Tue. Aug 11th, 2020

Interview: Cynthia Ann Summers, Emmy-nominated costume designer for ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’

Cynthia Ann Summers is an Emmy-nominated and award-winning costume designer and stylist based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. She is best known for her brilliant and unique style-eye which she uses to develop inspiring characters, from modern-day women to fantastical characters taken from the pages of a book to a binge-worthy series.

Currently Cynthia is working on the highly-anticipated third season of Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Neil Patrick Harris, and was recently Emmy-nominated for her work on the show’s second season.

AW: Congratulations on your first Emmy nomination.

CS: Thank you! It’s becoming much, much more real now that it’s getting closer.

AW: It is getting closer, just a few weeks away for the Creative Arts Emmys.

CS: That’s right, yeah.

AW: How did you find out about your nomination?

CS: The breakdown department. So all my breakdown artists are the first people in, in the day and I’m on this show. We’re all working together again [on season three]I walked through the door and my key breakdown artists gave me the news and then moments after that Barry Sonnenfeld himself sent me an email. That’s how I found it. So it was very nice.

How did you get your start in costume design? What is, what was your history?

I started in dance and musical theater as a performer and a that sort of led into doing costume design for dance, which eventually led into doing my for film stage and, and a Double Happiness.

That was your first film, wasn’t it?

That’s right, yes. ‘94. I went back to fashion design school and while I was at school, a movie came into town and they were looking for someone to build tutus for a scene in a movie so I took the job and I kinda got the bug after that, the film bug. Then a friend, another friend of a friend introduced me to a production designer and I basically stopped him for about a year and, and um, he finally, when he got Double Happiness, he said, you know, do you want to do this? And I just said yes. And um, that was my, that was my first of my first job and I had no idea what I was doing and just kind of bluffed my way through, it was an interesting production for sure.

Cynthia Ann Summers’ first film, Double Happiness (1994)

After Double Happiness you did a lot of TV movies and TV series. Was that just because that’s where the work was? How did that transition happen?

I primarily work in Vancouver and I was in Vancouver at that time. It was definitely a town that was more open to working in television so it was kind of a natural progression probably. When you first start out in anything, I mean after Double Happiness it was such a whirlwind and it was, and so just learning everything and after that I kinda just took just about anything that came my way. I kind of really got a feel for what the film industry really was about. And then that just naturally kind of organically lead in a TV series.

I love looking at your resume and seeing five and six projects a year. I love that you’re just throwing everything out there.

Yeah, my sort of personality I guess is to just say yes to everything and jump in and then, and then figure out how you’re going to do it all. So the 90s kind of reflects that for me in a big way. And I definitely got to a place in my life where I’m still working all the time and maybe sometimes too much, but I’m definitely choosing the path now as opposed to just trying to do it all.

Your Emmy nomination is for the second season of ‘Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.’ I’m curious what you brought to season two and what were the biggest differences?

Season one was amazing and I think that the way the book’s progress really dictated what season two was going to look like in a big way. The differences in season two from season one was that season one was about setting the tone and setting up the story of the Baudelaire children. Where we are in season two, the kids are on this big therapy; they’re on the run now. They’re like serious silly on the run, so they go to all these different places and Olaf is becoming darker and more sinister as the season progresses. So I think that’s the primary difference between season one and season two had lots of stunts and lots of vehicles and lots of traveling and explosions and I think we just traveled to a lot more destinations which allowed the kids to be just a lot more active. They’re fighting for their lives a lot more in season two. It gave us a lot more opportunities to be kind of go bigger, harder and faster. Season three is like off the charts, off the charts. I can’t wait for it to hit.

One of the things that’s great about the show is how crucial the costumes are to the storytelling and also too that the film does, or the show doesn’t really exist in a single period and everybody kind of comes from a different time. How do you make sense of each character and give them their own period to work with?

I think the new Emmy category that we were nominated in is a perfect sort of analogy for the timeless period list of the show. I think we loosely fall in between, like the mid-40s to the 1970s to keep that suspension of time a little bit. I tried to avoid the eighties as much as possible. It just was not my favorite time, but it also was getting just too close to now.

