Credit wars are a fact of Hollywood life that’s rarely laid bare. Those involved are often intimidated by the possible consequences, and the backstories aren’t simple; there’s the question of whether they’ll be believed, or if anyone really has the patience to hear them out.
Directed by the Sundance-winning Drake Doremus, “Equals” stars Kristen Stewart and Nicolas Hoult. Two costume designers are officially credited to the production: In first position is Abby O’Sullivan, a veteran whose credits included “Frozen River,” “Sinister,” and “Mississippi Grind.” In second position, Alana Morshead, who was an actress and stylist when she started collaborating with Doremus on the film.
However, according to O’Sullivan and others who worked on the film’s costumes, Morshead is taking credit she doesn’t deserve.
“Ms. Morshead has made false statements, appropriated Ms. O’Sullivan’s work and statements for her own commercial benefit, and her actions are deliberately misleading the public,” wrote attorney Ryan Pastorek in a cease-and-desist letter sent to Morshead and her publicist on July 19.
Understanding how it got here is complex. Like most movie-credit issues, this one has ties to intellectual property. It can be tough to define a page-one rewrite, or which producer gets to accept an Oscar, but below-the-line credits align with specific tasks designed to serve a director’s vision and usually have less room for misunderstanding.
However, the role of Costume Designer is one of the more misunderstood crafts of the filmmaking process. To fully grasp this story, it’s first important to understand how the clothes worn by movie stars end up on screen.
Photo by Jessica Forde, courtesy of A24
Concept to Camera Test
“Equals” began in an amorphous fashion, as all of Doremus’ projects do: He gathers an inner circle of friends and colleagues to talk, blue-sky, and otherwise imagine what the film’s possibilities can be.
“Drake has a team of people that he riffs with on all aspects of what he’s going to make,” said “Equals” producer Michael A. Pruss of Ridley Scott Associates, who also served as co-producer on Doremus’ last film, “Breathe In.” “We were all riffing on the approach stylistically. It was a creative collective.”
This was a particularly important process for “Equals,” where Doremus conceived a love story within an emotionless, futuristic dystopia. While his previous low-budget indies were largely improvised, this concept would require Doremus to work from a script and take on production and costume design significantly more complex than anything in his four prior films including “Spooner,” “Douchebag,” and Sundance Grand Jury prize winner “Like Crazy.”
Among Doremus’ collaborators is his longtime girlfriend, Alana Morshead, a Los Angeles Film School graduate and an actress, who had worked as a stylist on commercials directed by Doremus. When “Equals” began, her only costuming credits according to IMDB included a 20th Century Fox TV pilot, “Enormous,” and a season as set costumer on a Playboy TV reality dating show, “The Man.”
However, multiple sources close to the production confirm that Morshead was key in helping him shape his ideas, especially around what the characters would wear in this dystopian environment.
Photo by Amanda Schwab/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock
The director characterized that process in the “Equals” press notes:
Doremus recruited costume designer Alana Morshead, with whom he’d made several TV commercials, to develop the characters’ signature outfits. “Alana came up with idea that the Equals should wear clothes that were stylish and pleasing to the eye, but also comfortable and uniform-esque,” Doremus says. “She gave me tons of pulls from different fashion magazines and designers. Then we did screen tests with all these different combinations of fabrics and colors and off-whites and grays until we ended up with the outfits you see in the film.”
In an interview with IndieWire, Doremus confirmed that the path from magazine tearsheets to on-camera costumes was streamlined, guided by Morshead’s designs. “If you’d saw the finished product and the camera tests at 15 feet, you wouldn’t be able to tell the fucking difference,” he said.
However, according to multiple sources, the process didn’t flow; it was a white-water rapid that included a revolving door of designers, last-second overhauls, and production in multiple countries — and Morshead was present for little of it.