INTERVIEW: ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Costume Designer Cynthia Summers

One of the strongest directors to bring a unique style to the big screen in recent memory is Barry Sonnenfeld. With “The Addams Family” and “Men in Black,” Sonnenfeld’s work gained mainstream appeal, as well as a reputation for having a unique visual flair. Now, he’s moved to the small screen with “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” starring Neil Patrick Harris and streaming on Netflix. The show is somewhere between a dark comedy and slapstick comedy (depending on the scene), while still appealing to both adults and children. Part of what brings it to life are the ridiculous costumes that characters throughout the show wear. These costumes come from the mind of Cynthia Summers, formerly of “The L Word” and “UnREAL.” Cynthia sat down to talk with me about designing for “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” working for Barry Sonnenfeld, and what it’s like to design for a “period-less” show.

AF: How did you end up designing costumes for film and television? What was your first big break?

CS: I was a performer, really a dancer in musical theater. So, you know, the most underfunded of all the arts. We ended up doing our own costumes, a lot of our own mending and things like that. I was living in Vancouver at the time, and decided to go back to school and went for fashion design. A film came to town and needed someone to make a specific dance costume for the film, but not in a dance context that they were shooting it. It was really kind of unique and I jumped on that.

It was a really great experience and I was star struck and all of that. That led me to find a production designer that I really admired and basically followed him for a year until he got an indie. About a year later he asked if I would be interested in designing it for no money, basically just a passion project. I did and it was the first thing I ever did. I’ve had some great relationships from that show with producers, and two crew members from that show as well. It was one of those remarkable first times. Overwhelming for sure, but it gelled a lot of relationships that allowed me to give up the dance world after that.

AF: What was the name of the film was that you worked on?

CS: “Double Happiness” from Mina Shum.  She’s actually just released another film with pretty much the same cast from “Double Happiness” including Sandra Oh. I didn’t get to work on that one, but it’s called “Meditation Park.”

AF: What led you to “A Series of Unfortunate Events?” How did that come together?

CS: Well I interviewed for Season 1 but did not get it, which was fair. When Season 2 came around, the direction of the look was veering in a different direction. They came back around to me, and this time I came back with a bigger, heightened concept I guess. I brought illustrations, my spiel, and my desire to really do it. That’s how it came back to me, and I’m thankful because I know one of the producers on the show. They were also a producer on “Double Happiness” so that proves that it’s important to make those connections early on. I really owe it to Rose Lam, who I haven’t work with exclusively, but I’ve done some of my best work with her on “The L Word” and other things we’ve worked on together. She’s the one who got me in touch with Barry Sonnenfeld.

A Series of Unfortunate Events” was really important for me. It’s a different genre, which forced me to challenge myself. I think it’s very important to always push and challenge yourself so you don’t become stagnant or bored with it. On this show, you definitely can’t get bored with it, not one bit. It’s a challenge and it’s delightful. It’s so fulfilling and helps create great relationships. The actors are incredible and so talented.

AF: Speaking of Barry Sonnenfeld, he has a very unique aesthetic across his films. Did you take a look at his previous films or did you want to go in a different direction?

CS: I definitely considered them because that is Barry’s signature hand. I think we’re doing on “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” very different than the film. Even though season 1 covers the same ground, it’s been adapted to a very different medium in Netflix. It looks different because it’s not Edwardian. The period is not defined. It’s got that Barry Sonnenfeld hand in it, with off-color humor, and the patina of the gel that they throw over the whole thing is Barry’s touch.

Something that was hard for me to learn was how to incorporate color with how they light on the show. It’s very unique and very amazing. Taking his mind and how he creates language and visuals was something that I was nervous about. Whenever you take someone with a popular aesthetic, it’s not always obvious how they achieve it. You might go in and have a learning curve. I love working with Barry. Whenever you work with someone new, you might not gel, or work well together, and that can be very frustrating. Fortunately for me, being the new kid on the show this year, I understand him completely. Even when I’m wrong, I still understand him.

I also have a good relationship with Bo Welch, his production designer. He’s worked with Bo for years, so it’s a real treat. In a sense, I can’t make a mistake. Barry runs a mile a minute, and you only have one chance to hear what he has to say. He’s often off to something else, from executive producer, to help with costumes, makeup, props. He doesn’t have a lot of time. If I didn’t understand what he meant, I have the backup of Bo, who understands Barry explicitly. He can guide me in the right direction, or if he doesn’t understand, he’ll help me go back to Barry.

AF: Which character is the most fun to design for?

CS: There’s so many of them, but of course I’m going to say Olaf. He’s our main character, and he’s the focus from the beginning. That said, there’s so many of them, and there are new characters this season too. Even if a character’s costume isn’t as flashy as Olaf’s or Carmelita’s or Esmé or even the kids this season, sometimes just the process of getting the character’s costume and having it work on screen is amazing for me. I’m going to circle back to the answer you already know, which is Olaf. Of course, he’s great.

AF: How do you handle the period aspect of the show?

CS: Clearly we weren’t following the Edwardian style from the books. We instead were a period-less show. That was tough for me because you have to illuminate things in a different way. So I asked Barry what period were we in because Season 1 seemed to lean so hard into the ‘50’s. He said, “No we don’t have a period.” One clue that he was given, is that although it’s written by Lemony Snicket, what we see on screen is through the eyes of the Baudelaire children.