So I think that for instance, in years that elevator, I’m definitely lean heavy on the 1940s New York sort of thing, but time and place I think spoke large and, and, and that was also driven by the script which was everybody had to be in pinstripe. Absolutely everybody. So that sort of led to the 1940s in a big way, then we go to Vail Village [Summers’ nominated episode] and who knows where we are because it’s a period western mixed with the religious overtones; Olaf shows up in his scat singing sleazy detective outfit, like what is that? And Esme looks like a really kind of sexy, bright version of CHiPs.

Lucy Punch as Esme and Neil Patrick Harris as Olaf in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’

I loved her outfit in that, sort of like somewhere between Wonder Woman and The Village People.

(laughs) Yes! That’s sort of the beauty of the show. When I took over for season two my biggest question to Barry Sonnenfeld at the beginning was like, “Well, what period are we in?” And he would never answer me. And I finally sat him down. I said, “You have to tell me what period are we in. It’s just too many characters and backgrounds to dress.” And he was like, “Cynthia, the show is seen through the eyes of children and children remember times of their lives mostly in pictures, they remember time and place in pictures, not necessarily period.” So basically I don’t have an answer [laughs].

Did that give you a lot of freedom in how you designed?

I think a lot of freedom but then yes and no (laughs). We would talk about it and I would give my ideas of what I thought things would be like in this new town that we’re in, this new city, And of course the sets designed by Bo Welch had a lot of play in in sort of reflecting where we are. The hospital episode, for example, is very 1960s. So that helped us determine sort of time and place a little or the flavor of where we are. Then we start with sketching illustrations for all the main characters and all the fabulous guest stars that come in and sit down and we go through color. The show is really big on color. So we go through everything and get our fabrics and once our momentum gets going it’s an amazing collaboration.

You mentioned a little bit about sketches. How do you begin designing a costume? Do you utilize computers in your process?

It’s a little bit of everything these days. I have a fulltime illustrator because there’s no time for me to sit and do doodles. I can do a doodle and then I do tears (a small example of a finished work) and then I look at things online and I basically will send him a big email for a character. Then I’ll send them a pose and sort of the mood that I want to be conveyed in the illustration.

We do use computers in a lot of our work because it’s faster. You can pop the actor’s image in a design and it really helps to sell the costume early on. It’s really helpful when you’re doing sort of a rapid production. So we kind of go from there and then I send everything off to Barry. Barry has the final sign off on absolutely everything from the set to the costumes and hair and makeup and props and he’s 100 percent all in which is incredible and helpful. So I’ll send it off to him and if notes would come back we’d quickly make changes if he had any.

Do you have any favorite or least favorite textiles?

Polyester is my least favorite, especially on a show like Lemony Snicket where we’re creating, as you say, non-specific period, but still period wardrobe that we have to manipulate and sort of probably use it in a way that it’s not meant to be used. I prefer natural fibers so I absolutely love everything for the entire season that’s on camera. It all went through our a breakdown world, which means even if it’s not dirty and destroyed or distressed looking, everything was shaded and dyed and dyed again. Every, every single piece went through that.

The Baudelaire children: Klaus (Louis Hynes), Sunny (Presley Smith) and Violet (Malina Weissman)

How has working with Netflix been like compared to non-streaming networks?

It’s amazing. It was seamless. I’m not 100 percent sure if they work this way on all their projects, but on Lemony Snicket the sign off was given to our producers in house; Barry Sonnenfeld and [series producer] Rose Lam made the process so quick. We never could have done the volume that we did with the amount of detail that we did without them. I’m so thankful to them. On a typical network it’s by committee, it’s definitely costuming by committee. Sometimes there’s 12 people that have to weigh in just to get everyone on the same page. It can be prohibitive to getting things done and getting them done with the amount of detail that you want and perfection that you. Netflix definitely had a hand in our success in a big way; in our production process and making it happen.

Next up for Cynthia will be the third season of A Series of Unfortunate Events for Netflix, the television adaptation of the sci-fi feature film Snowpiercer for TNT starring Daveed Diggs, Jennifer Connelly and Alison Wright (can’t wait for that) and maybe, maybe Showtime’s reboot of The L Word, for which Cynthia costumed the show’s entire run.

Cynthia Ann Summers is nominated for Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes for the episode “The Vile Village: Part 1” of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The Emmy voting period ends August 27th at 10pm PST.

The Creative Arts Emmys will be a two-night affair on Saturday, September 8th and Sunday, September 9th.

The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards will be Monday, September 17th.

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