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

9:00 AM PST 12/06/2012 by Elizabeth Snead, Stephen Galloway
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The pros behind this season's best-dressed films talk about taking direction from Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, and how too many glimpses in the mirror are a sign of talent's insecurity.

THR: Can you recall a costume disaster that happened during your career?

Atwood: I try to forget those things.

Bridges: Well, a happy accident for me was during the prep of Boogie Nights. There was a place in the Midwest. Do you remember [the vintage warehouse] Hullabaloo?

Atwood: Yeah, sure, in St. Louis.

Bridges: They sent me to Hullabaloo, and it was all dead stock from the '70s that had never been sold, and I think I spent $12,000 just to get as much stuff as I thought I could use. I even got skates with the red Lucite wheels for Rollergirl, and the clothes went magically on all the principals. John C. [Reilly] somehow fit into these great pants that had never been worn by anybody else. So many iconic pieces in that film came from that trip.

VIDEO: Keira Knightley, Jacqueline Durran Donate 'Anna Karenina' Gown to Victoria & Albert Museum

THR: Is there an actor or director whom you've most enjoyed collaborating with?

Durran: When you work on a Mike Leigh film, you don't have a script. So all the relations are kind of backwards. And what happens is that you interview the actor about their character, and then you make the costume based on the information you've learned about the character, and that defines what the costume is going to be. It really, really brings you back to the character and the tiny details that could make that character sing.

Delgado: I think actors are normally very selfish in the way that they want to get you to create their costume to be the character. I think a good relationship with an actor is when you have this communication, and you finally find the costume that can define the character they're going to play. Hugh Jackman was great. It was really, really nice to work with him. But sometimes you have actors or actresses whom you don't click with at all.

Atwood: Some of the most amazing actors I've worked with put on their costume and don't even look in the mirror right away. They walk around in it, and they feel the costume, and there's something almost visceral about them sort of feeling what that is, as opposed to the conception that they're glued to the mirror for hours on end, which maybe later in their room they are, I don't know. Some of the most kind of glamorous, unexpected women don't really look at themselves in the mirror. It's also interesting that sometimes the people who haven't got a sense of achievement as an actor are very vulnerable that way, that they look in the mirror the whole time and don't feel anything. As a costume designer, you have to bring out the feeling that they're OK, that they're gonna do fine, and really support them and the journey they're making.

Weiss: Those extraordinary actors will just stand -- Robert De Niro just stands -- and you watch them become that person.

Johnston: I love that thing when the costume is close to completeness, and they look at themselves in the mirror, and there's just an immediate kind of, I don't know how to say it, it'd be like the penny's dropped as regards to the depiction of the character, because the costume department's always the first port of call, really. I love the fitting room. I love the sort of sacred, intimate relationship because we're building up trust and nurturing and being a bit of an ambassador.

Weiss: But that's the other important thing: What is a great costume? An actor has to wear that costume. A director directs the scene. Hopefully, when someone who's seen your film remembers it, they remember the whole picture. In a fitting -- we've all experienced this -- when someone puts on a period costume and they start to cry because it reminds them of somebody from a different time.

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THR: You're now called upon to talk in great detail about your work.

Weiss: Now when you do a premiere or something, there's not only the photographs and all that, there's a line of twentysomethings tweeting away, who have a lot of excitement about costume. I know it can be a negative thing, too, but in fact, it's kind of nice.

THR: Do you see your work directly influencing fashion?

Weiss: Is it costume becoming fashion or fashion becoming costume? It used to be certain seasons or windows would change, and they would take more time in doing that. And now it's very rapid. So the clothes are out there, and glamour is accessible.

Atwood: You go to Los Angeles, and you can buy the same skirt that you can buy in Madrid that you can buy in Hong Kong. And then what we do is unique. In a way, I think that's tragic, the death of so many professions -- the old lady who did plumes.

Delgado: You are working in a movie, and you suddenly think, "Oh, I remember that old lady that used to embroider everything so beautifully." You run to her workshop, and it doesn't exist anymore. And I see that happening every day.

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THR: Any regrets?

Weiss: Many. My career was my family. It is my family. At this point, well, I guess I could get stand-ins to call me. I could borrow your family for the holidays. Somehow I never have known how not to work. I'm still redesigning films that are already finished. Even when I don't have a job, somebody will have a story, somebody who will say that where I live is filled with too many things. And it is a depository of what other people can't part with -- like a Navy uniform, and he's just died, and the wife came over, and she said, "Take this."

Delgado: We are very fortunate to work in this business. That's what I think every day when I work.

THR: Any advice for anyone wanting a career in the field?

Delgado: It's a very obsessive job, I think. Very, very obsessive.

Johnston: I think films are somewhere between a war and a circus. It's the discipline of a war and it's the chaos and creativity of a circus.

Weiss: Be nice to everyone on the crew, the people just starting. Because they will be the studio heads. But be fair in how you define beauty because some people feel like a million bucks, and you'll walk right by them.

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THE COSTUMES

Colleen Atwood, Snow White and the Hunstman: Atwood shredded the chiffon sleeves of Queen Ravenna's costumes to telegraph her decay.

Jacqueline Durran, Anna Karenina: Durran dressed Knightley in an off-the-shoulder white silk taffeta gown with a $2 million Chanel necklace.

Julie Weiss: Hitchcock: Weiss played Hitchock's black attire against Leigh's pink and wife Alma's blood red to heighten the film's emotional intensity.

Mark Bridges, The Master: Lancaster Dodd, the film's cult leader main character, wears an intellectual's tweed jacket and plum slacks at his book signing.

PACO DELGADO Les Miserables: Delgado contrasted Javert's smart police uniform and bicorne hat, worn by Russell Crowe, with the squalor of Paris' slums.

Joanna Johnston, Lincoln: Johnston outfitted Mary Todd Lincoln to reflect her "rather fussy style." Unseen: two crinoline petticoats and a crinoline hoop.

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