Ariyela Wald-Cohain is the Costume Designer behind the cult-favorite series Web Therapy, 2007’s Waitress, Insidious: Chapter 3, several projects with Marlon Wayans including Fifty Shades of Black, and plenty more. Wymsee caught up with Ariyela to talk about how she got into the business, her tricks for working on a shoe-string budget, and advice for others looking to break into costume design.
When did you first realize you wanted to be in costume design?
Growing up in Israel, I wasn’t in an environment where we watched a lot of movies, so I wasn’t exposed to that too much. But I loved making costumes for performances and for my friends. I could never find clothes I liked, so I would make my own or buy something to cut up and put back together to make it different.
Someone told me about a theatre set and costume design program in Tel Aviv, and I spent six months making a portfolio for it. I got in, was there for three years, and had decided to go on to get my Masters. But when I was about to graduate with my BA, my husband and I decided we wanted to move to America…the night before the committee meeting! I told my teacher that my husband got a job in America, he told his employer that I got a job in America, and we did it! We moved to Philadelphia with $4,000 in our pockets. I told everyone back in Israel I was going to America for one year to win an Oscar!
What’s your process for getting started on a new project?
Because I didn’t grow up here, I have to dig a bit deeper when getting started because there can be a bit of a culture gap. After I read the script, my mind starts going crazy thinking about the characters; if it’s a period or based on a true story, I will pull images and read articles related to the period, time, or person. Then, I will get in touch with the lead actors as early as possible to show them my ideas and discuss their bodies, likes and dislikes, things like that. We also focus on their character and what they are thinking. Actors do what I do in terms of thinking about their characters, so I want to make sure we are on the same page. My fittings and approvals always go well because I have taken the steps to make sure the actor feels comfortable ahead of time and feels that it’s a true collaboration. They need to feel like the character, and of course the director and show-runner have to feel it, too!
After working in Philadelphia and New York, starting with photoshoots and working her way up to her first feature, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (“I still get residual checks for it!”), Aryiela decided it was time to move to California to continue work in television and film.
Waitress was one of the first bigger projects I did when I moved to California. We had very little prep time with probably the lowest budget I’ve ever had. Everything was made from scratch, and I didn’t even think about renting or pulling. I think ignorance was bliss in this case [since it was one of her first big projects in Hollywood], and it forced me to be really creative.
Renting and pulling can be a great budget-saver! What are some of your tips for costume designers working on a small budget?
I am very practical – I like to have nice stuff, but I am very hands-on. I care a lot about saving the budget and being smart about where we spend our money. If something isn’t exactly what I want, I look for ways to change it. Maybe we can change the buttons or cut it up, do small alterations that will make it perfect. It isn’t always designer, but I have an eye to make it better. And if you need basics, shop at Target.
I don’t like to see the waste in the industry, so I try to get extra stuff like socks, t-shirts, and background items – things they don’t need for reshoots or returns – donated to charity.
What are some of your most memorable projects? What are you hoping to do next?
On Web Therapy, we could only sell people and tell their story in three minutes! That was a really fun challenge, especially when you have to tell a story within the confines of a computer screen. Lily Tomlin [who played Lisa Kudrow’s mom on the show] is so creative and so talented, and she really liked to get involved in costume ideas. I’d get a text in the middle of the night “Honey, I have this idea, call me!” And then we’d talk her ideas through, and two hours later there’d be another text with more ideas!
I just finished a pilot with Marlon Wayans for NBC [Marlon just got picked up]. I have worked with him quite a few times, and he is so current and so creative, which is really fun. I am so proud of what we came up with; we were able to push the envelope even though there aren’t too many costume changes.
I love doing fantasy and periods, and would love to do something with a bigger budget! We’re waiting to see what happens next with Marlon, and in the meantime I am working on a feature called Where’s the Money.
What advice can you give to aspiring Costume Designers?
If you really want to do this, you need to be patient and believe and keep going. Don’t say no to small projects because small projects may become big projects. And change it up. When I first got into the business, I really wanted to assist Jacqueline West. She gave me great advice about making sure I was doing different types of projects so I didn’t get stuck doing one certain thing. Sometimes you have to take a gig because you need the work, but sometimes you have to turn things down because you need to focus on where you want to be. You don’t want it to become a job you aren’t excited about.
Take a look at some of Ariyela’s work and be sure to check out her profile!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.