Allison Page eschews her usual ranting and raving to share a recent interview with someone who blew her mind.
Maybe you’ve never heard the name Aggie Rodgers, and if she walked by you on the street you’d think she was a quirky lady with gray, braided pigtails – what you might not realize is that she was the mastermind behind Princess Leia’s slave costume, Beeltejuice’s striped suit, the rigid clothes that aligned with Nurse Ratched’s rigid personality in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest, and absolutely every piece of clothing in The Color Purple (apart from the hats) for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and rightfully so. Aggie Rodgers has probably clothed most of the actors you’ve watched on the big, bright screen and many, many of the movies you’ve seen throughout your life. Aggie and I met on the set of the film Quitters last month. I was playing a small, but delightful role, and Aggie was clothing all the actors with parts both big and small. We sort of hit it off right away; she mentioned something she had done for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , and after I figured out she meant the MOVIE and not some local production of the play 10 years ago, I asked if I could interview her. And then for some reason she let me come to her house to do it. After a healthy amount of time shootin’ the breeze, we got to talking about her career. And, of course, clothes.
Me: When did you start costuming? Is that the first career decision you made or did you do something else first?
Aggie: No, that’s the first thing I did. I tried to do business in college and failed miserably. They threw me out at Fresno State…I’m not capable of a lot of things.
Me: Yeah, me neither.
Aggie: My mom had done millinery – hats – in the theater in Fresno for this one theater group.
Me: I LOVE hats.
Aggie: I know!
Me: I got myself a book thinking I could learn how to do it – it was too complicated. I immediately quit.
Aggie: Oh yeah, you have to have forms and everything…I had a guy in LA who was from the theater, from Berkeley Rep – and he did all my hats for The Color Purple…I used to watch my mother and just think she was crazy – just like my son thinks I’m nuts. So then I went into the theater department there (Fresno) and when I graduated form there I moved up to Oakland to my grandmother’s house…I thought “I’ll go to get my masters degree in the theater at SF state.”, so I applied at state and then I entered it and was working away. It was right at a very hot political time and the school itself was demanding that each student sign a pledge of allegiance to the United States. This would have been ’65 probably. And I said “I’m an American citizen, I already am!”, so all the students rebelled and there were huge riots on the campus – and I am Miss Wimp. I mean I’m not now, but I was really supremely wimpy and I called my mother and I said “Mommy, I cannot go to school here. They’re throwing rocks through my windows and I don’t understand what’s going on.” And she said “Well, what will you do?” I said “There’s some theater group downtown, I’ll try to apply there.” So I went downtown to 450 Sutter and applied for a job in the costume shop. (Note: ACT is the place to which she is referring.) They were barely starting and the person you saw on the set when you came to meet me – me, this person sitting here – is the same person that went into 450 Sutter. I’ve continued to be ding-y and rather light-hearted and I have a slight Joie de vivre. And I got a job there at 55 dollars a week. 55 fuckin’ dollars a week. So I worked there for 2 seasons and I got so much out of it. And I never designed anything really – I wanted to, but I was completely over my head. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. Rightly so, they never gave me a job. So I went back to school. I called all these different state colleges and asked them how much money they dedicated towards a master’s degree costume budget and Long Beach gave $500 at that time so I enrolled there and got my master’s degree in three semesters and I came back and started in on film. Because really, I’m much more mercurial, and that doesn’t work in the theatre. They want and need very specific things that have to do with a long history of character…especially when you’re dealing with Shakespeare. So, it’s just way beyond my head. That’s why I like Valencia street so much. I mean, I don’t mind going to Neiman’s, that’s fine. But you can change what all these characters look like with just a breath by what you put on them. That’s just not the theater that I knew at that time. So I went to work here in San Francisco for a casting agent. I worked there for a couple years just typing out all those little forms that you have to have to be an extra. At that time there were a lot of films shooting here so she provided all the extras and she had a modeling company attached to her and everything. So I worked there and I kept seeing these women come through that were then called stylists, for commercials.
Me: Doesn’t that make it sound so fancy? “Stylists”?
Aggie: Oh, it totally did. I thought “Far out!” But I think I did one commercial when I worked there and I was just terrible at it. I had to rent a whole lot of scuba equipment. I mean – please – but in truth it really was the costume, but I knew nothing about it, I didn’t know how to work a scuba thing. We got to the set and they said “Well, how does this work?” and I thought “Well, I don’t know how this works.” And I did everything wrong on that.
Me: So how did you end up with your first film?
