Look, I know it is almost time for the holidays, but I miss Halloween. So you could probably imagine my excitement (or dread) when I saw the words “Paranormal Activity” pop up in my inbox. As I started to prepare for this interview, I quickly realized, this was a costume designer after my own heart! Whitney Anne Adams, the brilliant costume designer behind so many horror films of recent date such as Happy Death Day 2U, Piercing, Freaky, and most recently, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin. Plus, Whitney has a new film now in theaters, called India Sweets and Spices.
I was honored to meet Whitney for an interview about her fascinating beginnings, friendship with Eiko Ishioka (yeah you read that right), horror films, Paranormal Activity, India Sweets and Spices, and so much more!
Spencer: Whitney, I am so excited to speak with you finally. I’ve been following you forever, so this interview feels long overdue. Plus, I’m having a hard time putting spooky season behind me.
Whitney: Right! Me too!
Spencer: This couldn’t happen at a better time. Before we get into all of the great projects you have been working on, I would first love to hear a little bit about your journey to becoming a costume designer.
Whitney: It’s funny because I was a complete jock in high school. I was all sports, no fashion. I was even captain of my golf team. But I was in theater and the drama class all through high school. So I loved it, but I had horrible stage fright; I loved the theater, and I couldn’t square the two. It’s like, I love this, but I hate being on stage.
I was really sick in high school, and I had to get a bunch of organs removed. When I was in the hospital, waiting for the surgery that would save my life, I watched Moulin Rouge! over 300 times. I watched it every day to escape to this world where I wasn’t really sick. I just fell in love with the clothes and the visual world of that movie.
I then went to college, and I was pre-med. You know… because that makes sense.
Spencer: *laughs* Right. We’ve all been there.
Whitney: I had to take chemistry and calculus, and then I could choose one fun class, and it was an intro to theater design. Well, I changed my major three weeks later, and I’ve never looked back. It just all sort of clicked into place. That was the beginning of my journey!
Spencer: At one point, you were acting as Liza Minnelli’s personal seamstress during this time. I also heard a crazy rumor that you were the personal seamstress of famed Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka… I mean, is that true?
Whitney: Absolutely true. I met her. I had just moved to New York. I answered a Craigslist ad for somebody needing a costume intern. And I was like, perfect. I just graduated from college, and I just thought, “I’m ready, put me in coach!” Then that designer, Camille Assaf, knew Tracy Roberts, Eiko’s studio manager; she knew that I was a tailor and put me in touch with her, and I ended up doing all sorts of tailoring for her.
I sewed tons of skirts. Her entire apartment was white, and she wanted a white TV cover to go over her TV so it wouldn’t take away from all of the other white things in her apartment. I also made seat cushions, and she was so exact on the seat cushions. I think I went through 12 different mock-ups before she was happy.
Spencer: I am OBSESSED with this. I am sure any regular person reading this is probably confused, but costume nerds like me are probably dying.
Whitney: I just loved the fact that literally, every single thing in her house was white. It was on the 73rd floor, I believe, right above the Russian Tea Room, looking out on Central Park, and it was absolutely beautiful.
She was working on Spider-Man at the time, so she had all of her Spider-Man renderings hung on the wall. It was all you could look at in her house because everything was stark white besides those renderings. So it was more of a focusing tactic for her, which was fascinating. That’s incredible.
Spencer: I love that. This is a vision I want to keep in my head forever.
Whitney: I worked for her for two years, and I remember every time I would come over, we would get our work done, and afterward, she would make a pot of green tea. We would sit at her table, and she would talk about stories from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stories of Grace Jones and she would just tell me her life story over a pot of green tea every single time.
Spencer: Absolutely beautiful. But then another dream seemed to come true for you because you ended up becoming the costume design assistant for four-time, Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin, who worked on Moulin Rouge!
Whitney: It was such a crazy moment in my life because she’s the reason I am a costume designer, and I also met her in a completely insane way. I won a costume design contest for the movie Australia. I had to design a costume for Nicole Kidman’s character.
