In Paint, written and directed by
Brit McAdams, Carl (Owen Wilson) is a local celebrity in Burlington Vermont, thanks to his long running PBS show Paint with Carl Nargle. However when the network brings in Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) to host her own version of Paint, Carl is forced to face his fears, desires and the people he’s cast aside along the way. In this fun, charming and hilarious film, Allison Pearce designed the flawless costumes that brought warmth and unique character to the citizens of Burlington. I had the chance to ask Allison a few questions about her costumes for Paint.
Elizabeth: My favorite thing about Paint is that while it’s a contemporary film, the costumes you’ve created feels timeless. What was your inspiration for the people of Burlington, and what were you trying to convey?
Allison: Thank you so much for those kind words. I set out to create a quirky little world with an offbeat color palette and tons of texture. I was framing the costumes in terms of this world of PBS Burlington and its inhabitants as analog vs. digital. I was inspired by handmade knit sweaters, corduroy, quilts, soft earth-tone pastels such as sage green and mauves, and autumn tones in Vermont. I wanted to build this weird, dated, but relevant world of analog public broadcasting. Everything about the principal cast, background actors, and day players needed to feel out of time. I leaned into browns vs. blacks, off-whites, and creams vs. grays. Things that might seem vintage or old. Nothing modern, really.
Elizabeth: Carl’s costumes are both unique to him and recognizable. What were your influences for Carl, and how did you use them to create such a unique wardrobe?
Allison: I had narrowed down the look after talking with Brit. Inspirations for Carl’s look are Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, and Steve McQueen in the 1970s. Warren Beatty in Shampoo. California 1970s rock star/movie star in an accessible way. Vintage denim, worn leather, embroidery. Of course, Bob Ross was an inspiration. The decision was to make Carl Nargle look dated like he’s aged out of this PBS Burlington world and remained stagnant. That story is told visually through his costumes.
At Owen’s first fitting, he walked in with his dog Wayno, and I handed him the baby blue snap front embroidered western shirt he wears in all the promos and a pair of orange tab 1970s Levi’s. And Owen puts it on and goes, “Well, you nailed it. I think we’re done!” There’s something interesting about making Carl look larger than life in his surroundings – he hasn’t adapted, and in his head, he’s in his own little world. He has some rock star moments: after we see Carl’s first painting show, Jenna drapes his leather coat around his shoulders like he’s James Brown.
We embroidered and built some of Carl’s shirts. He has a shirt we embroidered Mount Mansfield on the front yolk. Owen was really painting in many scenes – he used real oil paints and had taken painting lessons before we began filming. I mostly tried to work with natural fabrics for his costumes in case he got messy while painting. Many of his shirts are vintage 1970s, so it was often challenging to find pieces that weren’t polyester or a poly blend of some kind.
Elizabeth: Ambrosia’s costumes are very different from Carl’s. What differences were you trying to convey through her looks?
Allison: I was really inspired by antiquing and thrifting up in Saratoga Springs. I wanted Ambrosia’s character to look crafty and handmade, to mirror her approach to her art and painting show. She sees this world from a different angle. Ambrosia uses found objects around her to express herself through how she dresses. She loves color and knitwear, and interesting patterns.
I had come up with the idea that her love of art started out as crafting, and she had used heirloom quilts & antique blankets patched onto her clothing – like nothing was sacred to her. I think Ambrosia has a little craft room in her home in Vermont. You see, she wears a cream jumpsuit early on in the movie. I had asked Prop Master Thor Foss to keep a look out for some good pieces, and he found this amazing vintage blanket in an antique mall in Saratoga Springs. My team and I cut it up and used it as panels on the side. When Ambrosia gifts Katherine the Etch-A-Sketch, she wraps it in a piece of a quilt. That was a remnant from another vintage quilt we found, which became a prop. Her coat in that scene, we had added vintage patchwork quilt pockets. Filmmaking is so collaborative, and I love when things like that organically develop.
Also, a huge part of this film is vintage, rentals, sustainable designers, thoughtful brands, and environmentally friendly. That’s important to me as a costume designer. I want to be part of the solution in the film industry, and I know that means leading by example. Nikki Chasin, Lacausa, Charlotte Stone, and Noize (cruelty-free winter coats) are all thoughtful businesses and designers I worked with to dress some of the characters in this film.
Elizabeth: One of the best moments in the film is when Wendy talks about her Juicy Couture tracksuits. Was this specific to the script, and how did you blend it into the rest of the costumes?
Allison: Wendi Mclendon-Covey is such a luminous presence. I felt really lucky to give her costumes that were part of the punchline for her. This character is obviously stuck in the past and still romantically entangled with Carl in her own mind. And her Juicy Couture tracksuit is something she’s brought with her from that time. It’s like a security blanket for her. This was a few years ago, and during Covid, we had to make so many different JUICY on the rear tracksuits. I really couldn’t stop laughing when we were doing that – bejeweling the bottom of a costume for Wendi. I called her and asked if she’d be down with JUICY on her rear. She was on board, obviously! Using costumes as part of the punchline is something I honed in on when I was one of the designers on the SNL team. I’d get a script from Julio Torres or one of the other writers on Wednesday night after the table read. And it might say something like “and then Al Sharpton walks in” or “Aidy wears jeans that come up to her chin.” It’s a fun challenge to create something that helps sell it.
Honestly, it was super fun working with Brit because he loves to tie in costumes to his writing. I’m sure costume designers know this, but I think most of the time, directors aren’t super specific about the look of their characters. More often, they know what they don’t want the character to look like. It’s great to work with a director like Brit, who is so excited about character-building. Working with Patrick Cady, the DP, was really great as well. He did some fun shots highlighting costumes – zooming in on butts that say JUICY. I think there’s an element of Wet Hot American Summer in this world we created.
Elizabeth: What did you find the most difficult about creating the costumes?
Allison: Honestly, whenever I see in a script “FLASHBACK,” I know that it means so many extra costumes. I think to tell the story of Carl’s life and all the relationships he’s ruined over the years, it had to be told visually through flashbacks. And that can get insane for the actors – like if Owen or Michaela Watkins had to change costumes 10 times a day. Michaela is such a gem and so lovely to work with. The whole cast was!
But really, it was a challenge being satisfied with so many costumes on camera. And really, it became a flex at some point and just a problem I had to solve. On location with limited resources that fit this world we created.
Elizabeth: What was the most fun part about working on Paint?
Allison: I felt really lucky to be part of this project, and one of the reasons is the fantastic ensemble cast that Brit McAdams, Sam Maydew, Peter Brant, and Rick Bosner assembled. It’s really so funny and enjoyable to see them all in scenes together. I mean Stephen Root, Wendi, Michaela Watkins, Ciara Renee, Luisa Straus, and Lucy Freyer. And Owen, of course. It’s really fun when they’re all together.