Costume Designer Susanna Song Makes “Pilgrimage” Into Her Family History Aboard ‘Minari,’ Reconsidering Perspective On Her Own Identity

On Minari, costume designer Susanna Song sought to honor fundamental truths of the Korean-American experience, while honing in on one specific version of it.

Loosely based on the childhood of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, the A24 drama centers on Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), South Korean immigrants that relocate their family from California to Arkansas in the 1980s. There, they set up a farm, in hopes of securing their piece of the American dream.

In some respects, the personal nature of the story being told, and Song’s connection to it, made the project easier to tackle. Given her own heritage as a Korean American, the designer wouldn’t have to engage in internet research in prep, instead delving into her life history, along with that of Chung and Yeun.

At the same time, the level of investment in the film, on the part of the entire cast and crew, meant that the shoot proved difficult to navigate.

Below, Song reflects on the creative, financial and interpersonal challenges that made Minari a “huge learning experience.” In addition, she touches on the “pilgrimage” into her own cultural background that the film allowed her to undertake, which made her reconsider her feelings about her identity.

DEADLINE: What attracted you to Minari? And how did you come to work on it?

SUSANNA SONG: [Executive producer] Josh Bachove, who I know of before the film, I heard in the grapevine that he was working on a Korean-American film, and I was super curious because there’s not a lot of meatier films or TV about that. So, I reached out to him and said, “Do you need me to help you find an Asian costume designer?” And he goes, “Well, I was thinking of you, but we were trying to hire someone locally, and I didn’t know if you’d be interested in this film.” And I said, “I’d love to hear about it, because if it’s about Korean Americans, that’s pretty much my background. I’ve lived it, my parents lived it, my grandparents lived it, so I feel like this is perfect for me. It resonates with me, without even having to read the script.”

So, they were on board, and I had an interview with [producer] Christina [Oh] and Isaac, and they signed off on me, and it was just A24 and Plan B trying to agree to it. And they did. I’m so grateful for them to take a chance, because it’s not what they were looking for. They wanted to keep the costs low, for the budget, and I was willing to take a hit on my finances for that.

It wasn’t about the money. It was more about, I guess it came at a perfect time, because in a way, I wanted to go through my own pilgrimage, into my Korean culture and background. Being American-born, I did take for granted the fact that my family sacrificed everything to come to LA. They immigrated to Los Angeles from South Korea in the late ’70s, and they expected more from us—from all my cousins, and my brothers, myself—not truly, empathetically knowing why it’s so significant.

This film has helped me in this wonderful journey, but also [was] scary because, am I Korean enough? Am I not Korean enough? Then, I just came to terms, after the movie was finished. Like, I’m actually American enough, and that’s what really matters.

[The process was] going through Isaac’s background, Steven’s background, as well as looking at all the photos of my cousins, and my aunts and uncles, and my father and grandparents. Like, that is inherited within my blood. So, I had a duty to make sure that [my work] was true to the story, and not how Americans or the world think these people should be dressed. It should be a reference to how these real people were dressed in that time.

DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on the early conversations with Isaac and Steven that informed your work?

SONG: I’ll start off with Isaac. When I first met with him, in our initial interview, the first thing I asked is, “Okay, the cowboy boots and the striped socks is completely what you wore in the ’80s?” And he said, “Yeah.” He was so excited about moving to Arkansas, it was the first thing he wanted, the cowboy boots. So, with that, I just selected the right ones for his age, for Alan [S. Kim]’s age, and just typical ’80s short shorts, that was a given.

For [Jacob’s] overall look, I had to basically go off of Steven first, [with] him setting the tone, because he’d been staring at the script for how long, and he already has a vision of what he wants to wear, and who he is, maybe an inspiration [being] his own father.

So, he was dilly-dallying with certain looks. In my first meeting, which wasn’t a complete fitting—it was more of an introduction—I had to just pull some things like the day before. Actually, I met him two days or a day after I got officially hired, and he was about to leave to visit his family. He was going to be out of town, so I quickly grabbed something, and it was kind of like a blank canvas, just to get the fit. It was structured, utilitarian type of shirts, and pleated pants, and some flat fronts, and he was like, “I feel good about this. But I feel like we should layer something on, or just add more depth to it.” And I was like, “Yeah, of course. This is just a starting point.”

So, originally, I thought, “Well, let’s transition him from the LA look to Arkansas.” Like, once he gets there, he’s gotten used to it, and he starts being more comfortable, assimilating into the society, where he looks like a farmer. And I get why he decided this, but he just thought, “I’m going to have like eight looks, and that’s it. It’s simple. I don’t think he’s a character to be thinking about his wardrobe.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I totally get it,” and he goes, “Yeah, I just want to get into this role from the beginning.” So, he pretty much wore the same flat front pants for the entirety of the movie. He has one navy pair and one brown pair, and another one, and he just dove right into it.