Spencer: Oh, you got this in the bag.
Whitney: Well, I freaked out cause I didn’t put a hat on Nicole’s character. I was like, I’m not going to win. I didn’t put a hat on her. I won the whole contest. I won a trip to Australia. So I go to Australia, and I email Catherine’s website. Her assistant, Silvana, emailed me back and said, “Hey, do you want to come by? Catherine isn’t here, but you know, we can hang out.” So we had tea, and we are good friends now. I went back to New York, and two years passed by.
Then in 2010, Baz Luhrmann was going to be the chairperson of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. I bought a ticket to the gala, and I emailed Silvana. I was like, “Hey, I happen to be going to the same gala. Can I meet them?.” She said she would set something up but then sent me an email an hour asking what I was up to? Six hours later, their producer in Australia called me and asked if I could work for them for three weeks?
It was on the workshop for The Great Gatsby and those three weeks turned into working on and off for them for a decade. So they’re like my family now, and I adore them. It’s been a few years since we’ve gotten to work together, but I hope we get to do something again in the future.
Spencer: I love that. You just got to do what you got to do to get your foot in the door sometimes. Sometimes a little goes a long way, and now it’s been like a decade-long relationship, that is incredible.
Whitney: They’re so generous are a huge reason why I have a career today. You know, I busted my butt on The Great Gatsby, and I learned so much. It was an incredible experience that I still pinch myself that actually happened.
Spencer: That brings us today. I noticed that you’ve been working on a lot of horror and thriller projects lately. Are you a fan of horror, or did you just fall into it?
Whitney: I’m a huge fan of horror. I remember I was Ghost Face for Halloween, like three Halloweens in a row, and scared people at my middle school, Halloween party by refusing to take the mask off. I was obsessed with the Fear Street series and every single teenage slasher novel that existed. So much so that my fourth-grade teacher called a parent-teacher conference.
Spencer: I could tell through your work that you have a love for horror. The first film I want to talk about is Freaky. Freaky stars Catherine Newton, Vince Vaughn, and my crush Misha Osherovich. It was so campy, fun, and so colorful. It was pretty fashionable too.
Whitney: I’m so proud of this movie. This is my second collab with writer and director Christopher Landon. One of my favorite people. We just decided from the get-go that everyone felt like a real developed character. Because that is one of the things that horror movies always run into.
We wanted to make sure that everyone had a very distinct point of view. We don’t have time in the movie to dive into people’s backstories, so we wanted to tell everyone who they were through their clothes. Josh and Nyla have such a point of view. Millie; she’s trying to figure out who she is, especially pre-butcher. She’s wearing a hand-me-down sweater from her mom. Her dress is from the discount store. Every single piece in the movie has its backstory.
When it came to The Butcher and switching into Millie’s body, we wanted to figure out a storyline that made sense. Where did these clothes come from? So we figured that Millie’s older sister is a bit of a club-goer. She’s a police officer during the day, but she wants to let off steam at night. So when the butcher looks through Millie’s closet, he hates all of the grandma sweaters. He heads over to her sister’s closet and pulls out this leather jacket, black bodysuit, and these jeans. We wanted to make sure that it felt very genderless with a strong silhouette.
Spencer: It’s almost like the butcher was becoming a costume designer in the moment. Okay Whitney with the plot points!
Whitney: Right. I also want to make sure it was affordable for the family too. That jacket came from Amazon. It was a $180 leather jacket. So it’s attainable. I wanted to make sure that every single piece made sense. I don’t want to get some $5,000 jacket. It needs to be something that makes sense.
Spencer: I love that. Ugh this movie was so fun, and yeah that red jacket… I mean, that jacket is going to stay with me for a long while.
Whitney: I’m so happy about that. I know that Catherine and I wanted to create something as iconic as possible!
Spencer: Mission accomplished! Speaking of iconic, let talk about Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin. I’ll be honest, when I saw the words “Paranormal Activity” in my email inbox… I was kind of thinking “oh hellllll no”.
