A still from The Accidental Getaway Driver by Sing J. Lee, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
In THE ACCIDENTAL GETAWAY DRIVER, Long, a Vietnamese driver in Southern California, answers a late-night call for a ride. Already in his pajamas, he reluctantly accepts, picking up a man, Tây, and his two companions. But the men, recently escaped convicts from an Orange County jail, take Long hostage at gunpoint, thrusting him into their getaway plan. When complications arise, the fugitives and their hostage hole up at a motel, and a tense waiting game unfolds.

For THE ACCIDENTAL GETAWAY DRIVER, the costumes were created by Kim H. Ngo. A member of the Costume Designers Guild and Motion Pictures Costumers Union, Ngo has an incredibly versatile skillset that she has developed over the years, working with companies like Nascar before moving on to working on notable hit TV series like “This is Us” and – for our good ol’ horror fans here at Nightmarish Conjurings – the recent horror movie prequel, Orphan: First Kill.

After the world premiere of THE ACCIDENTAL GETAWAY DRIVER at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Nightmarish Conjurings’s Sarah Musnicky chatted with costume designer Kim H. Ngo. During their discussion, they touched on Ngo’s journey as a costume designer, the importance of saying yes, and the collaborative process between her, director Sing J. Lee, and the other actors.

Something I like to ask costume designers, because the path to costume design isn’t the same for everyone, is what got you interested in the craft?

Kim H. Ngo: I started designing when I was in high school. I went to this performing and visual arts high school called Booker T. Washington, and it was a performing high school for theater arts, like visual arts, music, dance, and theater. I had this amazing professor there named Deborah Washington who I fell in love with. I was initially a symphonic clarinetist and then decided to not go that route. A lot of my friends were in theater, and I really loved that community surrounding theater and storytelling. I grew up with English as a second language so, I was never really great at telling stories. I think being a part of a play, or an actor’s experience in telling the story was really appealing to me.

So, I studied it in college. I checked out fashion and didn’t quite like the culture there, and then in college, I got into filmmaking. I did a lot of indie movies, commercials, and theater in Austin, Texas. That’s where we’re from, and then eventually moved to LA to do more TV and bigger-budget movies. There was a lot of going back and forth about what that is because, in costume design, there’s no direct path, really. It was about forging your own path, but what really kind of kept me going was the community around the filmmakers and theater that really inspired me to keep going it.

It was a difficult path, but I really enjoyed doing it because you create something from a drawing and it comes to life on an actor, and then you get to share it with so many people around the world, if you’re lucky, for people to see your work. That was the inspiration for it.

As a former theater kid, I can totally relate to the sense of community, especially when you don’t have a budget at your school, and then having to compile all your resources together to figure out how to make the costumes come to life because that’s what we did the first year we had a musical. We had no budget.

Kim H. Ngo: Yeah, and that’s sometimes the fun part of it, right? You’re like, Okay, I’m gonna take this thing and dye it green and cut this piece up and create two skirts out of it. It was a good skill-building experience to have no budget.

Kim H. Ngo l Photo Credit: William Moran

In looking over the projects you’ve worked on, you covered sort of a broad range from working on NASCAR suits, which I can’t even fathom the textiles involved with that, to contemporary pieces like “This is Us” and then horror, which usually requires multiple outfits for blood and such. How has working in different genres challenged you and helped you grow?

Kim H. Ngo: I’m just a very curious person. My dad is an engineer and my mother was a social worker, but she was studying to be a lawyer before she had kids. And so, I liked the technicalities of costume making. So, studying NASCAR suits and the flame retardant materials, or how to make certain patches were really interesting to me. In the beginning of my career, I just kind of said yes to everything, and it gave me a diverse set of skills to be able to build anything that was asked of me. I was just experimenting, really. And so, creating the NASCAR suits was interesting, because I was experimenting with different materials, a different group of people too. Different cultures. I grew up in Texas, so I am kind of used to the Southern/Western sensibility.

And then, “This is Us” came around. I had worked on many television shows before that, like “Silicon Valley” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Going to LA [to do] television was interesting because it created a stability. “This is Us” ran for six years and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” ran for like, 14 years, and that was kind of cool to me. Because in filmmaking, you start a project. It’s six months, and then it ends, which was exciting to me in the very beginning, but then I was like, What is this TV Land?

“This is Us,” particularly, was interesting, because it was always going through many different time periods, like the 70s, 80s, 90s, and present day. We would jump back to the 60s with Milo and Mandy growing up. That was intriguing to me, and then, of course, Orphan: First Kill, I like doing horror movies. I like tackling that challenge. Because as you said, you have to do multiples, and, work with a lot of doubles and stunts. Working with stunts is really fun for me, too. I think it’s just about the experience. Because, in addition to the story, I like to have fun and create and have a cool experience.

The thing about you saying yes to everything, I feel that in my bones. You just never know until you say yes. Yeah, sure, I can do that.

Kim H. Ngo: I think coming out to LA, I did meet a lot of old-timers that talked to me about getting stuck in a situation. Sometimes when I talk to mentees or people coming up, I tell them to experiment with things because a lot of people like to put you in boxes. Like, oh, you only do sci-fi or oh, you only do westerns. I’ve talked to people who are kind of stuck in that situation, where it’s like, I don’t necessarily want to get stuck anywhere. I want to be able to just do anything that you ask of me. It’s just experimenting. A lot of the skills I apply to the many projects, it’s the same skills that you apply to all projects, but learning about new materials and researching different histories, or time periods; it’s really fascinating to me.

Speaking of projects that we say yes to you, how did you get involved in The Accidental Getaway Driver?

