Behind The Scenes with a Costume Designer Moira Shaughnessy
By Victoria Prima
Moira Shaughnessy is a costume and production designer in NYC. Moira’s work ranges from a Kanye West’s concert, Verizon Global commercials to Abel Ferrara’s films and includes about 6-10 green screen studio projects a year. Moira’s currently designing a Theatrical Musical – Wizard of Oz.
Hi, I’m Moira Shaughnessy. I’m a costume designer, production designer here is New York City. I’ve been lucky enough to work in most places–theater, film, commercial, TV. I’m very-very lucky, every project is a new challenge, new set of people, new set of rules, and that always excites me. It makes for a great project.
How did you start in the industry?
As a child. I was actually a child actor, just a local stuff, you know, in my town. I was performing from age of 5 to 17. And then I decided that I need to think about making money and that maybe I wouldn’t be the next Beyoncé. So I went ahead and started to work backstage. And really-really got interested in costume and theatrical design, historical references and all the different components of putting together a show. So I went undergrad, did pretty well, got a job in New York City and I feel like I’ve just kept growing since then. Moved into production design. Once I had kind of tackled costume design, so I had more to work with, I sometimes do a job where I’m a production designer and a costume designer. That makes me really happy because the entire environment is mine then. And then luckily I have lighting and sound to come in and help me make it as good as it possibly could be. So for me being able to do what I like, what I love, has been an immense blessing.
What do you like most about your work?
I think what I like is that every day it’s a different challenge and it’s different people. And we’re going for a sense of style and design. Which is nice, it’s a lovely world to work in. I’m not so worried about politics and fashion, all of that. But in that moment, in that studio to hit perfection is what I like to do.
You never know because in every environment perfection is a different thing. So you can’t plan it, you need to be ready for any kind of emergency, and be happy to rise to the challenge. And I am.
What kind of emergencies do you deal with?
It’s funny because emergencies, once again, I try to keep emergencies for just life or death. In art direction, sometimes we take things way too seriously that aren’t emergencies. Last night we needed a piece of clear plexi for a shoot today. The store is closed that usually sells it, I really wasn’t sure what to do. I remembered there is one all-night hardware store here in Manhattan and they have a glass cutter. So at 3 am I went to get a glass, thinking “I’m done, I’m done. I’ll have everything for 6 am, it’s gonna be wonderful.” And I get there and the cutter is broken. So there was just no way–it’s 3 am in New York City. So I bought a plexi, I brought it in the morning. I persuaded one of the guys to cut it for me… Yeah, so we only had a day for this. You live and learn, I think for the next job I have it fabricated from the beginning. But I think it worked for what we needed last minute. And it was really nice because everybody was happy and helpful getting it done.
Sometimes, you know, emergencies are much bigger. I was on a road with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I was an assistant wardrobe supervisor. And in that show we had an elevator, that would go up & down like a real elevator, cause this is a big Broadway show. So I’m doing a quick change with a guy behind the elevator. He is about 60 years old. And he has to go on stage right after I change him. So I’m changing him and I’m pushing him and he’s yelling at me, “Moira, Moira, you’re so pushy! Why are you touching me? Why are you touching me?” Well, the elevator had jumped the track and it was coming at us, at about 50 MPH. OK, and I knew he had to go back on stage so I didn’t want to tell him–I did’t want to freak him out. So I just said, “OK, yeah, I’m sorry, I’m such a jerk!” And I just moved him, while I was changing him. He’s yelling at me and goes on stage. Then, like three people ran over, “OMG! Moira, OMG!” So we go to a bar that night and they put it up on a marquee “Thanks Moira!” Yeah, and the guy came up, “Moira, I could’ve died, you saved me! And you didn’t even tell me and let me scream at you!” And I was like, “Well, it’s a show. We have to do it, that’s why we’re here.”
That was a great memory.
Was there a turning point in your carrier?
I was lucky enough to do a film couple of years ago. It was called 4:44, The Last Day on Earth and the director was Abel Ferrara. I do not think I had really worked with someone of his genius before. And to be able to be back behind the camera and see what he created, through his eyes, looking at the lens…It reignited my passion for film. And the movie ended up getting chosen for The Venice Film Festival. So we got to be a pat of The Venice Film Festival and I got to go to Venice and I walked down the red carpet with my lead Willem Dafoe. I think that was one of the biggest best parts of my career so far–walking the red carpet at The Venice Film Festival. I’m hopping to continue to rise to every occasion and do something new and beautiful every day.
What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
Honestly, I have a large personality. So I think if 10 years ago I might have been more willing to assist production designers and costume designers I think I might have ended up in a different place. But this way I forged my own path, you know, and there is good and bad things. But I do think because I do tend to stick to my own path I have a lot of gratitude.
What is your workday like?
Usually, if I’m on a job I’m up at 6 am. And between 6 am and 10 am is when I’m making my list, and calling all my people, and making sure everything is ready for the day. Because I found New York is so that place! Everything takes twice as long: To get something across town at 8 am is one thing. To get that same thing across town at 11 am is so much harder. Two, add two hours.
Big thing about New York is that you must organize your day. I do that in the morning, get all emails out, everything out before you leave. And at 10 am usually meetings or starting the process of the day whatever job I’m on. Then it’s crazy busy work, probably from 10 am till about 3 pm. Then 3 o’clock, once again you can’t get anywhere in New York at 3 o’clock. So once again you start doing heavy computer work, all the stuff that you can just sit and do.
I’d say most days when I’m working it’s probably from 6 am till about 8 or 9 pm. And then we go home, when everything is done.