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‘Theater Camp’ Costume Designer Michelle J. Li on Pursuing Hollywood, Designing Custom T-Shirts for Ben Platt

While in production for Theater Camp, costume designer Michelle J. Li took a trip down memory lane to visit her high school theater department to figure out what kids were really wearing these days.

“I wanted to gain a sense of authenticity,” Li tells The Hollywood Reporter. With a background in theater that led her to the Carnegie Mellon drama school, along with a lifetime of attending Broadway shows with her family, Li, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, always knew she would end up in a creative field.

“The stereotype is that many Asian immigrant parents dissuade their children from pursuing entertainment or careers that are less financially stable, and it makes total sense,” she explains. “However, my parents did encourage me to pursue art, and so I always knew that I was going to land in something creative.”

Since, Li has worked on starry comedies including the likes of Nora From Queens starring Awkwafina and Meet Cute with Pete Davidson and Kaley Cuoco, as well as critically acclaimed feature Shiva Baby. Now, she’s the costume designer for comedy film Theater Camp, starring Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, the latter of which also co-writes and co-directs. Set in upstate New York, the Sundance breakout follows the eccentric staff of a rundown theater camp, as they’re forced to band together with the camp’s beloved founder’s “crypto-bro” son (Jimmy Tatro) to keep their favorite summer camp afloat.

“I think comedy is both overrated and underrated,” Li says. “It is such a wide genre that it’s able to make so much commentary on social issues that maybe would be too sensitive to touch, if you weren’t putting it in a framework of comedy and poking fun at the situation.”

Li sat down with THR to reminisce on her days in theater, working with Platt and Gordon on Theater Camp and the impact that working alongside other Asian-American filmmakers has had on her life both professionally and personally.

How did this project come to you?

I met Molly Gordon, when I was costume designing Shiva Baby. I had worked with her when she was an actress on the film. So when this project came around, I guess they decided to send it to me because they had some working experience, and that’s how I ended up getting roped in.

What about this film made you say yes to being a part of it?

Actually, the first time I read it, I did not know that Molly was involved with it. And they didn’t know that I had necessarily gone to theater school as a background. I went to Carnegie Mellon for their costume design program for their theater. And I remember reading the script, and the first thing that popped into my mind within the first 20 pages, I was like, “I have to design this.” I kind of made it a point. I was calling my agents like, “Hey, um, I have to do this movie. And I figured out how I’m gonna get this one.” I was able to connect with Molly and the team because of my background in theater. I had been, as everyone who starts out, doing some middle school or high school productions in school. You find yourself on stage first. I think I remember in an interview that Molly did with Nick, they were mentioning that everyone starts out on the stage, figuring out if this is maybe something that they’re interested in. I remember one role that I had, I was the Tin Man. That was kind of my first brush with theater. But the thing that really spoke to me at the heart of it is the cast of just really intense characters who care deeply about what they’re contributing to at the end of the day. That is something that I felt was really funny, because you get this cast of children who don’t really have a lot of life to reflect back on, but here they are thinking that it is life or death.

Would you consider yourself as a theater kid growing up?

I would. I grew up in New York, I went to Broadway shows as the Christmas thing my family did every single year. And so I had a rolodex of images and experiences to pull from for research, when I was piling all of this for Theater Camp. I actually went back to my former high school theater department and spoke to the kids there, toured their backstage and had them show me past productions that they worked on because I wanted to gain a sense of authenticity into what kids are wearing these days. It was really, really wonderful, and led me down all these rabbit holes of pulling out my old Facebook photos of when I was in college, and like, “What did I look like during tech week?”

With Ben Platt and Molly Gordon leading this cast, this seemed like such a fun set to be a part of. Do you have any favorite memories of costuming the cast?

I’ll talk about Ben. I remember one of my favorite parts of designing the film was for his character. He has a series of show T-shirts that, within the context of Theater Camp, his character, Amos and Rebecca Diane, they have been at this camp for 11 years as best friends. And they create this original musical every single year. And so, Ben gave me a list of 15 to 20 fictitious musicals, and he was like, “Pick your favorite, and make ‘em into T-shirts.” And so it was really nice because it was such a generous and collaborative offer, right? He was presenting me with the options that he was thinking about as far as some shows, but he also gave me the opportunity to figure out which ones I thought were funniest, and which ones I was able to create a graphic t-shirt for. And so [some of the ones] that we landed on were A Hanukkah Divorce and The Briefcase, The Door & the Salad. It was great because he gave me the framework, but as far as the direction for how the graphic should look, the tag lines associated with it, that was all me. It was so great being able to have that freedom and room to breathe as a designer and knowing that they were open enough to take that kind of suggestion and energy from me into the project.

Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in THEATER CAMP.

Molly Gordon and Ben Platt in Theater Camp. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

So there’s the T-shirts for Ben — was there any costume or particular piece that was your favorite?

I hand tie-dyed all of the camp shirts myself. Of course, the conversation came up: Do we just buy tie dye T-shirts? Of course, that’d be the quickest, the most time efficient. And then I was like, “oh, no, I’m going to take the weekend, and I’m going to tie-dye all the shirts on my porch because I feel like that is true to life.” That is an additional element that I think a mockumentary needs because it’s supposed to feel real. And so by hand tie-dyeing all of the shirts myself, not only was it a fun summer activity I was working on, [but] each of the shirts, in my mind, was like the kids had a camp activity. And as a bonding activity, they all tie-dye their own shirts. And I even painted my own hand and was putting hand prints, [as if] the kids were having a fun, summer activity.

Coming from a theater background, what were your most major design influences when you were coming up?

It took me a while to figure out that I wanted to do costume design. I did not grow up knowing that there were people who pursued this as a profession, even though I did go to a Broadway show every year when I was growing up. Being so close to the center of entertainment here on the East Coast, it was always accessible, but I never really knew that people actually pursued it. My parents, they emigrated from China in the late ’80s. And so, of course, the stereotype is that many Asian immigrant parents dissuade their children from pursuing entertainment or careers that are less financially stable, and it makes total sense. However, my parents did encourage me to pursue art, and so I always knew that I was going to land in something creative. But it wasn’t until I actually applied to school by suggestion of my theater teacher in high school. They were like, “Hey, have you really thought about theater and pursuing this?” And it piqued my interest. I really enjoyed the collaborative elements, working amongst a group of people who were trying to create this thing out of nothing. That was something really inspiring to me. And being able to also influence how culture perceives stories was something that was really important to me.

Based on your past work on projects like Nora from Queens and Meet Cute, you lean toward comedy. What about that world intrigues you?

I think comedy is both overrated and underrated. Depending on what kind of comedy you are focusing on, it can be on two opposite sides of the spectrum. I think It is such a wide genre that it’s able to make so much commentary on social issues that maybe would be too sensitive to touch, if you weren’t putting it in a framework of comedy and poking fun at the situation. I think it is one of the most moving places that you can find yourself in as an artist. Growing up, some of my favorite comedy shows that I’ve watched include Fleabag, 30 Rock, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, [and] Pen15. It’s like all of these pieces of art are comedy, albeit very different kinds of comedy, but they are also long lasting, and hit people deep in a way that is sometimes hard to access through other mediums.

Being an Asian-American woman in this space, how does that affect the way you approach your work?

It wasn’t until I worked on Nora from Queens that my world opened up. I think prior to working on that show, it was important to me, but I was like, “okay, yeah, it’d be great to work on a production where I was surrounded and involved with other Asian American filmmakers both in front of the screen and behind the screen.” But you know, everyone can make great art, you don’t have to be part of the community and work on stories in order for it to be impactful; Working on the show, and being able to be amongst a crowd of people who are all invested on the same project and and talking about Asian American characters and stories, and these little niche elements. For example, Asian snacks, right? I didn’t realize how much was missing from my life personally, until I worked on a show where it was exposed to me. I went to school where there weren’t too many Asian American people pursuing what I was doing. And so it was a wake up call for sure. It really ignited a flame under me to realize, “Hey, I do want to continue pursuing this alongside other Asian filmmakers.” I have had Asian costume designers who are also young and budding come up to me, and expressing how much my career so far has influenced them and how they’re really inspired by the work that I do. And having them know that you can look like me, and this is a viable career profession, is something that I want for the future generation because I did not necessarily know that that was possible.

Do you have a dream job or a dream cast you’d love to work with?

I’m kind of fresh off of watching Beef, as I’m sure many people are. So being able to work with that team would be super, super cool. I would also love to continue working in more comedy spaces. Hopefully there comes along another comedy that melds all those different interests. And drama, like Past Lives. I thought that [Celine Song] did such an incredible job. And so finding those sorts of nuances where the story is universal and the characters just happen to be Asian is something that I’m really interested and invested in.

Interview edited for length and clarity.



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