Exclusive interview with “The Handmaid’s Tale” Costume Designer Ane Crabtree

Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.
Original photos by Maria Munro.

Taking a whirlwind 24-hour break from the Season 2 filming in Toronto (aka “The Centre of the Universe”) of Hulu’s hit dystopic TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale” to give a talk at this year’s Vancouver International Film Fest, American Costume Designer Ane Crabtree graciously agreed to spend some quality time with the ink-stained wretches (OK- we actually use computers now…) here at Wholly Cinema to discuss her amazing career.

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Ane Crabtree discussing her work as a Costume Designer at the Vancouver Int’l Film Fest

Fresh off her recent Emmy nomination for the aforementioned “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the South Dakota born and Kentucky raised in-demand costume designer’s impressive work has also been on display to great acclaim with the TV series “Pan Am”, “Masters of Sex” and HBO’s “Westworld” among others.

It was a pleasure to interview the extremely affable, charming and candid Ms. Crabtree just hours before she enthralled a packed house with her insight and generous observations about her life as a Costume Designer.

Ane Crabtree: “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so interesting because it’s the first show where- after working on it for seven months in Toronto- I left and then immediately did seven months of press in the States. I’ve never had that much exposure to people who watch the show so what’s cool is at first it was all women from many different ages and cultures coming up to me but in the last couple of months it’s been couples coming up to me.

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” Hulu TV

And I thought I’ve never watched that many shows with my guy and he wanted to watch it but it was so heavy that actually I only saw the first and second episode while in Toronto- I couldn’t touch it until I came back to prep Season 2. It was too close to home.

Wholly Cinema: How long have you been working as Costume Designer?

Ane Crabtree: I’ve done this for 28 years and I’ve been really lucky- even in the beginning- to do projects where the scripts are really essential to my creativity and, of course, there were lean years where I did the odd TV show or movie that didn’t really speak to me. Those projects were very difficult to do but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is way easier because it’s such rich material that the mind can’t help but go to a different place creatively. And it’s Margaret Atwood’s words- that’s kind of hard to beat.

WC: How did you get your start as a Costume Designer?

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AC: I didn’t really set out to do costumes. I think it takes a number of years to figure out what were the components in your childhood or upbringing that bring you to this job. It didn’t make sense for me until I turned fifty. And fifty-three- where I am now- was the moment where I said I should probably count up how many years I’ve been doing this- I had no idea. I didn’t think I’d make it past two years. I feel like there’s so much more to do but the grace that comes with being this age and being lucky enough- even on projects where I was making no money producing short films that were self-funded- to keep learning from.

I never said to my parents that I wanted to be a costume designer. I said to my mother- and I was raised in the projects of Kentucky- that I wanted to be an archeologist in a huge way. I think it’s because of all the nature programs that I watched. And then I wanted to be a ballerina- I wanted to be Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Slowly I began to realize that all those things started to equate to being a costume designer. What I mean is you have to be an archeologist to understand people, dig through characters and get to the bones and organs and all of it to be a costume designer.

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“Pan Am” ABC TV

When I talk to kids about costume design I say that the most interesting people in the field are the ones who come about it from a different and individualized place. So, I didn’t have a typical mentor but I’ve always had angels in my life that said you have this other thing and maybe you need to look at it.

Also, my parents are amazing- they came from very limited means background-wise like most immigrants and so there’s something very special about my parents- they’re quite big thinkers and very intelligent for the limited education they had. I’m quite proud of that because I don’t have what a lot of people have in terms of background or schooling- I never finished college- but I know that I’m really smart when I’m in a room with someone and I’m discussing Margaret Atwood- as dumbfounded as I am to be in the same room with her let alone discussing ideology.

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WC: What were some films that influenced you at an early age?

AC: My parents used to take me to Hitchcock films which today I think who do I know that does that? Sometimes it was a mistake- I remember seeing “Frenzy” as a young kid but that imagery- and not just that film but “The Birds” and all the other beautiful ones really formed my thinking about film at a really early age. My education came from that. My education came from an art teacher who saw something and said, ‘why don’t you take this test and just see if you’re what I think you are’. Or from a museum director that I worked for that said to just come to New York and see if there’s something for you. He took me to my first exhibition at the Met and it was a Diana Vreeland show and it blew my mind that somebody had that as a job- to create a world. It’s a situation where you’re coming in and looking at costumes but actually it’s equating to a film- it’s talking about film but it’s talking about film through the costumes. That was probably the moment where I thought, ‘What is a costume designer?’.

Also, my mother used to call me in anytime Edith Head (multi-Oscar nominated Hollywood costume designer- WC) was on the screen- which was often on one of the 70’s TV talk shows- and she saw something in this tiny woman with these big glasses and it really did something to my brain. Isn’t that weird? I remember going to Paramount where she had designed so many things and hoping it would rub off on me. She was an oddball and wasn’t well-liked and something about that is exciting to me- she was in the vanguard and kind of a ‘punk’.

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“Masters of Sex” Showtime TV

WC: How do you approach a project as a Costume Designer?

AC: It’s different for every job in tiny ways. But in large ways it’s the same. Over time I’ve realized my process is this: in between jobs I have to go into an insanely quiet place that is absolutely in the deepest of nature and I have to ‘unplug’. I stay there for up to two weeks for an absolute palette cleansing. And, from there, my agent’s usually trying to call me in a panic trying to find me saying ‘Did you get the script? Did you read it?’.

So I take the script and generally I’ll give it one read and if there’s an emotional reaction- literally tears- than I’m interested in doing that. If I can connect with the words visually and with my heart’s centre then it’s going to be a good project. And if I don’t, then I think is there some director I can learn from- I’m lucky enough to be busy enough at this moment that I can do that because there are many people who can’t afford to do that and must take a job.

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“Westworld” HBO TV

WC: What advice would you give someone planning on becoming a Costume Designer?

AC: I say just be who you are. And don’t be afraid of it. Don’t let people say it’s wrong- because of the color of your skin, or because of your social standing or because you have crazy ideas. For kids- I just want to say who cares if you can’t afford to go to school? It’s becoming impossible to afford going to school but it’s not ever impossible to have an education from the street or from people that really feel you. I have learned from people that I’ve never met my whole life. I read about Chanel, I read about Diana Vreeland, my mother pointed at the TV screen and said, ‘That is Edith Head’. I was told ‘no’ a thousand times growing up and it was really rough but what’s amazing about being in that scenario was that it made me so tough.

Viva La Cinema!