“Lisa Frankenstein” Costume Designer Meagan McLaughlin Luster on Dressing a Muse and a Monster
In Juno and Jennifer’s Body, screenwriter Diablo Cody depicted the worldview of alienated teenage girls with pitch-perfect wit. Her latest film, Lisa Frankenstein (in theaters now), directed by Zelda Williams, grafts Mary Shelley’s 19th-century monster myth onto the modern horrors of high school. Set in 1989, the movie casts Kathryn Newton as depressed Goth girl Lisa Swallows, who gains a whole new perspective after a muddy corpse (Cole Sprouse of Riverdale fame) breaks out of the graveyard and into her life.
New Orleans-based costume designer Meagan McLaughlin Luster, who previously worked on True Detective and the Roots remake, came of age during the eighties so and related instantly to Cody’s period references. McLaughlin Luster says, “We’re about the same age—I might be a year or two older than Diablo—so that’s one reason I connected to this script. I knew this show had to be mine. I could feel it inside. From the second I opened the script, I was like, ‘I’m on it.'”
Speaking to The Credits from her home, McLaughlin Luster details the origins of Lisa’s “slutty pirate” dress, explains how an American beer logo wound up on a proper Victorian gown, and reveals the costume easter egg that pays tribute to Zelda William’s late father Robin Williams.
The mismatched outfits Lisa wears at the start of the film are a real hoot. What inspired those costumes?
That was basically how I dressed at the time, so Lisa’s outfits came from reference pictures of my own photographs, and my experience. There’s a lot of pattern on pattern, and the pink leggings with a denim skirt would later lead to the punk-inspired plaid pants with the black sweater.
The supporting actors also look very much of the period.
The majority of those outfits came from our personal stock. My assistant Jen and I keep ten-by-thirty storage units of mainly eighties clothes. There’s a lot of Espirit, Benneton, Outback, Resonator [T-shirts] Banana Republic.
Director Zelda Williams put together a lookbook to share her vision of the film with the department heads. What was your key takeaway?
Zelda had films she wanted us to reference; the main one for me was Tie Me Up Tie Me Down.
Tie Me Up Tie Me Down is directed by Pedro Almodóvar, and it’s not even remotely a horror movie.
But it was filmed in 1989, so that was a good reference for the costumes, like pleated jeans. And there’s a lot of red in that movie, which is also a theme for Lisa Frankenstein. Zelda wanted a lot of red.
I believe you also watched Ted and Bill’s Excellent Adventure?
Bill and Ted, Heathers, Say Anything—I re-watched all the movies that were big for me when they came out in 1989. I didn’t want to make caricatures even with the background actors, so it was important that they be spot-on. Even though I lived through that period myself, I liked seeing it again in films.
Everything changes for Lisa when she gets drugged at a party, visits a graveyard, and has this crazy dream where she’s dressed up like a Victorian lady. How did you come up with that gown?
That is probably the proudest I’ve ever been of a costume. It’s what got me the job because I rendered it for my interview.
I drew it on Procreate [digital drawing program]. I still draw in a sketchbook, but for this particular design, I did it on Procreate so I could send it in an email.
In some ways, you’re dressing Lisa in a traditional Victorian gown from the 1830’s. What does that entail?
It’s right before the antebellum period so the hoop is not as big as it becomes later. And [at that time] you had to have all parts [of the body] covered, so we made a fichu.
What’s a fichu?
It’s a big handkerchief that goes across the shoulders and ties in the front. But that got nixed at the last minute.
In her dream, why does Lisa see herself in a Victorian dress?
Well, dreams to me are a VHS tape. You tape your entire day in your head with a VHS tape, and when you go to sleep, someone has taken it, cut it up, and pasted it back together. That’s how I see it. So the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer Lisa was drinking at the party is part of the dress, and she visits the Victorian guy at his grave – all these elements have been cut into one reel.
What material did you make the dress from?
Canvas. Definitely not the fabric of Victorian times, but our reference was Gene Kelley from Singing in the Rain, where all the scenery is painted. I knew I had to paint this dress, and that’s why I made it out of canvas.
Lisa wears a lot of pajamas in this movie, and they’re really cute. What was your favorite pair to source?
I’m glad the “Cathy” pajamas made it into the movie because if you grew up in the eighties, you know that [Cathy Guisewite] comic strip.
After meeting the Creature, Lisa changes her look and shows up at school in a sleek, all-black, ensemble complete with a bonnet. How did you arrive at that change of style?
There was a note in the script to dress Lisa like a “slutty pirate.” And Lisa’s hat references the Blossom hat [made famous by Mayim Bialik’s TV comedy Blossom.]
Diablo Cody put those details in her script?
Yes, one hundred percent.
The Creature goes through an even more extreme evolution in style, which is a good thing because when he first meets Lisa, he’s encrusted in mud.
Wearing his Victorian burial outfit. And then Lisa helped him modernize. It starts out with the jacket. Then, he puts on the scarf once he gets his hand.
His body parts have rotted away over the centuries, so you’re saying once The Creature acquires that other hand…
He goes back to his old Victorian stuff. He finds a waistcoat: “Okay, now I feel proper.” He steals pants from the old man because it has suspenders. By the movie’s end, he’s got a full suit of Victorian clothes. And as an homage to Zelda’s father [Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy], we gave the Creature rainbow suspenders.
That’s touching. Lisa Frankenstein filmed in and around New Orleans. As a lifelong resident of the city, how would you describe the impact of film production on your community?
Movie making means a lot to the New Orleans economy. I use local vendors, and I use local seamstresses. I work with people here like Vintage Steve, who has a house full of vintage stuff. I try to keep everything local because I want the film industry to stay here. It’s starting to come back, at least a little bit. We miss it.
Featured image: Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows and Cole Sprouse as The Creature in LISA FRANKENSTEIN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Michele K. Short / © 2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC