How This Costume Designer Collaborated with Park Chan-wook on ‘The Sympathizer’

This post is by [NR] admin from No Film School

The Sympathizer is Max’s newest period satire, based on a Pulitzer-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It follows the Captain (played by Hoa Xuande), a double agent working with the CIA and the Communists after the end of the Vietnam War. The show, created by Don McKellar and Park Chan-wook, is a sharp, twisty journey of double-crosses and clashing cultures.

A huge part of that journey relies on on the stunning period costumes provided by Oscar-nominated designer Danny Glicker. His designs reflect so many things—class, time, location, emotion, character, and more. And it was clear, as I chatted with him via Zoom, and he and Director Park were incredibly thoughtful about how a character’s dress can show so much about who they really are, even if they’re pretending to be someone else.

We had an amazing conversation, and he offered some incredible insight on his process and the secrets you can find in the costumes of this espionage story. Enjoy.

The Sympathizer | Official Trailer | Max

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I would love to know first of all what your path was like and how you got started as a costumer.

Glicker: My path to becoming a costume designer has been kind of roundabout, I think like most people in the business, I’ve always loved film and theater and I really love character. And I was really always looking to the costumes as a sort of pathway, a doorway, a portal into the soul of the character. And it’s sort of a confusing path because I loved the clothes and I loved the history of the clothes and I loved the story of the clothes, but I was not really very interested in pursuing a career in contemporary fashion, not what I was interested in. I personally love fashion, but that’s not what I wanted to do. And so the more I learned about filmmaking and the more I learned about storytelling and character building, I realized what I loved was clothing as a language to express the deeper truth of the character.

And for me, clothing is sometimes what I refer to as a delivery system. I use the clothes to very importantly create a truthful physical environment for the actor to experience the world in. I use the clothes to express to the audience the situations that the characters are experiencing and just as importantly the context of the surrounding world.

So what my character wears is usually speaking to or in conflict with the environment of clothes that I provide with everyone else in the whole movie. And so I really view the clothing as a deeply personal and emotional expression of character and of worldbuilding.

NFS: What excited you about working on The Sympathizer?

Glicker: First of all, I mean, getting a phone call to work with Director Park Chan-wook is about as exciting as a phone call as any designer can get, because in the world of great visual storytellers, Park Chan Wook is in very rare company. The amount of people who are so famous for such a cohesive command of the visual information on Screen Green is such a spectacularly limited number of filmmakers who can do what he does. And I actually think that he’s in a class by himself.

And as a designer, I love the idea of working with someone whose responsibility is to translate his vision for me, to bring my skill, my passion, and my talent and vision to him, and then let him tell me what his needs were to express his vision. It ended up being a heavenly experience because he is deeply collaborative and profoundly generous and kind and really quite funny, marvelously witty. And I just loved the opportunity of working with him.

And then when I got into the material, I fell so in love with the material because it is everything that a designer lives for, which is shifting perspectives, unreliable, narrators, seeing the world through a lens that is not objective. I mean that is catnip to every designer.

NFS: I would love to explore that. For instance, shifting perspectives. How does that come into play in your costume design?

Glicker: In the case of The Sympathizer, it really was born out of equal parts. The book, which I think was my foundation, it was my rock. I created an incredibly detailed document where I basically footnoted every single line from the book that expressed either a physical description, a historical description, or an emotional description, which is essentially the whole book. And then I kept returning to that and trying to line up the correlation between the events in our piece or the events in my document of the book.

And then going back directly to the book, making sure that there was sort of this arc that was consistent with the book and then allowing it to be filtered through Director Park’s vision. And I know that people understand that there’s a lot of very exquisite style being employed. I mean, you look at the unbelievable match cuts that Director Park has created, and you look at the scope of the world, which is immense.

But I think that people know that there’s a lot of kind of subtle secret psychological work that we’re doing where we’re planting these color stories that really inform the psychological experience of the characters. We’re saturating the world with a color story that might not be entirely literally accurate, but it is accurate to the emotional experience of our characters. And it creates an emotional experience that as the series goes on builds on itself and culminates in this sort of inexplicable thing that you can’t necessarily describe, but you feel.