Children remember things from their early life in pictures. So if they remember their parents, it’s not necessarily in a time or place, but sitting at the kitchen table. It might not be period correct. Instead, it’s a memory of a memory and the memory of a child at that. It can have a mystical taste to it. Even though we don’t have a specific period for the costumes, I tried to drop everything between the mid-1940’s and late 1970’s. I think that we have to balance between there.

AF: How does this affect the individual character costumes? For Olaf for instance?

CS: Well for Olaf, I think that really reflects. Most of his suits feel like they are from the early 1940’s, but some of them go off into No Man’s land in time. They sort of take on Neil Patrick Harris’s shape and style as Olaf. Olaf is always dirty, he’s kind of a dirty despicable character. You can see it in his nails, and makeup, and teeth, and shoes. So it all has to fit him. We call it his iconic look, which is that terrible suit made out of upholstery fabric actually. Then there’s his decrepit Henley, which is basically his second skin. He never really takes it off.

Then, of course, we see him in the disguises and we know with Olaf his range of looks is really interesting. Neil is helping this come through, and he’s really amazing. When I met him in 2017, we looked at his first 3 disguises for Coach Genghis, Gunther, and Detective Dupin. I was actually on another show that I was finishing up at the same time, so I was running everywhere with illustrations and fabrics. We then shipped off to L.A. and had a fitting for him. It went great and went exceedingly well. It did after that with the rest of the characters for the season. Conceptually its all on paper, but Barry had very strong opinions on why Olaf’s disguises are a certain way. I bring my bend to it, and then we collaborate. We more or less are all on the same page.

It’s such a gift because he’s such a talented guy. He’s a stage actor as well as a screen actor, so he totally embodies every disguise. It’s exciting to know that I’m going to be one of the first people to hear his voices for the characters. When he tries on the costumes, that’s usually the first time that he really begins to embody the character. The fitting room is really a fun place to be when he’s there. The whole thing comes to life and it’s magical and exciting.

AF: He has a handful of costumes this season, from being a Doctor as Mattathias Medicalschool or as a Ringleader at the carnival. Which of his costumes was your favorite to design?

CS: Well, definitely Gunther was fun, and clearly an ode to a designer we know and love. It also really fits the story that we’re watching at that point as well. I think it was more driven by plot and story. It wasn’t a surprise to me that they look like they do. Some of the other disguises are more driven by what we’re going to do here because it was new. However, when we got to the “Vile Village” episodes, we took some real chances. Detective Dupin went through several renditions before we landed on what it was.

It was kind of awful because we couldn’t quite get it. It’s tricky because he’s a scat-singing, jazz musician detective in a western village run by a cult that has no children in it. We were like, what is that? Is he going to blend? Does he have to blend? Do we need him to stand out? It was one of the best moments when he stepped on set as Detective Dupin, and Neil was Detective Dupin. It wasn’t the most beautiful or big or inventive, but instead the way it came together and fit well. The way it allowed Neil to play this character. That was probably my favorite.

AF: Which other characters did you enjoy designing for?

CS: Esmé was great to design for as well. She knows Olaf from way before and the two kind of become accomplices over season 2. Esmé is more fantastical than Olaf. Olaf’s in these disguises that are dirty and gross but somewhat make sense. Even in the hospital, he’s dressed as a doctor. So, he has purpose. Esmé has fashion. Her purpose is fashion and she’s worried about what’s “in” all the time. So even though we had some direction from the script as she gets later into the season, she’s driven by her fashion. It’s a challenge, all the way through season 3. With Olaf, we fell into a groove and it got easier.

However, Esmé is all over the map. I would get the script and wonder “Oh god, what are we going to do this time?” The way that Lucy Punch brings Esmé to life is incredible. She just knows how to act and bring out those comedic moments. She’s larger than life. It actually helps with the costumes because everything she does with these grand, sweeping movements. Maybe when we’re done with season 3, I’ll look back on it, I’ll appreciate it. Right now, I just hope that it’s fun and meaningful.

AF: Yeah Lucy Punch is really strong a comedic actress, going all the way back to “Ella Enchanted.”

CS: For sure! She’s really all that. Talk about luck right? I didn’t really know her work that well when she came in, but we all knew it was important who got the part of Esmé. I love that we kept her accent. She’s great to dress because she’s got an amazing body to dress. You can build it up or take it, and the way she walks through life is exciting. I just love everything about her. She’s so into it and she comes across as such a stage actor. Stage actors, in my experience, are game to feel a little pain to get the point across, or the costume, or the gag. She rolls with it and pushes through.

AF: Alright, last question. How about the Baudelaire’s this season?

CS: The Vile Village for them as well. When they leave the academy, they came with suitcases full of clothes to fit into the Western style town. We got to do western inspired outfits because of this, and one of the best that fans like the most is Sunny. Her costume has drawn some comparisons to Woody from “Toy Story” because she wears a 1950’s red cowboy hat and yellow coveralls. We also got her little boots made for her by a company called Jitterbug Boy. But overall, we were really able to take a lot from 1950’s and 1960’s westerns. I also love that Violet gets to wear a dress for the only time the whole season. However, she’s very girl power, and she runs and jumps and is so active, other clothing wouldn’t have worked as well.

AF: Alright thank you for your time, Cynthia!

CS: My pleasure!

What did you think of Season 2 of “A Series of Unfortunate Events?” What was your favorite costume from the season? Let us hear in the comments below! 

Season 2 of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is now available on Netflix. Read our review of Season 2 here.