Interview Exclusive HTF Interview: Costume Designer Marilyn Vance on Pretty in Pink's 30th Anniversary

Neil Middlemiss

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Whether you know it or not, you have seen and appreciated the work of Marilyn Vance. An enormous talent in the field of Costume Design, her work on many of John Hughes’ greatest films – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science and Some Kind of Wonderful, and action greats such as 48 Hrs., Die Hard, Predator and Road House – have made an indelible impression on audiences. From Duckie’s (Pretty in Pink) outlandish outfit assemblages, Julia Robert’s Vivian Ward dressed like a million dollars in the memorable red dress in Pretty Woman, Bruce Willis’ John McClane running around Die Hard in his iconic white T-shirt (that doesn’t stay white for long), or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Dutch and team decked out in military fatigues as prey being hunted in Predator, Marilyn Vance has captured the essence of the character and story in the costumes she has created.

In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Pretty in Pink, I spoke to Marilyn about her work on the film, partnering with the legendary John Hughes, and where see sees Costume designing today.

Pretty in Pink is available now on Digital HD from iTunes, VUDU, and all other major digital retailers.


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HTF: Pretty in Pink, like so many of John Hughes' movies, were an incredibly rich blend of characters and situations that seem to resonate, capturing time and place with a prescient precision. I grew up in England - and so most of my friends were wearing grays and blacks - but I was such a fan of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club and other John Hughes films of that time, and what the character wore are etched in my mind. So I wanted to ask when you approach a project, in particular when you approached Pretty in Pink, do you first get into who the characters are? Do you have a discussion about the general aesthetic with the director? How does that kick off?

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Marilyn Vance: It kicks off with John Hughes, being one of the finest storytellers I've ever been witness to in my entire life. As he spoke – and I was very influenced by the Teddy Boys – [I’d see him as] an American Teddy Boy; he has a lot of color [chuckles]. But the truth is, John would tell a story and in the script it would be so visual. For some reason he was able to pull that off and it was very interesting for someone like me to see it. I saw that they were just there in the storytelling. If Duckie (Jon Cryer)—and he was very freaked out when he first saw his outfits [laughter], had to be very interesting. They had to be unique - he and Andie (Molly Ringwald). They had to be of their own minds. And the music was the great influence. We'd read and go through the scene and John [Hughes] would drop in the song, and it was incredible. And that's really how it came to the vision. And Annie Potts, who [played Iona who] owned the record store, for her, [the singer] Sade was big at that time - so that's why I put the rubber dress on her and all sorts of influences from different decades. I was kind of following a Sade type of thing with her. And being it's a record store, it was so colorful. It was not done in the modern sense of the word. It was done eclectically, and it looked very artsy, and I got away with a lot matching the personality of that and the characters. It just kind of came together, thank God [chuckles].

HTF: So the costumes - especially in Pretty in Pink - become such an important visual element of storytelling; becoming almost a character. Duckie's outfit, in particular, with very pronounced collars and a lot of what I would consider competing styles, but when you put them all together and you've got something that seems to work. And if I saw someone walking down the street, I would look two or three times at what they were wearing [laughter], but in the context of the film and for the character it makes perfect sense. So is that the fun part on a movie like this, is finding that visual identity that resonates who they are very quickly? That you don't need a lot of introductions, necessarily, but what they're wearing speaks so much about them? I mean, James Spader’s introduction, you immediately suspect him, there is something that drips untrustworthy and snobbish about how he was presented in the opening scene. Is that what you go by?

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Marilyn Vance: Oh yes, I go by the story and the character that is drawn in the story, in the scenes, and where they come from. I try to do a background in my head about, "Oh, this one has money so he is loafers, no socks, linen suits [laughter]." Really kind of up there, but also cheating that kind of snobbish attitude. Where Andrew McCarthy as Blane, he was in the same color scheme, but he was more natural. He had a button-down light blue shirt. He wore a t-shirt under it. He was more regular. But I kept the kids with the money, so to speak, in kind of beige and white and pink and light blue, keeping them in a certain palette, no matter who they were, even in school. And Duckie, he had his own personality. And, honest to God, it's crazy, but it just all came together. Duckie doesn't have money. Andie doesn't have any money. They come from poor families and they had to make a statement. So they went thrift-store shopping and they put things together, and it became a thing for them. It became their style. They had imagination because they couldn't afford to be James Spader or Andrew McCarthy in the film.

HTF: Right.

Marilyn Vance: So it came to be that way and, like I said, Jon Cryer said the most incredible thing ever was [us] getting him in that wardrobe [laughter], because he's the straightest guy you'd ever want to meet in real life. He's wonderful.

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HTF: Molly Ringwald famously wasn't a fan of the prom dress, but it was the right outfit for who that character was, and so was the right choice. But how much influence and collaboration or consultation do you have with the actors. Do you have conversation with the actors, or is it more trying to convince them sometimes that, "Yes, Jon Cryer, this outfit's going to make sense in the context of the film"?