And a lot of that had to do with the discussions that I had early on with Director Park over our color theory where we were doing rather subversive things with color theory. We were twisting color. I was putting a lot of my most dangerous characters in the happiest colors and the most cheerful, kindest, safest colors.

Very often you’ll see the politician, the congressman, in pale creams and pastels. And you’ll see Claude, who is one of the most dangerous CIA men in the world, wearing these peach-colored shirts into an interrogation. He’s wearing Hawaiian shirts when some of the worst work is being done.

And I think what that’s talking about is both subverting your expectation, throwing the audience off balance, and then it’s also talking about this kind of, I think the arrogance and entitlement of many of the Western characters that they no longer have to hide, that they no longer have to appear to have kind of nefarious intentions. They could appear however they hope the world sees them and know that the world will see them that way.

But by doing that, what you’re doing is creating a world that then as you’re watching, it keeps shaking you out of complacency. You’re looking for the villains that look like villains, and none of them do. You’re looking for the good guys who look like good guys, and none of them do. And I am really playing with a lot of visual ideas and then subverting them to represent the perspective because ultimately, when it’s all said and done, most of what we’re seeing is through the eyes of the Captain.

The Cast Of The Sympathizer Share Their Personal Stories Of Leaving Vietnam | The Sympathizer | HBO

NFS: Can we talk more about color? I was reading another interview, where you mentioned the Captain being in a lot of blue.

Glicker: The blue is so fascinating to me. The blue is very much part of Director Park’s vision and anything that Director Park Chan Wook was leaning towards or kind of responding to, I felt enormously safe about anything that he wanted to do. I felt, I didn’t feel like it was a creatively safe option. I felt like it was an exciting option, but I felt safe as an artist … Director Park’s vision is so complete. He sees the screen so completely that I knew that I needed to work closely with him. So in the case of the blue, I really used the blue as a kind of foundational color, and in many ways I would, the mantra that I had was Blue was our White. In reality, a lot of those colors that I put the Captain in that are blue would often be white if he’s just in a plain shirt, often in our show it’ll be blue, and in reality it probably would’ve been white.

But what that does is it creates this sort of suggestive experience, and it’s this sort of experience that is very much reflected in the production design, in even those little hints. The way we see when he’s writing, the ink is blue, and the idea that his experience is almost a manifestation of his expression, of his experience.

And I love that it becomes this thing that it feels like it’s a wash. And then there’s the practical aspect … Director Park was very sort of savvy about what we expect from Southern California. You think that you’re coming into this warm, lush, nurturing environment, which I depict in some ways, but to his experience, we bathe him in cool tones, right? We’re already subverting your experience, which replicates his experience of arriving in this place, which is promised to be literally the Golden State.

And I put him on the opposite end of this color scale. I take him away from the warm tones and put him into the cool tones. And that’s sort of showing what his reception is like and what it’s like to feel like an outsider wherever you go. He has a cold existence, not a warm one, not an inviting existence. And so it’s the idea that we’re using these visual cues to help the audience not only see what he’s experiencing, but feel what he’s experiencing. So when we see him go from the kind of warmer tones that were primarily in the Saigon sequence in the first episode, we then see him go into a much more saturated and much more consistent cold experience.

And in traditional Vietnamese clothing, white is frequently used for mourning. And so we see Bốn in a lot of white when he comes to the United States, it’s almost like this pared-down thing where Bốn is stripped of all the saturation and excitement and bravado that we see have been in Saigon because he has such a horrible experience coming to the United States. So the idea is that we’re constantly throwing the audience off balance with color, but then imbuing it with something that’s deeply meaningful.

Robert Downey Jr. in The Sympathizer
Robert Downey Jr. in The SympathizerMax

NFS: I want to touch on Robert Downey Jr.’s characters, just the idea of those four characters essentially being the only form of America that the character interacts with. How do you approach embodying American stereotypes through costume?

Glicker: It was really fascinating. The mandate was Robert Downey Jr. was playing these different men, at least four, and they all represent some wing of Western imperialism, and they all represent kind of the same soul. So the visual idea is no matter where the Captain turns, however these men are presenting themselves to him at the end of his experience with each of them, they’re always the same person. He always hits the same wall.

