Q+A: Marjorie McCown

Feb 11, 2023
Dimitris Passas

Her name is linked with some of the most eminent titles of the American film industry during the last few decades such as Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, A Bronx Tale, The Aviator and many others. Always placed behind the scenes in a department of strategic importance for every worthwhile production such as that of costume designing, Marjorie McCown definitely has a lot of stories to tell and she decided that it was time to write a novel, based on her experience in moviemaking. Final Cut, due to be published on June 6, 2023 by Crooked Lane Books, is the American author's testament on the inner workings of the teams working silently, away from the limelight, cloaked into a first-rate mystery storyline that enthralls and compels the reader to keep turning the pages. I asked Marjorie if she would be interested to answer in a set of questions concerning her career so far as well as her latest work and she was kind enough to accept my invitation. Enjoy this brief Q+A:

1) The first question I was meaning to ask is what is the reason for the 20-year gap dividing the publication date of your first and second novel? How hard it was to get involved once again in the demanding process of writing a fully-fleshed fictional story?

M.M.: The 20-year gap between books was due to a combination of factors. I wrote my new book, FINAL CUT, a mystery set behind-the-scenes of the movie industry in Hollywood, after I retired from film. I've always loved books and from a young age, I have been interested in writing. But I also loved theater, film, and costume design, and 20 years ago I was immersed in a very active film career. I wrote my first book, DEATH BY DESIGN, during a months-long break between movies, and after it was published, I would have liked to try to seriously pursue a writing career. But at that point in my life, it didn't feel like a realistic goal, trying to balance two demanding professions. I believed one or the other would inevitably be short-changed creatively. And I enjoyed my work in film -- which, not incidentally, paid the bills. I never stopped writing during those years, but I didn't pursue it professionally until my retirement from film. Then I was able to revisit the craft of writing with a more concentrated focus.

2) You began your career as a fashion designer working for various theater companies and the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center. What was the reasoning that shaped our decision to move to Los Angeles and to find a job in the film industry? How painful was it to leave behind theater which was also part of your academic studies?

M.M.: First, and I apologize if I sound didactic: that is not my intention. I was actually never a fashion designer, per se, though I do have a degree in fashion design as well as theater. But the goals of fashion and costume design are different. Fashion design is about evaluating and working to satisfy the current tastes of the commercial marketplace while costume design is about using clothing to help tell a story about a particular set of characters in a particular story at a particular point in time. And yes, I loved working in theater, but I was also curious about film and the opportunities that medium provides to tell stories on a much bigger scale, both in terms of the financial resources that are available when you are working on an A-list feature film, and the size of the audience that film can potentially reach. Those possibilities intrigued me -- I'm always ready to learn or try something new if it sounds interesting. And the sure knowledge that I'd make more money working in film was attractive. I was sorry to leave theater, but at the time I decided to make the transition to film, I believed that was a better choice for me to achieve my long-range goals.

3) In both "Death by Design" and "The Final Cut", you seem to transfigure the raw material of your multiannual experience from participating in several film productions into the core of the story which you want to tell. Do you think that the fact that your work is done behind-the-scenes puts you in a better spot to observe and be fair regarding the pros and cons of each project in comparison to the people whose role places them in the spotlight?

M.M.: I can't honestly claim that my perspective is ever "fair." It's just my point-of-view, my interpretation of any situation I observe or in which I participate. I have strong opinions, and I don't shy away from expressing them, but I wouldn't present them as objectively factual. I don't think being behind-the-scenes or in front of the camera gives anyone a truer frame of reference for determining the pros and cons of any project. Each person's opinion is going to be influenced by their experience of that project, and that will often be very different for a variety of reasons from another person who has worked on the same project.

4) How much of you, as a personality/character, has seeped into the skin of your protagonist, Joey Jessop? Can you name some major similarities and differences between yourself and your fictional creation?

M.M.: There's a lot I share with the character, Joey Jessop, the Hollywood feature film costumer in FINAL CUT. We both enjoy working with antique clothing and all kinds of fabrics. We're both much more interested in costuming period or fantasy films than in modern dress movies. We share a deep appreciation for Nature and take special pleasure in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean -- and we both love animals. I'd like to think Joey is more idealistic, less cynical than I am in general. We're both mostly honest, but Joey has a purer sense of right and wrong. That's where her idealism comes in, I guess. We're both fascinated by all kinds of puzzles and that has sometimes gotten each of us in trouble.

5) Can you explain the process by which you structure your -highly intriguing and intricate- plotlines? Do you use the work of other authors as a kind of blueprint for the format of your own novels?

M.M.: Well, I have to start by saying a very big thank you for the "intriguing and intricate" description of my plots. Although I admire the work of many authors, I haven't ever used anyone else's novel as a blueprint -- but that's a very good idea! Generally, I start with a situation that feels like it has interesting possibilities to build out from to tell a complete story. Setting my books within the professional world where I worked for almost 30 years provides me with an automatic level of comfort as a creative platform once I have that core situation in place. And the film industry offers such a huge variety of people and activities that are just part of the moviemaking process that there's always plenty of raw material to tap for inspiration and to ratchet up tension and drama for the story. I always begin by doing a twelve-to-twenty-page outline to get me started as a guide when I sit down to write. But I don't stick to that outline if the story and the characters are taking the book in a different direction, which inevitably happens. My first drafts always need shoring up and varying amounts of reconstruction once they're finished. But I find it easier to fix (most) of the problems I've created for myself after the fact with a rewrite. The task is clearer once that first draft is in place and I can figure out how to fix each problem more precisely. I say that blithely, though I've sometimes found myself pulling my hair out over a plot point that doesn't work. So, I suppose that's my plotting process, such as it is -- though it's hardly neat, organized or even predictable.

