In conversation with Indigenous costume designer Carmen Thompson

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

 

 

Carmen Thompson (Diitiidaht/Kyuquot/Coast Salish), 46, has lived and breathed costume design for the last 15 years. Her given name by her uncle is Tl’aakwaa (Nuu-chah-nulth), meaning copper. Copper is a versatile, malleable material with high electrical conductivity, twisted into jewellery, coins, and metal alloys. Copper is a trace dietary mineral, it lives in our bones, and seems to be everywhere else. Thompson’s career embodies malleability. She has played a vital role in the complex visual language of costume on multiple full feature films, commercials, award shows, television, theatre, and opera. Her father, Art Thompson, was a prominent Victoria artist working in carving and painting. She was trained in fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles, and mentored in costume design by costume designer Warden Neil. She knew it was time to leave L.A. when she turned down a costume design job for a Rihanna music video, and made the decision to return to stake her claim in the Pacific Northwest. Her roots are now firmly planted in her community on Vancouver Island.

 

On a day so windy I thought the tree we were sitting under could collapse, Thompson admits to me she would have started designing much earlier in her life if she knew it was an option. Today, she speaks at elementary schools in local communities—a beacon of hope for young Indigenous kids that you can “make it” internationally and come home an emboldened artist if you wish to do so. At our interview, Thompson seems to be overflowing with energy. She arrives to our meeting with a pitch package for Netflix, her car is typically packed to the brim with materials, and she weaves in and out of stories from her past. The day after our interview, she is setting off to the mainland of British Columbia for her next project, COVID hardly slowing her down. The last 15 years have certainly been prolific—she can tell me exactly which Hallmark producer prefers pearls on all styled outfits, she has popped in for costume work for The X-Files, toured with Jamie Foxx, and has signed on as costume designer for her fourth feature film in two years (Kiri and the Dead Girl, in pre-production). 

 

A semester into my master’s degree in fashion, I grew disillusioned by an industry that has colonized what fashion is known as today. Fashion was not created in the haute couture showrooms of Paris, or by a small group of European designers privileging white, thin bodies. Hand-made clothing has been part of most cultures pre-dating the industrial revolution. I shifted my research toward the study of costume design instead, a field much less constrained and hardly connected to the luxury fashion industry, but one still burdened by similar problems. In particular, it is a deeply white-dominated space. 

 

Costume is classified as ‘below-the-line’ work in filmmaking, rarely receiving substantive artistic recognition. As the quality of the filmmaking we watch costume through increased in quality, size, and accessibility, costume became more crucial in communicating an aesthetic vision. In the case of historical garments, the design process is intensive and detail-oriented, including 14-hour days in the studio; thus requiring a costume designer up to the task. As Hollywood has recently attempted to shine a spotlight on who tells what kind of stories behind the camera, I wonder about the costume designers of various backgrounds and lived experience who are left behind. 

 

In our conversation, Thompson and I discuss the power she finds in identifying as an Indigenous costume designer—one of the only working at her capacity, and where her career has taken her—from holding the elevator all day for a Liam Neeson film, to adjusting Miley Cyrus’s hem, to full-feature films and the power of community.
 

 

 

 

"What's happening in the news with Black Lives Matter, the police, and all these different voices getting louder—when is it going to be our time as Indigenous people to be telling our story? I think I come at it at least from a very grounded foundation of telling the story where I'm not marred by my own abuses, my own pain or my own cracks"

 

 

 

 

What is the thread that connects the beginning and end of a costume design project for you?  

 

The first thing you do obviously is get a phone call, “will you do this?” The script will dictate whether you’ll say yes or no. I’ve said no a few times. I’ll say no if I don’t feel I can contribute to it given my skill set. A movie I said no to just last month—I said you can hire some girl out of school, you don’t need someone like me who isn’t really learning anything. I used to do these 15 years ago so I said, let someone else get a chance of being able to do a simple movie. If there’s anything I don’t believe in, then I can’t do it, because I’m in my build room 14 hours a day. Once you get a definitive yes or no then you make a call. Who’s the director? Who are these people? Can I talk to the writer? Those kinds of things are important. 

