Beverley Huynh knows how to style the apocalypse, and then some. She’s the woman responsible for the fantastic looks that TV audiences just saw in the fifth and final season of SyFy‘s Van Helsing, and she spoke to me about how one designs wardrobe on a show where everything (and almost everyone) gets destroyed, as well as what it means to be a TV designer and the importance of wardrobe to story. Learn about the inner workings of Van Helsing and beyond in our interview.
Brittany Frederick: Van Helsing is a show with great style, but it’s also a very physical show where characters get bloody or beaten up every episode. How do you design wardrobe on a TV series that’s so demanding?
Beverley Huynh: [I was] working with a partner who was the designer for the first two seasons; she’s remarkable, and she really set the tone for us. So we just played it forward, basically. We try not to buy too many new things. It just depends on what the show asks for and what is required or needed in the show. But you just go into a place of breaking down clothing, and making it look old and apocalyptic is an art form in itself. I have a really amazing breakdown crew that just goes into it and has absolutely no problem destroying a $300 leather jacket. You just dive in and you get to think about physics and the action that’s involved and just have a really good time with it.
BF: There are a lot of genre actors and even composers who work steadily in the sci-fi/horror space as they’ve built up a reputation or a following there. You’ve done other genre projects, so did you fall into working in this space, or is there something about it that particularly hooked you?
BH: I definitely fell into it. The first short film I ever designed was through the stunt coordinator of Van Helsing. This was way before I even knew that he was stunt coordinator of Van Helsing. He was in a short film, and he’s really into the horror genre. He basically introduced me to the genre. I had a lot of fun working with him and some guys on a short film. I got to destroy a lot of stuff and it was really fun to get my hands dirty and bloodied with paints, and that catapulted the whole thing.
BF: When you go and do something outside of that, like A Million Little Things, do you have to adapt your process at all? Or do you use the same approach, regardless of genre?
BH: You definitely have to remind yourself that you know how to do your job. Absolutely. (laughs) Every new project, everything that I’m given that’s new and not what my brain space has been in for 10 months or eight months or six months, I have to pull back and remind myself. But the process is always the same. You get to collaborate with different people and you get to collaborate with different ideas. You get a little bit of a crash course before you really get to start creating and developing characters. That process is always the same, which is nice because you get eased into it. But you do have to remind yourself that the logistics are different.
Like A Million Little Things—you have to tone back a lot of logistical form of problem-solving. You’re not always thinking three or four scripts ahead, where you’re like, “So at this point, someone dies or someone a shot.” It’s a little bit toned back, so it’s less stressful that way. On a show like A Million Little Things, you get a moment to just really pause and focus and you really get to focus on the character, versus a show that’s a breakdown show [like Van Helsing where] you really have to think about logistics and quantity of the amount of things that you need to make that happen. It’s just a different form of problem solving. A Million Little Things is a piece of cake because you get to breathe a little bit more.
BF: How would you describe your weekly routine? Because just like an actor, you get a script so many days in advance and then have to turn out a work product for it, except yours is a wardrobe instead of a performance.
BH: I read the script about three times. The first time I read it, it’s really just to get a premise and an idea of what to expect in the story. The second time I read it, I really dive into the characters. I go into the script with a highlighter. I highlight everything, all the different characters, and any hints or tips or ideas that are presented from the writer. Then the third time, I break it down for the logistical part. I really go into the details, like when somebody gets hurt, when somebody gets shot, when somebody would be looking down, if somebody gets wet. I really have to think about when all that stuff happens.
Then I get a schedule from our director’s department; they give me a breakdown of where to expect these things to place. So for example, something that happens in scene 59 can happen the first day, and that’s after everyone’s been through battle, everyone’s been through action. So I really have to think about “Okay, so they just went through this big fight. This person would have gotten shot here. This is where a hole would be. This person just ran through a fire, so their whole entire costume is going to be trashed and destroyed and look like it’s been put through a fire.” And then I execute to my team. I’m like, “So day one, you’re expecting someone’s been post-fire, post-bullet wound, post-this. It’s a set of costumes and break it down and make it look like it belongs like this.”
And then you have meetings with the producers, the showrunner, and you pitch your ideas for the new characters that are coming through. You say, “Hey, this is how I feel for this character and this person.” I draw ideas I have in my head, and pitch mood and tone. And the process just continues from there. One camera day is day one of prep in the following episode. So the turnaround is every eight days for a show like Van Helsing.
BF: You’re telling a story through wardrobe. Being Asian-American and part of an underrepresented community, does that make you more conscious of the story that you’re telling?
BH: I just want to show that I can do this job and I can do it as well as anyone else that they could have possibly hired…When it comes to storytelling, the beautiful part about being in the position I am is that all of my experiences in life, everything that I grew up with I get to [utilize], which I really love. I also get to bring different ideas of things that I was exposed to. But I think that comes with every person who’s in a creative field or a creative industry. We have been given the opportunity to expose everyone else to a form of imagination that only you as an individual can have.
I was exposed to different things. And I think that’s the same for everyone who’s in a creative space, is that they all bring something different to people. So for me, I more or less want to show that other people in my community can have a creative voice. They don’t have to go down the path that is usually carved out for them. I just want people to know that creativity is not a bad thing.
BF: Are there particular favorite looks or other projects besides the ones we’ve talked about that you’ve really loved? Ones you’d say are most representative of that creativity?
BH: I can give you a few. [On] The 100, I got to be a part of the breakdown team. I was forced to think outside of my normal realm of costume designing. That show gave me the opportunity to build some armor out of rubber mats…and I got to work with metal and just a bunch of things that I normally wouldn’t think to work with. That one was really fun because it just got me out of my personal headspace of what my aesthetic is. So that was really fun.
The one that really stands out to me is when I did [the Netflix horror film] The Perfection. Allison Williams’ dress, the green dress that [Charlotte] wore when she first goes and meets Anton, that is something that I designed. I had just come back from a trip to Shanghai. And when I was given the script to read, one of the reasons why I was hired was because it was set in Shanghai, and I was just there. Literally within two weeks, I came back from Shanghai and I got a phone call for this script.
I walked into a store I was close to in Shanghai, and there were these beautiful, traditional Chinese dresses that had like flowers and instruments on them. I was stuck staring at this one dress for hours; it was a beautiful lavender dress and it had a beautiful violin hand-painted on. When I was reading The Perfection and read that it was in Shanghai and it was about two cellists, I lost my mind. I’m like, “What the hell is the universe telling me? This is amazing.”