Aggie: They were interviewing for a movie called American Graffiti and it was a union film, and they had interviewed 8 or 9 people before me. And since I had never done anything just had done costumes in college, the union manager asked me if I knew anything about “dragging the main” and of course in Fresno – that was all we did at that time. So because I had grown up in Fresno and I was only a few months older than George Lucas, I got that job. But it had purely nothing to do with whether I had any talent. Somehow they had enough faith in me, this guy, and so did George. I did many things wrong. I didn’t know I could ask for the actor to come out a day before filming. I just hoped that everything would fit. I would just take measurements from them on the phone. And George was very specific about certain things. Certain shirts on certain characters, and I just tried to fulfill his wishes and it somehow came together. If you think about it, every day on the film set is a piece of theater. Every day when the camera rolls – it’s the theater. The actor is creating a character right in front of you. And in the old days I preferred it much more because we would go to a theater, a screening room, and actually see the dailies that we filmed that day, and the crew members would really become so much more dedicated to the film. Now people stand around looking at a monitor that’s like…this big. (Makes a small hand signal) it’s so unfair to the actor. I think that the actor is going to really lose the crew’s adoration, which I think has always been part of something that’s been important. Like the audience, you want them to come and see your play, it makes you crazy when they don’t. It’s the same thing for an actor, I think, on a set with these stupid little monitors. And they say “Well, you can see the dailies anytime you want.” Yeah, so I’m going to take it home? I stood on the set for 12 hours and I’m going to turn to my computer and watch for three more hours? I don’t think so. So it’s changed for the worse in that way.
Me: Do you read the scripts?
Aggie: Oh, by heart. Totally. We get the script – we have to help them with the budget and everything – because line producers don’t have a clue, really, what’s going to happen, because they don’t know how to break down the script clearly enough anyway. So before it gets going I was able to tell the line producer that there were 66 changes (in Quitters) just based on the way it was written then, and in the end we had 85 changes.
Me: Wow, that’s a lot.
Aggie: Yeah, because these characters, some of them have 13 changes within the character.
Me: That is a lot of clothing.
Aggie: Oh no. It’s nothing. Even Fruitvale Station, you have to figure that every one of those kids that was up on the platform had on at least $110 – $115 worth of clothes by the time we had to do their shoes, because they couldn’t have brand names on them because there were guns involved and a murder, so there were certain restrictions we had to have. Because – the camera would be right there. There’s the shoe, there’s the sock, there’s the pant, there’s the belt, there’s the underwear that shows, there’s the t-shirt, and another t-shirt then there’s a hoodie, then maybe there’s a hat. So these are things that the young producers who have to deal with money have no clue about. So we get it early – we get the script before we even say “yes, no, maybe so” and then we have to break it down. I wrote to a friend of mine who just did the costumes for The Butler…and her feeling was that there was so much clothing and too many changes but as the script goes by – 38 years go by, so you have to have that much clothing to make those years go by. And if you think about The Color Purple – we have just as many years go by. Whoopi (Goldberg, obviously…is there another Whoopi?) had 91 changes.
Me: Wow. That seems like a lot.
Aggie: Sometimes you’re making all those clothes – like for Oprah (Winfrey, obviously…is there another Oprah?) we had to make most of her clothes because she, too, is zaftig. (Note: She says “she, too” because she previously said that’s how I’M shaped. So…this just in, I’m shaped like Oprah!…oh boy.) And Danny Glover was very tall – not heavy – but there weren’t clothes for him so we had to make all of his clothes. So you have all those different things that go on in film – there probably wouldn’t be that many in a theater piece, now that I think about. But they do have changes in the theater. It creates the scene…when you think about Shakespeare, I think you really only get one hit at it and then they wear it all the way through until they’re stabbed.
Me: A lot of those costumes are so gigantic you don’t even have time to put on a second one in the middle of it.
Aggie: At ACT, sometimes the dressers wouldn’t show up and I would have to stay late and help dress and do fast changes. Many times I’d be standing on the wrong side of the stage thinking “I’m not going to make it!”.
Me: I feel bad any time someone has to help me change because it’s just a mess. Recently I was in a show that had tons of quick changes – which were nowhere near the number you have in films – but I had like 15 seconds for each one and I came very close to some hilarious wardrobe malfunctions (NOTE: One night in particular. Sorry/you’re welcome to the people who were sitting on the right side of the theater that evening!) So I feel like if I don’t ask you about Princess Leia someone will kill me. Though I am probably one of the only people who hasn’t seen Star Wars.