 

I think I got the phone call on August 24th for Monkey Beach (2020) and I made my first order less than two hours later. I knew how important this build was going to be and if I were going to knock it out of the ballpark, then I start as soon as I say yes. I hang up that phone and I’ve started. I think you have to, it’s somebody’s project—you know your project is someone’s something. All you’re doing is helping ice that cake that they built. I’m not talking about dialogue, I don’t tell anybody what to do, you know. I’m just wanting to make sure that the visual aesthetic is what the writer and director envisioned.

 

The actor becomes the character and if you don’t do that properly, if they don’t feel that transition, then they are uncomfortable and [audiences] see it. If I had you in wool slacks and a three-piece suit you’d be sitting a lot more differently than you are right now. It’s a shield, an outward protection. Those power-dominant women, you see them a block away. That’s how much they exude their costume. I don’t think people understand the depth of how important clothing is to every single human, let alone actors. 

 

Anyone in their profession watching their own profession [on-screen] knows immediately when something's wrong. That's the responsibility of us filmmakers, that once you snap your audience out of that magic you know how to get them back. 

 

I remember in one of our earliest email exchanges, I asked if you knew any other Indigenous costume designers, and you said no. How have you negotiated that experience in your career?

 

Quite literally, I still don't know if there are others working at my capacity. There has to be. You have to think like someone in Edmonton, someone in Saskatchewan. If you're going to call it inclusion maybe you should research, because you can Google me. You can put in, ‘Indigenous costume designer,’ even ‘native costume designer.’ And guess who pops up? You can't tell me you researched and didn't find me. I've been doing my website since 1997. I'm search engine optimization savvy. So you can't tell me you couldn't find me. There's no way. I take that with ferocity because I exist, we exist. And, you know, I've travelled, I've done some really beautiful work and take massive responsibility in the title of Indigenous costume designer. In the beginning, I thought, I'm a costume designer who happens to be Indigenous, but then that loses its power. I'm [not] just another costume designer. 

 

I have to be careful what kind of voice I use. Even in something like this interview. Luckily my dad being who he was, he taught me really early about the public persona. I’m starting to get my head around it, starting to travel to different Indigenous communities and just talk. All of us, we've just got to fight, you know, and get our voice heard. I can't be mean about it, I don't want to be angry. I don't want to stand on a milk crate. I’ve just got to keep doing what I'm doing. And I'm comfortable enough now to take on a full feature and really run the show. So I think now that I feel I have my spot here in Victoria, here on the island and here in the Pacific Northwest. I feel comfortable, but it's taken me a few years.

 

You’ve spoken at the University of Victoria about cultural understanding in costume design. The field of costume design is obviously a white-dominated field; most costume designers who get selected, nominated, and awarded for big projects are white. What was the takeaway of your lecture, and were students curious about your experience?

 

I was nominated for a Leo Award for Red Snow (2019) and the designer who won was for the native production Edge of the Knife (2018) is not Indigenous. 

I find for the most part, people who aren't in film have no capacity for it at all, or are just disillusioned by the spectacle. So they ask questions that aren’t geared towards the cultural part. I forced it, because maybe they don't know what to ask, you know. 

 

I'm a good artist, so I think that helps a lot in my industry. Not every costume designer can illustrate, not every costume designer can pattern and build. So I come at it as an all-rounded costume designer. I work in the background. I work in builds. I can work in literally every job in our department, whereas, I think probably half of the designers out there working right now couldn't say that. The more you've done other jobs, the more you respect that kid who's got to hold the goddamn door all day. I’ve had to hold the freight elevator at the [Victoria] Empress Hotel. It was a Liam Neeson movie; I wanted to work on the movie so signed up, and guess what I did? 

I think we got a smack in the face quite badly with COVID in the sense that the essential work is really, really important. Film’s background PA [crew] is a massively important piece. I feel I'm a really good team player because of my well roundedness. So it helps me a lot in that world. Everyone starts at a different place.

 

 

 

 Portraits of Ms Thompson by Jake Kimble

 

 

 

I want to touch on 1491: The Untold Story of the Americas Before Columbus (2017–), which is such a massive television project. How were you able to design more than 150 costumes for over a dozen Indigenous nations? 

