THR's Costume Designer Roundtable: Dressing Actors Is 'Somewhere Between a War and a Circus'

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

None of the men and women who participated in THR's first-ever Costume Designer Roundtable set out to become costume designers. Colleen Atwood -- who created Queen Ravenna's sinister, twisted costumes in Snow White and the Huntsman -- came to her career late, after she raised a daughter as a single mother. Jacqueline Durran had a philosophy degree and an entry-level job at a London costume house; this year, she infused Anna Karenina with modernity, mixing early 18th century Russian tradition with '50s couture silhouettes. Mark Bridges, whose work on The Master evoked 1950s normality amid a cult leader's ascent, was a stage actor who used to make his own costumes. In Hitchcock, Julie Weiss, who started in theater as well, brought to life the iconic director, his wife, Alma, and starlet Janet Leigh in early '60s costumes, often using the color red to convey emotion and tension. And Joanna Johnston -- who extensively researched Civil War uniforms and reveals Mary Todd Lincoln's favorite color, fuchsia, in Lincoln -- first envisioned a career in fashion. At the roundtable, the most laughter broke out when Paco Delgado, the force behind Les Miserables' authentic, romantically distressed costumes, recalled starting out in theater set design, admitting that back then, he imagined that doing costumes was "easy."

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The Hollywood Reporter: What is the biggest misconception about your job? That people think, "Oh, aren't those pretty clothes?"

Julie Weiss: I think you just said it.

Joanna Johnston: My theory is that everybody gets dressed in the morning, so therefore it's a simple thing to do. [Costume design] is a deep and complicated and long-winded process. And I don't know why it is, because in the '40s, it was more revered as a profession, and everything was constructed.

Mark Bridges: I'll say that I'm a costume designer, and people will say, "Oh, that must be so much fun." And it is fun, but it's really planning and thoughts about so many things and interacting with actors and directors and now, more and more, accountants and producers.

Paco Delgado: You have to listen to what the director is saying, then the actor, then you have to start looking for your own inspiration. But then you have to start looking for things that sometimes you never find. You start like looking for a fabric that doesn't exist, but it is in your mind. And it's banging you and banging you. It has to be this fabric. And then one day you suddenly find something, and it might not be the fabric you wanted to find, but you get the illusion that it is the fabric. (Laughter.) And then you start making the whole dress, and it doesn't behave as you thought. I go to bed, and I think, "Oh, my God, why did I say that fabric?"

THR: How did you get into costume design?

Bridges: I was in theater, but I would always do my own costumes. I can remember doing a sketch at 14 of a costume. It was James Keller in The Miracle Worker. Having been a theater major, I know how actors need to prepare. So that helped me to be a better costume designer.

Colleen Atwood: I grew up in a really rural area in Washington state, and I wanted to be a painter. And I got pregnant in high school and had a baby. And so I raised my daughter by working at all kinds of jobs, from factory work to waitressing. When she was out of high school, I went to NYU and took a summer course there in film school, and ended up on the little projects, doing the clothes for some reason, and then starting to kind of be a runner and assistant in the costume world.

Delgado: I started working in theater, doing sets. But I always did the costumes like a side thing, like I didn't pay attention to them, really. I also thought they were like really easy. (Laughter.) I wasn't really interested in them to start with.

Weiss: We came into costume not because we said to Santa, "I want to be a costume designer," but because we were there on this quest to keep seeing. And all of us here, we're storytellers and we get paid for it, which will allow us to age a little easier. (Laughter.)

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THR: So you guys are competitive, right

Weiss: We all know each other. We know that if you hear that Joanna got Lincoln, you say, "Well, great, at least it's going to be done right," and then you go in your car and you go, "I don't know how that happened." (Laughter.)

THR: Colleen, you have a long-running relationship with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. When did that start?

Atwood: Edward Scissorhands. I met them both on that movie. I was shocked that I got the job because I hadn't done that many films. One of the great things about our job is that we do collaborate with these directors and actors and sort of develop shorthand with them.

THR: Does knowing, say, Burton's taste and some of his predilections help?

Atwood: Tim is one of the great graphic designers, as he has a phenomenal eye for what's important in a negative space. He is not a cluttery kind of guy. He came from animation, and there are elements of animation always, even in his realistic work. So knowing that about him is helpful.

THR: Joanna, you've been dealing with Mr. Spielberg for quite a while.

Johnston: The first one I did with him was Saving Private Ryan, which was another kind of totally ridiculous thought that I had, which was, "Oh, uniforms."

Bridges: So easy. (Laughter.)

Johnston: Easy, just uniforms, and my father is a military man. Wouldn't need too much time. Totally ridiculous. Uniforms are really complicated. You can go to six military experts and ask them any kind of question about one tiny detail. And they'll all say a different thing.

Weiss: But then you have an adviser who comes in after everything is done. I was working on a film with Jane Fonda, and a military adviser came. It was called The Dollmaker. And I was told that I had a patch upside down. And they'd already filmed the scene. There was this gentleman called Johnny Napolitano, and he knew everything, everything. I called, and I said: "He's got his patch upside down. We can't afford to reshoot it." He said, "Don't worry -- it just means his son died." (Laughter.)

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THR: Can any of you go and see a film without noticing the costumes? What's the last film you saw where you didn't pay attention to the costumes?

Atwood: The Bond movie. I mean, I liked the costumes, but it didn't get in the way, like I wasn't obsessed about them or anything. The only time I really get distracted is when I think they're wrong. But I get more distracted by hair or a really bad wig than I do costumes any day of the week.

Jacqueline Durran: I think it's really terrible when you're watching a film and you can't work out whether it's modern or period. That's something that really distracts me.

Weiss: I can think back to when, in the middle of a love scene, I noticed that the clock was wrong.

 

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