How Michael Kaplan Costumed 700 Creatures in 'The Rise of Skywalker'

Courtesy of Lucasfilm
'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'

The costume designer also chats about ending the film with Rey wearing white: "She's the only one in white besides that last image of Carrie."

With hundreds of creatures, jetpack-equipped stormtroopers and redesigned Empire uniforms (plus the highly anticipated return of old characters and the arrival of fresh ones), two things remain true: Star Wars still has new tricks up its sleeves, and Michael Kaplan (who will be take home the prize for Career Achievement at the Costume Designers Guild Awards on January 28 in Los Angeles) is one extremely busy costume designer.

For Star Wars:The Rise of Skywalker — the final film in the third Star Wars trilogy — Kaplan was reunited with director J.J. Abrams, whom he first collaborated with for Star Trek in 2009, and later in 2015 for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While Kaplan worked with director Rian Johnson on Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017, what has been consistent throughout his time costuming the legendary galaxy is the collaborative, and exceedingly talented, crew at Pinewood Studios.

"It’s almost like returning to MGM in the 1930s," Kaplan tells THR of the film and television studio, where almost every costume for Star Wars is currently made. "That's not a luxury afforded to many films these days."

As The Rise of Skywalker’s opens on Friday, Dec. 20, Kaplan shares the movie’s costume challenges and triumphs, his affinity for fashion designer Rick Owens, the influences of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen and Gene Kelly in The Pirate, and his dream project.

Can we expect any major fashion scenes comparable to the Canto Bight casino in The Last Jedi?

There is a very large scene with over 700 extras in the Jordanian desert. They are creatures, but each one has a totally different costume. That was very, very challenging. After the creatures are designed by incredible technicians, their bodies come to us unclothed, and we dress them, along with all the humans. The fabrics were all hand-dyed. No jewel is the same. It was such a collaborative effort.

Given that Princess Leia’s scenes are derived from unused footage from The Force Awakens, can you talk to the process of dressing her? 

We made two new designs for her that are actual physical costumes. [These would later be digitally combined with the existing footage]. It was sort of like I was designing for Carrie [Fisher], as always. I just used the same colors and silhouettes that were familiar from the other two movies. For most of this film, she is in a bordeaux-colored dress with a blue coat. For her final costume, she wears white, just as she did when she started A New Hope.

Fans may recognize some familiar faces, including Lando. What was costuming him like?

I was a bit concerned when I first heard Lando was coming back. I was in London; he was in Los Angeles. I felt like I needed to actually meet him, show him sketches, and size up what his physicality was now that he had been away from Star Wars for many years. It wasn’t yet announced that he was going to be in the film, so we had this very clandestine meeting in a hotel in LA. Billy Dee Williams comes walking in, dressed beautifully as he always was. My fears were put aside ... he lit up the room. I was able to design a costume for Lando that was an updated version of what he wore before. I used the same color palette, but a little brighter.

What did you design for Emperor Palpatine's return?

He has two costumes. One is a utilitarian black robe that you see him in for the majority of the film. But at the end he’s in his true emperor’s garb, which is a more formal robe with red velvet.

Jannah and Zorii are both new characters. Tell me about creating their looks from scratch.

J.J. wanted Zorii to be this mysterious character, whose identity is concealed. But we did know she had a past with Oscar Isaac’s character, and we wanted to make it clear that she was an attractive woman. We didn’t want her to seem like some kind of robot. Although she’s wearing a helmet, there’s a femininity to it. She has a contour-fitting bodysuit, along with beautiful custom-made guns. All the metalwork matches her helmet.

Jannah lives on a very inclement island, so there’s evidence of fish skin leather in her costume. She wears this waterproof cape to protect herself against the elements. She’s always galloping on a horse, so her cape catches the air and flows, showing her movement in an interesting way. When I dress characters, I want to make sure their actions are reflected.

Does Rey have an updated look?

We were looking to redesign Rey’s costume, but J.J. loved her initial look so much that he didn’t want to totally change it. He wanted to make it her trademark costume throughout. My suggestion was that we keep the same silhouette but make it in white, so Rey ends the film as Princess Leia began the entire Star Wars [franchise]. Rey really stands out in white, and it also works well as a Jedi. She’s the only one in white besides that last image of Carrie.

Is there one costume you are particularly proud or fond of?

I love the Aki-Akis in the beautiful colors they wear in the desert for their celebration. There are also red jet-pack Stormtroopers that can fly. We made three prototypes for them in different shades of red. The one we chose is very vivid and beautiful. Another favorite that I’m really proud of is General Pryde’s costume. It was like doing beautiful menswear. The film is darkly lit, but there are a few times you can see the pleating on the front of his jacket. It’s simple, but it was quite difficult to construct.

Everything from Apple to Madame Grès has inspired your Star Wars costumes. Are there any unique sources of inspiration for looks in The Rise of Skywalker?

I look at all kinds of references — people in the subway, objects on streets. I like a lot of big old Hollywood movies. For Oscar Isaac’s character [Poe Dameron], I was thinking of him as a 1930s romantic, swashbuckling hero. I looked at Gene Kelly, who had the same physicality and charisma as Oscar and was in a few movies where he played a swashbuckler. One is The Pirate.

I see so much of your worn-in, futuristic designs for Star Wars in the Yeezy and Rick Owens fashion collections. What do you think of this space style synergy?

Rick Owens has been a close friend of mine since he started out in L.A. I love his work. There are certain overlaps in our sensibility. I even got Rick to send me a pair of boots for Zorii to wear in The Rise of Skywalker. We changed the color, but they were so right for her character that instead of making something new, I just asked Rick if we could have a pair.

There’s sometimes telepathy with Rick. I was working on Mission Impossible recently, and I was looking at 18th-century ball gowns for a Venetian carnival scene. I was in Paris getting those costumes, and I went to Rick’s latest show, which had a version of an 18th-century ball gown. It was just coincidental that I was looking at the same thing for a film, and there it was on his runway.

Are there any other contemporary designers that inspire you in the way he does?

I don’t generally follow fashion. I follow Rick because he’s a friend of mine, but I would say if there’s an influence on my work, it was Alexander McQueen when he was alive. I used to look at his shows because they were so fun and exciting and cutting edge.

Now that the Star Wars trilogy is concluding, do you plan to stick to the sci-fi genre?

Well, it was an incredible experience to work on three films in a row in the world of Star Wars. I am so grateful for J.J. and Rian for bringing me on, and Kathleen Kennedy for keeping me. But at this point, I’d love to do something new. One of the problems with working in Hollywood is that you get typecast. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten to do other futuristic or fantasy films. What I’d really love to be doing is something from the past, maybe some incredible project that takes place in the 1930s. I did do The Alienist recently, which was turn of the century. It’s so satisfying to do something you’ve never done before.

How does it feel to have your diverse body of work recognized as the 2020 recipient of the Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award?

Generally, if I’m asked about my career, people always mention Blade Runner, Fight Club and Flashdance, which all affected culture and fashion to a large degree, but I’ve done so many other things, like Clue, which has a life of its own. I was just interviewed for The New Yorker about this film, because they thought it had a lot of similarities to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. I love doing comedies. I did Big Business with Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin. I did National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which a lot of people still watch with their families every year.

When I was asked if I would receive this award, my first instinct was to say, “No,” because I knew that it would involve getting up in front of people and having to speak, which terrifies me. My second thought was “career achievement” sounds like a lifetime achievement award, which sounds like the end of my career. There’s so much more that I would like to do, but in any case, I agreed. I’m very excited, and maybe I can get a second lifetime achievement award in a few decades.