We chat with the costume designer behind Creed and Colossal about redefining the style of Blaxploitation’s most iconic character.
As far as costume design is concerned, few tasks seem as challenging as following in the footsteps of the 1972 classic, Superfly. Whether you’ve seen that film or not, you know the music; you know the look. “Freddie’s Dead” but he’s got a badass leather jacket. How can a contemporary filmmaker capture that level of cool?
To even attempt such an exploit is to toss a gauntlet at the feet of a cynical fan base, daring them to react with any other emotion than rage. Costume Designer, Antoinette Messam, is not afraid of challenge or confrontation. When Director X approached her about updating the style and the flavor of Ron O’Neal’s Priest, she may have raised an eyebrow, but Superfly 2018 was an offer she couldn’t refuse. Here, she could let loose.
At least half of the film’s success rests on Messam’s abilities. If she fails, the world falls apart, and Trevor Jackson loses all credibility as the titular gangster. The sacred can survive a revision. This new interpretation allows her to pull the mystery back on her art. What Messam kept invisible in Creed and Colossal is crucial to the narrative of Superfly. The peacock must strut.
A few weeks before the release of the film, I chatted with Messam over the phone. We delved into the allure of the Gordon Parks Jr. original, acknowledging the trepidation of tackling such a significant cultural artifact, and pushing beyond misgivings to achieve a fresh statement. We discuss how Atlanta steered the design of the characters, and how Jackson’s personality fed the suits that clothed him.
Here is our conversation in full:
So, yeah, Superfly, that’s a big task to take on.
No doubt. Still recovering.
I bet. The original film had such tremendous cultural impact. Was there any anxiety or nerves about tackling it?
Yes and no, I mean with any film you hope that you connect creatively with all the creators so that we’re on the same plane and able to deliver what the vision is of the director. And this one is a remake, so then there would be an added element of the iconic film, and will you pay it justice? Will you do it justice? So those factors obviously are stressful, but when you’re in the trenches you’re just trying to get the job done. You know, and now I’m stressed out.
Oh, why now?
Now I’ll get the feedback, you know? And hopefully I’ve done it justice and what we created people will resonate with.
So put me through your process. When you take the job and you get the screenplay, what’s your first step of breaking the movie down visually?
Well, I can rewind a little bit. I got the script before I accepted the job, and you know, spoke to a few of the players, Director X, our producer Joel Silver, and breaking down the script came from … if I can submerge myself in a screenplay and see it come to life, that’s half the job done. I rarely accept a movie that I can’t … if it’s not connecting with me, either creatively or even emotionally.
And with this particular film, I’d watched the original Superfly. I mean, Curtis Mayfield, hello, that’s one of the best soundtracks ever. It’s on my computer. I listen to it when I’m working sometimes, but how were we going to take the elements of what made that film iconic and bring it to present and not from the East Coast to the south? So those are the things that were playing in my mind when I first read the script, how are we going to do this?
And I spoke to X a couple of times and we kind of found a lane. He used the word fantasy, which in my mind in terms of costume I interpreted as stylized, which the film has a very overall stylized look, as did the original, but yet still grounded in reality if that makes sense. Yeah.
How did the Atlanta setting steer your costumes?
For the background, for some of the key players, I mean, Atlanta has a distinctive style, and we had some sets that were very, very, how should I say, true to the Atlanta scene, like our strip club, the Masquerade Club, and even specific costume pieces that I may not use in other locales or in other movies like fur coats as a staple is very, very Atlanta to me. And that was just me landing in Atlanta and going to the local mall and walking around.
People were in the mall in fur coats. There was more fur per retailers in the mall than I’m accustomed to seeing in the mall. So it’s part of the lifestyle, and I think that is what I gave the film is the base. The base is Atlanta to me. The style, the flash, the excess, if that’s the right word.
When I think of Superfly, the original film, first I think Curtis Mayfield, you’re absolutely right. But technically I think about the outfits, I think about Priest’s look, and I would imagine in taking on a remake, your job is possibly the most crucial job to establishing the tone and the character of the piece.
Yes, yes, that’s true, and also too, to make it organic. When I say that I mean my Priest is first the actor, Trevor Jackson, who is becoming a character. That it is my job, to help him step into those shoes, and find that right shoe, that right costume that he fills out and that helped him become that character. More than any movie that I’ve worked on, I felt I helped an actor transform, and aided him in his path to becoming the best Priest he could be was this one.
And you know, what was really amazing about the first Superfly, which I’d watched many years ago, and I knew it. You know, it’s in your head. And when I got the script, I didn’t watch it again immediately. I looked at images, I looked at the trailer, but I didn’t want to be swayed by that visual, because it is now 2018. But I think what I did take from it is a style. And I’m hoping that Priest, the look of Priest is what I took from the first Superfly, which was a classic fly look, a really, you know, stylish look without being trendy, if that makes sense. He had his own style. He didn’t need to create a trend. He didn’t need to be on trend. He was trend whenever he was. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. If you don’t get him, you don’t have a movie. But the thing I was taken aback by, when looking at in your film, is that it doesn’t actually look like it’s aping the ’72 vision.
In terms of the costumes, or in terms of the story?
In terms of the costumes.
No, it isn’t. There are some small pieces. I actually went back and watched it again this morning, and I’m like, wow, there are some links and tie-ins without hitting it over the nose. It’s a period film. We’re what, 30 plus years? No, more than that. 50 years apart, but what I thought I captured in the look was a consistency and a style, a presence with Priest that I hope the audience sees, but also too in some of the key players like his girlfriend Georgia, you know, who we didn’t see a lot of in the original Superfly, but the one time that is iconic to everyone is her in that white fur coat and hat.
