'Learn as much as you can' Fear the Walking Dead costume designer Jo Katsaras shares her TV journey

Jo Katsaras is an Emmy-nominated costume designer known for her work on TV hits Fear the Walking Dead, The Leftovers, Odyssey and Anthony Minghella's episode of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Here she tells Mandy News how she got started in the industry, what it's like working on Fear the Walking Dead and what aspiring costume designers can do to further their careers.

29th May 2018
/ By James Collins

Fear the Walking Dead costume designer Jo Katsaras JOKATSARAS

Jo, tell us a bit about yourself and how you went about pursuing your career in costume design.
I’m Jo Katsaras, a costume designer, and I do believe that your career just finds you. I graduated from the Art, Ballet and Drama School in Johannesburg and one of my teachers there had started a crew agency and she called me up one day and asked if I wanted to do a commercial. I did it, it was Cadbury’s, was set in the 1960s, and I had to make absolutely everything. I loved it and just never looked back.

I was 22 then and, 28 years later, I still just love every minute.

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What took you from Johannesburg out to the United States to work?
I was nominated for an Emmy for the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which was Anthony Minghella’s last work before he passed, and then – I don’t know – within six months I had a green card. So that just opened another platform for me. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened, and the next thing I was being offered stuff in the United States.

I guess work has flowed for me here because, the compliment I get is that I bring texture and colour and a cultural aspect. I’m big on culture, and I guess from the background I come from, it stood me in good stead.

How did you get involved with Fear the Walking Dead?
It was so funny, because my agent said to me “So, what next?” and I said “I don’t know, I want to go somewhere warm and exotic,” and when she emailed me that Fear the Walking Dead were interested in me, I was like “I don’t do zombies!” I’d never done a zombie show, or anything post-apocalyptic. The Leftovers was an interesting show, but it was certainly not post-apocalyptic.

Anyway, I watched some of the series. I was brought on in season three and it was shooting in Mexico so she was like “Well, it’s warm and exotic, so…” I watched the show and it was really scary. I thought “I don’t know if I can do this,” but what connected me to the story was that it was about a family. The apocalypse and zombies was in the background not the foreground. The family drama is what connected me. Then I met with Dave Erickson and Andrew Bernstein and it was just such an instant creative connection with both of them.

I was interviewing for two shows – I’m not going to say what the other show was – but that evening, and I don’t know if they were aware of it at all, or whether my agent had even mentioned it, I got an email from Dave saying “We’ve put in an offer for you and please let me know if here is anything I can do from my end. I want you on the show!.” He just went on to say how much he enjoyed meeting me and that he wanted my creative eye and influence to come on board and it was just such a lovely email that I thought “I’ve got to join this team!.”

I got that and it was great. Sadly Dave’s gone off to do another show and this season we have new showrunners, Ian Goldberg and Andrew Shambliss, and my connection to the show is still there and I’m having a great time, both personally and creatively. It’s a great show to be on, the actors and the scripts are great.

What’s the process of working on a show like Fear the Walking Dead? How much time do you get per episode? How early before you start shooting do you start working? How does the process work for you?
It’s challenging, because we have an eight day prep, eight day shoot, but that’s simultaneously, so I’m establishing characters and shooting at the same time as I’m prepping the next episode. I’ve never done anything like this

With HBO’s The Leftovers, we had 21 days per episode, so this is super fast.

What I’ve found is that I’m really suited to the show, because I have the ability to hold two or three scripts in my head at the same time – which is challenging – as well as holding the arc of where the characters are going. We don’t get final scripts until literally the day before we’re shooting, but we do get the pre-production script eight days before. That is a challenge, but my process is that I don’t work episodic. Because I have a feature film background, I create characters, I fit a whole character from the beginning. I create a look right from the beginning. That allows me to chop and change and edit as I go along.

I create a character, like you and me. In the time of the apocalypse what would I wear to sleep in? What would I wear if I was looking for food? The other great thing, there’s not a lot of changing. In season three we had a lot of changes of costumes because they had settled at a ranch and within the community they were given clothes. In this season, the same thing, they leave Mexico, they land up in a baseball stadium, and they create a home. So they’ve scavenged stuff, they’ve taken items of clothing that they love and connect with.

I also never let the costumes become the forefront. It’s got to be so natural. The costumes shouldn’t look like a costume. They’ve got to look like an integral part of the character. That’s my process.

