, to unstoppable elder god?
ST: Joss gave me the instruction of “a bio suit,” something to keep her alive. So I studied anatomy books, and gathered fabric samples that looked organic - life sustainable.
Geek: Let’s talk about the last episode of Angel… Most of the characters’ looks had been well established by that point, but going into the last episode, is there any thought to, “Okay, this HAS to be even more iconic than usual?”
ST: The last season was all new for all of them, as they now worked for a law firm instead of privately. So ALL of the characters had been re designed! And we didn’t know it was our last going into the season…
Geek: In general, when you’re working on an actiony show, how many versions of a costume do you need to make? I imagine that they get ripped pretty easily.
ST: Doubles, triples… Depends on bullet hits, types of stunts, etc. We made six Captain Jack coats and three Mal coats.
Geek: That’s about five more coats than I own… Let’s talk about Dr. Horrible, which has also had a huge life beyond its initial run time. What was it like moving over to a more four color superhero type universe?
ST: No budget and eight days to shoot; no time to think… Just create and have fun!
Geek: There’s something – and I mean this is a good way – very “budget” looking about Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer’s costumes, in particular. What was the thought process there?
ST: Joss want to represent the Comic Con folks, his fans, who support and influence him. They create amazing replicas, and we are one of them!
Geek: I know the script is being worked on for the sequel… Have they chatted with you about any costumes? Or is that too far off?
ST: Joss is on the Avengers! ‘Nuff said.
Geek: Now, for Dollhouse, again, you had a very clean, simple look for the Dolls. Going in, what was the idea there?
ST: Asian Spa, retreat, something that is supposed to be safe… But is terribly wrong.
Geek: Particularly with Echo wearing different clothing every single episode (mostly), is that fun for a costume designer? Or is it more like, “Oh my god, can you please just let her wear the same thing two episodes in a row?”
ST: No I loved the challenge! Most shows, you create a closet for each character. With Dollhouse every eight days, like Firefly, it was a new world.
Geek: And there were occasionally some… Racy costumes for that show, by necessity. Did you ever get anything that someone just flat out refused to wear?
ST: Never. I knew the ladies, and respected them all very much. We had conversations before having fittings, so all was understood way before show time.
Geek: Then, of course, there’s the post-apocalypse of Epitaph… What was it like creating the look for that?
ST: I grew up loving Mad Max soooo - YAY!!! Mad Max, meets Terminator, meets endless imagination!
Geek: There’s also Cabin in the Woods… Ummm… Any chance we’re ever going to get to see that? Any hints on what we might see if we do?
ST: I think next year! There are awesome creations from a team that just would not quit. We used everything we had on that one… It was a challenge, and I think it will be great. I have not seen a cut yet.
Geek: Besides Torchwood, what else is coming up for you?
ST: Summer vacation with the kids right now… And looking for something to keep me busy until we hear if Torchwood gets picked up.