Jenny Eagan Interview: ‘Catch-22’ costume designer
The tone of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” is as absurd as the bureaucratic rule after which the book is named. So when costume designer Jenny Eagan joined Hulu’s limited series adaption of the satirical novel, she knew she had to ground the war-time show in something real.
“I thought it was a real fun challenge,” Eagan told Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Costume Design panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “There is so much in there — the dialogue and so much detail — that I immediately from the beginning thought that I needed to keep it very authentic. It was important to honor World War II, the look and the time period, so you didn’t get distracted. You can do little things, but this one I thought it was truly important to keep it authentic.”
While Eagan custom-made clothes for the main stars, including Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler and George Clooney, she also had to outfit 350 background actors and extras portraying pilots and bombardiers. The Emmy nominee dove into research, discovering that there was a lot of unused Air Corps uniforms from circa 1945 — deadstock, as it’s called — that was never discarded by the military. She was told that she could find them in Europe, where they were left behind — perfect since the series was shooting in Italy.
“It’s not there,” Eagan shares. “People are very large collectors. It’s really special to a lot of people. So finding enough for 350 background [actors] that were with us almost every day and had multiple changes, it was difficult. So I came back to the United States and the wonderful costume houses here had them. They were buried in boxes in basements. They were deadstock. And they really, really helped a lot. And we also sourced all over Europe. But you had to come home to get it right.”
Since the deadstock is untouched, the 70-something-year-old uniforms were basically brand new out of the package. And so the next step was for Eagan and her team to distress and age them to appear worn and used. “That’s my favorite part. It’s very important to me because I feel that everything that’s lived in and touched, it has a life of its own and it gives a little bit of backstory.” But the process is much different in Italy than stateside, which has more safeguards, according to Eagan. “It’s not the same there; it’s very dangerous,” she notes. The Italian crew would toss the clothes into cement mixers and use something called tree lax that, well, did not smell very good. “They soak the clothes 100 percent in it and it gets — it’s the smell. I don’t get how they live!” Eagan laughs. “But they soak them head to toe, every single piece.”
Afterward, Eagan would also paint the uniforms, which Italians don’t do as much. “Sometimes it’s very difficult depending what you’re shooting on and you can read it that way,” she explains. “Texture’s really important to me, so sanding and actually getting your hands in there makes a big difference, I think personally, so on camera so you could see those little things that might make it more personal to each character.”
The personal touch was vital for Eagan, who got “emotional” during her expansive research into the war. “You start reading stories and you start becoming connected to real people,” she says. “You really start to realize how many people all over this country went and fought. Then you get in a different place and you want to make it truly authentic to honor all of these people that were a part of something that got us where we are today.”