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What challenges have you faced moving from Mexico to Texas? Also, when you’re shooting out of sequence and the first episode is set in the future by a few years, what kind of challenges do you face?
As we get further into the apocalypse, a lot less is available. For example, in season three, we were two years into the apocalypse, this season we’re almost four or four and a half years into the apocalypse.

Let me go back to the challenges of Mexico. Mexico was challenging because I had to cross the San Diego-Tijuana border every time I wanted to go shop, even for a T-shirt. It’s the busiest border post in the world and even though production had gotten me a fast pass – oh my god! I mean, sometimes I’d spend like an hour and a half, two hours at the border. Nightmare.

The other challenge was that every time I shopped, I wasn’t allowed across it myself. There was a procedure of dropping it off at our freighters, and they would catalogue it. Sometimes it would be two or three days before I had what I’d shopped for. I had to be very prepared. Especially as we have between 30 to 75 stunt players per episode and they require multiple costumes. That was challenging, but you get with the rhythm of it.

This season we’re in Austin, Texas, and it’s such a relief to just be able to get whatever I need whenever I need it. The other challenges are the multiples and, with me particularly because my eye is very character driven, it makes it difficult to find ready-to-wear garments because store clothes are very fashionable and that’s not what I want. I often thrift and buy off people in the street. I’m renowned for that. Or I go to outlet stores where they put garments that haven’t sold. That’s where I find the character stuff. It’s the pieces that the public don’t want, because it’s not fashionable. That stuff is difficult to find in multiples, so we’ll end up making a lot of garments.

How big is the department that you have?
At the moment I have a team of 20, so it’s a pretty big team. Last year in Mexico it was 12. That’s just because of the Unions in the United States. Mexico was a lot more flexible.

In the United States there are certain restrictions. We can’t have a PA touch costumes and I’m not allowed to sit on a sewing machine.

You were talking about multiples earlier. How many multiples do you have to have for a character, including stunt things? How does that work?
It depends what we’re doing. The reason we need the multiples is because, for example, Madison may have a stunt double, but the other reason is that we don’t shoot continuously. We shoot out of sequence. We may shoot the end of episode right at the beginning, by which stage she’s covered in blood, and at the beginning she’s not. Or we have a character who gets bitten or who gets shot and I need to have the various stages of what he goes through in the script and that really depends on the action that’s required.

If somebody’s going to fall in the water, often I’ll need three or four costumes just so that the director has three or four takes. Then we may shoot when he comes out of the water first, so I need that costume. It can go up to 12. That’s sometimes a challenge, trying to find 12 of the same thing in the same size.

Who are the departments that are like family to you, in terms of working in tandem with them to create the characters?
What I do at the beginning of a show is set a colour. I work very consciously with colour. Before I came on the show, when I was watching it, I found it so scary and so I work consciously with colour just to allow the viewer to have a more palatable time. So that the viewer can breathe a little. I did that on The Leftovers as well. Because the content is so intense, it’s hard to absorb when you’re watching something.

That’s the first thing I do and then I create my moodboards, which become like a compass for where we’re going with a character. It helps me communicate. It’s very difficult to communicate what’s in your head, because we all have different frames of references.

Once I do the moodboards, I share it with the actors, just because it’s very important for them to be on board, and once we’ve tweaked and decided “Okay, this is where we’re going,” it gets shared with the showrunners. Once the boards are approved, they get shared with the props master, because his pieces are integral to the character; what belts, what guns, what backpacks they’re going to wear. The production designer, as well, because my actors are on his set.

On Fear the Walking Dead, there’s been this magical synergy between Bernardo Trulljio (Production Designer), Colin Thurston (Props Master) and myself. There’s just this beautiful flow. It’s a rare thing. It’s happened to me once before, with production designer Johnny Breedt on the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, where it was unspoken. It’s just a magic that happens.

Like, I’d have Jill Scott in a red dress and he had a turquoise wall. It just looked amazing.

How many people do you actually have to clothe on Fear the Walking Dead?
Thousands!

When you’re working with a lot of people at the same time, are you working in colour palettes across the whole movement?
Yes, and dimensions and silhouettes, because if you look at all the characters, they’ve all got their distinct lines. I always view it as like painting on a canvas, so you’ve got the positive and the negative lines..

