A Conversation with Amanda Needham
It’s a Tuesday morning and I just found Amanda in a little office inside of the costume department. We go to look for a good interview spot when we pass a plain door in the hall with a sign that says “CHAD | NASIM PEDRAD.” She’s not in there; it’s 10:30am so she’s already been transformed into Chad for the day.
Just around the corner we find an empty Writers Room to occupy. I start with the reason I’m there. A rumor, which turned out—as most do—to be only somewhat true.
I heard you worked on some part of Shakira’s Super Bowl halftime outfit. How did that happen?
We designed outfits for Shakira’s background dancers, the gold in the finale. Kamp Grizzly reached out to me. I’ve worked with Kamp for a long time and they asked if I would be interested.
When we agreed to the project it was eight girls and six guys, which sounded doable with our deadline. Shakira liked the designs... but then her team decided all 50 dancers should wear variations of the three designs we sent them!
Ahmad—who has been working with me for years—was the one who really rallied the team to get the construction finished. Our order tripled but our deadline was still the same. We ended up flying four people with packages on red-eyes. My youngest sister Amy took two red eyes. Our team is so passionate—it's actually what carries all these projects to completion. We feed off getting the job done and having fun while we do it.
Seeing [our outfits] on stage was wild. The thing that kept us going was that no matter what the Super Bowl was happening on Sunday—so a burst of stress and not a prolonged stress. We could handle that.
Later when I ask about one of her most challenging gigs as a designer she says the Shakira Super Bowl rush was the craziest thing she’s ever done. Catch her team's designs starting at 12:40.
Where do you find design inspiration? What are some of your favorite places/ways to source costumes?
It depends on the project. I gather images on Pinterest, Instagram, Google and come up with a document that helps me communicate inspiration, then we either shop it or create it.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue this craft?
Really develop your sense of design, spend time cultivating the kind of designer you want to be. Starting from the bottom is the best way—and the only way I’ll let people onto my team. You start with returns, which is really difficult. This gives everyone in the team a sense for each position. Compassion for each other and no entitlement.
Be patient with the process. It’s a lot of fun. You get to problem solve and be a part of something creative. Be humble and ready to work. It's important to be willing to roll up your sleeves, be available to lend support.
You’ve worked all over, but what do you love about working in Oregon? What makes it special?
The hunt is still there. When I first started as a designer in LA, what became challenging for me was that you just go to a costume house and pull things. It was all readily available. I still like the hunt and the find.
I like that people here care about each other in the film community. We’ve been working together for years and it's really so cool to get to have that kind of history together. People want to be a part of something and that shows.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I have two girls. Nova is four, Niko is two-and-a-half. I spend most of my time with them and my husband, Neil. Nova is into photography, so we take her out to take photos, and Nico is always down for an adventure. We also own Psychic Bar on Mississippi. We’re living close to Psychic right now, so we spend a lot of time exploring the neighborhood. The girls love that sense of community—the bar is sort of like their Cheers.
FUN FACT: Amanda’s husband is indie producer and OMPA Board Member Neil Kopp. He’s currently in New Orleans working on his next project.
How’s Chad going for you so far?
I love it so much, it’s a lot of the same crew who like what they do and it shows. From a designer perspective, the one thing I think we really brought to the table for this show is binding. We created a binder that gives [Nasim] relief because she’s going to wear it for 12-14 hours/day. There’s a lot of damage that can occur from binding. While we were patterning, I tried it on. After 20 minutes of wearing it I couldn’t think straight!
Our general team motto is “make it happen, find a way.” So we built something out to meet her natural chest line. You never want to be taken out of a scene because of a visual mistake, like seeing the lines in a binder.
So instead of trying to squish Nasim completely in, they flattened her chest about the weight of a sports bra and then built the bottom half out to meet it. She mentions that it was difficult for Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia and by the later seasons they stopped using binders because it was too uncomfortable. But now she knows this technique moving forward!
If there’s a new actor or location, I come to see the set first—does the palette work for the set? My job is to get ahead of everything. I work a lot with the locations person and production designer. For example, if Chad’s going to be laying in bed in the scene, you don’t want him wearing the same color as the bed.
Amanda tells me she is about to double up and start working on Big Deal with Vanessa Bayer, shooting in LA. She jokes that she feels like the west coast SNL person and I ask how that happened, what’s the connection.
A lot of it is word of mouth. You have a good time working with someone and they can vouch for you on another project.
I ask how it feels to get to that place where you can pick and choose projects.
I think the projects I end up working are because I really believe in the story and people behind it. Everyone puts the film industry on this pedestal like you have to kill yourself to be a part of it. I bought into that as a PA. I think the movements like Time’s Up, Me Too helped shine light on this space that we were all in. Fortunately, I have always worked with people who are in full support of women in the industry. If it doesn't bring me joy then it's hard for me to be a part of the project.
We talk for a few minutes about the moment women in the industry are having and what’s going on in the news with Harvey Weinstein. The industry is changing from the inside out. And on that note, I ask Amanda if there’s a look or show that she’s particularly proud of her work on.
I’m weirdly proud of all of it. But what makes me feel the happiest is the work on Shrill. It has opened dialogue with designers about plus-size fashion. I feel like I’m in a small way giving a voice to that. As people, we all know what it’s like to not feel comfortable in our bodies. Or to feel shame. It doesn’t have to be about size, everyone has felt that. So it’s been nice to raise my voice about it. Why aren’t there designers? Why is this an issue? What does this say about us as a society in general? People have actually taken time out of their day to write to me and say thank you. That feels special to me.
The Nigerian wedding was really hard. There are so many layers to Nigerian culture, and specifically weddings. Color means something. The guests wear colors to compliment the bride, or a fabric that the mother of the bride picks. The fact that the bride grew up in America relaxed some of that, but we still wanted the cultural representation to be right.
You can’t buy Nigerian wedding clothes off the rack. We sourced fabric from LA and Nigeria, we had things made in Nigeria. Everything takes time, plus we had the language barrier. The first time they sent the package from Nigeria it was the wrong color. We didn’t have time for that. I put a post on Instagram that said “Is anyone flying from NY to Portland by any chance?” The person who got in touch with me I’ve never met in my life—they were a cousin of my friend. The Nigerian contact dropped the correct package off to the person in NY. That person flew out of New Jersey. I had a PA waiting at the [Portland] airport to bring it to set—it literally made the set minutes before we filmed.