HOW THE TIME-TRAVELING WORLD OF ‘OUTLANDER’ IS CREATED
by Julie Kosin, August 29, 2016
The show’s costume designer and production designer—who just so happen to be real-life best friends—open up about bringing the book series to life.
In Season 2 of Outlander, time-traveling heroine Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) journeys through the 18th century, from the French court of King Louis XV to the Scottish Highlands, to 1940s (and later, ’60s) Scotland. Sounds like a daunting task for any design department, right? Not when your production designer and costume designer have been best friends and collaborators for nearly 30 years. Instead, you get a veritable smorgasbord of lavish costumes and intricate sets that tell their own stories—as well as Emmy nominations aplenty. Here, HarpersBAZAAR.com chats with Jon Gary Steele, Outlander‘s production designer, and Terry Dresbach, the show’s costume designer (and wife of its showrunner, Ronald D. Moore) to discuss their collaboration, designing accurately through different time periods and dealing with fan reactions to one of the most popular shows on television:
Harper’s BAZAAR: How do your teams collaborate to create the feel of the show?
Terry Dresbach: Gary and I have been best friends for, I hate to say, almost 30 years. I know him better than maybe I know my own husband in some ways. Creatively he’s like my twin. We confer a bit—”What color is that wall” or “What color is that dress?”—but we’re always linked creatively.
Jon Gary Steele: We actually think alike. If we’re walking the streets we’ll both notice the same thing. We always show each other as many colors of what we’re doing in advance. In Paris especially, everything was discussed. We were going for deep, dark rich colors for the walls and things like that, so her costumes would pop off. The first year we couldn’t use red because Ron [Moore, Outlander showrunner] wanted the Redcoats to be only red. It’s all thought-out and talked about.
HB: Are pieces of the sets echoed in the costumes?
TD: Always. Gary and I take vacations together and road trips. I make him chocolate cookies and he brings over a giant stack of design magazines. It doesn’t matter whether its fashion design or interiors, we’re both going, “Oh my God, look at that color.” I’ll open my email and be like, “You’ve got to see this image from Elle Décor ” or “I just saw this dress or this piece of jewelry,” so we’re always in sync. Those little pieces get echoed. I’ll walk on a set and go, “That looks like that jewelry piece you showed me last month.” Or he’ll go, “There’s that fabric color you were talking about.” It’s always threading through everything we do together.
JGS: I noticed there was a scene in Jamie and Claire’s bedroom and Claire was wearing some kind of metallic thing that was like a chain. It was a very old, ancient thing and it went from one part of her chest down to a little pocket, and Jamie has these buttons on the coat he was wearing. They’re sitting by the fireplace in this chair that had studs all up and down the sides. The fire was hitting the studs and his buttons and this piece of chain that she had on. We discussed it later; it was like it was all planned. We’re all trying to achieve the same magical thing and it does happen a lot.
HB: Gary, is there ever a time you have to make sacrifices in authenticity for the sake of filming?
JGS: Most of the time Ron wants it to feel as real and authentic as possible. Especially Season 1. When we did the first year, we did tons of research on the stones. It was so much easier to build our own stones. I hear stories all the time from people who live in the area trying to find those standing stones. I’m like, “Well, keep looking.” I wanted to put the stones up in a grove on a hill. Everyone was getting annoyed with me, and the director, John Dahl, said, “Gary, we could put it down there in the middle of that field and make everyone’s life 1,000 times easier. You’re making this really difficult!” So we get back to the office and he says, “Why are you insistent that this be in a grove on a hill when it would be so much easier to film in a field?” And I said, “Because this is the magic of this show. When you read the book, this is the one place. You shouldn’t see it from miles away. You have to work your way up and see little glimpses of it. You should get chills on your arms when you see pieces of it coming through. It’s the only thing that’s really mystical and magical. And he said, “You got your way, get out of my office.” Everybody gets it when you need it to be magical. He came up to me after we filmed it, with the women dancing around with the torches, and he said, “You were right. It worked.”
