Costume, production designers tackle the wild west


DESIGN OF THE TIMES: Crafting period looks
DESIGN SCHOOL: Costuming becomes History 101
WESTERN SHOWDOWN: Designing the wild west
HAIR NECESSITIES: Coifs make the character

When costume designer Arianne Phillips was told by director James Mangold that their next film would be a remake of 1957's "3:10 to Yuma," she felt a flash of panic. As a girl growing up in the '70s, she would turn the TV channel from anything remotely "cowboy."

"It was kind of looming over us: the Western," Phillips says. "'We're making a Western.' But Jim made it clear from the very beginning that he didn't want the genre to intimidate or eclipse the honest work that was to be done."

Phillips and production designer Andrew Menzies took pains to reconcile the needs of the story with a desire for historical accuracy. Menzies' research indicated that buildings of the era tended to be painted in bright purples and yellows and deep reds. The climactic gun battle/foot chase through the town of Contention covered 20 blocks in the script, but the set in New Mexico amounted to only a few streets. Authentically bright and unique paint jobs would make it all too obvious that they were repeatedly passing the same structures over and over. Fortunately, Menzies' research also indicated that since 19th century paints lacked preservatives, they tended to fade very quickly, allowing him to justify a weathered sameness for the exteriors that would make the reuse less obvious.

Production designer and Oscar nominee Jack Fisk had no reuse issues on Paramount Vantage's "There Will Be Blood." He was able to build the entire turn-of-the-century central California town of Little Boston and its surroundings on the 50,000-acre Maguire Ranch in Texas.

"We were spread out over a couple of miles," Fisk says. "The town was probably a quarter mile from the church, which was probably a quarter mile from the (oil) derrick, which was probably a quarter mile from the Sunday Ranch."

The film is not a Western, but it is set in a western-frontier environment and, like Menzies, Fisk had to build new structures that looked like they had been exposed for years to the elements. While burgeoning Little Boston was built from new wood and fake brick, the church was constructed using wood from an old cattle pen on a neighboring ranch. The Sundays' house was constructed of repurposed lumber from barns and other old structures in the area.

In the Old West, the clothes were frequently as aged and weathered as the buildings, and to achieve that effect costume designers assault the costume pieces with everything from blow torches to cheese graters. Although it's not explained in the final cut of Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the battered hat and suit Ford (Casey Affleck) wears for his first meeting with his hero James (Brad Pitt) are his grandfather's.

"You're in a period of time where people -- men especially -- kept their clothes a long time," says Patricia Norris, the film's costume designer and co-production designer (with Richard Hoover). "The women seemed to keep up with fashion, but the men didn't. You know -- it's a brown coat. It'll do."