I wanted a green hat for him, but he really was gravitating towards the red, and I feel like in the ’80s, with our culture, red is a very powerful color. It’s a strong color. It’s nobility; it’s good luck, just everything good. So, I felt that that was his amulet—and he was like, “It’s too bright, isn’t it?” I said, “It is, but we’re in nature,” and I didn’t want to tell him it’s very similar to a MAGA hat. [Laughs] But I was like, “F—k that. It’s our own world; it’s our own thing. If you think that’s what Jacob would have worn, then he would have worn that. And there’s ways of dumbing down the color, without ruining the hat. So, let’s do it. Why not?”

So, because he set the tone of eight or nine changes, and then just the combination of those changes, I had also bought so much for the cast, but I didn’t need even need half of what I bought for them. Because how is it that everyone’s changing and he’s not, and in the middle of the movie, they’re having issues with paying for water? So, that was really important. Because why would they be doing all of this laundry when all the water’s going to the farm?

DEADLINE: Were the majority of the costume pieces featured in the film sourced from vintage stores?

SONG: It was mainly sourced as vintage, and I think the only things that were bought [in LA] were a few t-shirts, and a school dress that I got for [Noel Cho’s] Anne. The rest was sourced locally. I had this feat of basically trying to put all my budget into local [shops], in Oklahoma. I couldn’t rent from the costume houses there because it’s not within my budget, and I had to leave for Oklahoma right away. So, with that, I had to really search for vintage pieces in thrift stores and smaller boutiques. I literally went all around Oklahoma, finding pieces, and when I couldn’t, I had to come back [to LA] just for a day and pick out what I needed, from one of Steven’s sources. But I also had my own stock, my own ’80s collection, which is the church outfit for [Yuh-jung Youn’s] Soonja. That was my own.

There was a lot of piecing together things. Like, her church outfit, it was actually a patterned skirt and top with a scarf, but the skirt didn’t fit her. So, I got a Valentino vintage skirt to go with it, and to go with the exact cream color that it is, it was a great find. Then, even Monica’s pajamas, that was actually a blouse [where] I bought different bottoms and altered it to make it look like it was the same piece.

DEADLINE: Reportedly, you found a few pieces at Bayouth’s, an abandoned Oklahoma depart store that closed in the ’90s, with a lot of clothing still inside.

SONG: I did get a few things: some of David’s shorts and a couple of Monica’s tops, and little bits, here and there, for background.

DEADLINE: Which other stores were key finds, in your search for vintage clothing?

SONG: [One] was called Bad Granny’s Bazaar. That was in Oklahoma City, and it’s a very long drive from Tulsa, so that’s how desperate I was, finding things, because I was finding mainly ’90s things, and not really so much ’80s. So, there was that, and then there was another vintage store. I would go back like twice a week to make sure that I didn’t miss anything, and they would get new shipments in all the time. It was called Cheap Thrills Vintage, and that was pretty much my two go-tos that saved my butt, out there in Oklahoma.

DEADLINE: In conversation with Deadline last month, Chung mentioned that it was difficult, at times, to toe the line with this film between fiction and nonfiction. While Minari was based on his story, the family on screen was not entirely his own, at the end of the day. Was achieving the right kind of balance difficult for you, as well, as his collaborator?

SONG: Yeah. I feel that in the beginning, he was very open to my suggestions. But from my point of view, I didn’t expect in the beginning that everyone would chime in—which is doable, right? But because this is everyone’s story—especially Christina’s and Steven’s and Isaac’s—everyone wanted to chime in. So, my job was to listen to everyone and appease everyone, and politely just be like, “That’s kind of not going to work. But what about this instead?” Then, [I was] dealing with the weather and continuity, and the fact that I did have vintage pieces, [so] I didn’t have doubles of everything. And it’s not as if I had the budget to hire my own seamstress. I was my own seamstress, so I just didn’t have the time to build anything.

So, I got [Isaac’s] opinion on what worked. But also, as a guy, he’s probably not going to remember the specific details of what his sister wore, or what his mom wore. So, having his photo album really helped a lot because it was something that I could recognize, and it’s the language that I speak. Like, a boat neck top, and flat front pants, and a polo shirt.

DEADLINE: What were the highlights of your time making this film?

SONG: Every day was an adventure because I was in a state that I’d never been to, in weather that I had not experienced. This was the first time [for me] that there were a good amount of Korean Americans, or Koreans, on the call sheet. That just made me so proud, when I saw that. The department heads were Korean, and then there was also that cultural challenge of trying to understand Korean production, and then also doing what I usually do in this industry, what I’m comfortable and familiar with. So, it was a huge learning experience. It was soul searching and [you needed to] be prepared for anything, and be prepared for other people’s points of view, and just work with everyone as a family. Because that’s basically what this film was.

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