And it was really important for me to find a way of expressing the clothing that was deeply unique to the protocol of each of his characters’ worlds, but at the same time never to erase the identity of the soul of the man in those clothes. So there was a really serious mandate about making sure we never spent a second wondering if this was our DJ. It wasn’t about hiding him, it was always about being very clear that we’re seeing these kind of avatars of Western imperialism like floating about the Captain’s perception of events.

And in order to do that, I did a deep dive into real men, and it is men. He is not just playing American institutions or western institutions. He is very much playing male western institutions. And so I looked to the real people and I was looking at real spies and I was looking at the people who wrote about the real spies. I was looking at real Caucasian academics of Asian history.

So I was looking at a lot of the real filmmakers, and I was looking at a lot of the real politicians of that era and trying to find a kernel of truth because I wanted everything to resonate. But then I had to find a hint of an idea of a scent, of a vibe for each character that kind of subverted it. And I remember for the Congressman, I was very inspired by a lot of Southern California politicians in particular.

And then I wanted to take that and say, okay, we know what that looks like. But there’s a bigger story here, which is not only that he’s a congressman, the bigger story here is that he represents the future of American politics because the late seventies, the mid to late seventies and then the early eighties, it cannot be overstated how important southern California was in shaping American politics. So I wanted the idea that he represented this kind of sense of garish optimism. And so I remember putting a lot of evangelical vibes in there. And also I was very inspired by the sort of SoCal glamor of Johnny Carson who was incredibly fashionable in the seventies and giving him a lot of that feeling. So sort of taking the congressman shapes and then imbuing it with the sort of Carson made for TV vibe. In the case of our filmmaker, I know that we’re all expecting it to be kind of a one-for-one for Coppola.

And so very early on Director Park, Don McKeller, myself, we all were like, “We don’t need to do Coppola.” We know Coppola.

And so I became much more inspired by the idea of toxic masculinity. And I started looking at all of the bearded auteurs of that era. And we’re looking at these fantastic directors that I of course am obsessed with like Scorsese and De Palma and Spielberg. They all had matching beards at that time.

It wasn’t about their beards, but it was about their masculinity. I thought that The Captain is about to enter a world of toxic masculinity when his weapon is academic masculinity. He uses the weapon, the Ivy League, for his cover. So what a terrible contrast for him to enter the overt pissing contest masculinity.

In the case of Claude, I really wanted to say what’s more terrifying than a CIA man hiding is a CIA man not hiding a CIA man who has such access to the world, such entitlement. His deeds are no longer done in shadow, they’re done in daylight.

We dressed him in these ridiculously garish outfits. And there’s a line in the first episode, in the first moments, when The Captain says, “You stick out like a sore thumb.” And the idea is he knows that. As a man with his background, with his privilege and with his connections he could afford to.

And then with the professor, I mean, it was a deeply uncomfortable dive into the cultural appropriation where he was mistaking acquisition of other cultures or respecting other cultures. And I really wanted to express that with his clothes, which made for some stomach-churning visuals for me, because I would see him wearing certain items incorrectly or encouraging other characters to wear items in a way that did not feel respectful, but it felt correct to his worldview.

And then through that, it was just about creating these characters and then giving them room to roam and interact. For me, the clothes come alive when they’re in conversation with each other. So that’s why the steakhouse for me is kind of like the zenith of the Robert Downey Jr. characters because we finally see not only what they mean alone, but what they mean together.

Sandra Oh in The Sympathizer

NFS: How much was sourced versus made for the show? I noticed there was a neat KOOL T-shirt in one episode, and I was like, “That’s really fun. I wonder how they got that?”

Glicker: A ton of it was built. A ton of it was sourced. I would say at the end of the day, it’s impossible to know. A lot more was built than you might think that because we spend so much time, energy, and resources making things look well-loved, so frequently when I build something, it then goes to my incredible fiber technicians and they break it down.

And often they’ll be built for reasons that you don’t necessarily think of when you’re watching it. A really great example, I think might be the incredible scene in the first episode when the Marines insult The Captain, and then Bốn spends the next hour beating the crap out of them in the background. That had to be built because my wonderful actor, Fred, was actually, he’s an accomplished stuntman as well, and he was doing all of his own stunts.

I had to build his period, correct ’70s jeans out of stretched at him and do all the doubles on them in case anything happens. And then my fiber technicians have to break the jeans down to make it look like he’s been wearing the jeans. Same with all of his shirts.

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