SUSANNA PUISTO: HOLLYWOOD’S FINNISH COSTUME DESIGNER

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The fascinating story of John Hauli: a mysterious man who left his small eastern Finland town of Kuusjärvi at the turn of the century in search of a better life in America and whose legacy lives on in a little piece of paradise called Hauli Huvila.

John Hauli's Hauli Huvila

SUSANNA PUISTO: HOLLYWOOD’S FINNISH COSTUME DESIGNER

REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LOS ANGELES
PHOTOS: JONNY KAHLEYN

Susanna Puisto by Jonny Kahleyn

Costume designer Susanna Puisto is one of the very few Finns working in Hollywood film industry. Susanna works as a freelancer and is hired separately for each film production. A costume designer creates the clothes actors wear in movies and leads the costume department in any given production. The costumes for a movie are planned weeks before the cameras start rolling. The work requires an artistic eye and a healthy dose of diplomacy.

Susan receives the journalist and photographer at her home in Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. She lives on a hill in a detached house with stunning views of downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers. The home is warmly decorated in pastel colors. The living-room bookshelf is full of costume-design art books. Susanna plays one of the lastest films, MacGruber, from a dvd as a sample of her work. The film is a comedy, based on Saturday Night Live skits and a parody of the TV series MacGyver. It is set in the present time, but the main characters played by Will Forte and Kristen Wiig have remained stylistically in the 80′s.

– Some of the clothing was pre-determined, since they were based on well-established skits, so we had to use them. But there was only one piece of each garment and we needed a dozen. So, we had to have them taylor-made at a high price.

A common misconception is that a costume designer creates each and every piece of clothing by him or herself. In reality, they are obtained from all possible places – department stores, used clothing stores, from other designers, and from costume rental facilities. Only those clothes that are not available anywhere else are planned from scratch. A costume designer is a foreman with a budget and team. A typical studio film has a a costume budget that equals to about one percent of the total budget  i.e., in a 10 million dollar movie, it is one hundred thousand dollars.

Susanna_Puisto_by Jonny Kahleyn

Susanna Puisto by Jonny Kahleyn

Susanna’s workdays are busy:

– I go to the office at eight o’clock in the morning. I start by having a meeting with my team, and give them their tasks which  include shopping for clothes and making returns. We also do product placement, that is, we will contact clothing manufacturers and designers who want visibility for their clothes. The background actors need costumes as well. My principal assistant and I go to the first fitting at 10 o’clock.  Afterwards, we upload images of the cast wearing their costumes and email them to the director. Then we go shopping for future fittings.

One of Susanna’s latest works include a drama based on a true story called “From the Rough”. She began designing outfits for it six weeks before the filming started.

– The film is about golf, so we had to learn quickly about everything related to golf. I did not have any previous experience of the subject, but that’s only a matter of studying.  My motto is: there is no need to go to the outer space in order to make outfits for a space movie. You learn something new from each assignment.

A good costume designer understands and highlights the thematic content of the scene.

– I was costuming Josh Lucas for a movie “A Year in the Mooring”. He wanted to wear a colorful t-shirt in a very dramatic scene. Isn’t that an awfully happy-looking t-shirt for such a dramatic scene, I asked him. Bad things happen to people who wear happy-looking clothes, he responded.

Susanna is known in Hollywood for her good relations with major stars. Rebecca De Mornay is one her friends who constantly asks Susanna to design her costumes. Even Val Kilmer, who has a reputation of being difficult, succumbed to Susanna’s will.

– We didn’t have any problems. In the first fitting I started to hand him his costumes: ‘this is number one, number two, number three …’, and he just looked at me. Then I started going through the rack and removed the ones which I did not feel right for Val now that I had met him. “I usually do that”, Val blurted out. Oh really, I replied. ‘Doesn’t anyone tell you no’, he asked. I answered, ‘No, do you want to be the first?’ ‘No’, he replied.

Susanna Puisto by Jonny Kahleyn

Susanna Puisto by Jonny Kahleyn

Susan has also worked with Renny Harlin on the film The Cleaner.

– I love Renny, he is absolutely wonderful!

In the thriller “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”, she got to design for Michael Douglas.

– We talked on the phone first. Michael wanted to imitate the Republican politician Mitt Romney who wears tailored suits. I took it as a starting point. Douglas was used to wear specific brands, but I had a contact with the Italian clothing company Canali that makes fabulous suits.

They met for the first time at the Universal Studios.

– Michael is absolutely wonderful – a class act. They don’t make men like that anymore. He drove from his bungalow to my office in a golf cart. Michael was interested in my background. In the middle of the fitting, when my stomach began to rumble from hunger, he offered lunch.

– Once the costumes were tailored, I met Michael again in the Beverly Hills Hotel to make sure everything was ok. His wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones came along. ‘Good job,” she said, ‘Michael could use a change.’

After the filming was over, Douglas wanted and got to keep the outfits Susanna had created.

Once in a blue moon the designer can also influence casting. Susan proposed a Bulgarian-Finnish actress Vera Jordanova for a horror film Hostel II as a villainess.

– I was hired as costume designer on the movie. So, I met with director Eli Roth and producer Dan Frisch. I asked if they have already cast the part of Axelle. They said no. Then I spoke the famous words: I have a friend. They checked out Vera on the internet and called her to come to an audition. She got the part.

One cannot pin Susanna to say anything negative about any star. A large part of the job is to be able to massage big egos.

– They are all demanding. One can never say ‘no’ to anything. One has to be diplomatic. We are called the dream team. We want to please. After all, actors are the ones who have to wear the costumes. If they don’t want to, I cannot force them to do so. My job is to help the actors in their work, not make it more difficult. The costume department is often compared with the art department. I always say that they have nothing in common for walls don’t have opinions.

SUSANNA PUISTO
Born: in Helsinki
Parents: journalist-writer, Tuula Poutasuo and steel industry businessman, Raimo Puisto (divorced)
Background: The family moved to Spain in 1979. Since then, Susan has lived in Monaco, the Bahamas, New York and San Francisco, where she studied acting. Susan moved to Los Angeles in 1990 in order to become an actor. She got a job instead as an assistant costume designer for a TV series. She assisted a costume designer for three years. In order to become a costume designer herself, Susanna had to do free work on indie films and theater to prove herself. A theater play called Big Al spawned her first paid work as a costume designer for a TV pilot, and launched Susanna’s career.
Marital status: Divorced, no children
Hobbies: Traveling, nature hiking, going to galleries and playing with her dogs Misty and Scruffy.

 

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