Tai Freligh interviews costume designer John Dunn from Amazon’s Hunters…
John Dunn is the costume designer for the Amazon drama series Hunters, which stars Logan Lerman and Al Pacino who leads a group of hunters that tracked down and punished Nazis living among the post-War Western society. Dunn is known for costuming on many high-profile television shows like Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Vinyl, Castle Rock and Dickinson from Apple TV+. Flickering Myth’s Tai Freligh caught up with John to chat about his design approach to Hunters as well as how he contrasted the day-to-day costumes with the more fantastical comic-book looks of the Nazi hunting team members.
What was your approach to the costume designs for Hunters?
Hunters was my favorite kind of design project as it challenged me to find the correct tone of clothing for an unconventional series. While the writing explores deadly serious themes, there are satirical and fantastical elements which must be portrayed visually. To that end, I simplified the silhouettes of the main characters and heightened colors palettes to suggest a more “graphic novel” feel. And a color code was developed for the sets, props and costumes.
Were you given a general direction by the writer or director on costumes for Hunters?
Our series creator David Weil talked with us at length as to the overall mood he was striving to create. There was always to be an edge to the comic elements but the grit and desperation of New York in 1977 needed to pervade the entire series.
What did you use as reference for the costumes, i.e. any particular period movies or historical photos?
We created mood boards for each character and for each environment in the series. For the principals, often the inspiration was a well-known 70’s icon but just as often it was a “man on the street” type that caught our eye in the photo research. We looked at films like Dog Day Afternoon, The Connection, Taxi Driver and other films set in the streets of NYC for 70’s inspiration. There were interesting documentaries; one about the FBI post-Hoover was very helpful. And blaxploitation films such as Cleopatra Jones were another inspirational source for the heightened design from the 70’s.
Describe the thinking behind the characters’ more fantastical comic-book look?
We wanted these characters to feel just a bit “bigger than life” while maintaining a grounding in period reality. Logan, the young man at the center of our story, is somewhat bedazzled by these people who are unlike any he has ever encountered except in his cherished comic books.
Walk us through the style and look of the costumes for Dickinson?
Apple TV+’s Dickinson is a wildly irreverent re-set of the very stodgy historic view of Emily Dickinson and her world in Amherst. Most of how Emily’s era has been passed down to us has been in grainy sepia-colored photography and staid genre paintings. In truth, the 1850s world young Emily inhabited was a riot of bright color and almost psychedelic patterns, not far from the later 1960s. When I researched the fabrics and the juxtaposition of mad patterns commonly worn in 1850, I was blown away. And in her poetry, she really moved the ball down the field in a radical way. So for the series I decided to hew closely to a very correct period silhouette but to run wild with rich color and deliriously wild patterns as a visual echo of her work.
Working on Boardwalk Empire for four years must have really helped you to grow your craft. What were the biggest lessons you learned?
A key lesson was learning to trust my impulses design-wise and exploring beyond preconceived notions of correctness and boundaries. I mean, how unexpected was it to have Steve Buscemi cast as Nucky Thompson in a total departure from any of his previous roles. That alone showed me, when given the room to grow, artists do mind-blowing work. And the best work happens when we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone.
How did you get into costume design?
My university training was in directing for the theater; my senior year I took a costume design course as an elective. As I progressed through the class, I became totally obsessed with the information humans send to one another via their sartorial choices. What we choose to reveal to one another and equally what we choose to alter or hide from others became a fascinating puzzle to me. It’s the social and psychological ramifications of a character’s clothing choices that I love to explore. This newborn passion led me to reorient my career path.
How important is costume design to a show or movie?
I would argue that costume design is hugely important.
1) The costumes are communicating a significant amount of non-verbal biographical information about any given character.
2) The actors rely heavily on their costumes to help them inhabit and bring their characters to life.
3) Just think about how much of the screen’s “real estate” is actually occupied by the costumes. The costumes are often a large percentage of the visual information the audience is receiving in any given frame of a film or TV show.
How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?
Seek out the underground resistance and fight endlessly to make sure their clothes are hotter and more bad-ass than the zombie majority!
If you’re not a costume designer, what would your career be?
I think being a DJ might suit me; arranging music and creating mood for people’s ears.
Costumes for television or movies?
I love to have the longer luxury of television storytelling but a film often challenges you to refine your design to give the cleanest, sharpest edge.
Favourite costume designer/icon?
The brilliant Edith Head for elevating the position of costume designer to its proper station in the film world hierarchy. And Piero Tosi for his decades of achingly exquisite and flawless work.
Current show or film knocking it out of the park on costumes?
At the moment, can I just say that the clothing in Netflix’s Sex Education is totally fun and brilliant and I’m totally charmed as it’s whimsical and yet believable at the same time. Not as easy to pull off as you’d think!
Hunters, created by David Weil, premiered exclusively on Prime Video on February 21, 2020. Executive produced by Academy Award-winner Jordan Peele and led by legendary Academy Award-winner Al Pacino and Logan Lerman, Hunters follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters living in 1977 New York City. The Hunters, as they’re known, have discovered that hundreds of high-ranking Nazi officials are living among us and conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the United States. The eclectic team of Hunters will set out on a bloody quest to bring the Nazis to justice and thwart their new genocidal plans. The series also stars Jerrika Hinton, Josh Radnor, Kate Mulvany, Tiffany Boone, Greg Austin, Louis Ozawa, Carol Kane, Saul Rubinek, Dylan Baker and Lena Olin. Hunters, produced by Amazon Studios, Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions and Sonar Entertainment, is executive produced by Weil who serves as co-showrunner alongside executive producer Nikki Toscano. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed the pilot and is an executive producer alongside Win Rosenfeld from Monkeypaw Productions; Nelson McCormick; David Ellender from Sonar Entertainment.
Photo Credits: Christopher Saunders / Amazon Studios
(article originally appeared on Flickering Myth)