BY DESIGN : Q & A : BOB MILLER: 'We Do Heightened Reality'


Bob Miller's life is clothes--dresses, sweaters, suits, overcoats, shorts, shoes, shirts--thousands of pieces that surround him every day.

As costume designer for the ABC soap opera "General Hospital," he dresses and designs outfits for 44 characters in the fictional New York town of Port Charles. Miller, 41, and co-designer Steven Howard determine how the clothes will make the character. With an annual budget of about $850,000, they shop local department stores and boutiques and travel to New York to choose items from designer collections. Each piece is meticulously catalogued and sorted by character, down to bras, pantyhose, ties and earrings.

Miller's shining moment is designing opulent, sexy gowns--conceived on sketch pads and a computer--for the show's annual Nurses Ball in late June. Previously, he had various roles in costuming the first "Star Trek" movie and the TV shows "Fame" and "Dallas." He joined "General Hospital" in 1984, stayed for five years, then left to work on "The Flash," "Dream On" and "The Ron Reagan Show." Miller returned to "GH" in 1992 and won an Emmy this year for outstanding costume design for a daytime drama.

On a rare break from his hectic schedule, he talked about his work, keeping one eye on a wall-mounted TV monitor broadcasting a live feed of a rehearsal.


Question: How would you describe "General Hospital's" look?:

Answer: Basically, we have a very modern look. We do a lot of tone-on-tones, with a punch of color. I think we're very current. But you can't just say that and then sit back because in a blink ruffles are gone and jackets are more fitted. . . .

I think you might notice the way certain characters dress, but I don't think when someone walks in the room you're going to say, "Oh my God, look what she's wearing." I like an overall look as opposed to "Look at her outfit."


Q: How much say do the actors have in what they wear?

A: They do a one-hour show a day and their performance has to come off. So if they don't like something, I'll say, "OK, let's talk about this." We'll work with them. . . . [After a while] you know when it's a complaint from being tired, or when this is going to become something that's going to bother them for the rest of the day.

We're always looking at the monitor just to sort of keep track of what things are looking like. We'll say, "That suit's not lighting well, it's been dry-cleaned too much." The new cameras we've had the last couple of years pick up a lot of detail, and some fabrics look great in person but don't on video, and vice versa.


Q: What is the thought process behind dressing a character?

A: We think about where they would shop, what style they'd be. . . . When a new character comes on we'll often meet with the producers and sometimes the actors. Sometimes a writer will do a walk-in like this, for Lois [Rena Sofer]: "She walks in a spandex jumpsuit and long nails." And the writer was looking at an image--she's on the edge, she's from Brooklyn and she's into rock 'n' roll. So I say, does it have to be a spandex jumpsuit? It's our job to keep up with what would translate into current fashion. The character ended up in black leather and chunky silver jewelry, almost Euro-trash--this was a couple of years ago.

After seeing her that way for a while, she was becoming too much of a cartoon. . . . In a sitcom like "Married With Children," you can do funny costumes, but we don't want that look. It's a really fine line.


Q: Do you pay as much attention to dressing the men as you do the women?

A: A lot of times a designer will do the women, and the men are just there. They should all be different. Men are sometimes more different in their dress than women are.

We didn't want [psychiatrist] Kevin Collins [Jon Lindstrom] to be so traditional, so his shirts are never white. To me he has almost an Armani, monochromatic look, and it's very elegant.

The first season, [executive producer] Wendy Riche and I decided that we had to show the hip, casual side of each character. . . . They can't always be on their way to work, they can be seen around their home in sweats and a T-shirt.


Q: How close to real life do the characters' clothes come?

A: We do heightened reality. People who work at the hospital make a little more money than they probably do in real life. They dress up probably a little more than they do in real life. . . . The jewelry is a little bolder, or maybe a teen-ager would be wearing something she couldn't afford. . . . So the person who works in the diner is wearing sweats, but they're Joan Vass, which someone who works in a diner wouldn't wear.

America is basically a small town. If you drive 20 minutes from where we are, away from the boutiques, you have a whole different perspective. You're not in the fashion pages. Those are the people watching the soap operas. So you want to fascinate them, but you want them to relate. You want them to say, "Gee, if I had the money, I would like to dress like Lois."


Q: How do you keep up on trends?

A: We look at fashion magazines and trendy teen magazines, but also W [magazine], which has pictures of women at events. It's interesting to see the clothes in a fashion magazine, but then when you see women in those gowns, it often has nothing to do with what's in the magazine.


Q: Do you enjoy designing dresses for the show?

A: Yes, I do. It's a challenge for me, and it's three-dimensional. My drawings aren't illustrative, they're maps. I'm sure I have some sort of style, but in college one of my teachers said, "I don't see a Bob Miller style." But that's what I've worked for, so I can give a different look for each actress, so that with something like the ball, it doesn't look like they're all wearing Bob Miller dresses.


Q: What kind of feedback do you get from the viewers?

A: We get phone calls on almost every character. For a long time Katherine's [Mary Beth Evans] been such a bad character--she broke everyone's heart and lied to Scotty [Kin Shriner]. We got not one phone call on her clothes. Now she's not so evil--she's not a great person, but there's something about her people are starting to like. So now we get calls on her clothes once in a while. But they don't want to look like her if they don't like her.

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