Interview With an Author: Marjorie McCown

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Marjorie McCown and her book
Author Marjorie McCown and her latest novel Final Cut. Photo of author by Max S. Gerber Photography

Marjorie McCown has spent her entire professional life in the story-telling business, though she started out on the visual side of the craft. She spent more than twenty-five years in Hollywood working as a key member of the costume design teams for a string of successful movies that includes Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, The Firm, A Bronx Tale, Wag the Dog, The Aviator, Hairspray, Angels and Demons, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and X-Men Days of Future Past. McCown has a BA in Theater from the University of Virginia and an AAS in Fashion Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. She lives in Southern California. Her latest novel is Final Cut and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Final Cut?

Generally speaking, my inspiration for the plot was my 27 years of experience working in the movie industry and realizing all the things that can go wrong on a movie set, particularly a set that's not being run with the strictest safety oversight. I just thought that premise was a good set-up for a mystery because as an author, I can present the circumstances in such a way that the characters in the story have to ask the question, "Are these accidents, or are they intentional attempts to disrupt production and cause harm to people?" That's a pretty good place to begin a murder mystery. 

Are Joey, Malo, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Most of the characters are inspired by/based on people I've worked with in the film industry. Bill Nichols, the level-headed costume supervisor on Joey's movie, is based on my friend and colleague, Bob Mathews, one of the best supervisors in the business. Malo is a composite of many eager, talented young people I've had the pleasure to work with throughout my career whose enthusiasm for moviemaking was always a great reminder to appreciate the many aspects of the job that I loved. Without question, there is a lot of me in Joey. Her perspective about the industry and her skill set at work are mine, though I'd say she's less cynical than I am.

Marcus Pray seems like he MUST be based on someone (or several someones). Are you at liberty to name any names (or provide a few hints) as to his inspiration?

Marcus Pray is very definitely inspired by real people I have worked with in my film career. Which is not to say that all the most powerful people in the movie business are as arrogant and abusive as Marcus Pray. Not even close. And I don't think it's important to know the names of the people who provided inspiration for that character. None of those names would be a surprise to anyone with even a casual knowledge of the film community. The shame of it is that despite recent reforms encouraged by initiatives like #MeToo, there are too many people who are too much like Marcus Pray still working in the industry.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I did so many rewrites that I'm not even sure I remember all the changes. I guess the biggest change from my first draft to the finished book was the identity of the murderer. Most of the other changes I made in rewrites were geared toward aspects of pacing, as well as sharpening and refining Joey's character, along with fleshing out some of the main supporting characters. I added the murder victim's twin brother as a character on the first rewrite, and along the way I dropped a scene that showed Joey's mother coming for a visit. I put the information I wanted to convey in that scene into a brief phone call between Joey and her mother. One of the scenes I rewrote most often and most extensively was Joey's interrogation by the lead detective on the murder investigation, which I must have rewritten to greater and lesser degrees at least a dozen times. At least! 

Your career working in Hollywood costumes spans more than 25 years and you've worked on some amazing productions. Do you have any favorites of the films you've worked on (either in terms of the work or the experience working on that production)?

With one exception (which I won't name) I have enjoyed all the movies I've worked on—some more than others for a variety of reasons. But two that stand out to me as jobs that were pure joy from first day to last are Apollo 13 and Wag the Dog. They could hardly have appeared to be more different from each other in many ways. Wag the Dog was a contemporary political satire with a small cast that we shot in 32 days. Apollo 13 was a big-budget historical epic with over 100 speaking parts that we shot over the course of 5 months. But there was a wonderful sense of collaboration among all departments—that included the cast as well as the crew—on both those movies that not only enriched the quality of the work but the quality of the experience in the workplace. They were terrific jobs and I think both are very fine films.

What are your favorite films, past or present, in terms of their costume design?

