Exclusive Interview – Michelle J. Li, Costume Designer for Meet Cute on Peacock
Tai Freligh chats with ‘Meet Cute’ costume designer Michelle J. Li…
Michelle J. Li is a Chinese American Costume Designer and Production Designer for film, TV, stage and new media. She combines her extensive graphic and fine arts background to wield color, form, and pattern with finesse to create fresh and whimsical work.
She most recently costume designed the short Chaperone starring Zachary Quinto, which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. She also costumed the upcoming short Columbarium starring Kate Mulgrew and Molly Ringwald, co-directed by Katie Schiller and Roger Mancusi.
Michelle’s feature credits include costume designing two of Alex Lehmann’s upcoming feature films: Meet Cute, a time-travel rom-com starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson; and Acidman starring Dianna Agron and Thomas Haden Church; as well as a forthcoming feature from T.K. McKamy titled Something Here starring Savannah Smith, Owen Joyner, and Ariel Martin.
Tai Freligh from Flickering Myth recently had the chance to ask her about Meet Cute and her other recent costuming projects….
Michelle came on board Meet Cute because she had previously worked with the director on another project.
“I first met Alex Lehmann, the director, on his feature film Acidman earlier that same year. I had come to that film because my dear friend Dianna Agron, who played Maggie, brought me onto it and introduced us,” she tells me. “That was the start of an incredible working relationship together — we had so much fun collaborating that we had to come back together for round two!”
I asked her about her costuming philosophy and how she works with directors, if it was give and take or driven by her as the costume lead on the project.
She said, “the creative process is a hard one to pin down because often ideas change so quickly, sometimes in lieu of better ideas! Especially with new scripts/stories where the meat of the storyline is still being figured out, I think as a Costume Designer, giving room for grace and change is important. Of course, there’s a point of no return, but I think maintaining an open process is key.”
Michelle J. Li tells me a story about a last minute change in a scene to help illustrate her point about keeping an open mind with the director.
“There was a moment during the filming of Meet Cute in which Alex turned to me and said he needed to add another waiter to a scene. We didn’t prepare for this additional character, as it was a last-minute request, but I took a deep breath, put some faith in the Costume Lords and went to our Wardrobe Truck to see what we could pull together. We had about 15 minutes from that ask to putting our camera-ready waiter on screen (shout out to adrenaline!). Luckily, because Alex and I have such trust in each other’s visions, it worked out and the end product was better for it.”
If you’ve seen the movie, you know there is a particularly eye-catching dress that the main character Sheila wears, and it almost didn’t happen. I asked Michelle about Sheila’s iconic yellow gingham dress and the story behind it.
“Creating a dress that felt iconic and fresh is precisely what the director and I wanted to achieve!”
She continued, “believe it or not, Sheila’s yellow gingham dress almost didn’t happen. We spent so much time shopping for different yellow sundresses, like ones with flowers, ones with stripes, even ones with gingham patterns – but none of what we were finding in stores felt right. It wasn’t until I had a casual chat with my costume department, and I joked about how I wished there was enough time to just build the dress from scratch. That’s when things got quiet and my supervisor turned towards me very seriously and said that he could drape and build this dress (alongside 7 multiples), but I needed to give him an answer NOW. After a flurry of swatching, sketching, and chats with Alex, we made Sheila’s iconic dress over a weekend before the first day of filming!”
Oftentimes costumes will need to be designed with multiple purposes in mind. In this instance, there were some stunts that needed to be performed, so costume designer Michelle J. Li incorporated padding into the design, but had to do it in such a way that it didn’t appear bulky or feel uncomfortable for the stunt person. She elaborates.
“Safety must ALWAYS be first, no matter what—especially when car stunts are involved!”
Going a little deeper into the process, she said, “our Sheila Stuntwoman had to get hit by a car, and I remember everyone being nervous with anticipation on the day. For that particular costume, I designed it to match both the depressive emotional state Sheila was in all while making sure the costume had enough coverage for the body padding we had to hide. I kept checking in with the stuntwoman throughout the day, and when it was finally time for the car stunt, she took it like a champ. It was so badass and impressive that everyone cheered after the take!”
Oftentimes a costume will reflect where a character is at in terms of growth. With this film, the characters return to the same night over and over, so I asked Michelle how she could show character change and development when the costumes stay the same.
She said, “this was a particular challenge for the exact reason you mentioned. If you notice carefully, you’ll see that there are subtle changes to the timelines shown through Sheila’s earrings, necklaces, and hairstyles depending on if it was Date #7 or Date #365. Because films are shot out of sequence and we’d jump back and forth so much in the story timeline, the continuity management for all of these minute shifts was total chaos! ”
Michelle recently wrapped on a delightful mockumentary called Theater Camp, starring Ben Platt, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, and is currently in the midst of costume designing Season 3 of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens for Comedy Central, so stay tuned for more!
Meet Cute is available and streaming now on Peacock.
Tai Freligh writes about entertainment and pop culture for Flickering Myth from sunny Huntington Beach, California…just a hop and a skip from Los Angeles. He can be found on Twitter and TikTok and his website.
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