When considering the list of criteria by which audiences judge a film, it’s easy to assume the most important factors are the quality of its writing and acting. But in truth, the first judgments people make are based on what they see, not what they think. People are, for the most part, highly dependent on visual cues. When an epic explosion occurs onscreen, our minds judge whether the explosion looked “good” before we consider whether or not it makes sense or benefits the story. An audience’s immersion depends almost entirely on whether or not they believe what they see onscreen could be real. In the same way, an otherwise Oscar-worthy period piece, with exceptional writing, acting and directing, would be universally snubbed if the cast wore street clothes rather than setting-appropriate costumes.
That’s where costumer Lisa Sass’ skills prove invaluable. Her aesthetic vision and attention to detail are well-known and have made her one of the most sought-after figures in her field; her unrivaled expertise has earned her a place working on some of the biggest productions in the history of modern cinema. According to Sass, her talents are the result of a lifelong passion for using costume and character design as a medium for creative expression.
“I started drawing when I was about 4 years old. I started off copying cartoon and comic characters, and at some point I went on to more realistic drawings,” Sass recalled. “I made up stories and started creating my own characters — and their clothes. Going into costume design combined my passion for film and for creating characters.”
Sass has come a long way in the years since she first curled up with her sketch pad, and her passion has never wavered. It’s no coincidence that she was chosen as a costumer for one of the largest, most anticipated films in decades — the Academy Award-nominated sci-fi epic “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”
In the 40 years since the first film (“Episode IV: A New Hope”) was released, “Star Wars” has gone from a space opera with a cult-following into an internationally beloved, multi-billion dollar brand. After taking the reins from legendary creator George Lucas, “The Force Awakens” director and “Star Wars” devotee J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek,” “Cloverfield,” “Lost”) set out to prove that under his watch, Episode VII would remain true to everything fans loved about the original trilogy, and that it wouldn’t repeat the critical mistake which had tainted the previous trilogy (Episodes I through III) — the gratuitous and gimmicky reliance on CGI characters, which audiences found off-putting and distracting. Abrams and his team decided early in the planning process that a return to the franchise’s roots would mean less CGI and more animatronics, special effects, and elaborate costumes, the same cinematic elements which George Lucas had revolutionized in 1977. But the pressure of an astronomical budget, and the knowledge that every scene of the film would be deconstructed and analyzed by millions of vigilant fans, it was clear to Abrams that if “The Force Awakens” were to hold a candle to the original trilogy he would need the most talented people in the industry overseeing every aspect.
That’s where Sass came in. “The Force Awakens” was shot in exotic locations around the globe and boasted a star-studded cast which included Carrie Fisher (reprising her role as the iconic Princess Leia), Mark Hamill (of Luke Skywalker fame), and, of course, Harrison Ford (“Indiana Jones,” “Blade Runner”) as the scruffy smuggler Han Solo. As the costumer for the large portion of the film that was shot in the scorching desert of Abu Dhabi, it was up to Sass to make sure that every actor was costumed correctly, consistently, and as comfortably as possible in the conditions.
“A costumer has to break down the script into each scene for each character, and create a continuity book to keep track of the costumes used during shoots, which are not always happening chronologically,” explained Sass, whose job description is much, much broader than the title suggests.
“It’s my responsibility to dress the cast in the costume chosen for each scene, and to keep track of the continuity of how they’re worn as the story line progresses. Then, after filming has ended, it is a costumer’s job to store and archive the costumes and continuity data.”
Sass had more than enough talent to handle the job with relative ease. But she also had the added advantage of experience. Before “The Force Awakens,” Sass had just finished work on “Furious Seven” in Dubai. The seventh film in the “The Fast & The Furious” street racing series, “Furious Seven” starred Vin Diesel, Jason Statham (“Snatch,” “The Transporter”), and the late Paul Walker. The costumes used throughout the franchise have always been at the cutting edge of street-style fashion; shooting in Dubai, however, can make that a bit more challenging.
“It’s a very sexy style, with skirts so short they’ve gained the name ‘Fast & Furious length.’ It was quite a contrast to shoot that here in Abu Dhabi. Usually when you shoot for the local market you have specific modesty guidelines that require you to cover the body to some extent,” said Sass, who had already done a considerable amount of work in the United Arab Emirates by then.
“The UAE are very liberal compared to other countries in the Middle East, but there are rules you have to follow. It was very interesting to learn all the specifics of traditional clothing that define where a character comes from.”
Learning to make those distinctions has proven to be an indispensable asset for Sass. Following “Star Wars,” Sass was a costumer on yet another Academy Award-nominated sci-fi blockbuster, “Star Trek Beyond.” The film starred Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto and was the latest installment in a franchise that began in 1966. Once again, the pressure was on Sass to ensure that a gaggle of different aliens and starship crew members all showed up for battle sporting the right uniforms and accessories, as well as tentacles and pointy ears where applicable.
“Not only did we dress a lot of the cast in her [costume designer Sanja Hays’] take on the iconic space ship uniforms, we also dressed ‘locals’ of the space station, as well as alien characters,” Sass recalled. “I really enjoyed the futuristic look, and the challenge of doing what you can do with modern clothes and accessories to create different species in a futuristic space station.”
That constant pursuit of finding and conquering the next challenge is Sass’ defining quality. Sass possesses the rare gift to be able to take an empty world and to then populate it with people and creatures and garments and styles using nothing but her deeply brilliant and artistic mind. Without the talents of costumers like Lisa Sass, television and film would be little more than a mish-mash of actors reading lines in whatever outfit they’d thrown on that day. Without costumers like Lisa Sass, cinema would be devoid of immersion. In many ways, costumers like Lisa Sass make cinema what it is — brief escapes from our lives into the lives and adventures on the screen.
Fans of Sass’ style of character-driven films should be sure to check out her work on Netflix’s recently released original film “War Machine,” starring Academy Award-winner Brad Pitt and based on the book by Pulitzer-winning journalist Michael Hastings.