This is an entertaining but impossible question to answer. There are too many brilliantly designed movies—and they are brilliant not always because they are spectacular, beautiful or imaginative but sometimes because the design is so subtle and true to the story that the movie is trying to tell. The understated costume design for Tender Mercies (for example) is every bit as praiseworthy—in my opinion, anyway—as the elaborate and gorgeously detailed costumes for Dangerous Liaisons. Apples and oranges, but they're both delicious and perfect in their own ways. But here are some movies that I love to watch for costume design alone, even if I didn't enjoy them as films.
The Wizard of Oz
Road to Perdition
The Last Samurai
Down With Love

You've also worked on costumes for theatre productions. Is working on costumes for stage markedly different from working on them for motion pictures? If so, how? Do you have a preference between working for stage or motion picture productions?

Working on costumes for stage and film is different in a few important ways. Even a large theatrical musical will only have 200 - 300 performers, including cast, dancers, chorus, etc. A large film can easily have more than 100 speaking parts and thousands of extras.

Then there is the difference in the way the audience views the costumes. In the theater (depending on the size of the venue) the audience may be sitting quite a distance away from the actors on stage. But in film—well, it used to be this way when we actually went to movie theaters instead of watching films on TV or our computers—the actors appear on a screen that is many feet tall, and a shirt collar in a closeup shot of a leading actor can look massive.

There is also a big difference in the way the work is structured and scheduled for a theater production compared to film. In theater, all the costumes have to be ready on opening night. Films are made piecemeal, one shot at a time. One scene is routinely made from several shots that are cut together in the editing room. Shooting a movie can take anywhere from 30 days for a very simple, lower-budget production to 6 months or more for a big-budget movie like Dune. And the final product is only available to see once the film has been cut together in post-production. I don't really have a preference between theater and film, but I do enjoy working on both.

Final Cut is listed on a few sites as "Joey Jessop #1" or "A Hollywood Mystery." Is Final Cut the beginning of a new series? If so, what are your plans for the series? Do you have an idea at this time how long the series will be and how many books will be necessary to tell the story you want to tell?

Final Cut is the beginning of a new series featuring film key costumer Joey Jessop, who finds herself pressed into the role of amateur sleuth after she discovers the body of a murdered coworker on a movie set and then becomes a suspect for that crime. Book number two will be published next year, and I hope readers will embrace Joey and her moviemaking world.

I don't know how long the series will be. Much of that will be determined by the readers and how they respond to these first two books. In terms of my plans for the series, I see unlimited potential for stories in the world behind the scenes of filmmaking. I've often thought that (depending on the movie) what happens behind the scenes is at least as interesting as what you see on screen.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

All That is Mine I Carry With Me by William Landay, Intrigue in Istanbul by Erica Ruth Neubauer, and Exiles by Jane Harper.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

This is another delightful impossibility—there are so many authors I admire and whose work is influential to me. But here goes (in no particular order):
Jane Austen
Patricia Highsmith
Daphne du Maurier
Michael Connelly
Ross Macdonald

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I tried very hard to narrow the answer to one title. But I have to go with my top three (you may detect an underlying theme to my preferences): Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and The Velveteen Rabbit. These books are, of course, classic masterpieces of children's literature, but I certainly didn't know that as a child. I just knew they touched my heart and grabbed my imagination—and I didn't want them to end.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Never. I can say that without even having to think about the question. My parents were both avid readers and encouraged me and my three siblings to read—and we always had many books in the house. My mother read to us children nearly every day when we were very young, and all of us knew how to read before we started kindergarten. I don't think I ever really wanted to read anything totally inappropriate for my age, but I never felt like my reading choices were limited by my parents.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

No. I always enjoyed school and reading, so book reports never felt like a chore to me. I certainly wouldn't want to be in conversation with someone and try to pretend I've read a book when I haven't. I'm not that good at bluffing.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

