Mari-An Ceo Interview: ‘Timeless’ costume designer
Mari-An Ceo has proven herself wrong. During Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Costume Designers panel, moderated by this author, Ceo revealed that she initially turned down styling the NBC series because “I said it could not be done.” The drama, in which its three heroes Lucy (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt (Matt Lanter) and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) time-travel, would be a daunting task as a movie, but tackling new time period every week — and a time period is never repeated — “just is not possible,” Ceo thought.
“[Co-creator] Eric Kripke, who I’ve worked with before and had great confidence in me, said, ‘Please, just go up to Canada and just get it going. We just really want to do this show. We’ll figure it out as we go and we’ll back you up. We’ll be there for you,’” Ceo recalled. “I said I’ll make it to the fourth episode and I’ll either be fired or I’ll have to quit.”
The fourth episode after the pilot actually turned out to be a pivotal turning point — and a near breaking point. The episode took place during the Alamo and “everything went bananas.” “It was freezing cold and snowy [in Vancouver]. Everything was against us,” Ceo said. “It was just very difficult. I don’t think anyone quite knew how we were going to do it. We were lucky we had a very spirited department heads and a very competent crew at that point. Eric was amazing and Shawn [Ryan, co-creator] was amazing. They really believed in the project. We all just said a prayer and said we’re going to make it through and we’re going to make it happen.”
Ceo has continued to make it happen every week, going from 1940s Hollywood one episode to the Salem With Trials the next while under an enormous time crunch. Sometimes the writers give Ceo and the costume department a heads-up on where they might be going next, but she usually has to wait for the script.
“It’s zero to 90 every single day. We’ll get a script and we will send out to our whole department,” she said. “We break it down, we call historians, we do boards, we do sketches, we pull from the costume houses, and we start getting ideas we can draw from. The research is kind of unbelievable. I think most costume designers are historians themselves. We spend so much time — and sometimes that time is five minutes — we really hone in our skills. Especially on a project like this, we try to gather what we can, what the personality was like, not what just what the fashion was for that character at that time.”
Ceo and her crew then have mere days to design and make all the costumes for the regular cast. Yes, all those elaborate gowns and period suits are custom-made every week. “We have found we just have so much more control in the time period that we have to do it to just source the fabric, make it and fit it to the actor,” she said. “Sometimes you purchase something or get something from a costume house, by the time you remake it, it’s taken way too much time and too much money and may not be exactly what you want.”
Speaking of getting what you want, Kripke had requested fewer hats in Season 1. “He thinks it distracted from the actors. What you see in frame is everything from [the chest] up,” Ceo said. But Ceo stood her ground to keep the fashion as historically accurate as possible.
“Part of what you see this season — I said, ‘Guys, if you’re gonna keep the hats on, we need home hat-cting.’ That’s what I called it. ‘We need to gesture with the hats.’ We’ve had great fun with how they’ve worked their clothes,” she said. “They try to one-up each other, how they’re tipping hats or pointing it to gesture. I was like, ‘Eric, you clearly can’t get rid of the hats.’”