‘SNL,’ ‘House of Cards’ costume designer on Zoe Barnes’ hoodie and D.C. style

May 16, 2013

Tom Broecker is bracing for the end of season 38 of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which airs Saturday night. The episode marks a full 16 years that Broecker has served as costume designer. We caught up with Broecker (who was fresh from a meeting with last week’s host Kristen Wiig) to discuss his work with “SNL” and new ventures with Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

How does it feel to work with such a long-running show?

It’s really weird just to think of how long the show has been on the air. What else has been running that long? It’s crazy. It’s one of the reasons I like working on it. First of all, the people are amazing. Lorne [Michaels] is just the most amazing boss anyone can ever have. It allows me to live in New York and work on an amazing show. To be able to say that I actually like what I do is just icing on all of it.

Fred Armisen, Kirsten Wiig, Seth Meyers in a scene from "SNL," (Dana Edelson/NBC).
Fred Armisen, Kirsten Wiig, Seth Meyers in a scene from “SNL,” (Dana Edelson/NBC).

Have you had a favorite cast during your time with the show?

I started with Ana [Gasteyer] and Molly [Shannon] and Cheri [Oteri] and Will Ferrell.  That was sort of like bonding, and when you bond with a cast and become a family, instantly you’re all in it together.

I think it was the year it really sort of reformed itself, [the show] came together with this group of people. “House of Cards” was a little like that, too. The script and the actors and the vision and the design — it all just kind of happened. That doesn’t happen very often, where it all just coalesces and becomes this incredible thing.

How do you continue to come up with fresh ideas for a project you’ve worked on for so long?

Some days it’s harder than others. It becomes very collaborative here, there are a lot of people working with the ideas — new writers who come in bring a different perspective. The age range of the show is pretty phenomenal. The experience level is all across the board — we have young people in college, just out of college and others who’ve been here since the very first day. You put all of those people in this giant melting pot.

The creativity doesn’t just happen, but it is kind of exciting. The actors are amazing, and the writers come up with ideas: “Oh what about this,” and then it’s like a ping pong match.

And because it’s live, there is an element of, well…keep going, keep going, refine it, refine it until the moment you have to shoot. There comes a moment when you have to film.

How long do you have between getting the script for a show and finding the costumes? Is that challenging?

We have a read-through on Wednesday nights. We meet with actors and writers, after that the real process starts in my sleep Wednesday night. Then Thursday morning I have a meeting with the department, and we start divvying it up, and talk about it all. By Saturday afternoon it has to be formed enough to wear during dress rehearsal.

“House of Cards” allows the other part of my brain to work — it’s completely different.  David was very specific that this is a 13 hour movie, and it has to be designed like a 13-hour movie, as opposed to “SNL” where we tell the story in five minutes.

In “House of Cards,” there is an accumulation of knowledge and design and a constant refinement of the character and more psychological bent to the clothes. They have to tell a different story, reinforce the emotional story much more so.

Kirsten Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad in a scene from "SNL," (Photo by: Dana Edelson/NBC).
Kirsten Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad in a scene from “SNL,” (Photo by: Dana Edelson/NBC).

We’re always interested in how Washington style is depicted. Tell us about your approach for “House of Cards.”

When we started, David [Fincher] and I had long talks about how we wanted to portray Washington — we would come down and really look at people. I was down there every three weeks taking pictures of people going out of buildings trying to capture the quality of Washington without making fun of it in any type of way. It’s not “Veep,” which is a comedy, it’s not heightened in that way. It’s sort of the opposite. It’s the quiet quality of Washington.

We had a very specific color palate we were working with. Very strong contrast between people on the Hill and people in the newspaper to make it really look like there was that visual difference.

We have to comment on Zoe Barne’s hoodies. Though the newsroom is casual, we like to think we have some sense of style.

I think she was the one who was sticking out in that sort of way. She is the person there who is the outsider there in that environment — she’s the one who wants to be a blogger. So we needed to make her even look more different than those people. We wanted to make her sort of more androgynous and more boy-like and asexual; someone who doesn’t care about her clothes. What she cares about is power and making a name for herself.

We kind of wanted to reinforce that young, inexperienced college-y quality to it.

Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes in a scene from Netflix's "House of Cards." Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix.
Kate Mara as Zoe Barnes in a scene from Netflix’s “House of Cards.” (Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix.)

The fictional “Washington Herald” office looks familiar, though.

We actually shot that, the whole “Washington Herald” set, we took over part of the Baltimore Sun.

David’s favorite movie is “All The Presidents Men,” there are a lot of overtones to it, what the idea of the newspaper and print and what type of person is drawn to that newspaper as opposed to someone who is blogging.

Do you have favorite designers you pull from or is there more of a mix?

We try to do a lot of American designers because it’s an American show. Kevin [Spacey’s] suits were sort of high-end and British. You can tell they’re slightly different. Kevin wanted to have a nod to the British original, so we sort of worked in, worked with Gieves and Hawks.

And the thing at least with men — every man has a navy blue suit, every man has a grey suit. Particularly on the Hill. At one point when Obama came to office, he only had five suits. They change their shirts.

With Robin [Wright] we ran the gamut of designers. We did a lot of American designers: Zac Posen, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and L’wren Scott, Banana Republic and Theory. She has a very specific tailored look.

Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Michael Kelly in a scene from Netflix's "House of Cards." Patrick Harbron for Netflix.
Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Michael Kelly in a scene from Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Patrick Harbron for Netflix.

How did the choices work into their characters?

The whole idea behind Frank and Claire, these two people are never seen out of their uniform. Their guard is never down, so they have this sort of controlled elegance so to speak.

They let it down when they’re at home, we see softer shades of colors and cashmere. Out in public it’s very tailored. [Claire] is sort of the female equivalent to her husband. It was all about tailoring for her, and there should be nothing out of place and on some level you shouldn’t even notice the clothes, they should just float. Robin (Wright) is an exquisite human being. Those collar bones and cheek bones and it works together in this androgynous, sexy kind of way. But she’s always in a skirt, only in pants twice.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in a scene from Netflix's "House of Cards." (Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix.)
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in a scene from Netflix’s “House of Cards.” (Melinda Sue Gordon for Netflix.)

We definitely thought the minimalism and sophistication of Claire’s wardrobe works for Washington.

It’s all about a watch, earrings and wedding ring. All of that other stuff is distracting. Robin doesn’t wear a lot of it, personally. I’m not a big accessories person. And also [Claire] runs a nonprofit. All of that money is supposed to be going back into her company.

On some level for everyone in Washington, no one wants to show how much or how little they have. Because everyone will talk about it. At some party someone will say “Oh my God, did you see that person wearing those big earrings?” because everyone is supposed to be the same.

We know that is not the case, but I think no one wants to project more power than the other person.

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