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Tai Freligh  

Exclusive Interview – Deborah Lynn Scott, ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’ and ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Costume Designer

Tai Freligh chats with costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott…

The multi-award-winning Deborah Lynn Scott is a celebrated Hollywood veteran with a distinguished film career who spearheaded the costume design for the 1980s classic E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.  She is renowned for her infamous work on James Cameron’s Titanic which won her the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, alongside other groundbreaking and seminal movies including AvatarBack to The FutureHeatMinority ReportWild Wild WestLegends of the Fall and over 50 further film credits spanning period pieces to action movies. She will be reuniting with Cameron on the forthcoming release of Avatar: The Way of Water [2022].

I caught up with Deborah to discuss her work on E.T., now celebrating its 40th anniversary with a re-release of the film and over forty minutes of additional special features.  We also chatted about the Avatar sequel and Marty McFly’s iconic orange vest from Back to the Future.

I asked Deborah about her approach to costuming in general, which she says is to be true to the writing.

“The writing is your template for the narrative of the story.”

She adds, “and then it’s the director on top of that, who sort of guides what they want out of that narrative. And as the costume designer, you’re very responsible for the visual narrative of the clothing, and placing each and every character, including the background in a particular time and place. So, you know, you’re doing your own little corner of the visual storytelling.”

Deborah says that the important thing when working with different directors is to establish trust.

“Directors are pretty notoriously, all sorts of different kinds of people, right? The best ones, I think, are very, very demanding, and very particular about what they want out of their movie.  Because I feel like even though we all wear clothes, it feels familiar, but the act of kind of establishing what that visual language might be is different.  Each and every different kind of film comes very differently to different directors.”  She elaborates, “some need a lot of help, some need no help at all right? They tell you exactly what they want. But most of the time, I think it’s, you know, they hire a costume designer to fulfill their vision. So then you need to establish a certain sense of trust. And once you get to that point, and they feel like you got their back, you’re gonna give them what they want. And it’s usually a pretty smooth road after that.”

I asked Deborah about the general look they were going for with the costumes in E.T. and how they achieved that.

“The costumes in E.T. were directly from Steven (Spielberg) and it was to sort of establish, I think, said and unsaid, that we were very much carving out a niche of society that was middle class, very accessible to all different kinds of people. Classic in its look, in other words, you didn’t pick on anything that was too specific to the time period that we were making a movie or that the movie was placed in.”

She went on to talk about some of the influences for the costumes.

“We looked at I mean, it sounds a little trivial, but someone like a Norman Rockwell, who depicted real life in a kind of slightly glamorized way. I think that was really kind of where we started this sort of, suburban kid. Right? And that is a lot of America.”

Actress Drew Barrymore was only six years old when filming E.T., so I asked Deborah Lynn Scott about the special considerations she had to account for with young actors on set.

“Well, you always have to make sure that their moms are happy, right, their personal mothers, and that more importantly, there’s sort of a softness to the approach that you take that you may not take with an adult, right?  As an adult, you kind of walk in like, here’s the thing, here’s your step, everybody kind of understands what’s going on. So with a child, especially if it’s one of their first movies or their first movie, you might need to do a lot of kind of guidance and leading them.”  She continued, “the most important thing, I think, is to make a child feel comfortable in their clothing, so I washed everything to death. I mean, it was as soft as could be physically. And you know no one was uncomfortable with what they had to wear.”

Deborah added, “be aware of what kind of narrative they’re telling when they dress kids because they are guileless. You know, they don’t look back at themselves and say, ‘Ooh, do I look good in this?’ You know? Or ‘is this what my character would wear at the moment?’ So it’s just very fun, it’s like dressing your own kid.”

Deborah Lynn Scott is back on costumes for the Avatar sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water.  The first film was released in 2009, so it’s been over a decade.  I asked her if it was hard to get back into the groove of doing costumes for the movie when it had been over ten years since the first one.

“It was pretty easy to jump back in. I mean, you know, I was not the only costume designer on the first film. So when I joined that movie, I had a lot of catching up to do. And in terms of the visual, it was a Pandora’s box. We did have some touchdowns from the first film, you know, the kind of basic, what do these people look like? But then, you know, adding new climates and new peoples, you have this whole array of new things to accomplish.”

She went on to talk about working with director James Cameron again.

“I’ve worked with Jim a number of times, so we can have kind of a shorthand. In the design process, it’s quite comfortable. So yeah, it was just like a new and different experience, but a familiar one.”

Costume design for movies like Avatar that are heavy in CGI and special effects have a different set of things to consider in terms of what is possible and what makes sense.  I asked Deborah how she approaches these types of movies compared to a more traditional film.

“Well, that’s a very involved question. But the basic answer is that the way you do costume design is exactly the same no matter what your movie is going to look like.  The philosophy that you use, the way that you decide on things, you know, it’s all very, very much the same. You just take a different story and make it your own visual.”

Deborah was also the costume designer on a little movie from 1985 called Back to the Future and is responsible for one of the more iconic clothing choices from that movie- Marty McFly’s orange vest.  I asked her if there was a story behind choosing the garment and if she had any clue it would become such a big deal in the pop culture zeitgeist.

“It’s amazing that anything becomes iconic, right? You’re like, Oh, my God, how did that happen?”

She continues, “First of all, for anything to be iconic, I think you have to have a movie that’s popular, right? That hits the public and that the public identifies with and loves. You could do that orange vest in 16 other movies and it not be anything. The visual joke was that he looks different.  I think they say ‘oh, it looks like a life preserver.’ Well, the joke came after we chose the item.”

Deborah adds in, “so I was really busy knowing that this was going to come up and working with the writer and and Bob Zemeckis, like what could it be? What could make him look so different? Because he’s, for the most part, he’s trying to blend in right? Marty McFly is trying to become a kid of the 50s. So he, his costume really straddles that line between different decades. But that particular thing everyone was looking for what that joke could be, and I think hitting on that was was it just, it really worked. I mean, once it was like, okay, it had to be something that didn’t happen in the 50s, so we went there. And then I think the color is what tipped the joke into like, actually pretty funny. You know, it was just like when you hit something, you go aha, that’s it. That’s great.”

In honor of the 40th anniversary of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing an updated version on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-rayTM, and Digital. The anniversary release showcases over 45 minutes of all-new bonus features including a retrospective of the film and its lasting legacy and a featurette with Steven Spielberg reflecting on his career and the making of E.T. 40 years later. This release also includes all the original bonus features including deleted scenes, cast and filmmaker reunion, a discussion with John Williams about the iconic music from the film, and more.  This special edition is available now!

Avatar: The Way of Water is set to release on December 16th, 2022 in the U.S.

We thank Deborah Lynn Scott  for taking the time to chat.  She can be found on the IMDb.

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.

PHOTOS: E.T. Images courtesy Michael Garcia & Think Jam

(Article originally appeared on Flickering Myth on 10/24/22)

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