If a stitch in time saves nine, the universe pulled off a doozy when it brought together Stella Meghie and Avery Plewes on the set of the short film “Frost” in 2012. The two, working as assistants, both harbored greater ambitions and Meghie, who had thoughts of telling a story loosely inspired by the long line of strong-willed women she grew up around, already started thinking about what the film’s lead character Jean, a Zadie Smith-esque literary phenomenon who struggles with a follow-up to her debut novel, wear when Plewes, who had interned at Betsey Johnson, became a fast friend.
“It was love at first sight,” says Plewes, who recreates that same feeling for audiences in “Jean of the Joneses,” which arrives on TV One this week after a celebrated run on the festival circuit.
Jean (Taylour Paige) may be a mystery to her family as she shuffles between the homes of her grandmother (Michelle Hurst), aunt (Gloria Reuben) and mother (Sherri Shepherd) for a place to sleep, but thanks to the four years of research and continual sketching done by Plewes and Meghie did, you know who she is immediately. Often sporting a hodgepodge of different stylistic impulses, Jean’s temperament at any given moment can be gauged by what she has on, almost always appearing fiercely fashionable and yet a little too casual, not thinking twice about pairing a black leather jacket with a silky white pajama top after just rolling out of bed. The same intricate consideration of character is extended to each member of the Jones’ clan, even fitting Jean’s sister Anne’s (Erica Ash) nurse’s scrubs to her personality.
The film marks a bold debut for Plewes as the head of her own costume department, after working her way up on such shows as “Suits” and “Hannibal,” and right before embarking on the production of her second collaboration with Meghie, an adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s “Everything, Everything,” she was gracious enough to answer a few questions via e-mail about her crucial role in creating one of the year’s best films, the great lengths she went to dress the Joneses, and how she found her way into costume design.
Stella has said she was working on “Jean of the Joneses” for years with costumes in mind – were you there on the ground floor or come into the process with some ideas already set?
Stella had a very distinct script and I could see the characters just by reading it. Not so much by notes on clothing but by how she described their traits. We are also extremely collaborative and it is rare to find a relationship where you speak the same creative language, so we often come to the table with the same references.
How did you envision Jean?
We looked at Zadie Smith, and also Julia Sarr-Jamois, who is a London based fashion editor. Stella and I fell in love with the Gucci fall winter 2015 collection — a lot of the texture and color combinations you see on Jean were inspired by that collection. “Premature affluence” was my Jean motto — great, expensive pieces that were way beyond her means. She is a bit of a mess, but also a fashion collector. She wears only two pairs of shoes through the movie, and repeats a lot. She doesn’t have a lot of clothing because she blows all of her money on big ticket items. It was important to me that she have items in her closet that any person who works in fashion would recognize — the Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga boots, the Vika Gazinskaya green shirt [she wears] in the restaurant. While she had all of these expensive pieces, it was important that it be clear she was living out of a box and we built a small closet for her of items that worked together, that we could repeat.
How did the idea for Jean’s turban come about?
It was scripted, but we developed it into more of a scarf than turban. We wanted Jean to look more thrown together, and less polished.
At the L.A. Film Festival, Stella told a story of how you went on a clothes run and she was shocked to see you stopping at some fancy homes to pick up things, asking “Are you just borrowing stuff from Toronto socialites?” What was it like obtaining some of these items?
My assistant Richard is very well connected and sourced a lot of great contacts. We ended up renting items from fashion editors, and archivists in the city. Stella was present for one of those runs! We got up to some pretty ridiculous antics in the name of fashion on this project. I was like a dog with a bone. We had no budget, but I was adamant that we do Jean justice and make her exactly what Stella envisioned.
There are a fair amount of scenes where you see the Joneses lined up, seeing the spectrum – did you actually design with having that strata in mind or did it all come knowing who they were individually?
I always take into account what everyone else is wearing. I was raised by a packaging designer/ brand strategist, and an artist, so composition is in my blood. When you watch the screen, it should look like a painting.
Each woman was stylish, but it was important for me that they each have a distinct visual identity. Maureen [Sherri Shepherd] is the first born, which often in a family is the leader, so she’s more conservative and sensible. Her way of dressing is also a reaction to Daphne’s eccentricities. Janet [Gloria Reuben] is married to a lawyer, and is a “guru.” To me, there is much more ego involved in a character who has that social status, and has made a career out of telling others how to live, so I thought that the contrast of having her appear super sexy would be comedic. And Stella actually came to me with the idea of dressing Daphne [Michelle Hurst] in the vein of Iris Apfel. Of course, I was all for it and I wanted Daphne, the matriarch, and Jean, the woman breaking the generational dysfunction, to mirror each other [by having] a visual suggestion that they are one in the same, but Jean has a choice to change, so I often put them in the same color, or both in a pattern.
How much do you consider everything else in the frame?
I always take location, set decoration, and lighting into consideration. I worked closely with the production designer [Helen Kotsonis] and her team and I always chose a palette for each character with paint chips, and then distribute that to the art/production design department. I also looked at a lot of [cinematographer] Kris Belchevski’s work to see how he lights.
How’d you originally get interested in designing for film?
It happened by fluke. I worked in fashion before, and actually dropped out of college twice. I have always liked to do things my own way, which is why I think I do so well in film! There is no blueprint, and every experience is different. I have always loved clothes, and anything visual. I had a deal to develop my own clothing line, but couldn’t reach an agreement with the backers and when that fell through, I was pretty down and depressed about it. I was willing to try anything, and one day my uncle suggested I try costume. He is a scenic artist in my union. I had done a short film when I was 19, so I had the hours to join my union as a permit and I fell in love my first day on set. I haven’t looked back and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Since this was your first time being a department head, was it a different experience?
It was, but I felt completely in my element. Making “Jean” was such a wonderful experience. I knew during production that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life.