Susan Lyall interview: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ costume designer

Having served as the costume designer for both of Aaron Sorkin’s directorial features, Susan Lyall has learned how to find the right outfits that serve his vision. “He responds more to images rather than a discussion. He’s more inclined to describe an emotion or what he hopes to achieve than to tell you it needs to be a yellow dress,” says Lyall in our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video above). This allowed Lyall the freedom to bring many different ideas to Sorkin which he very much appreciated. “He would say that if he costumed ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7,’ that everyone would be wearing khaki pants and a blue shirt from The Gap.”

“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, examines the federal trial of seven anti-war protesters who were charged with crossing state lines in order to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The people who were charged included some of the biggest names who were hoping to bring an end to the Vietnam War: Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).

While Lyall was able to take certain liberties in designing some of the costumes, each actor was able to bring their own ideas of how to approach the costumes of their characters. This was especially true of Cohen in his portrayal of Hoffman. “Sacha was quite emphatic that we link everything he wore to an actual photo of Abbie Hoffman because he just wanted to be able to back it up. He didn’t want people to think this was a made up person.” This was a concern for Cohen because of how many younger people might not be familiar with Hoffman. “Really, for everything, I had some image that I could show him and prove to him that this is what he wore on this date. It was a bit of a puzzle to assemble.”

Even though the costumes for the prosecuting attorneys weren’t flashy, Lyall was able to secure suits with a special history for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Richard Schultz. “I rented his suits from a costume house upstate and they had just bought out an estate and they happened to be the estate of Robert Abrams, who used to be New York state Attorney General.” The suits were purchased by Abrams in August of 1969, right after the trial concluded. Lyall waited until after shooting to reveal this to Gordon-Levitt, who really enjoyed having that authenticity. “That’s just an example of we weren’t trying to replicate Schultz but it did confirm this is what a lawyer would wear at that time.”

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UPLOADED Nov 18, 2020 1:09 pm