Whitney: *laughs* Right!!
Spencer: If there’s one horror movie that scares the absolute *redacted* out of me, it’s the Paranormal Activity series. Of course, I loved the film as always. It was quite the costume design heavy film as well! I hear that you had to travel to a real Amish farm that was in the middle of nowhere.
Whitney: Yeah. So that was so challenging! We were based in Buffalo, but we were filming five weeks on this farm. It was an actual vacated Amish farm about an hour and a half from Buffalo. So our closest hotels were about 45 minutes to an hour away from the farm. So were driving back and forth in the blizzard, in the mud, there are no lights in Amish country.
Spencer: It was like you were living the movie every single day. Let’s dive into the cult that lives on Baylor farm who are passing as Amish. It appears you took a pretty authentic approach to designing their costumes. I mean, they came off to me as Amish up until the last 10 minutes of the movie.
Whitney: You’re like, whoa, what happened now? That was the main goal, to make them as Amish to the outside world as possible. They don’t want anyone coming close to them. This cult, they’re actually the good guys. They’re striving for as much authenticity as possible, but when they’re at their farm, they can let their guard down a little. So, they can do things that are not necessarily Amish.
I wanted to also use that same idea that with what they wear. For example, vests are usually not worn except for church or ceremonial purposes. So we added those into the film because that is not how the Amish wear vests. Then for the men we uses hundred percent cotton. When it comes to the real Amish, almost everything that they have has polyester in it because of the lower drying time. It’s easier to take care of and lasts longer. But for me, I wanted to do all of the sorts of wear and tear,aging and distressing. This cult, they go to the outside world as little as possible so their clothes show more wear.
Spencer: That is incredible. I love that through costume design, people may notice these little clues that were there the entire time.
Whitney: Right, that they’re not exactly as they seem. So there are little things like that, that we put in there to show that they’re not actually Amish. But, still made it as close as possible. For example, all of our suspenders were made by a local Buffalo leather maker so it’s as close as we possibly can get it.
Spencer: Unfortunately for you, I am a considerable aging and dying fan. So I have to ask you to give me a little window into what was happening here.
Whitney: I knew going into this project, it was going to be such a process. I needed someone who could take this stuff down and it’s really tough. Every single piece in this movie was distressed and aged. The women are wearing bloomers and underskirts plus their dresses, capes and caps. The men have their broad fall pants and their shirts, vests, coats and hats. I mean, everyone has so much stuff, thousands of pieces! I had a lead ager and dyer, Jessica Wegrzyn, who’s the absolute best. She’s such a dreamboat, and was working so hard all day, every day, to make sure everyone looked as distressed as I wanted them to be.
I want it to show the wear and tear that they’ve experienced on this farm because they are so isolated. Every single piece had like a six-step process. It just took forever, and of course, we didn’t have enough lead time. We also brought in another ager and dyer to help, Troy David, who was incredible. The last week of prep, the first week of filming, we were just aging and dying like maniacs. We didn’t finish aging and dying until our last day of filming. She was also a costumer as well so she was doing double duty. I owe so much of this movie to her.
Spencer: That is an insane amount of work, I am exhausted for you. Towards the end of the film, things start to spiral out of control. It’s funny, I had to go back and watch this part again before we talked because the first time, I had my eyes closed. I thought… uh oh I didn’t even see that part!
*Spencer and Whitney laugh together*
Spencer: This costume that Lavina is wearing, it appears to be a ceremonial robe. It stands out amongst all the other costumes.
Whitney: I wish that we got to see it a little better because for me, it’s the most important costume in the movie because it helps tie together the history of group. We learn that they descended from a Norwegian town. I wanted to sort of dip into Pagan and Wiccan mythology and take symbols that made sense to our story.
All of her veils are embroidered with this gold thread. We wanted to make it look like both this red robe and veil had been passed down through generations. So we wanted everything to look really old and worn. All of the symbols were very representative of the story like the main symbols we use for the triple goddess where you have the waxing full moon and waning – three stages of womanhood, which is what happens to the women in this culture, the ones who have to carry Asmodeus.
