Betty Dubney, a Costume Supervisor (and Specialty Costumer) who has worked on feature films such as Final Girl and TV series including The Flash and Gracepoint, talks to Exit 6 director Mark Brennan about her work and the evolution of her role.
When Elizabeth 'Betty' Dubney talks, you listen. Really listen. In small part because there's little choice, but mainly because she speaks with such knowledge and insight about everything she turns her attention to that it's impossible not feel like you're learning something. It's little surprise to hear that while still in her own learning, aged 17, she had the confidence to fall out with the choreographer of a Vancouver theatre company she'd volunteered to work for.
"They were putting on High School Musical 2 and a girlfriend of mine was doing the costumes. She's asked me, "If I do this, would you do it with me?" I'm like, "Of course." At the time I was a student at Capilano, still in costuming school, and I ended up in a screaming match with the choreographer who was also one of the professors on the acting side of the program. She wanted the actor to wear something and I told her the actor really didn't want to wear it. She said something dismissive, that I should know what my job is. So I told her, 'They are uncomfortable. They don't want to be in it. My job is absolutely to make sure that the actors are comfortable and can do their jobs and can perform. That's a 100% my job. Don't tell me my job." This is something that I've only learned to agree with more as my career's gone on. You can really want an actor to wear something, the director can really want an actor to wear something, the producer can really want it, everyone can decide that this is the thing that this person needs to wear, but if that person doesn't want to wear it, you are not going to get a good performance out of the scene.
Remarkable conviction for the Vancouver-based rookie costumer.
"I'm pretty feisty."
There's no denying that. So at this point I decide it's a good idea to develop my understanding of Betty's role as Set Supervisor, so as not to fall into the same trap as the foolhardy choreographer.
"The Vancouver costume department works differently to the Los Angeles or the English system. You have your office, your Costume Designer, your Coordinator (the people who prep the show whether it be a film or each episode) and then you have your shooting crew, which in Vancouver consists of a Set Supervisor, a Truck Supervisor, usually a Background Coordinator and additional costumers as required. As a Set Supervisor, you are the one who stands on set with the actor, and you are responsible for all the continuity, keeping the actors warm and dry and you are the designer's direct representative on the set. The Truck Supervisor cares for all the costumes, loads all the rooms and makes sure that the actors are dressed in what they are supposed to be dressed in when they get to set. They should be checked when they leave 'circus' or base camp, and you should check them when they land on set. If they're supposed to be dusty, they're dusty."
But how did Betty move forward in her career once she finished school? The traditional route would have been to join the Union (starting out as a 'permittee', called in to work ad hoc days when Union members weren't available) and work her way up to a member, but of course, that's not the road she took.
"I was 18 when I graduated from school and I didn't bother to do the union thing. A professor recommended me to a friend who was looking for an independent non-union crew. I did a feature film for some friends who I was in film school with, then I interviewed for a little series. We'd been shooting out of so and so parent's house for three weeks and I remember I went to the interview and they had somewhere that I could put my things at the end of the night and they had a costume truck. Never in my wildest dream did I imagine that it was a big enough show that it would have a truck. Then I did an MOW (Movie Of the Week) with the same designer and I have been working ever since."
After a few years working on a number of MOW's and small series, Betty did eventually apply to join the union as it would be a requirement to further her career and move on to bigger projects. However, even as a permittee, she was often too busy to take the ad hoc days offered. In fact, already making a name for herself, there would be a rather fortuitous opportunity to come that would all but catapult Betty into union membership.
"I had heard from friends that they were shooting an English co-production on Vancouver Island in Victoria, which is where my family are from. I knew exactly how many costumers existed there. I knew them all. I was like 'there's five and one of them just had a baby and two of them are moms and don't work full-time and then two of them are permittees'. Two weeks later, I got a call back from the production manager. She basically said that none of the union members wanted to move to the island for six months to shoot, they couldn't find a set supervisor and would I be interested in doing it. I was like, "Well... yes!" This was a big job, tier one. I think in the end they said it was $9,000,000 an episode. It was crazy. I had never shot on anything that had paid me by the hour before. And that's how I got into the union as a Set Supervisor."
That production would turn out to be Gracepoint, the American re-make of the British television smash hit Broadchurch, starring David Tennant and Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn. It was while making this show that Betty would have one of her most memorable experiences to date regarding the relationship between the Set Supervisor and the actors they work with so closely.
