A Conversation with “Emily the Criminal” costume designer Amanda Wing Yee Lee.

EoM contributor Thomas Manning recently had the opportunity to interview award-winning costume designer Amanda Wing Yee Lee to discuss her work on the new crime drama Emily the Criminal, starring Aubrey Plaza. Lee speaks about working on director John Patton Ford’s film to tell a story that comments on the economic divide in our society and developing character designs for this narrative’s authentic world.

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“Emily the Criminal” costume designer Amanda Wing Yee Lee.

Thomas Manning: Looking generally at this project, this was the feature film directorial debut for John Patton Ford. At what point in development did you learn of this production and what specific elements caught your attention?

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Months before the film went into pre-production, my dear friend and frequent collaborator Liz Toonkel (Production Designer on Emily the Criminal and Marcel: The Shell with Shoes On) had told me about this script that she’s super excited about and that she knew I would love. So when the opportunity to design it came to me, I knew I had to be a part of it. What ultimately sealed the deal for me, however, was John’s sincere determination to tell the story of this gig economy global phenomenon – that the majority of our generation share – as authentically and realistically as he himself had experienced it.

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Aubrey Plaza as Emily in EMILY THE CRIMINAL by John Patton Ford, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films.

Thomas Manning: What is it like for you as a costume designer to collaborate with other members of the crew that specialize in the physical/visual design of the sets – whether that be the production designer, art directors, set decorators, etc.? How do these roles inform your role as a costume designer, and vice versa?

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: My work alone cannot tell the story wholly. I believe in full collaboration that involves all departments from day 1 of the design process. Each of these other visual elements – be it set decoration, cinematography, props, hair or make up – affects my work as the costume designer. I myself started in film by working as a PA in different departments until I found my passion in costumes. Having had experience in other departments has given me tremendous appreciation for their craft as well as an understanding of the kinds of challenges those departments face.

Thomas Manning: Walk me through the process of developing the contrast between the design of the world of Emily’s character compared to the world of her friend, Liz, who lives a much more glamorous and upscale lifestyle.

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Because of how little of their history the film shows, it was especially important to me that their costumes give the audience clues and shed light on the financial gap and social division between Emily and Liz. John and I had talked at length about Emily’s and Liz’s backstories to make sure these details stand out. I want the audience to relate to Emily’s constant fight to make ends meet. Besides her catering uniform, Emily has a limited color palette, wears a rotation of basic tees, jeans and the one denim jacket. She is the everyman and she doesn’t have the luxury of time to style herself differently every day the way that Liz does. Liz, on the other hand, has the most varied looks and colors of all the characters in the film. One of the most telling moments to me about Liz’s lifestyle in the script is when Youcef asks if her party is for her birthday, to which she says “No… I just got back from a trip so…” It’s a subtle passing comment but it speaks volumes to the socio-economic divide between Liz’s world and the one Emily and Youcef are born into.

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L-R: Theo Rossi as Youcef and Aubrey Plaza as Emily in EMILY THE CRIMINAL by John Patton Ford, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films.

Thomas Manning: Gina Gershon’s character is only in a single scene of the film, but it is a very pivotal moment in the narrative. I would love to hear about your approach to developing the look and style of her character.

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Wendy Clark – a notoriously commanding powerhouse in the ad world – was a big inspiration for Alice (Gina Gershon’s character). In our research, Clark is always photographed in all black, simple yet elegant business attire. Like Steve Jobs and many other leaders and high-powered executives, Clark simplifies her wardrobe to reserve decision-making for creative and managerial endeavors. This concept became the foundation to Alice’s uniform. When you dissect this intense scene between Alice and Emily, you realize how similar they are. Alice knows about struggles and understands what it’s like to swim against the currents the same way Emily does. There are glimpses at the beginning of the scene that gives you hope that finally Emily is understood and that this could be the break she’s been looking for. When it suddenly goes south, it really crashes and makes you root for Emily even more. It’s a perfectly written scene and my favorite.

Thomas Manning: Was there a specific design that you crafted for a character that you’re particularly proud of, in terms of what you were able to convey with that style?

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: I’d have to say that Khalil was one of my favorite characters to design for. A Maronite with Lebanese and Armenian heritage who has been through much civil unrest and familial separation throughout his life, it was no easy feat to come and settle in the U.S. When we first meet Khalil in the film, he has already assembled a team under his wing, and it’s very important to him to keep business within his family and his community. Even though Khalil appears to be the villain from the outset, I wanted to convey – through his style – this old-world mentality of protecting and preserving your culture. From my research, there is a kind of common style among the middle-aged men of the demographic Khalil shares: bold colored or printed dress shirts, loose fitting slacks, soft leather loafers, gold chain bracelet, necklace and watch. Not only does this collective attire give power to the community, It also shows status. Khalil actively rejects American culture and contemporary fashion because he believes it is his duty to uphold his community in a foreign country. He is the opposite of Youcef who believes in individualism that puts his personal freedom and goals before the collective.

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Aubrey Plaza as Emily in EMILY THE CRIMINAL by John Patton Ford, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films.

Thomas Manning: There was one quote from Emily in the film that really stuck with me: “I mean, I don’t know…I just wanna be free. I just wanna be able to experience things. I wanna travel. I wanna live in another country for a while. Like I got a long list. Like I really wanna go to South America.” I think that’s a mindset that a lot of us identify with, the idea of having these grand ideas for our life that seem just out of reach – and the constant journey to attain those dreams. I’d love to have you share what that line from Emily means to you, and if that’s something you can identify with in your own life.

Amanda Wing Yee Lee: Absolutely, I may not have had the same experience as Emily but I completely identify with this feeling of being held back by a system that fails the majority. I am from Hong Kong. I came here for college 18 years ago and stayed because of my love for film. Until about 2 years ago, I lived the freelance life, often unsure when the next paycheck would come. As a foreigner, I have to apply for a work visa every three years. The process is never easy. But I stuck with it and it’s amazing now to see the fruits of my labor. This is exactly what makes this film so powerful. It zooms in on a global problem that much of my generation faces and it shows you what grit and perseverance can give you – freedom to choose your own path.

Official Synopsis:

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is saddled with student debt and locked out of the job market due to a minor criminal record. Desperate for income, she takes a shady gig as a “dummy shopper,” buying goods with stolen credit cards supplied by a handsome and charismatic middleman named Youcef (Theo Rossi). Faced with a series of dead-end job interviews, Emily soon finds herself seduced by the quick cash and illicit thrills of black-market capitalism, and increasingly interested in her mentor Youcef. Together, they hatch a plan to bring their business to the next level in Los Angeles.

In theaters August 12th, 2022.

For more information, head to the official Roadside Attractions Emily the Criminal website.

Emily the Criminal poster onesheet

Thomas Manning is a member of the NCFCA and SEFCA, and also the co-host of the television show and radio program “Meet Me at the Movies.” He has served as a production assistant and voting member on the Film Selection Committee for the Real to Reel Film Festival. He is an alumni of Gardner-Webb University, with a double-major in Communications and English.

Categories: Filmmaker Interviews

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