Aggie: Don’t worry about it!
Me: I saw a drawing of her slave costume – did you do that?
Aggie: We used an illustrator from the art department. He had been on the previous Star Wars movies and really knew. You know, I had never been a Star Wars fan but I had seen them. They were looking for a local person who could do most of the costumes here so George (Lucas) could have more control over them. I think maybe he might not have been that happy with the English designers he had on the previous films. It wasn’t like “Oh, we have to have Aggie do it.”
Me: We must have Aggie!
Aggie: Yes! Oh my God. I pretend that sometimes. If we could have pulled off 25 yards of silk flying through her legs we would have done it, but we couldn’t because she had all those stunts. There were stunt ones made out of this soft leather and gel and there were regular bras that were lined and so forth. It was a lot of fun.
Me: I feel like that would have been a slightly stressful thing to work on. It seems gigantic, right?
Aggie: But you know, you have a lot of people working with you, it’s not like I’m by myself exactly.
Me: I feel like you don’t get stressed out very easily. You seem like such a calm person.
Aggie: Ohhh, I do! And I yell and I’m an asshole. I can do it! But as I’ve gotten older…I feel like I’m better at sizing up the situation. Especially on something like Quitters – just letting shit go. It’s not about the ego, it’s jut about the shot. And it used to be, when I did these larger films, it was about the shot but it was what I could put in it. I don’t know, I’ve been very happy with the films I’ve gotten to do, and honestly a theater person would have been thrilled to have had the same kind of career in the theater that I’ve had in film.
Me: Yeah! And you have – how many Oscar nominations do you have?
Aggie: Just one!
Me: That’s all you need! You don’t really need another one – you still have that one.
Aggie: I know, it’s totally true! And I’m glad it was for that particular film.
Me: That must have been a really bizarre experience – did you go?
Aggie: Oh, of course! And my husband came.
Me: Did you wear something really magnificent?
Aggie: I wore a Yohji Yamamoto outfit – I was very much into Japanese clothes. I still have it! I’m trying to keep it for my older son’s fiancé. I tried it on her when she was here last and she looked fantastic.
Me: That’s amazing.
Aggie: But, ya know, it’s so political now, to even get nominated. And the Academy is so difficult. There’s such a European presence in the costume department because just like we think in the theater “Oh, I want to go see a Shakespearean play with all those 20 yards of silk and the skirt!” – that’s generally what wins. Big skirted period pieces. I mean, I liked last year, I liked those gowns in Anna Karenina. Just stunning, because she had taken much license and made it like a 50’s Dior gown rather than to the period, where some people will only do just exactly what would have been worn.
Me: Have you done a period piece?
Aggie: No, I’ve done more things that were like American Graffiti. Things you don’t really have a big budget for. The Color Purple and Return of the Jedi were the two biggest budgets I had. I don’t need to do that anymore. I think if I tried to do that now it would be scary, because that department can either make or break those films.
Me: Do you purposely choose smaller stuff now?
Aggie: I do. I don’t want to do anymore studio pictures…I try not to do movies that have guns in them. But even Fruitvale had guns, so I can’t always get away with that. I wanted to do Fruitvale no matter what. I would have cried if I hadn’t gotten that movie. So, I eliminated myself from a lot of shit. I don’t want to see any more “black man holding a gun”. I’m over it. I try to just work on things that I would actually go to.
Me: That’s a pretty good rule…have you ever just quit on anything?
Aggie: No, but I have been fired!
Me: Have you?!
Aggie: Yeah! I’ve been fired twice. It was pretty good. I got fired off of Stuart Little. I prepped for that movie for like three months. They finally gave me Geena Davis on the Monday before the week she’d have to start. She’s over 6 feet tall, you cannot buy anything for her. There are no clothes in any costume department that had just been waiting for her to put on in a little movie. So on Monday we started making her clothes and on Wednesday we had a test and the director didn’t like how she looked and on Friday I was gone! But I really didn’t care because I had a producer friend who had called me about a Denzel Washington picture called The Hurricane and I had said “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m busy” but I called him up and said “Did you ever get a costume designer for your show?” he said “No”, and I said “Well, I’m available!” so then I went off and did that. Much more my kind of movie, really. I had worked for Norman Jewison before and I was honored to go back and work for him again. And I can’t say that the young man who worked on Stuart Little has done very many successful things.
Me: Ha! So you don’t feel too bad about it?
Aggie: Nope! And one other thing – an Arnold Schwarzenegger picture. I only worked a week on it and then I was gone. I think people realize I’m either going to make it or not. They either like that kind of style or not.