6) Is the character of Marcus Pray inspired by a real person you've encountered in the course of your career? And does the recent booming of the "Me-too" movement reflect a true and systemic problem in today's film industry?

M.M.: Marcus Pray's character is a composite inspired by real people I have encountered in my career. He was worse in my original draft, but my editors told me he was too awful to be believable, so I toned down his malevolence -- in my view, more than the people who inspired him deserve. But I listened to my editors because they're smart, talented professionals and because I want Pray to be believable. That's the only way his arrogance and malicious actions can be taken seriously. I believe #MeToo is a valid reaction to a systemic problem within the film industry and in fairness, to elements within our society in general. That doesn't mean everyone in the film industry is guilty of sexual predation and harassment -- far from it. But the abusive behavior and attitudes that sustain it are pervasive enough to be a problem that needs to be addressed until the culture changes fundamentally.

7) You have participated in several notable American film productions of the last decades and had the chance to meet some of the most iconic figures in the country's cinematic history. Are there any special moments which are embedded in your heart and memory?

M.M.: The memories I value most from my years in film don't make the best anecdotes because they're more about just working every day with other creative people toward a common goal. But it is true that I have been fortunate to work with talented artists on some extraordinary films, and I am grateful for those experiences. I remember the first time I read Eric Roth's screenplay for FORREST GUMP, and thinking this could and should be an important film because the story was so simple yet profound -- the resilience of the human spirit and the power of love. I have many vivid memories from shooting FORREST GUMP, among them watching Robin Wright wade into the reflecting pool in Washington DC during the Viet Nam protest rally. It was thrilling to be on set that day; the energy of the crowd made it feel like we were at a real antiwar demonstration. APOLLO 13 was just a joy to work on, start to finish. That was another screenplay, by John Sayles, that felt special on the page, so expertly crafted. And I believe all of us in the movie company -- I credit Ron Howard's leadership to a great extent -- felt responsible for telling an important historic story every day we came to work. You could feel that commitment from everybody on set -- especially the Mission Control scenes. All those wonderful actors, particularly Ed Harris, were mesmerizing to watch during shooting.
There have been many light-hearted moments that stay with me, too -- like sitting on the fitting room floor with Cate Blanchett during her first costume fitting for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, surrounded by research pictures of ballerinas from the 1940s. Cate is inspiring to work with because she's so talented, smart, and devoted to her character, whomever she's playing. On A BRONX TALE, we were warned ahead of time that many of the background wiseguys were the real thing. So when they came for their costume fittings, we would first ask them to leave any handguns they carried outside the dressing room (we had a place to secure them.) The real wiseguys were all very polite. None of them made a fuss about checking his gun before he went in for his fitting.There are two anecdotes in FINAL CUT I included as if they happened to Joey, but they were mine. When I worked on THE FIRM as the assistant costume designer, I covered the set one morning for a costumer who had a doctor's appointment. When lunch was called, I started dragging his set bag (that was almost as big as I was) back to the wardrobe trailer while all the burly crew guys raced past me toward the lunch tent. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find Tom Cruise smiling that huge smile that has become so famous and he said, "That bag is way too big for you. Let me carry it." And he did, all the way back to the wardrobe trailer. The anecdote about Dustin Hoffman I put in FINAL CUT is one of my most cherished memories. The day after Dustin's first costume fitting for WAG THE DOG, the costume designer and I (I was the assistant designer on that one, as well) walked into our office and there were two vases with a dozen white roses on each of our desks with notes from Dustin that read, you found my character for me. For a costume designer, that's about the best compliment you can get.

8) Can you tell us the names of the authors and artists who influenced your writing both in terms of themes and style?

M.M.: This is a difficult question for me. As I said in an answer to a previous question, I admire the work of many writers. But I can't point to any one of them that I am consciously influenced by, though I don't doubt those influences are present. I try to keep the pace of my writing brisk, and in that regard, I look to some screenwriters for inspiration -- and I would begin by naming the writers I've already referred to, Eric Roth and John Sayles. Both are screenwriters of immense talent and skill whose work is not only fast-paced but filled with heart and dramatic tension. They are two of the most complete storytellers I have ever encountered. In terms of authors of fiction, there are many whose work I admire, enjoy, and return to again and again for my own entertainment, but also because their writing makes me think, touches my heart, and fuels my imagination. And I suspect if I were to study my own work from a more analytical perspective, I would find they have all influenced me in different ways. Some of those brilliant writers are Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Patricia Highsmith, Daphne du Maurier, A.A. Milne, Charles Dickens, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Wright, Ross Macdonald, Lawrence Block, Kellye Garrett, Ellen Byron, Ashley Weaver, Barbara Ross, Jane Harper, Lou Berney, William Landay, Sue Grafton, Steig Larrson, Dana Stabenow, Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, Carolyn Keene, Robert Crais, Peter Heller, Mo Hayder, Walter Mosley, and Don Winslow.

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