"Actors spend hours in the hair and make-up trailer every morning as they get ready. As a result of that time together quite often a confidant-type relationship can form between the actor and the hair and make-up artist. There's something similar with my role too, they trust that I have the actors well-being at heart. You are the one who’s standing out in the cold and rain with them, keeping them warm. You are there for them, to support them. Not so much on an emotional level but very physically be there to support them. I’m a total bear about it. I don't pull cozy coats until cameras are ready. The first AD might ask, “Can you pull cozy coats?” “No I can’t.” “Well, we’re trying to set up the shot.” “That’s fine, if the camera guys need the actress to be standing here not in her cozy coat, then they can all take off their jackets as well. They can stand in the rain in their t-shirts while they setup the shot, and we’ll see how quickly it gets done then.” You say that out loud to a first AD, and that actress is like, "Okay, this person is going to fight for me and protect me."
It's a trust that would have significant implications on the set of Gracepoint and prove to be an important turning point even in Betty's understanding of the impact of her role.
"I remember I was watching a movie with my mom and my dad and I got a call from a blocked number and I answered it. It was the executive producer of Gracepoint. I turned to my mom and I said, “I’m getting fired,” because I was like, “Why else would he be calling me on a Saturday night?” Instead he was calling me about the lead actress on the show. “She’s really unhappy, we’re trying to figure out what we can do. The only person she trusts on the production is you. What do you think we should do to fix this?”. I discussed some things I thought might be the problem. One thing was they’d built this big police set that had a bull pen, cells, interview rooms and all that stuff. I was like, “You built this big set and there is no part in it that’s specifically for the actors to have a green room. The actors have their chairs in one of the hallways and technicians are trying to work around them. They don’t have a space that’s theirs to go be quiet. Additionally, base camp is a 25-minute drive away so every costume change is basically going to be an hour. So they're asked to bring their costumes up there and you're basically asking your lead actors to change in a public bathroom. We built this huge set and no one took that into consideration." I remember thinking to myself, “I probably overstepped the line.”
I expect now to hear of Betty's immediate dismissal, but...
"When we got to work to Monday, construction had gone in on a Sunday and built a green room and changing rooms in the back of the set. For the rest of that five-month shoot our lead actors had a home in that police station set. That was a very weird experience to know I was actually being listened to by somebody who had extreme power. The executive producer was John Goldwyn. His family started MGM way back in the day. He’s born into this business. He is essentially film royalty, and to know somebody like that not only recognized that I was somebody who might have a solution, but was willing to listen to it... that doesn’t really happen very often. That was the first time that I realized the impact my role can have."
Like I said, when Betty talks, you listen. If there was ever an example why the contribution of everyone on set should not be underestimated, this is it. In fact, making herself invaluable to the cast and crew is something that continued on her work for The Flash, to the extent where she created herself an entirely unique role.
"What I do on Flash is a job that's never really existed on any other TV show. I handle all the 'super suits' that come through. I work with Truck and Set a lot. Our timeline for television is extremely narrow. A lot of times suits come to set and they haven't had time to do the proper fitting or they haven't had the time to fix everything. That's a lot of what I do. I liaise with my boss, the designer of the show, and our in-house team to improve wherever we can. I also work with sound to find the best way to wire the suits to get the clearest dialogue. Obviously, we have multiple suits, and each suit has different characteristics. Some suits I only play at night, some suits I only play during the day because they're the cleanest and most pristine. Some suits for when I know he's going to be rolling around a lot so I'll put him in an old suit because it doesn't matter. I do a lot of liaising with the stunt team to make sure that they have what they need. I work with special effects, pick a suit that gets released to them and then work on how we're going to have Grant [Gustin] hit with an ice beam or heat wave without damaging the suit permanently. Like most things in this business, every day is a new adventure, every day we're trying to figure out something different. We're going to send Flash flying through the air and he's got to wear ankle shackles to make it happen. How do we do that?"
The Flash, now in its third series, is the longest-running production that Betty has worked on. It's safe to say that a family feel has developed on the show over the last few years. A necessary one too considering the visual spectacle and fast turnaround required on every episode.
"Flash has the single best cast and crew I've ever worked with. The people on the ground floor of this show are tremendous at what they do. There's about 140 full-time on-set crew members. We are routinely doing things that have never been done before on a television budget. More special effects, visual effects and stunts that have been seen on television in a long time. These shows are really hard and it took our crew the better part of Season One to learn how to shoot the show. We usually wrap up in late April and by the time we're done, there's less than a month between when we shoot it and when it airs."
For what is such a fun show to watch, the making of it sounds rather brutal on the team at times. Fortunately for them, there have been occasions where there has been an injection of some much needed pep on set. For example, a certain Kevin Smith coming in to guest direct some episodes.