Now I don’t duplicate that. It wasn’t planned, I’m not gonna lie. There is a coincidence that I put her in a fur coat the first time we actually see her in that scene, in that script day, she’s in a fur coat. And I’m like, wow, okay. It’s almost like by osmosis I was pulling things from the original that then ended up organically in this one without me planning it. And I could put my hand on my mother’s Bible and say I did not plan it, because I looked back and watched it and went, “Wow, okay, I didn’t realize I did that.”
Is there a favorite outfit from this film that you are especially proud of, a favorite look?
Yeah, the poster. That look to me says Priest because it is effortless. It is sexy, but also classic, but it also says something like this could be trendy, too. It hits all those beats, and it’s all his own. I don’t think you could say you’ve seen that anywhere else, and it’s just something that with pieces that we had, that Trevor and I just played and we found the beat, and the coats were really important because that was again very much a part of the original Priest.
It’s like, you saw him walking down the street and that coat was just swinging and moving and Trevor embodied that. He just, when he moved, you know, those pieces helped him sell that.
How much time did it take you?
We came about very quickly.
How did Trevor help in the initial stages of creating his look?
I think I got hired the day before Trevor did, and as soon as I found out it was him, I asked to meet him in person, and I just needed to see. I literally did it on the plane from Los Angeles to Atlanta, and this is in December. We got this up and running really quickly, so I was in Los Angeles and so was he, and we were both about to get on planes. He was going to New York, I was going to Atlanta, and I’m like, I need to see him.
And it wasn’t to fit him, which I had to explain to all his management. No, I just got hired yesterday. I’m not here to fit him, but I think it’d be important to meet him and take his sizes and just talk to him for a few minutes. And I just needed to see how this kid walked and how he moved and what excited him and some of the lines that he loved and how they fit, but more importantly for me was just to set eyes on him in person.
And that was the beginning. I mean, we hung out at his manager’s office and we just talked and talked about clothes and music, and while I’m talking, I’m just absorbing how he can’t sit still, and he’s up and moving and dancing and talking and singing and it just allowed me to see who Trevor was, because I then have to take that Trevor, that person, and then help create Priest, but it starts with the person I’m given.
And was there any special instruction from Director X on what he was looking for?
In terms of for Priest, or overall?
Overall, I mean, that word fantasy. He really wanted a very stylized, each scene, each look to be Superfly. I mean, it needed to make a statement, and in whatever capacity. It could be that the kid’s lounging at home and it still needed to be a statement. And a statement didn’t necessarily mean he’s just head to toe in all designer gear, but that needed to be present.
And that was important to X, and he was very involved in seeing and approving, and there were times when we got there and it was just making sure that it was the right coat or the right turtleneck which is again something I pulled from the original, which worked really well on Trevor, is those turtleneck or mock necks.
I would imagine the challenge was to match that fantasy to that effortless look. That could be quite difficult.
It was challenging, especially when you’re restricted to Atlanta and the time frame, you know what I mean? It’s not like I was shooting or prepping over six months and I could fly back and forth to New York or LA. You worked with what was available to you as well. Helping the creative is making it work with what you had at your fingertips. I think if anywhere I felt that the stylized and the fantasy world came to play was with the Snow Patrol, the white gang, that they were only ever in white, white car, white house, you know?
Yes, very striking, and in just some scenes. There’s this one overhead shot that I’m like, wow. But yeah, that was probably one of our biggest challenges was just finding in the middle of January and February all white in multiples, because of course it was a gang and it was action scenes in white.
Looking at your work: The Orphanage, Colossal, Creed, and Superfly. They’re all very distinctive looks, you know, especially costume-wise. How do you approach something like Superfly versus something like Colossal?
That’s interesting. You guys have all hit on that.
Well, the costumes in Colossal are significant for moving the plot for Anne Hathaway forward.
Absolutely, especially because she was pregnant at the time.
Oh, yeah, sure.
Yeah, you know, again it’s script. It’s a screenplay, and working with my directors for their vision. Nacho Vigalondo, he’s an artist. Not to say I haven’t worked, I mean, Ryan Coogler is equally an artist and so is X, but they’re all different artists in their own way. And Nacho was just, he needed the clothes to tell the story but not overtake. Don’t you feel watching Colossal that the clothes almost blend into the background in some places?
: Well, to be honest, I don’t even really think about the costumes in that film. It wasn’t until I knew I was going to be talking to you and I rewatched Colossal, I rewatched Creed, and I saw how those costumes in Colossal really tell her narrative.
Yes, but that’s the whole point. You’re not supposed to think about the costumes in Colossal, because the story is so specific. It’s all about her evolution, and her literally break down and then revamp up if you want to call it that. But you know, she starts kind of pulled together and then gradually breaks down and then pulls it together again at the end.
But it’s not about the clothes and it shouldn’t be, whereas this movie is the complete opposite. The clothes, it’s very much about the clothes. The clothes make a statement. We know that it’s Snow Patrol based on what they’re all wearing and their look. Their look to me is very Atlanta. It’s very street. It’s the most street of any of the looks that we have in the film, I would say.
Well, thank you, Antoinette. I hope you can find your calm now that the movie’s almost here.
I don’t know if the word is “calm” as much as the stress you’re talking about, I now think, “Holy shit, it’s about to come out. I hope people like it,” because again it was you know, Gordon Parks, Jr., you know?
Superfly is now playing in theaters nationwide.