Marilyn Vance: Okay. The context of the film is that's what made that dress happen. I had to put two dresses together to create her dress. But she, of course, hated it. And she had a tutor at the time. Her tutor hated it, too [chuckles]. But I put it together in her character, the way the character was. I used both fabrics from both big dresses and created that dress from it. And in the scene where she's in her bedroom sketching, she's wearing a black a top with a band around her neck and her shoulders are exposed, and you see her-- she touches that, and then she sketches what became her dress. So it was story point, basically. She goes to Annie Potts' house, she borrows her dress, and Annie just gives it to her. And then her father comes back with the very cheap kind of dress and she's thrilled because her father-- she knows he's out of a job - he lies, he has no money - and he brings her a dress. So she puts them together. She puts both dresses together in the Andie style, and her style certainly wasn't a strapless, Madonna look. It was much more sophisticated and thought out in its fashion, and there was nothing like it at that time, honestly.

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That's probably why she hated it so much. She wanted just to be in a big, full, strapless dress like all the other girls. So Howie Deutch, who was directing it, had to come in because she hated it. Not disliked, but really loathed this dress [laughter]. But it was so her character, so Howie wanted to make her happy. He said, "Well, whatever goes with her, that's fine with me." And John had to come in because it's his character. He created that character. And she wore the dress because it's her character [laughter]. She didn't have to love it. She just had to wear it.

HTF: In looking over your resume of films that you've provided costume design for, when I read over the titles of the films-- and I'm a regular guy in many respects in the kinds movies that spoke to me when I was growing up - Die Hard and Predator and those kinds of films - and it doesn't surprise me that your name is attached to those, because for whatever reason, I instantly remember what people have been wearing through those films. And part of that's probably because I've seen them an unhealthy amount of times. But the other side of that how the costumes and clothing make sense and speak out, yet somehow stand out without calling attention to themselves. That is an incredible gift to have been able to craft costumes for so many films that have made such an indelible impression.

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Marilyn Vance: Thank you.

HTF: Do you know that you're hitting the mark? When you pick out the white t-shirt for Bruce Willis in Die Hard, do you know you're getting it right or is that something that you realize after time of the impact?

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Marilyn Vance: You don't know, but you have to serve the story and the character. In Bruce Willis' case, he was coming from New York to try to get back with his wife and his family, and he's a cop in New York, and he goes into this huge building - the [Nakatomi Plaza] - which he doesn't love in the first place because he's the kind of guy that doesn't like his wife working, but they're separated and he wants to get back together, so he's all dressed coming from the plane. And he goes into her private bathroom, and he starts washing up. So he takes his shirt off. He takes his shoes off. He's washing up. He's getting together, and all hell breaks loose. So I had to give him the proper things that a guy of his stature: coming from New York, doesn't have money. He's a cop. His wife is making it in the business world. He's not happy about it. So we had to supply the character with what the needs were for the visual. How was he going to get undressed? How did he wind up without shoes on? Well, he took his shoes off and he's curling his toes on the carpet. He's getting himself comfortable. He wound up with that t-shirt because he had taken off his shirt and his jacket, and he's getting comfortable after a long ride on the plane. And that's how we got him there [chuckles]. That's how it worked. And I had to do 17 of those for Bruce and 17 for the stunt double, of the same degradation, and then they wound up in the Smithsonian's permanent collection [laughter], and the [Victoria & Albert Museum in London]. Go figure, right?

HTF: So costume design - like casting, direction, cinematography, and the score - is such a vital element in the tapestry of artistic contributions that go into film making. You've been in the industry over the last 30 years. How would you say it's changed, and is it in a better place than it was 30 years ago?

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Marilyn Vance: No, I was just talking about that. It's so homogenized. Fashion is such a statement now. You go to the Gap, you go to James Perse – who has a version of the Gap but more stylized and fashionable. You've got fashion - oh my God - every place you look. Everyone knocking each other off or trying to be unique, and it's just not the same when you're building a character. A lot of the comedies - and I'm not saying that they look bad - but they're just very pedestrian. They're not really given a chance in the scripts, I think, to create a personality. I think a John Hughes type of person, he built the character from the ground up. But I do I think these are wonderful actors and comedians today, and I think that the designers that are working with them are serving the purpose of their scripts.

HTF: That's an interesting point. The costumes don't seem - outside of period pieces – to resonate the same way. For example, Inception, great film - I've no clue what anybody wore. And not that a piece of clothing has to stand out, but you notice it when it doesn't. So I think that's an interesting comment about it having become so homogenized.

Marilyn Vance: You know, you're right. You get caught up in it either way. If it's too much or it's not enough or it's just pedestrian, so to speak.

HTF: Well, thank you for your time today. It has been an absolute pleasure to get to talk to you.

Marilyn Vance: Thank you so much. And, my God, you still have an accent and you've been here a very long time [chuckles].

HTF: Yeah, 20 years. I hold on to it with a bit of a death grip.

Marilyn Vance: Keep it. It's charming, okay! [laughter].

HTF: I certainly will.
 
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