The Witches Knot is the symbol of protection. Especially because the whole knot symbol, you don’t have to lift your pen. So it’ like this long line of protection, which is what happens with this long line of women through this family.
Then the Seal of Solomon is also there. I made it a pentagram instead of The Star of David, which is how it is sometimes represented in history. The Seal of Solomon was used by King Solomon to defeat Asmodeus.
Spencer: I love the attention to detail and the story behind it. It made the film really, real. It made me want to do some research too.
Whitney: It was great to dive into all of that and you know, Lavina also has this ring. That’s the triple goddess ring. She wears that the whole movie, but you don’t really get a good glimpse of it. She’s also covered in these tattoos, which you don’t see because she’s fully covered in her Amish clothing. This entire outfit was made by our tailor, Dana Calanan, who was absolutely incredible in making this robe come to life.
Spencer: I’m sad to move on from Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin but me must. Let’s talk about your new film that is quite different than anything we have talked about today. India Sweets and Spices, now out in theateres everywhere! I’m very excited about this one. The film is about a college freshman returning home to her Indian American community for the summer. She discovers secrets and lies in her parents’ past. That makes her question everything. I’m hearing that you only had four weeks of prep for this project?
Whitney: It was wild! I got a call on a Wednesday, got the job on a Friday, and was in Atlanta on by Monday. Idove headfirst into this movie, learning the culture. I immersed myself in it from day one. Luckily our writer, director Geeta Malik was so wonderful. She walked me through her vision for this specific community. It’s not the same for every Indian American community, but we wanted to make her own rules for this community, which is similar to what she grew up in.
We had five giant parties with all of these wealthy families. Everyone had so many costume changes, both day wear and party wear, full of traditional Indian dress. Then we had distinctions. Elderly women and married women wear saris. All of the younger ladies wore a combination of Lehenga Choli, Anarkali, and Salwar Kameez. This was very important to Geeta, to separate the aunties from the younger, unmarried women. Then the men are all in American suits.
Our family who owns the local Indian grocery store who gets invited to this party, they’re all wearing traditional Indian dress and are not as embellished as everyone. It makes this big dichotomy between the two groups. We really wanted to use those pieces, textures and patterns to separate the different groups.
Spencer: Funny enough, you seem to have approached this film much like Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin. That authentic, dedicated approach to familiarizing yourself with the culture. For example, perfecting your Sari skills, the craft and the tradition of it all.
Whitney: Exactly. It’s funny how every movie you approach has the same amount of subject matter. I think you’re completely right, I approached the Amish community in the same way I approached this Indian-American community. I’m an outsider. How do I learn as much as possible and make it as authentic as possible because I want to be true to all of these groups? Luckily with Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin and the Amish community, I could make up my own rules because they’re not traditionally Amish, but this was very important for me to get this right.
It was such a joy, and it was so fun. Luckily, Atlanta has a huge Indian community, and they have great malls there. So that was helpful!
Spencer: Well, I honestly cannot wait to see this movie. It looks so fun, and I’m just really excited to follow along with you and your career. Funny enough, the ghosts are not leaving us because you just wrapped an exciting new project with some heavy-hitting actors and actresses like Jennifer Coolidge.
Whitney: I love her. I love her so much. We Have a Ghost has been a big journey. I got to New Orleans in May, and we just finished our 65 shooting days schedule yesterday. We’ve survived COVID, a hurricane, etc. It has been a journey. I was getting through it all with such incredible actors. I mean, I absolutely love Jennifer Coolidge, David Harbour, Anthony Mackie, Jackie Winston, they’re just incredible people and so, I was lucky that we were able to survive this all together.
Spencer: Oh, man! Well, I’m excited about this one. Sounds like we’ll probably be talking very soon. Thank you so much for joining me!
Whitney: Thank you for having me. This has been such a blast.