Interview: Costume Designer Karyn Wagner on ‘Waco,’ David Koresh, and the 90’s Period Piece

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While the 1990’s don’t seem very long ago to most of us, most events in the decade occurred more than 20 years ago. In the case of “Waco,” the new Limited Series from the Paramount Network, the events were 25 years ago. The era in which these events occurred is firmly in rooted in a period piece, even when the audience may not associate the time period as one. We sat down with Costume Designer Karyn Wagner to discuss the new series, and catch up on what she’s been up to since we spoke to her last year. David Koresh is where a large part of where the focus of the show takes us, but Karyn explains many of the subtle work she employed to build the wardrobe for the show.

AF: When we talked last year, you were working on “Underground,” so how different is it to design for a serialized show versus a limited series?

KW: It’s really not that different. You condense the arc a little bit. You condense the arc a little bit because “Underground” was 10 episodes and Waco was 6. But it really depends on what is happening in the show. So “Waco” is not as action based, it’s story based.

AF: Did you have to make as many clothes as you did on “Underground?” Because I remember the number was very high.

KW: No I did not because “Underground” was more of an action show. You didn’t really know what was going to happen to people. Sometimes characters would end up in rivers or have horse riding stunt doubles, or hang from trees. There was a constant need for stunt doubles and blood and effects on “Underground” and just by the virtue of people running, a lot would happen to those clothes. On “Waco” it was much more of psychological drama. There was a lot of talking heads. So there, my costumes had to delve deeper into the individual personalities and what their context was story wise in the moment. I mostly needed singles for “Waco” except for obviously some of the bigger scenes.

AF: How do you begin the research process for a show like “Waco?”

KW: I actually took in a 4-inch binder into my interview. A lot of my research for “Waco” was on the internet and then followed up with David Thibodeau and Gary Nessner’s books. I had the great privilege of having them on set as consultants.  They were there, so I was able to really dive into who they were as people, so I could extrapolate more from them.

But there’s also so much footage online of David Koresch doing various things. I found footage of him playing guitar to a couch full of giggling girls at some point and found other footage of him preaching or having bible study with his followers. There were interviews with his mother and grandmother, or family photos and albums in the background. Bonnie even showed the camera her scrapbook in one interview, so you really get to see him. I have photos of David Koresh as a baby, learning to walk, all the way to when he died.

The other thing I did was assemble a wall of everyone who was in the compound during the siege. I found a picture of almost everybody, even the children, and almost all the followers were there. So I tried to extrapolate who they were as people in the photos and tried to have a little closet for each of the people on the wall. So if I had 3 photographs of an individual, I had a pretty good idea of what I could dress them in, but if I could only find a single picture, it would be more difficult. His followers came from all walks of life, all over the world. Some of the British followers were sophisticated, and some of his wives were brought up as Seventh Day Adventists who had never traveled when he met them. So you had people with all sense of style or “local style” and I tried to give every person a sense of style based on what I could find.

AF: Since you were able to talk to David and Gary, did you ask for more information about individuals you might not have had information on?

KW: No, not so much. Here’s an interesting story about David Thibodeau when he came out to be our consultant. I told him I had assembled this wall but it took him a couple weeks to come by my office. I didn’t really know what to expect. And the wall actually reminded him of a lot of the people who died. He stood there for a moment and said, ‘Hello old friends. It’s really good to see you again.’ It was a Woah moment. I burst into tears, and he burst into tears. My assistants burst into tears.

So in some cases, he was able to identify people in pictures that I could not find out who they were, but in some cases, I reminded him of people he didn’t necessarily remember. After all, it’s been 25 years. But I think basically going off the photographs of everyone that I had found in the compound, he thought I landed correctly in dressing everyone correctly. You always worry about that, because you want to honor their stories.

AF: You just brought up the 25 years since the event, so do you consider “Waco” a period piece given the time that it’s been since the event?