As you mentioned before, you also worked on an HBO show called The Leftovers. Did you work on the entirety of that project, and how did that come about? What was it like working on that?
I was in Morocco shooting American Odyssey with Peter Horton, and I was working with Kristi Zea who was the original production designer on The Leftovers. She did the pilot. There needs to be a very good creative connection with the showrunner because, in the end, I’m honouring their story.

Damon Lindelof is an absolute genius. There was a beautiful, beautiful connection there, and there were little things like I would design a background artist in the first episode and three or four episodes later that person would have a speaking role, because it inspired him. One in particular was the woman, who was totally background. I did a woman mowing the lawn in her wedding dress, completely random.

The Leftovers was a crazy world where everybody woke up one day and 3% of the world’s population had disappeared. It was so wacky! And there was no explanation. It was incredibly intense, and it was so popular, I think, because people went into the sphere of a lot of questions we have –like, what if? I think that’s what got everybody. Again, it was a show that I found – when I was watching the first season – very difficult to watch, so there again I brought the use of colour, to ground the show and to ground the viewer, because as filmmakers I feel that we have such a responsibility towards our viewers.

Film is such a powerful medium to shift people’s emotions. We can either get swallowed in the story and have some time away from reality, or you connect with a character and feel all these emotions that they’re feeling.

The character you were talking about – who was mowing the lawn in the dress – she came back a few episodes later with a speaking part?
Yes, I think it was like four or five episodes later, she had a speaking role. If you remember, in The Leftovers, there was this encampment where people were camping to get into Miracle Town, the guy with the big fat belly and the wife-beater. The next thing he had a speaking role. I got inspired by Damon and Damon got inspired by me – it was a fantastic creative relationship.

Sadly, there were only three seasons, so there was no more of that.

It seemed to tie itself up nicely.
He was only ever going to do three seasons.

There’s something really good when something does that and finishes when it’s supposed to finish and ties up a story really nicely. Satisfying.
I think the difference between the two shows was that we had a lot more days to shoot The Leftovers per episode. There were only 10 episodes. When I did American Odyssey in Morocco. We would shoot three episodes at a time. I find that, actually, a lot easier, because you get a block to shoot and we’re not going back to the same locations every episode. We shoot that location for three episodes. 

It’s a little bit more challenging for actors, because they’ve got to jump all over the story, wherever you are, but for me it’s a lot easier.

What are you currently working on and what have you got planned for the rest of the year so far?
I’m prepping episode 14 of Fear the Walking Dead and have three more episodes to do. Then I am booked to do a feature film with Jocelyn Moorhouse, who did The Dressmaker.

Is that Agaat?
It is. They’re in the final stages of casting that.

We had our premier of Fear two weeks ago, and Scott Gimple, who’s our executive producer, was like “I do hope you’re coming back next season!” so I probably will.

And I’ve just interviewed for the Netflix movie Sergio which is based on the life of Sergio De Mello, the man who wanted to change the world. A moral fibre story.

I do feel like I’ve done so much dirt in the last two years, making everything look grungy.

I’m yearning to do something pretty again, but if time allows. I always believe you’re on the right project, so I don’t worry about what my next job’s going to be. It’s a case of whether I want to do it or not. But that also has taken years of getting there and just allowing things to flow.

What advice do you have for people wanting to be involved in the costume department on television shows and feature films?
I would say, find a costume designer whose eye you respect, and follow their work. Learn as much as you can. Some of my team have a fashion diploma or costume design background but the importance of that depends what genre you’re doing. If you’re doing something contemporary, most of it is shopping, if you’re going to do something period, then obviously you need the skills.

The more skills you have, the better. That’ll allow more opportunities to open up for you. I’ve been sewing since the age of eight, so I have a very good understanding of the body and how it works and what looks good and what doesn’t.

The other thing is, start at the bottom and work your way up. Getting in can be difficult but put yourself out there and get in somehow. Somebody’s going to notice and be grateful of what you have to offer and you’ll move up.

Be patient with the process, because nothing you learn ever goes to waste. Once you are designing, or in the costume department, just always honour the script, the story that you’re telling and the characters, whether you’re designing or helping a designer fulfil their vision. We all have these weird and wonderful ideas of design however honour the story first. That is the primary thing. What is the story that you’re telling? Who is this character? What do they wear? What are their favourite colours? What watch are they going to wear? What shoes do they wear?

And how do they wear their clothes?