In an exclusive interview, Twisted Metal costume designer Liz Vastola takes us behind the scenes of the thrilling television adaptation of the iconic video game series, ‘Twisted Metal.’ With a keen eye for detail and a passion for storytelling through costume design, Vastola drives into the creative process that brought the post-apocalyptic world and its memorable characters to life. From translating the vivid and chaotic video game visuals into real-life attire to capturing the essence of each character’s personality, Vastola’s insights reveal the thought and imagination that went into behind the captivating Twisted Metal costume design.
Spencer Williams: Liz, I have been dying to talk to you. I am a video game nerd through and through and when I saw Twisted Metal was being adapted for television… I knew immediately whoever was designing these costumes, I had to talk to them. So I’m buzzing right now!
Liz Vastola: When I saw the project come up, I thought, “Clear my schedule”!
Spencer Williams: I’m definitely a fan of the show and your work; how has it felt seeing this series finally come out into the world?
Liz Vastola: It has been really exciting, actually. There’s just been such a huge fan response, and most of it has been positive. We really were able to reach through the screen and grab the attention of people who are not only fans of the series rather from the 90s and 2000s but also are just really curious about the story. To have all of this engagement through the audience has been really incredible.
Spencer Williams: There’s a little something for everyone, even if you’ve never played the games. Let’s get into it. When I was a kid, I remember waking up early to sneak into the television room to play games which often included Twisted Metal. What was your familiarity with Twisted Metal?
Liz Vastola: My sister and I grew up playing video games as well. I didn’t play this game specifically, but I was very aware of I as a really popular series. I have a lot of reverence and respect for video game design in general. So when I got this opportunity to lift this story into our world and respond to it in a different way was just like really exciting for me. We really learned a lot actually from video game design. I personally remember my experience of playing games that move between different factions of people and how exciting and optimistic it felt to see a new iteration of character building and a new attitude towards clothing and costume. It can be so energizing.
Spencer Williams: It was so fun to see this insane, colorful world come alive on the screen, and it just translated so seamlessly. This Peacock series takes place in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world that ended in the early Y2K era. Talk to me about how you approached this show and the world as a whole. How did the Y2K of it all play an influence on your costumes?
Liz Vastola: From the beginning, the idea was always that this wasn’t going to be a post-apocalyptic show that was like others out there. I knew from the beginning from the creatives at hand, including Michael Jonathan Smith, our showrunner, and the writers, that this was meant to be a very colorful story. We wanted to use bold strokes to strike a similarity with the way in which you meet characters in video games! You meet these characters, and they’re fully decked out. They each have their own identity, and they’re quite literally wearing it on their sleeves. You might play a game where there are different skins or different outfits that you can acquire or find. Video games have much to say about fantasy, imagination, and creativity. That being said, we also had a story and a narrative. Above all were the characterizations that each of the actors was going to bring to it.
In terms of the Y2K of it all… it was a fun way for the series to respond to the era of its birth. It was a way to respond to the first Twisted Metal game that came out in 1995 with subsequent releases up until 2012. It was purposeful in that we were looking at the period in which the game was originally created. As someone who was born in the 80s and came up in a similar time period, it was really fun and gave us a chance to reflect on that time and bring our own elements as well.
Spencer Williams: I am fascinated by your answer about framing the costume design from the perspective of meeting these characters, almost like you’d meet them in a video game. I really resonate with that idea, and it makes the show all that more exciting. Let’s talk about some of our main characters. First, we have John Doe played by Anthony Mackie, who is just fantastic in this series. John has severe amnesia, which in turn brings some childlike qualities to him. I would love for you to talk about John’s costume and that vest with that perfect Hi-C shirt. I saw that shirt and immediately had a good out-loud cackle.
Liz Vastola: *laughs* I’m so glad. It’s so rare that you’re able to work on a show that is open to logos and branding. To be honest, working on this show that was so influenced by the 90s and Y2k era, that’s where the clothing is meant to have come from! How could you not? Everybody was walking around in Big Dog shirts, No Fear, Reebok, and Nike. That is how we approached John.
We wanted the character’s costumes to correlate visually with their cars. So for John, his car, Evelyn, dictated our color palette. We knew the car was going to be orange. In terms of his look, from a very rudimentary standpoint, cargo pants. That felt like the move for a lot of reasons because he’s a delivery man essentially, and there’s a lot of utility in having cargo pants, but also, it was just such a staple of the nineties.The vest is actually made by this French company who custom-made it for us called Under The Sign. Their whole philosophy in everything they do is based on the reclamation of dead stock fabric, then putting it together in a way that feels a little post-apocalyptic. We wanted it to feel like John has had to patch this vest together over the years but didn’t pull too much focus because John is most interested in his car and his shoes.
Now for the Hi-C shirt, we knew we wanted to go with a golden or yellow shirt. I went into the memory bank of my brain, thinking of brands, and there it was. This felt like an opportunity to really tie us to a period. To the credit of Peacock and Sony, they essentially told me I could go for it if we could get a signed release. Tiera, our key costumer who also worked on our clearances, had to get through the Coca-Cola fortress and then find the one person working at Hi-C. It was so funny because they were so game, and then all of a sudden, we got this email from him asking if the show was violent.
Liz Vastola: It is so violent. Tiera got on the phone with him and basically said, “Sure… there is violence, but it’s going to be worn by the character played by Anthony Mackie.”
Spencer Williams: I mean, we are talking about Captain America!
Liz Vastola: Exactly! Let’s go. I’m so glad it worked out.
Spencer Williams: That’s so funny. When I saw it, it was such a brain blast. Suddenly I am feeling very thirsty. Speaking of, I have a new television crush, which is Quiet, played by Stephanie Beatriz. She is so great in this show. There’s a lot of trauma in her character, and that is really seen through her costume, which does a lot of storytelling.
