Building Costumes For The Gritty World Of “Gotham”: An Interview With Lisa Padovani

Costume designer Lisa Padovani built costumes for male leads Ben McKenzie (James Gordon) and Robin Lord Taylor (Oswald Cobblepot) in “Gotham.” photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

By: Marjorie Galas

A three-piece suit is not meant to be dragged across the pavement or gruffly manhandled. Well-dressed male lead Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, in television’s “Gotham” put his finery through the wringer in every episode. Costume designer Lisa Padovani would regularly make six identical suits; jackets, shirts, pants, vests, even ties – in preparation for whatever brutality the character faced.

“He has a unique style. It was not realistic to go out and buy multiple suits,” said Padovani. “When you are building the suits you have complete control over fit and material. I hate being a hostage to what you find in the store.”

Padovani was excited about creating “Gotham” costumes from the moment she met with executive producer Danny Cannon. During their first meeting, the two discovered they shared a mutual admiration for “Blade Runner.” The film’s use of a futuristic setting infused with elements from the past was an inspiration for “Gotham.” Visually, Padovani felt it was important to connect the viewers to the mythic US city of Gotham without defining “time or place.” Blending period influences was a means of making connection.

“For television you have to personalize; the future is hard to personalize,” said Padovani. “There are lots of period influences in ‘Gotham.’ You might see makeup from the 80s but a 40s dress. We mix pieces from all eras.”

Padovani and her team work closely with the other departments to fully realize this mesh of period styles melded between sets, makeup and costumes. Due to the tight time constraints of a television schedule, the teams don’t have the luxury of holding development meetings to discuss and define looks. Instead, their stations are alongside each other, allowing for frequent communication over the eight day production schedule. “Gotham” storylines involve many one-off situations that have ranged from a circus to an elaborate formal ball to an anything goes S & M club. These scenes can require up to 150 extras. To ensure accuracy in outfitting large crowds, Padovani’s team gathers measurements of all the actors in advance and pre-fits those actors closest to the camera. Before any scene is shot, Padovani inspects all background players to ensure the costumes have the proper fit and detail needed for the scene.

Characters such as the Penguin or James Gordon, who are subjected to the greatest amount of action sequences, aren’t the only leads Padovani devotes energy to creating builds for. Gordon’s sidekick Harvey Bullock requires a build to perfect his ill fitted look: contemporary store-bought shirts have a skinny build that doesn’t gel with his style. Gangster Falcone and butler Alfred are both fully tailored. Young Bruce Wayne’s ball scene tux was a full build, however much of his wardrobe are altered found items. Padovani does fully build all his shirts to ensure the collars and proportions are properly tailored.

“I notice on other shows when the collars don’t fit right and it really bugs me,” said Padovani.

“Gotham’s” female characters also get custom treatment. Noting that Fish Mooney has an otherworldly, larger than life persona, Padovani designed pieces that were meant to fit like a second skin. Her looks were sensual, made with shiny leather and enhanced with modern tribal embellishments created primarily with fur and feathers. For future Cat Woman Selena, Padovani utilized steam punk and rock-and-roll elements that provided a hard edge to her grace and agility. Selena’s goggles worn throughout the first season are a precursor to the character’s future cat ears. For the ball sequence, Padovani did create an elegant dress for actress Camren Bicondova, but hinted at the character’s edgy qualities by adding leather trim and fishnet gloves.

Despite having devoted countless hours throughout production, Padovani watched the series unfold each week, a practice she’s engaged in with every series she’s worked on, including “Oz” and “Boardwalk Empire.” She’s noted how the dark, moody lighting affected the colors, points where the camera lingered on details and where they were lost in the fast pace of the scene.

“I want to see how the work translates on screen,” said Padovani. “There’s such a difference between what you see on the paper and onset once music is added in the final edits are done.”

Attention to detail has guided Padovani through a successful career in production. She began as a production assist and through dedication and hard work she climbed the ladder, eventually stepping into a producer role. In the 90s Padovani reflected on her status and realized her true passion wasn’t in producing. Fond of crafting and enhancing outfits since childhood, she trusted her instincts and transitioned into costume departments. As an assistant costume designer, she worked with some of this century’s greatest costume designers, including Sandy Powell on “Far from Heaven” and “The Departed” and John Dunne, with whom she worked on a number of films and the hit series “Boardwalk Empire.”

“I worked with great people who were real artists. They could paint and draw and I saw how they looked at the world,” said Padovani. “Everyone is afraid to start something new, but I saw I could do anything. You just can’t be wishy-washy about it.”

Reflecting on the first season, Padovani is proud of the work and dedication of her team members during the long, intense hours. Initially slated for 16 episodes, the popularity of the series resulted in an expansion to 22 – an extension that came when the crew thought they were nearly wrapped. Bringing her “there’s only one speed – that’s full speed ahead” energy to the set every day, her team remained diligent, never cutting corners and always providing an excellent product. Padovani is looking forward to the direction “Gotham” will take in its second season. While publicity photos have already been taken, she was mindful to not present anything to extreme or telling regarding the character’s growth.

“The show is transitioning. The characters aren’t in the same spot we left them,” said Padovani. “We don’t know where they will go, so we didn’t do anything too extreme.”

To learn more about “Gotham” please visit:
http://www.fox.com/gotham/