No. I did think about this for a while, but I can honestly say I've never bought a book because of the cover. On the other hand, I've never not bought a book because of the cover, either.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the book that documents the systemic annihilation of Native American tribes by the US Army during the nineteenth century. I read it when I was 15 years old, and it totally rocked my world. At that age, I wasn't familiar with the quote by Winston Churchill, "History is written by the victors," and I'd never questioned the idea that the version of American history I'd learned in school was not altogether thorough or candid.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I think it would be presumptuous of me to recommend a book that everyone should read. Just because a book has been meaningful, helpful or in some way resonant for me doesn't automatically indicate it will be for someone else, especially someone with a very different background and life experience. That said, I am quite evangelical about reading as an activity. I do believe and don't hesitate to say that I think everybody should read—for pleasure, for instruction, for a broader and more inclusive perspective about the world.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Pride and Prejudice. I was captivated and thrilled when I read this book for the first time, and Jane Austen immediately became one of my favorite authors. I soon plowed through the rest of her (too short) but a wonderful list of published work, and I have continued to reread her novels on a regular basis over the years, particularly Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, another of my best-loved books.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The movie Tar. Cate Blanchett's performance was riveting and transcendent. She's not only a movie star; she is a consummate actress: she doesn't portray a character; she inhabits her role to create a flesh and blood human being on screen. That's part of what made the movie so deeply engaging for me. I can't be as specific as I'd like to be because that would spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it. And I have to add here that I am sure others will have quite a different reaction to the story and the character than I. I will just say that (for me) the final scene was a gut punch that literally took my breath away.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I feel like I should come up with a more interesting answer, something along the lines of having tea with Jane Austen—which would be fascinating. But honestly, my idea of a perfect day is pretty simple. I love being in company with people I enjoy, doing something we all find interesting, whether that's going to a museum, the theater, the movies, or taking a walk together on the beach. In fact, I had that kind of perfect day not long ago, visiting Paradise Cove in Malibu with a group of friends for a tour of Final Cut protagonist Joey Jessop's neighborhood where she lives at the beach in "America's Most Glamorous Trailer Park" (so says the NY Times.)

a cabin in paradise covesmall trailor in paradise covethe author at the beachAnd we did have the perfect day—lunch by the pier where my friend Bobi had to fend off a seagull who tried to steal her to-go box!

Boobi vs seagull3 ladies at paradis cove beachAnd we finished with a lovely walk on the beach and a stroll through the trailer park, a quirky and charming little community backdropped by the most breathtaking ocean views!

view of the malibu bluffs

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I'd love someone to ask me if I'd like to have the use of a house in Rome rent-free for a year. My answer would be a resounding YES! (But I'm not holding my breath.)

What are you working on now?

I am just about to hand in the second mystery in the Joey Jessop series (the book I referred to in an earlier question) to Crooked Lane Books, to be published in 2024. The working title is Starstruck, and the story follows Joey to another job on a movie that's set in Hollywood during the golden age of film in the 1930s. And while Joey is thrilled about working with all those glamorous period costumes, there are (of course) problems on the job—such as a hit-and-run accident that happens one evening near the downtown location in Los Angeles where the movie company is filming—that may or may not be linked to one of the movie's stars.

Book cover of Final Cut
Final Cut
McCown, Marjorie

In Final Cut, former costumer turned author Marjorie McCown takes readers "behind the scenes" on the closed set of a big-budget Hollywood production. On the first day of principle photography, Joey Jessup, the key costumer, discovers the body of the 2nd assistant director. The death is declared a homicide, which means that there is a murderer on the closed set and, as the person who discovered the body, Joey is considered a person of interest in the investigation. Can she figure out who killed the 2nd AD, and why, before someone else, possibly herself, gets hurt?

McCown deftly walks a literary tightrope, providing a primer of motion picture production for those who need it while simultaneously sprinkling the novel with references that only insiders will understand. All of this with a marvelous "whodunnit," and wonderful cast of characters, along with an insider’s perspective on what it is like for women working in entertainment. 
Final Cut is listed as being the first in a new mystery series. Let’s all hope that we’re able to join Joey Jessup on set again soon for her next adventure!