Interview with SAW costume designer Alex Kavanagh


Recently we had a chance to do an interview with SAW costume-designer Alex Kavanagh. Alex had been working on each and every SAW movie from 2005 until 2010. We are proud to present the interview below with full of fun facts! Hello, Alex! First of all, thank you for this opportunity! Before I start asking about the SAW franchise, could you please tell us a few things about yourself? Who you are, where did you come from, what is your profession?

Alex Kavanagh: My Name is Alex Kavanagh, I am a Costume Designer, Costume Supervisor, and Costume Breakdown Artist for film and television. I graduated from the Dalhousie University Costume Studies program for theatre, but moved into film very early in my career advancing from sewing costumes, to supervising the costumes on set, to finally designing the costumes. I am a member of IATSE Local 873 that represents film technicians in Toronto, Canada. You were the costume designer from SAW II until SAW 3D. Who contacted you initially, how did you end up in the SAW universe?

Alex Kavanagh:

The short story:

I had just finished George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead when I got a call to interview for Saw II. I first interviewed with producer Dan Heffner who then introduced me to Darren Lynn Bousman who, luckily for me, was a big Romero fan and I was hired on the spot.

The longer story: 

I initially turned down the interview because I had already committed to another horror/thriller film, but last minute that film moved production from Toronto to Winnipeg, and I had a young child and did not want to travel so I left that project. I called production coordinator Cristy Becker to see if they were still interviewing Costume Designers… apparently they had met with quite a few but none were a good fit, so we booked a meeting. Few of the others who had met had any horror experience, and I had already designed Ginger Snaps 2 & 3 as well as Land of the Dead. It helped that I am also a horror film fan and was able to reference genre examples. Darren & I communicated really well and were on the same page. What were you doing between two shots? If I am not mistaken, for Nina’s (aka Naomi Snieckus) trap two jackets were made, and of course one of them was covered with blood. In order to have the blood continuity, what was your task during retakes? How hard was it to clean the jackets?

Alex Kavanagh: The Saw films are unusual compared to most movies because they are shot in script order as much as possible. Most movies are filmed completely out of order to maximize the locations or actor availability. On Saw II we filmed in a studio built in an old marine terminal right by Lake Ontario. The trap house was built entirely in the studio as were most of the police station sets. We used the studio hallways, production office, and even our parking lot as sets in the film so there was very little location shooting.

Off set with Betsey Russel “Jill Tuck”

When we filmed a trap scene we would go through the whole action, then reset all the bloody actors & sets back to clean and shoot again. We only had 3 to 5 of each costume. Our wardrobe office was right off of the set so we were able to wash the fake blood out of the costumes so we could keep doing more takes.

For Saw 7 we made 3 of “Nina’s” straight jacket so we were able to reset the costume twice. They will often shoot the end of the scene a few times when the actor is already bloody, so they just keep getting bloodier, which works for some of the gorier traps. 

Naomi Snieckus first costume fitting Saw 7 “Nina”

We prewash all the costumes and often subtly paint to help them to look more lived-in. Fun fact: we use shaving cream to help get the fake blood out, the foaming action helps lift the stains out before they can set in.

Adding fake burns to stunt woman on Saw 5
SAW 5 Photo: Steve Wilkie You designed Jigsaw’s cloak, which he wore from SAW II until SAW 3D. Please tell us the whole process,  from the idea until realization.

Alex Kavanagh: The Jigsaw cloak was the first thing Darren and I discussed. In the original Saw it looks like Jigsaw had a black satin cloak lined with red. For Saw II Darren wanted John Kramer’s illness progression to show in his appearance, he wanted the cloak to look more distressed and decrepit, but also comfortable like a bathrobe, keeping the black & red theme. 

I asked to see the original cloak and discovered it was really an an epic tailored red hooded cloak with black lining. Apparently due to lighting issues, the red was a problem on one of the sets of saw 1 (the parking lot I think?). The only thing they could do last minute was turn the cloak inside out. So that is why it looks a little weird – it’s inside out! The cloak is shiny because it’s lining.

For Jigsaw’s new cloak I chose French Terry for the black part and t-shirt jersey for the red part. The edges were left raw and topstitched to give texture. We made a total of 3 cloaks. We sanded them, painted them to look dirty and washed them to make them look old and frayed. At the end of filming I asked if I could keep the cloak we damaged doing the broken finger gag and was given permission to have it, I collect costumes from my shows for display purposes. 

At the beginning of Saw 3 I asked for all the archived costumes we had stored at the end of Saw 2 only to discover they had sold them all at auction. I brought in the cloak I had from Saw 2, and Tobin didn’t have much action – mostly flashbacks – in the subsequent films, so the one cloak from Saw 2 is the the cloak Tobin wears in Saw 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.

Alex and Tobin Saw 3 What was the most challenging costume during SAW II – SAW 3D? Do you remember?

Alex Kavanagh: We tried to keep the characters in the Saw films pretty realistic, the costumes are not particularly difficult. We also had pretty low budgets, specially for Saw 2 & 3. The most challenging thing was trying to recreate the costumes for the flashback scenes to match the originals. Tony Nappo’s character “Gus” in Saw 2 was wearing a sharkskin suit in a taupe colour way, we had bought it on a super sale at a mall store that included the suit, shirt, tie, belt, socks, and shoes – the whole outfit – for $250 CDN. When we had to re-create the look a few years later, the closest match we could find was a designer suit that cost over $1500 plus the other elements. The luckiest part was that Tony had kept a tie from Saw 2 and wore it so we had the exact right tie. Recreating the bathroom scene from Saw 1 was also pretty fun.

Recreating Saw 2 trap room on Saw 6 with photo doubles and actor Tony Nappo “Gus” How was it to work with Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith? Did you stay at the shooting locations until the very last day?

Alex Kavanagh: I absolutely LOVED working with Shawnee and Tobin. They are incredibly talented actors, it was a real pleasure helping to define these iconic characters with their costumes. On Saw 3 Shawnee and I talked about the idea of launching a clothing line based on her character that we would have called “Amanda’s Closet” but we didn’t get a chance to do it. The only set I left before the ending was Saw 4 – because I had my baby a week before we finished filming.

Alex and Shawnee Saw 3
Recreating scene from Saw 3 on Saw 6 with Shawnee Smith and Tobin Bell
Photo: Steve Wilkie We saw on your instagram that you visited the set of Spiral. Have you seen the latest installments, aka Jigsaw and Spiral? If so, did you like them?

On set of Spiral with Costume Designer Laura Montgomery and Darren Bousman

Alex Kavanagh: I have seen Jigsaw, which I enjoyed, but I haven’t actually seen Spiral yet! I’m really looking forward to it. My friend Laura Montgomery designed the costumes and I think it looks fantastic. They had an amazing cast and crew, and I’m a huge fan of Darren’s.

It was very fun to visit the set because I knew a lot of the crew. My brother Mike Kavanagh actually worked on it in special effects.

On set of Spiral with Darren Bousman Last, but not least, what would you say to the Hungarian SAW fans?

Alex Kavanagh: I have huge respect for horror fans worldwide. The Saw films explore a lot of themes that address social issues while also being a mystery and a gorefest! I hope the Hungarian fans continue to enjoy watching the Saw franchise as much as we enjoyed making it.

Break from recreating Saw 1 bathroom scene on Saw 7 with Cary Elwes and Tobin Bell Thank you for the interview, and we wish you the best of luck! 

Follow Alex Kavanagh on Instagram and on Twitter. On Facebook use the @caftcad tag.

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