Kim H. Ngo: I was recommended by my friend Vera Chow, who’s a costume designer based in New York. She’s just a total badass, and she recommended me to Jes Vu, who works at Cape. They introduced me to the producer Andy Sorgie and the director Sing J. Lee, and we spoke to each other about a year before we started shooting, and we just connected. They didn’t even have a script yet. They just had a little blurb, and they’re like, Oh, we’re gonna write a script in a few months, and then we’re gonna shoot it. And I’m like, Sure, yes. But then a year went by.

It’s funny, because I had the opportunity to work on this ABC pilot, and I didn’t go through with it because of the multiple conversations I had with Sing, I really felt like he was such a talented director, and that he really cared about the story. He really cared about the sincerity of this Vietnamese story that I couldn’t say no to.

I am a first-generation Vietnamese, and it was so rare to find a story that was about Vietnamese Americans that wasn’t about the war. It wasn’t about flashing back to kids running around with napalm on them, or a battle sequence with lots of guns. It was about the people and the aftermath of it, and it wasn’t a sob story about them. It was a hopeful story, and that’s something that I want to project to the world, that’s outside of just Vietnamese people, but a lot of immigrant stories where we’ve all gone through a lot. Whether you’re an immigrant or not, life is hard. It’s so hard to get through, and ending with a hopeful note was important.

So, I was just really drawn to the story and the people that were creating it, and I’m glad I stuck with it. Because I really enjoy the film and I think they did a really good job.

A still from The Accidental Getaway Driver by Sing J. Lee, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The film takes place over a short period of time in a mostly contained space, which means there’s little room for variety in the costuming. What was the process like in narrowing down the costumes for each character to reflect their inner world and keeping to those parameters?

Kim H. Ngo: I want to say it was challenging. Narrowing it down was the year-long conversation with the director and the creatives. For me, the process of designing is building the world around it first. Creating visual references, research, inspiration, and that can mean artwork, or photographs of people, colors, and textures. You’re listening to songs, sharing music, and agreeing on the world that we create around it. So, when you get to the point where you’re shopping for clothes and having the fitting with the actor, it comes more organically.

As the costume designer, I like to live in the world of the characters. I like it when the costumes feel very organic, and don’t distract you from the story. For instance, Tây, the character that Dustin Nguyen plays, wears a Hanes t-shirt and Levi jeans. I wouldn’t say it’s the most difficult costume I’ve made in my career, but it felt really right. We did things with the t-shirt. We stone-washed it many times, so it feels really worn in. The jeans were dyed and altered in a certain way and then also stonewashed so they’re broken down in a way that feels It’s very natural.

Creating an iconic look for the actor that feels right for them and the character and then coming together with the director to agree on this specific look took a couple of fittings but I think it’s about making sure that it makes sense. We ended up shopping around Little Saigon, which is where the story takes place. So you get things that you don’t normally get if you’re going to a mall in Hollywood

Because you mentioned stone washing, this leads to the question about Long Mã’s pajamas. They’re thinner in texture. You can see that light shines through it a little bit. So I was wondering about the process. I’m assuming you bought newer pajamas and wore them down?

Kim H. Ngo: Yeah. It’s cool that you noticed that. It’s funny because we bought maybe 20 pajama sets, and it was really important to me that those pajamas felt right. We bought pajama sets from Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and Brooks Brothers, and those were all really thick. These pajamas were inspired by my grandfather. He wore very similar pajamas, and these were ones that we bought from Little Saigon. We did stone wash those. We took those to the stone washer. I think it was level three stone washing before holes, so that process wore down those pajamas quite a bit. That was a very purposeful decision and because of Sing as well, where we said, there’s a fragility to wearing pajamas the whole movie and it reflected his position in the story.

So yeah, we wore it out. There’s like light dusting and aging around the collar. We bought six of them, and it was really difficult to find six of the same ones. It was a fun process. Sing and I fell in love with this specific plaid pajama and we weren’t able to find a lot of multiples in them. But we scoured Little Saigon. We went to 10 different stores speaking to them in Vietnamese, like, we need these plaid pajamas. And they’re like, this is the same plaid, and we were like no, that’s not the same plaid. This has a red stripe in it. [laughs] It was a fun process. But my assistant Matthew helped me out with that because he was very insistent that we found the right plaid.

Did the actors get to collaborate with you on the costumes at all?

Kim H. Ngo: Yeah, they did. It was important for me for the actors to feel good. There are some actors like Dali [Benssalah], that was very much like, you put anything on him, and he’s good to go. All our actors were awesome. There was a lot of understanding. We spoke to each other beforehand, and we shared images with each other beforehand. So, they’re not walking into the fitting room blinded by the concept. And then, they also spoke with Sing beforehand, so they get the tone of the direction

We had a fun time. For instance, with Phi [Vu], who plays Edward, we started putting on oversized, big striped polo shirts and with the Kurt Cobain hat and sunglasses. Then, we paired it with some shorts, and some sneakers, and there was a moment where he was like, yeah, this feels really good. And I’ll let him run around, have some coffee, and live in it for a little bit. The whole process with actors was really fun., and I don’t want to say easy, but it was. It felt effortless because there was so much preparation before the fitting.

THE ACCIDENTAL GETAWAY DRIVER had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where director Sing J. Lee received the Directing Award in U.S. Dramatic for the film. Keep your eyes peeled for distribution pick-up and release dates.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. Stay tuned for part 2 of our two-part interview series with Kim H. Ngo, where we dive into her work on Orphan: First Kill.

Sarah Musnicky
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