Liz Vastola: This poor jacket. That was hard for us continuity-wise. It’s been bloody, and then really bloody, and then washed, and then bloody again. Are we going to spend the whole time with her brother’s guts on it? How do we get the guts off? What a costume plot for this jacket! First of all, Stephanie Beatriz is amazing. She loves clothing and fashion, as you can see in her everyday clothes. She was so game! The whole cast on this project was such a pleasure to work with. The original task for this jacket was to find something, or in this case, create something that we haven’t really seen on screen. It wasn’t going to be a leather jacket, a bomber jacket, or even a varsity jacket. We started to think about something that could have felt theatrical and very non sequitur to the world. It almost feels like it might have been stolen from the back of a theater. Once Quiet takes the jacket from her brother, she’s wearing a part of him. She’s literally wearing her grief as a form of protection. She grows into it in a way and helps raise her voice. We really built the rest of the look around it.
Spencer Williams: It’s such an interesting piece. There’s just a lot of great storytelling in this jacket. Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for was seeing Sweet Tooth on the big screen for the first time. I could not have been more excited because this is such an iconic character. When I think of iconic video game characters, Sweet Tooth has to be up there in the top ten. What was it like bringing to life this fan-favorite character, and tell me about the intricacies of the costume?
Liz Vastola: There was a lot of pressure. There are two things happening. On the one hand, we figured out which iteration of him we were going to use for the costume, as he has several throughout the video games, but this is definitely one that I think holds a lot of resonance with the fan base. So we had to figure out these pieces? Where are they coming from? How is this existing in this world? Then we had to figure out how logistically this would work on Samoa Joe (Joe Seanoa), the incredible wrestler doing the embodiment of the character. It had to look so effortless for him and obvious that he would wear it.
Spencer Williams: It’s not an easy costume to pull off at all.
Liz Vastola: No, it’s not. I think it was just a stroke of genius to hire him. Not only because he’s an incredible guy and was such a great collaborator and so game, but also, I think being a professional wrestler comes with an ease and familiarity with outlandish costumes. Their personality comes through these costume pieces that other people might feel uncomfortable with. With the exception of the gloves, everything on this costume was custom-built.
The mask… we went with a sculpt. We had an incredible fabricator in New York who does a lot of work for Saturday Night Live. His name is Sam Hill, and he sculpted the mask in the really traditional way, which was to make it out of clay. What was funny about the making of the mask is that we didn’t really have a lot of time with Samoa Joe prior to filming because he had a pretty rigorous schedule wrestling. We would thankfully get him for these very short increments where we’d be able to try on some mock-up versions of what we had been working on.
The mask was being made in New York, and we were shooting in New Orleans… Maybe a couple of weeks before we started filming, we still needed to try on the mask, and of course, the mask got delayed in shipping. The mask missed him in New Orleans by maybe twenty minutes. He had already made it to the airport. A member of our crew, Laura Sirkin-Brown, was our buyer who also did so much more… I don’t know how she did this, but she took the mask from the FedEx delivery person, got in her car, and went to the airport. I was on the phone with Laura and told her if I need to buy an airline ticket, I will buy that ticket, and we’ll figure it out. This is a true story – she somehow was able to get to the gate and had a flight attendant pass the mask back to Joe.
Spencer Williams: Stop it, Liz. I am sweating.
Liz Vastola: I am not kidding! You could ask him. This is how tight our time was with him. I texted Joe, and I asked if he could try it on and tell me how the chin placement was. He put it up to his face, but he told me he had to duck because… can you imagine being on a plane that is about to take off and the person next to you is trying on this mask?
Spencer Williams: This is not a mask I would like to see pass by me in an airplane.
Liz Vastola: He put it on and took a quick little selfie with it and then texted me. It was amazing. This mask, I think, was meant to be for that reason. Costume people will do the most. We will do whatever it takes. If it can happen, we will make it happen in order to get our questions answered and to get our designs realized.
Spencer Williams: I’m so dead right now. I can’t believe this is real. I’ve heard lots of last-minute stories because that’s the nature of the business, but this one, I have to say, probably takes the cake. That’s a wild one. This really speaks to the necessity of having a great team around you.
Liz Vastola: Everyone was incredible. I would have been nowhere without Tamika Jackson, the assistant costume designer who is a costume designer in her own right—also our supervisor Devyne Johnson, Laura Sirkin-Brown, and our entire crew.
Spencer Williams: Liz, before I let you go, the show was so fun, and I think you have much to be proud of. What did the series mean to you now that you’re looking back on it and getting to experience this ride?
Liz Vastola: It means a lot to me that there’s a real engagement from the fan base and not only from folks that have been fans of the games. There are also new fans and people who came across this show. It’s so wonderful to work on something that people are responding to positively or negatively, it’s just nice to feel like you’re in some sort of conversation that’s happening regarding entertainment.
What meant the most to me about this job was the process of it actually. I’m so proud of what we did. I loved the process of it all, including working with this group of people in the costume department, the collaborative cast, the other fantastic departments, our showrunner Michael Jonathan Smith, and all the way up the chain. It was always just remarkably supportive, and there was so much opportunity to be creative and imaginative. We got to think outside the box. That only happens when you have support from everywhere. I am so thankful for that.
Spencer Williams: Well, I am thankful for you! Costume designer, Liz Vastola, thank you so much for joining me. This has been so much fun. Don’t mind me, but I’m getting ready to rewatch Twisted Metal for a third time.
Liz Vastola: Oh, yeah! Thank you for everything you do, your kind words, and your thoughtful questions.