HB: What were the highlights of Season 2 for you both?
JGS: I’m a huge Francophile. It’s a dream to get to design 18th-century Paris sets because it’s one of the most decadent periods of time. It’s amazing for art, architecture, fashion, landscape architecture—everything. The best set to me was King Louis’s Star Chamber. Ron let me go a little over the top with it. The scripts just say it’s a mystical, magical space where the king leads Claire for this judgement thing. It was during a time of enlightenment, so people were interested in science and astrology and astronomy and witchcraft. We know from researchthe king dabbled in some of this. So we covered all the walls with 16th-century alchemy symbols and etchings that we found. I kept finding these amazing images of domes from ancient times throughout the world and a lot of them were pierced with little circles or stars that light would come through and land on the floor. When Claire walked through it, I wanted to have these little shafts of light cross her face and torso. I think the most response I got from anything was from that set. Even the actors were jumping up and down when they walked in, going, “Oh my God! This is fun!” And of course those crazy poisonous snakes. Usually I’m the one that asks for crazy stuff so when I heard there were going to be poisonous snakes I’m like, “Really? They’re gonna think I asked for this.”
Then we had the brothel, which was a hoot. I wanted to make the wall panels pierced so you could see the prostitutes taking men to the doors through the screens. It was supposed to be a very decadent place where Bonnie Prince Charlie would hang out. He’s royalty, he wouldn’t go to some sleazebag place. In our research, we found these underground clubs—I think one of them was in London, called the Hellcat Club—where men would do alchemy and magic and hire prostitutes. It sounds like this period was even more risqué than what we thought it was. The rich were really, really rich and they flaunted it. Sometimes it’s hard to show that kind of wealth but that’s what we were going for. We were trying to show the complete opposite of Scotland, which was much more utilitarian—just enough to get by.
TD: The French court was one of the real reasons I wanted to do the show. My whole career—my whole life—I wanted to do 18th-century France and now I’m like, “Done that! We’re good.” I’ve never been so glad to get out. I kind of poo-pooed Scotland. The kilt wasn’t a big thing for me. But I just fell in love with the Scottish stuff. There’s a subtlety and a richness and a depth to the textures. The way we tried to interpret nature in our Scottish costumes, they became something so unexpected. When you’re recreating Paris you can go as big as you want and you can be spectacular and beautiful, but you’re still creating something we all know. There’s millions of paintings. There’s clothes that still exist. But there’s a freedom to Scotland, a creative freedom that’s just magnificent. We’ve gotten really experimental. We’re painting all sorts of things and playing with textures and fabric treatments and it’s really exciting work. There’s no blueprint to follow but you have to remain true. When the show moves forward there’s a truth that we have to interpret but we get to interpret it and it’s exciting.
HB: Terry, tell me about that Swan Dress.
TD: The dress is an incredibly dramatic piece. What I tried to do with that dress was almost upstage the exposed nipples with the gloriousness of that dress. I’ve never done an adaptation before, but what I’ve learned is that people build so much anticipation into certain pieces. The Swan dress, the red dress, the wedding dress. They become pored over in detail so that when they come out, you can never match that expectation. Whereas the brown dress with the flowers on it, the Dior dress, Jamie’s coat with the deer stag. The fans didn’t have any way of anticipating them, so when they came out they were like, “Whoa!” When there is no expectation I can blow you out of the water because you weren’t anticipating something fantastic and it came at you anyway. People were freaking out about Louise’s costumes but you don’t really think about what she’s wearing in the book. [Before the show] nobody gave St. Germain’s costumes a second thought. Then they were floored by them. [The fans said], “What a minute, what? A man wore that? Oh my God, imagine walking into a room wearing that!” The other thing [about designing costumes for an adaptation] is that you are making a show for readers and non-readers. With the red dress or the nipple dress, people who didn’t read the book are like, “Huh? Why is that there?” It’s a finely-cut thing.