Me: Is there anything you’ve done you wish you could have had more control over?
Aggie: I really would have liked to stay longer on Beetlejuice. But I think it turned out good!
Me: It certainly did! Wherever did you get that striped suit?!
Aggie: We made that!
Me: The costumes in that movie are amazing.
Aggie: I thought they were great! But I only had 9 weeks or 7 weeks – it was short. As I was getting ready to leave, like a week before, I mentioned to Tim (Burton) that I was finishing. He said “Well, can’t you stay longer?” I said “Well, they keep telling me I have to leave that day so I took something else!”. I would have liked to have stayed longer on that one. It’s such a great film. I’m not sure I really knew what I was on – does that make sense?
Me: Like you didn’t know it was going to be as awesome as it was?
Aggie: Yeah! At that time they used to just hire you for a certain length of time and you could only work as long as that was. That was your contract deal.
Me: Is it not like that anymore?
Me: So…you have done more than one movie with Jack Nicholson, right?
Me: What’s he like? Is he awesome?!
Aggie: Oh my God! Absolutely! On Cuckoo’s Nest they took a chance on me. I had only done American Graffiti and The Conversation and then I went to work on Streets of San Francisco – cash, money – and then they hired me to do Cuckoo’s Nest. I was down in LA and I was looking at Goodwills to find jeans for Jack (FREAKING NICHOLSON) and I could never find any, and I knew I didn’t want to buy new ones and they told me about this guy, I called him up and I said “I have this actor, I just have to have a couple pairs of pants for him, here are his sizes.” He sent me two pairs of jeans. When Jack came up to Oregon for the fitting, that’s the first thing he said – “Let me see the jeans.” So he put on the jeans, both pairs fit him perfectly and that was fine, so then I was fine. That was a magic film to work on.
Me: I’m sure it was! I watch it…regularly.
Aggie: Especially – I mean, it comes from a theater piece! I had seen it in San Francisco and a year or two later I got to do the film. And then, Witches of Eastwick –
Me: I LOVE WITCHES OF EASTWICK!
Aggie: I saw the book in the library the other day and thought maybe I should get that out and read it again. The movie was great. Great director. He made a mistake after – the next film he did after was a film about a boy who had some illness that could be healed by some kind of oil or something – and that was it after that. Witches was a Warner Brothers film and it was very complicated politically. They had cast Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, and given them their parts and then they cast Cher in Susan Sarandon’s part and gave Susan Sarandon a part she didn’t particularly want, so then Jack (FREAKING NICHOLSON) really clicked into gear and he would have them over to his flat and they’d party and play and have a great time. And the women really got together, really tightly. They knew that Susan had been thrown a bad bone. But Cher really rose to the occasion. They were his (Jack’s) girls.
Me: They were all great in it.
Aggie: They really were. And Jack is the first one who started calling me “Aggs”. I was always either Agnes or Aggie but he started calling me Aggs and that stuck quite a bit.
Me: That would be okay to say! “Ohh, Jack Nicholson just gave me a nickname, no big deal!” (NOTE: I’m a real nut about Jack Nicholson, it seems.)
Aggie: He’s a very relaxed person. He doesn’t have to have one person do all his clothes or anything like that.
Me: So why, if you were doing all these big Hollywood movies, have you always lived in the Bay Area?
Aggie: My husband. He doesn’t like LA.
Me: Me neither.
Aggie: And my grandmother grew up in Oakland – my mother in Walnut Creek. And the films I got started on up here were much more my kind of thing. They were films I would actually have gone to the movie theater to see.
Me: Do you have a favorite?
Aggie: I think The Color Purple. I just got to do so much stuff – making all those clothes. It’s hard to do now. People do, do it though.
At this point her husband arrives along with a friend of theirs who has a delightfully thick accent that sounds exactly like Sean Connery. They came bearing cookies, so naturally we sat around eating cookies for a while.
I’m about to turn 29, and like everyone else on the planet, I feel like I could be accomplishing more. I mean, it’s not like I’m just taking naps all day and building forts out of couch cushions (not that I don’t do that from time to time) but I think it’s only natural to feel like you’re behind, but for some reason, my afternoon with Aggie reminded me that time may not be this thing that’s always working against me. Sometimes it can be a tool for a long, fantastic life and career. Ya know, like 40 years in filmmaking.
You can find Allison on Twitter @allisonlynnpage and you can check out the rest of Aggie’s amazing list of films at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0345888/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1