Derry-born costume designer Aileen Faller was in Donegal last week to give an eye-opening talk on her work in the fast-paced world of TV, film and theatre.
The young creative has worked on some of the biggest projects in the modern entertainment industry, including Game of Thrones, Peaky Blinders, Derry Girls and Episodes. She was keen to share a behind the scenes look at life on set with local students at LYIT’s DICE 2018 event on Wednesday last.
Aileen is a former pupil of Thornhill College, the school attended by Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee which inspired much of the series. Little did Aileen know that her flair for fabrics would lead her to style the show in future years.
Aileen’s talk was brimming with advice for the LYIT Fashion students and local secondary school pupils. The main message focused on following passions and working hard for success.
Aileen had always loved art, she always ‘went wild’ dressing up for Halloween, and knew she needed a job that would change every day. After Thornhill, she developed her top-class skills at NWRC and Wimbledon College of Art. The degree kickstarted a career with unforgettable experiences and connections, like working at the London 2012 Olympics and progressing into film and TV.
“Your passion throws you in, it’s about having that proactive attitude,” Aileen said.
“It’s always a knock-on effect,” she said, as she kept her foot in the door after university to progress from a traineeship at Bad Education to BBC’s Call the Midwife.
Eventually, Aileen’s path brought her home to Derry Girls. She worked on some of the most iconic scenes of the Channel 4 series, including Uncle Colm’s famous monologue.
Few could forget Tyrone comedian Kevin McAleer as he told Colm’s kidnapping story in episode two. The scene that last just a few minutes took almost a whole day to film, Aileen revealed, as she took care of costume continuity.
Aileen said, “There was one scene in Derry Girls with Uncle Colm and it took us, painstakingly, seven hours.
“They had to go round every single person and film them close-up, then wide, and you had to make sure everything from the beginning of the day sits the same. The actors have been and had their lunch, they’ve been out, they probably had a sleep at lunch, and it’s your job to come in and make it look the same.”
Aileen shared her love for the challenges of her career and the research has to do in order to dress characters from a wide variety of eras and events.
“Every day is different, you don’t know what is going to be thrown at you. You have to be on the ball, especially with a show like Peaky Blinders where there is going to be guns and blood and constant resets and continuity.”
Peaky Blinders, the sleek and gritty BBC crime drama, features 1920s costuming which called for careful research and detailing, Aileen said.
She described how being a costumier requires having a strong backbone to control large cast numbers, protect precious outfits and instruct actors to dress a certain way.
Aileen spoke of some actors who could be as strong-willed as their on-screen characters, such as English actress Helen McCrory, who plays Polly Gray.
Aileen said: “The art of persuasion is phenomenal, especially for really high profile actresses. With Helen McCrory on Peaky Blinders, she’s a very firm women, she’s phenomenal, I have so much respect for her and we’re great friends now, but during Peaky Blinders there was a moment when she was like ‘I’m going to have you’, in a sense of ‘I’m going to rule this and you’re going to do what I say’.”
For actresses who don’t want to wear a certain thing, Aileen said that costume workers must learn to stand their ground.
“It’s about having the maturity to stand up to somebody twice your age and tell them you’re right and they have to wear the costume, whether they like it or not,” she said.
The costume department also plays a vital role in setting a scene to make a programme look and feel convincing, which is required often in steamy moments of Peaky Blinders and Game of Thrones.
She said: “When it comes around to love scenes, the most important thing we have to deal with is when the actors are nude. They have to be seen as they’re naked but they are not actually in real life.
“It’s my job to stand in and completely conserve their privacy because there is about 100 people in the crew standing around. You have to make them feel as comfortable as you can to enhance their character.
“The better job we do to help them get into character, the better they are at acting and ultimately, the better the show it is.”
Filming other intense scenes like major Game of Thrones battles can be both thrilling and exhausting. Aileen talked about 4.30am starts and spending up to 15 hours on a mountain top for events such as Jon Snow and his crew’s epic showdown against White Walkers beyond the wall.
The physical toll of such harsh environments and team effort can combine to make the work an amazing and adventurous experience, she said.
“It is the best fun, everybody is in really high spirits – freezing together at the top of the wall,” Aileen said.
Aileen often works closely with well-known actors, and has learned to avoid getting starstruck to maintain her professionalism. She recalled a backstage surprise while she was dressing Annabelle Wallis for Grace Shelby’s shocking Peaky Blinders exit.
Aileen said: “It was one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed, we were in Liverpool Town Hall and I remember going in to dress Grace/ Annabelle Wallis and I noticed this man in the corner.”
Annabelle introduced the man as her boyfriend – Chris Martin.
Aileen said: “I didn’t know what to say. I was like ‘This is Chris Martin from Coldplay, what? Why’s he so tall? It was getting so awkward and I ended up making a really horrible joke. But he stayed and it was lovely being with them. At the end of the day, actors are just people.”
Aileen’s work has brought her to Los Angeles to be Matt LeBlanc’s dresser on Episodes, but even then she refused to let herself be taken aback by him being Joey from Friends.
“I am constantly my own CV. I am the person who gives myself a job. If I’m not professional when I need to be it can have a lasting effect,” she said.
Aileen had many top tips and inspirational words for Donegal’s future fashion graduates.
She talked about the importance off-the-cuff conversations with fellow crew members to keep her foot in the door. Three years ago, she said a small conversation in the middle of a ranch outside LA led to her being asked to work on Derry Girls.
She advised the students to be resourceful with the studio and workshops available to them at LYIT. “Try to be as experimental as you can while you’re here,” she said.
Above all, she told them to pursue their passion, as she did with her love of fabrics. The long list of film credits is a diverse place, she said, and there are countless ways to apply skills to work in film.
“Whether you’re mad about music, animation, drawing, you can take that so many ways if you are in a production house or freelance,” she said.
Aileen has just wrapped up work on the new Superman prequel series Krypton, which is set for release later in March. With so many diverse and exciting roles behind her already, we’re eager to see the career this young designer fashions for herself in the years to come.