 

Everybody was dialed up. Every production meeting, it was like we were saving the world every day. We went to camera in March and I was already researching in November. We had a Dropbox folder so the production designer, the writer, the director, maybe someone from APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) and myself all had access to this folder that we all were just plugging and plugging and plugging and plugging. 

 

Cahokia was approximately 1,000 years ago. So I was like, would they be weaving? Would there just be animal hides? What kind of tools did they use? You had to research what kind of tools were found in archaeological sites. If they're only at a given [technological] phase then I guarantee you there were no sharp blades. So then there's no cutting of things, only tearing, busting, or hammering. Then, what year was cotton introduced? When did the tools change to help the hide scraping? How many years ago and where on the continent was this found? I made a wall of what I'm allowed to do and what I'm not allowed to do. You have to restrict yourself in time-frames in order to keep your sanity alive. I had to create this path. I had to map it out. And no one was allowed to touch this wall. The production team, the production designer, the writer, producer, the researcher, the costume designer, they're the filter for everybody else. So it was a lot of research.

 

 

 

 

"I've travelled, I've done some really beautiful work, and take massive responsibility in the title of Indigenous costume designer. In the beginning, I thought, I'm a costume designer who happens to be Indigenous, but then that loses its power. I'm [not] just another costume designer."

 

 

 

 

I did some research when I wrote my master's thesis on the origins of the Hollywood costume designer and it is often traced to Clare West on Birth of the Nation in 1915. That movie has such a striking legacy for the resurgence of the KKK, in particular. I wonder about the intense responsibility a costume designer can have when creating—do you feel some of that?

 

There’s a level of: who are you? What is your body of work? Is it something that my parents are proud of, even though they're both gone? My dad checks in on me. Missing (2017) was my first premiere at the Pacific Opera Victoria. It was a big deal for me because it was my first local, “hello family this is what I do,” [after my return from] L.A. I got there and there's a lot of anxiety, and they're doing a cleansing downstairs. I don't know if they saw that I needed it. No one else was down there except a mutual friend; I can’t recall her name but she knows me and my family. I took my shoes off. And then she was like, oh, your dad is here. I felt it in the room. Of course he’s here. This is my big day, I'm freaking out. Just knowing that he might be hugging me right then helps, you know? So I think that my level of responsible cultural understanding comes from my parents, who can come check on me at any given time. 

 

I think there is a divide in all humans—whether you're creatively bound by money. I have no kids or a home and mortgage, all that stuff. Like I'm a true [nomadic] artist and my lifestyle allows for that. But I don’t say yes for anything. My own personal belief is that I'm not here for that long. 

[In L.A.] the LeBron James commercial happened, and soon after I received a call for a Rihanna music video. Don't get me wrong, LeBron James was awesome and working with Jamie Foxx and all that was amazing but it wasn't mine. It wasn't that I needed the notoriety; the Lebron James commercial, no one will ever know that was me unless I say something. No one wants to watch the credits for commercials. I worked for Foxx for a while, and when that finished, I was satisfied. Now I know what it’s like to travel and work with someone like that, but it's not my world. I felt I don't belong there because I'm not freaking out. And you should be right? I think anyone who [gets hired by] Rihanna would be like, oh my, you know, and I was not. 

I do my best to do whatever is meant to be in my life, whatever I'm meant to do in this sense, costume designing, now producing and writing—this is what I'm supposed to be doing. And if I had said yes to Rihanna, I wouldn't be here. 

 

Why move back to Victoria after leaving Los Angeles?

 

There I was just Carmen, and here I’m Carmen Thompson, Art Thompson's daughter, Cathy Leo’s daughter. I'm a Victoria High School graduate. I know people in my neighborhood. This is where I'm from. I’m not as important there [in L.A.]. I don't think I would have become an Indigenous costume designer. I think I might have been a costume designer. Coming here gave me more power to say that. Coming here also made me realize how important that job is. Down there they thought I was Latina, they thought I was Filipina. Here there’s more weight, there’s more importance [to identity]. Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers—you know, for me, a hem is a hem is hem. I don't care who's wearing them. I’m still hemming some pants. Yeah, might be Jerry Springer, but I'm still hemming some pants.

