Go Behind the Seams with 'Lisa Frankenstein’ Costume Designer Meagan McLaughlin-Luster

If you love Madonna, stay put.

Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows LISA FRANKENSTEIN

Michele K. Short/2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Costume designer Meagan McLaughlin-Luster felt an instant connection to the script for Diablo Cody’s latest film, Lisa Frankenstein. Between the campy, teenage horror-flick source material and late-1980s setting, McLaughlin-Luster saw so much of herself in the script she even turned to her own '80s and '90s wardrobe for the film.

“There were so many signs that this script was for me, and that has a lot to do with Diablo” she tells InStyle. “We're about the same age. Some of Lisa's costumes are straight out of my closet. It brings you back to that time because you grew up in that time.”

Still, she had her work cut out for her. For the film, McLaughlin-Luster was tasked with seamlessly marrying Victorian-era aesthetics with the nostalgic fashions of the late 80s, working in visual inspiration from several iconic ‘80s movies such as Heathers, Death Becomes Her, and Beetlejuice. 

Lisa Frankenstein, directed by Zelda Williams (daughter of the late Robin Williams), takes place in 1989 and centers around Lisa Swallows (played by Kathryn Newton) as she navigates grief following the loss of her mother. Lisa is struggling with isolation and seeks solace beneath the statue of a strapping, Victorian era gentleman in a graveyard, all while struggling to adjust to a new school and her dad’s new marriage. After her new stepsister Taffy’s attempt to welcome her into the high school fold by inviting her to a party backfires, Lisa unknowingly summons “Creature” (portrayed by Cole Sprouse, completely silent in the film) from the grave. What ensues is a Mary Shelley Frankenstein-inspired descent into madness, with Lisa attempting to revive her undead lover (and replace his missing body parts) with the help of an old-school 1980s tanning bed. 

Kathryn Newton stars as Lisa Swallows and Cole Sprouse as The Creature in LISA FRANKENSTEIN

Michele K. Short/2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Williams says she wanted the film to feel like “a sort of warped, John Waters-meets-Nightmare on Elm Street version” of 1989. “The film was so clear on the page,” she says. “The way it started to go off the rails felt like a wonderful descent into bigger, wilder choices."

Of course, the costumes had to marry Williams's vision, which is where McLaughlin-Luster comes in. “The first thing that a costume designer does is just kind of dive deep into the person, what the characters are, where they came from, who they are," she says. In some cases, aspects of the costumes are written into the script, with the writer noting specific elements of outfits worn by the characters as a guide for the costume design team. “There are definitely a lot of wardrobe pieces that were written into the script—for Lisa, the slutty pirate, the Blossom hat, [and the] Taffy's jellies that she wears [were] 100 percent written into the script.”

Lisa Frankenstein Pabst dress

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In other cases, it was on McLaughlin-Luster and her team to deep-dive into the time period to ensure the people on screen fit in with their surroundings, or in some cases, make sure they stand out. For this film, they studied movies such as Say Anything and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. From there, she created mood boards inspired by each character to align on a direction for their costumes. She says, “Now we have the convenience of pulling from Google, but I'll still order books from that period. Sears catalogs, magazines like Teen Bop. Anything that will show the actual clothing.”

McLaughlin-Luster also coordinated across multiple teams working on Lisa Frankenstein, such as production, hair and makeup, set design, and the director to make sure they were all working on the shared vision as a team. Daily, they would review references and mood boards designed by Williams as a guide, then make sketches and discuss colors before filming.

For Lisa Frankenstein, Williams was inspired by Pedro Almodóvar’s film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and chose to feature a recurring primary color throughout the film—ultimately landing on red as a key color theme. McLaughlin-Luster also talks through ideas and decisions with the actors to have an opportunity to collaborate with them on the look for their characters. 

When we first encounter Lisa, as William’s shares, “She’s an extremely traumatized person whose grief has been treated like an inconvenience by the people around her.” Mclaughlin-Luster dressed earlier scenes of Lisa with more conservative, lightly feminine clothes — collars, button-downs, and a focus on vintage clothing from ‘80s brands such as United Colors of Benetton, ESPRIT, and Banana Republic. 

But as the film progresses, as Diablo Cody shares, “I have always toyed with themes of transformation and reinvention." Even though Creature is the one who literally gets remodeled throughout the movie, Lisa’s own, internal transformation is reflected through the evolution of her wardrobe. 

Lisa Frankenstein Creature costume

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McLaughlin-Luster explains, “Once Creature comes, she goes on a catapult of self-discovery. The thing that she wished for, which was for Creature to be alive, happened. And so it gave her this magic to become the person who she's always wanted to be.”

“Falling in love with the Creature allows Lisa to literally embrace death,” says Cody. “He empowers her to express herself and go after what she wants, including revenge.” And this evolution for Lisa is reflected in the styling, as her character transitions away from more traditional clothing into bolder, cutting edge '80s looks, featuring influences from the character Blossom and Madonna, wearing outfits with leather, tulle skirts, lace gloves, hats, and ‘80s style headbands, not to mention one red fashion look heavily influenced by an outfit worn by Winona Ryder in Heathers. 

For the character of Creature, who is very much a zombie from 1837 and is missing limbs and body parts, Sprouse trained with mime Lorin Eric Salm, to perfect his performance. Visually, McLaughlin-Luster and her team leaned on inspiration from the costumes Johnny Depp wore in the film Benny and June, which ultimately was inspired by actor Buster Keaton, who was famous in the 1920s for his physical-comedy and deadpan expressions. It's a perfect reference for Creature, who, without the ability of speech, expresses himself through his body alone.

“[Creature] is definitely of a certain class. Definitely a gentleman and still wants to be all properly put-together. And we talked about that in our fittings," McLaughlin-Luster. "Once I put an outfit on,  Cole would walk around the way he was gonna walk around on set.”

In one of his first scenes after being summoned from the grave, Creature is featured in a period-appropriate outfit which was naturally covered with mud by the visual effects department as he chases Lisa around her living room. From there, Creature transitions into an appropriate sport coat, allowing him to retain some structure as a gentleman, worn over a very '80s graphic ‘Violent Femmes’ T-shirt as he aims to blend further into Lisa’s world and heart.

Cole Sprouse stars as The Creature and Kathryn Newton as Lisa Swallows in LISA FRANKENSTEIN

Michele K. Short/2024 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Still, perhaps McLaughlin-Luster’s most rewarding creation from the film is featured in the middle of a drug-fueled fever dream inspired by classic black-and-white cinema, in which Lisa winds up in a two-dimensional, beer-themed victorian ball gown. The dress, which is made out of canvas fabric, was entirely hand-painted by McLaughlin-Luster, using the logo of a Pabst Blue Ribbon as her guide. To complete the look on actress Newton, the hair and makeup team leaned heavily into inspiration from the Bride of Frankenstein.

“Someone on set said, well, 'What are you going to do with the dress, Meagan?' And the studio quickly piped in and said, 'It will stay, it will go to the studio.' If I would have had more money, I would have maybe had someone else make it, but because I made it entirely on my own, I am really proud of that.”

For McLaughlin-Luster, this process of creativity and figuring out how to approach costumes for the film is the reason she was drawn to design.

“The main reason why I became a costume designer is because I love history. I love digging in," McLaughlin-Luster says. "It's almost like a treasure hunt because how would you know what somebody wore in 1837? You wouldn't. So you had to dig to find that knowledge and once you found it, then you can create your own vision of that year. It combines fashion with history.”

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