Q & A

Q: Tell us a little bit about your book Final Cut.

MM: Final Cut is a murder mystery set behind the scenes of a big budget Hollywood movie that’s plagued by a string of disasters creating havoc with the shoot. The book begins on the first day of principal photography when key costumer Joey Jessop finds the body of a murdered coworker on the beach in Malibu where the movie company is shooting. The dead woman was seeing Joey’s ex and because of that, along with the fact she found the body, she immediately becomes a suspect. Then the story blows up in the press and social media, so she’s suddenly targeted by a lot of negative publicity, too. That’s when things really start to go wrong for Joey and the movie.

Q: What was your inspiration for the book?

MM: Anybody who walks on the set of a big movie can see right away that it’s a confusing obstacle course of people and equipment, accidents just waiting to happen. So the story was inspired by my 27 years working on movie sets and realizing all the things that can go wrong. And as an author, I can frame the action 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 the cast and crew?

Along with that, I’ve thought for a long time that a big movie would be a good setting for a murder mystery because a movie company is its own unique community, like a very specific kind of small town with its own set of relationships and drama going on behind the scenes. A perfect breeding ground for all sorts of intrigue that can provide the inspiration for any number of stories.

Q: Are any of the characters in Final Cut based on real people?

MM: All the characters are based on real people I’ve worked with in film. Unfortunately, that includes Marcus Pray, the abusive producer/director of the movie Joey is working on. Which is not to say that all the most powerful people in the movie business are as arrogant and offensive as Pray—far from it. But despite reforms encouraged by initiatives like #MeToo, there are still too many people too much like Marcus Pray working in the industry.

On a lighter note, 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, Joey’s protege, 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. And there’s a lot of me in Joey. Her perspective about the film industry and her professional skill set are both mine, and we’re both big animal lovers.

Q: You began your career New York City working as a costume designer for theater and opera before you moved to Los Angeles to work in film. Can you talk about the differences between doing costumes for theater and movies?

MM: Working on costumes for stage and film is different in a few important ways. Even The Lion King only has about 300 performers in the cast, and that includes the actors, dancers, and chorus. But on a big movie (like Forrest Gump for example) we had more than 100 speaking parts and 10,000 background players. Tom Hanks alone had over 80 costume changes, and because the movie took place in a variety of different periods, none of which was contemporary, we had to dress everyone from head to toe—including the 10,000 background.

For stage, all the costumes have to be ready on opening night, and you get to see the finished product at the same time you finish the job. Shooting a movie can take anywhere from 30 days for a low budget production to 6 months or more for a big movie like The Avengers. And the movie isn’t finished until it’s cut together in postproduction, months after it’s wrapped. The cast and crew screening always feels like a cross between a graduation day and a great big surprise party!

Q: What’s it like working with all those famous people in movies?

MM: The key phrase is “working with” because we have a job to do together. The fitting room is an intimate setting, and the actors need to trust us to help them become their characters. Costume design is detail-oriented work, but it’s also incredibly satisfying and exciting when all the elements come together, like when you see an actor start to use their costume the way their character would, to change how they move and behave. In our first fitting with Cate Blanchett for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, we sat on the fitting room floor with research images of ballerinas from the 1940s spread out around us and talked about her character, Daisy. Then as soon as she put on the first dress, her whole posture changed. Cate started doing these beautiful pique turns across the floor and we got to watch her become the young dancer Benjamin first falls in love with. It was magical.

Q: How did you make the transition from costumer to mystery writer?

MM: Honestly, the shift to writing felt like a very natural progression to me. That’s because costume design is really about storytelling; that’s what sets it apart from fashion design. The goal of fashion design is to satisfy the tastes of the commercial marketplace while the goal of costume design is to help tell a story about a particular set of characters in a particular situation at a particular point in time. And in fact, my career in film turned out to be a major influence on my writing. I was lucky enough to work on some amazing movies like Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, A Bronx Tale, Angels & Demons, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and I learned so much from breaking down those screenplays scene by scene to chart the costume changes and then watching those movies being created shot by shot on set. That taught me about story structure. Now I look at my writing cinematically. I outline my books, but I use that outline almost like the daily shot list for camera setups on a movie. And when I’m writing, I always have the movie version playing in my head.

Q: Why did you choose to have your protagonist, Joey Jessop, live in Malibu?

MM: I think of Hollywood and Malibu as the yin and yang of the Southern California dream, and I wanted to give Joey the balance of having a foot in both worlds. Even though she loves making movies and in many ways thrives on the fast pace and pressure of her job, she needs the tranquility she gets from living at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Malibu is the sanctuary that keeps her in touch with the natural world. It’s her refuge from the egos and high stakes drama of the movie business. And who doesn’t want to live in Paradise Cove?

Q: What was the most exciting moment involving the publication of your debut novel?

MM: Well, I was thrilled when Ann Collette, my literary agent, called to tell me that Crooked Lane Books had made an offer on my manuscript. But my decades in film have conditioned me to be low key about that kind of news. It’s an unwritten rule in the movie industry that you don’t assume a potential job is a sure thing (and you never talk about it) until you’ve signed your deal memo. So I really didn’t do anything to celebrate or even tell anybody about the offer until I signed the contract with the publisher, about 3 weeks after Ann’s phone call. Putting my signature on that document was the milestone that made the whole thing real for me, when I finally allowed myself to get excited. That was the moment I crossed the threshold to become a professionally published author, the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.

Q: Do you have a good rejection story to share about your own path to publishing?

MM: From the beginning of our association, my wonderful agent, Ann Collette, urged me to “write what I know.” In other words, she wanted me to set my books smack in the middle of the film industry in Hollywood. But that’s when I balked. I’d recently retired from the movie business, and I didn’t really want to dive back into the world I’d just separated from. I wanted to immerse myself in something completely different.

Ann was incredibly patient with me. When I wrote an LA-based mystery with a traditional private investigator protagonist, she pitched it beautifully to prospective publishers. It was only after I’d collected a stack of polite rejection letters that she finally said, “Now if you want to sell a book, write what you know.” That’s when I wrote Final Cut, and Ann sold the manuscript in the first round of pitches.

Q: What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

MM: Read continually. It’s amazing what you can learn from other authors’ work. Find a writing group that will give you the support of a community of people who are on the same path. And equally important, make writing part of your daily routine if you have that option. If not, make sure to allow yourself some regularly scheduled time that is dedicated to writing so that you continue to hone your craft. There’s no substitute for sitting in the chair, doing the work.