KW: I personally don’t because I’m old enough to remember it happening. However, it is, in fact, a period piece with how much time has passed. It’s funny when I went to the rental houses in Los Angeles, they didn’t really have many pieces for the 1990s. Many of the people who run those houses are my age or older so they would tell me they still had that stuff in their closets so they could go home and get it. I thrifted a lot of it in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. There’s a place up there called Savors that is where I got a lot of the stuff, including for the principles.

AF: Speaking of the principles, you’ve already touched on David Koresh, played by Taylor Kitsch. How did you make the choice to show both the “rock star” persona and the religious leader he became?

KW: Well it dawned on me if you look at the lifespan of David Koresh, he dresses as a different person in almost every setting. It started when he was a teen when you had David Koresh the rock star, David Koresh the businessman. You can Google him when he went to court and find him in this beautiful-looking suit. As a costume designer, you look at this and you think he’s not a hick from Texas, but a man who wants to impress a judge, or intimidate other lawyers.

The footage I was talking about in the video where he’s playing guitar for the girls, the camera pans down and you see his foot tapping. It was great because something that tells me a lot about anyone is their shoe choice. Anyone can buy jeans and a t-shirt, but your shoes are very very specific. So, I froze the video on his shoes and saw they were just beat up tennis from Wal-Mart. So I wondered why he was dressing like a rock star here, but a dependable Dad there and then he’s the surfer guy there. Is he that manipulative?

So I had to figure out who he was in the middle of all of this, and what I came up with was that he was a guy desperate for people’s approval. He would dress and speak for his audience. He was cool groovy guitar playing guy for the girls, but the forthright dressed up guy for the people who came 10,000 miles to study with him. Whoever he was with, he wanted to be accepted and loved by them. I think that was probably the saddest take away for me. He caused a lot of pain and suffering because of his inability to love himself.

AF: There was something I noticed with Michael Shannon’s character, and I wanted to make sure that it was intentional and I wasn’t seeing things. At the beginning of the show, before Ruby Ridge, he’s almost proudly wearing his FBI clothing. As the series progresses though, he begins taking it off more and more until he’s not wearing any at all. Was this intentional?

KW: Yes! Yes, it was! It was a conversation I had with the Dowdles and it signaled his distress about what was happening. We had Gary Nessner on set, and 25 years later he can now speak somewhat honestly without betraying his government. He was disappointed by what happened there, he was disappointed with Ruby Ridge. He was disappointed with Waco. I think he sees the connection from Waco to Oklahoma City bombing a few years later.

I wanted to key in on his isolation, where he’s plugging away trying to make sense of this situation. He’s trying to make sense of David Koresh, who by the end is completely unhinged. Then his own leaders are spinning, trying to put this sense of force on Koresch and not understanding why he won’t respond the way they want him to. This all shows his isolation and dismay on what was going on. I have the personal sense that Nessner knew how this was going to end. I don’t think he’s ever admitted that out loud, and I know he was trying until the very end. He was distressed, and he was showing that he wasn’t part of “you” anymore.

AF: How about John Leguizamo’s character? How difficult is it to design for a character who is trying to be something he’s not?

KW: Well he’s trying to pretend to be this West Texas Rancher, but he knows nothing about cattle. When you see those guys in real life, you know who they are. When you see a pretender, you know who they are too. Its subtle things like his boots are too new. We gave him brand new cowboy boots and scuffed them a little so they looked like he had been wearing them a week. Those boots don’t break down and would last for a very long time.

His shirts were too new, even when we distressed them. The shirts should look like he or his secretary bought them in D.C., or even mailed them in from the J. Peterman catalog. They shouldn’t really look like the real shirts. They should look like what a New Yorker thinks a cowboy looks like. The Branch Davidians knew immediately by looking at him that he was from the government when he opened the pizza box. You have to play with it so that he could be, but upon further inspection, he could not. Sometimes it’s just the dirt that won’t come out anymore. That’s how you know whether somebody is real or not.

What did you think of Karyn’s costume design? Did you enjoy “Waco?” Let us hear in the comments below! 

“Waco” is currently available to stream on demand. You can read our review of the series here.