By Rachel Epstein published
After I saw an advanced screening of The Sun Is Also a Star, I had a new outlook on life. It sounds dramatic, but it's true. I've always believed in the power of the universe, but Ry Russo-Young, the film's director, validated this grandiose idea that every choice we make—from the route we take to work to the outfits we put on—plays a role in the life we currently live, and the other life waiting for us when we look up from our phones. When I left the theater, I put my phone in my bag and walked all the way home.
If you watch the trailer or read the original story by the über-talented Nicola Yoon, you'll know that the jacket Natasha (Yara Shahidi) wears plays a major role in the storyline: Two teens, Natasha and Daniel, meet the day before Natasha's family is scheduled to be deported. Daniel (Charles Melton) convinces Natasha she can fall in love with him in a day, and they experience the wonderful phenomenon that is fate, which led them to each other in the first place. It all begins with Natasha's embroidered "Deus Ex Machina" bomber jacket, which catches Daniel's attention as he spots her staring at the ceiling of NYC's Grand Central Terminal.
Deirdra Govan, The Sun Is Also a Star costume designer, created the jacket from scratch in three-and-a-half weeks with the help of her mighty team of assistants, tailors, set costumers, and costume supervisor. She tells MarieClaire.com she worked on roughly 15 different styles before landing on the one: a blue and rustic gold bomber jacket with minimal detailing and knitting at the wrists and waist that was "rich without being overpowering." It reminded her of the teal blue, celestial ceiling Natasha was mesmerized by.
"The jacket is symbolic in a lot of ways," Govan explains. "I needed to come up with a design—something simplistic—that is of the current moment and also timeless. She’s not a young adult who’s going to have a closet full of clothing because [her family] doesn't have a lot of money, so this jacket is something that she might have found in some type of one-off boutique in the Village or in Brooklyn. When she was going to the immigration office to plead her case, it’s kind of like her own version of a blazer, putting her best foot forward and still maintaining her identity."
The style isn't even the best part. Govan knew it was essential to design something timeless, but it was more important that Natasha's jacket wasn't just a piece of clothing off the rack—especially since it included the line, "Deus Ex Machina" (Latin for "god from the machine") on the back. In the film, the line becomes Daniel's mantra as he prepares for his college admissions interview later that day. It's also what made him believe he was meant to meet Natasha. "It was a great labor of love—I worked with one of my graphic designers and went through several typography styles. We narrowed it down from more than 20-something choices and presented them to our director, then she made her selection."
Costume designers are in charge of bringing their vision to the director, and then they have "a meeting of minds," as Govan describes it. "You don't always have the opportunity to build original designs, especially on tight budgets, but when you do, you jump at the chance because that’s your opportunity to really exercise your muscle as a designer." Govan has spent nearly 20 years in the industry honing her craft (most recently she's worked on big-name titles like Sorry to Bother You (2018) and the upcoming The First Wives Club tv series), and part of that includes collaborating directly with the actors—not only to choose clothing that fits their body type, but also to creatively shape the characters.
"[Yara and Charles] are a dream team. Yara is so incredible. I don’t even want to say 'special' because she’s so much more than that. She is just so in tune with her ability to articulate her mind, her ideas, what works for her, what doesn’t work for her. She’s very clear, and that’s a beautiful thing," Govan says. "Yara had clear feedback on what worked for her, and her mom, Keri, did as well. I think she’s a brilliant woman raising a brilliant woman, you know? It was a joy to work with both of them, and very collaborative."
Govan continues, "And Charles was…I can’t even tell you. He was a joy! He’s a great young man who knows what works for him as well, but he’s also very open, and he likes to try things. He’s like, let’s see what works! Both of them are that way. They’re not cynics. They lead with intellect and honesty, and what you see is what you get."
A striking element of the film was observing Natasha's main outfit (the bomber jacket with a grey t-shirt and jeans underneath) and Daniel's (a linen suit) in comparison to their families' clothing. Govan wanted to make sure Natasha's family, first generation Jamaican Americans, and Daniel's family, first generation Korean Americans, were able to visually display their cultural roots.
"It was very important for me not to fulfill a trope. I took a lot of visual cues from Wynn Thomas, who’s our production designer and one of my idols. The aesthetic of the environment of the home life for both families was very important, and the costumes had to exist in that space and not overpower," she says. "When we do see Natasha’s family, they’re not in rags, but you can tell their clothes...they’ve had them. The patterns, the textures, and the colors articulate their history as West Indians with Jamaican heritage. I have a West Indian background, so it was very important for me to articulate that as well. With Daniel’s family, it’s the same thing—very simple, understated clothing. Nothing that was ostentatious, but you could tell that they were very mindful in making sure that he had the best of what they could afford."
A photo posted by on
The Sun Is Also a Star is a lot of things: A story of fate and love between two teens, a love letter to New York, a timely message to our current political leaders that immigrants are, and always will be, what makes America great. Govan knows this too, and hopes the clothing she's chosen throughout the film solidifies the powerful story Yoon and Russo-Young have told through their book and movie, respectively.
"This story meant something to me and means something to a lot of people. The book has been out for a while, but I think it’s relevant right now because of the unfortunate conditions that we’re dealing with concerning immigration," she says. "When I take on projects, I really try to lean towards films that have something to say or that have a unique point of view that isn’t characterized by a trend. A film that stays with you, lingers in the mind. That's the power of filmmaking and the stories we tell as creatives who bring these stories to life."
The Sun Is Also a Star premieres in theaters May 17.
Rachel Epstein is an editor at Marie Claire, where she writes and edits culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also manages the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game, finding a new coffee shop, or analyzing your cousin's birth chart—in no particular order.
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