 

So that's why I came home. The whole thing is a responsibility to myself and my people and the artistic, creative community. Being able to say, I live here, I went here and I did all this but I’m still from here, you know, especially to Indigenous youth. Some of my cousin's children have never left the island—I can show them something bigger. Yes, you can leave the island and yes, it's OK. And yes, you can go to school in L.A. if you want to, or Italy or wherever, you know. So I think broadening that visual, that world for people is important.

 

 

 Ms. Thompson on the set of Red Snow, 2019

 

 

What are you hoping to do in the next chapter of your career that you haven't already done ? 

 

Writing is the new one. Script writing. I've taken notes and I’m taking classes. This is a weird story: two years ago, I got an email that I've been accepted to the Tricksters and Writers Aboriginal Screenwriting Program. But I didn't put my name in for it. I don't know how they got my information at all. Well, I think this goes back to my dad.

 

My dad was in a documentary about the residential school system. I was able to join him at conferences and travel and be his assistant. I got to listen to how he's impacting other residential school survivors and teaching people about the system. Before his passing he told me, “you have to keep telling my story. You can't let the story die.”

 

I've looked at scripts, I've seen scripts my whole life and the concept of how to ‘block’ it. I know the visual formatting of it. And there are a few scenes that my dad vividly shared. So I started writing those scenes out and I didn't know what to do with them. It's really difficult, even just having to become my dad in these scenes. You're visualizing yourself as little, typing and crying—it's awful.

 

I remember pushing myself away from the computer and trying to recover and recalibrate myself. And then I didn’t remember even typing any of it. I reread it all and like, holy shit. Because of the weight of that story, I knew that I had to take responsibility and really take my knowledge of filmmaking and funnel it into writing.

 

The interesting thing where I come from is that the residential school system for my mom and her family is like the five percent. They got educated, they got trained. We're still friends with Sister Laura. My aunt became a nurse to go back to the residential school. My grandmother’s sister worked in the kitchen. And so until I met my dad, for twelve years of my life, that's what I thought of residential school because they talked about it. You know, most families don't talk about it at all because it was awful. Other than dying, my dad is one of the most mortifying of the stories. But then my dad changes the world. He takes the residential school to the Supreme Court, and he wins.

 

I think that's why I'm here to write that story properly because other residential school stories, which we've seen a few of them, it's very black and white. I think a lot of these films come out aggressively as saying it’s present Canada’s fault. This is why we're where we are today, like, whoa, settle down, John A. Macdonald is dead. If he were still alive and kicking around today, then sure, go ahead and rampage the government. But right now, the people that control that system are no longer alive. Let's not act like they are. So I think that's part of it. The voice of the residential school is very difficult. 

 

I'm pretty unscathed as a child—like Little Carmen’s pretty good inside. So because of Little Carmen being good in there, I'm telling a story as more of a storyteller. I'm not pointing fingers. I'm not laying blame and not being an asshole about it, I’m just telling a story. A lot of people in this country have a generation before them that worked at [a residential school] but we’re not going to talk about it. Who worked at these places? These grandchildren are still alive. No one ever talks about that. Yes, it was bad, of course it was. But in day-to-day lives, it wasn’t a blanket of ugly for every single person. 

 

What's happening in the news with Black Lives Matter, the police, and all these different voices getting louder—when is it going to be our time as Indigenous people to be telling our story? I think I come at it at least from a very grounded foundation of telling the story where I'm not marred by my own abuses, my own pain or my own cracks. We need to really move forward into getting more Indigenous costume designers, getting more Indigenous filmmakers, more Indigenous writers.  
 

 

 

 The above conversation was conducted by writer-researcher, Michel Ghanem (he/him). Ghanem is based in Victoria, British Columbia. Cover photo taken by Vancouver-based artist Jake Kimble. Special thanks to Ms. Carmen Thompson for her time and for generously engaging in this conversation with us. 

 

 

 

 

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