Oscars: 'Into the Woods,' 'Noah' Costume Designers Reveal Secrets Behind Their Creations

THR Costume Designers - H 2014
Ramona Rosales

THR Costume Designers - H 2014

Colleen Atwood ('Into the Woods,' 'Big Eyes'), Mark Bridges ('Inherent Vice'), Sammy Sheldon Differ ('The Imitation Game') and Michael Wilkinson ('Noah') open up about their inspirations

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Factor in Oscar's tendency to favor historical or fantasy films as well as past winners and nominees in the costume category, and five frontrunners emerge. Michael Wilkinson is fresh in voters' memories, having been nominated for his costumes in David O. Russell's American Hustle last year, and his textile-heavy work in Noah is equally indelible. Mark Bridges, Oscar winner for 2012's The Artist, flashed wittily back to 1970s L.A. in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's gonzo novel Inherent Vice. Sammy Sheldon Differ dressed Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in actual World War II-rationed clothing for The Imitation Game. But it's Colleen Atwood, a three-time winner (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Alice in Wonderland), who may land the rare two nominations in one year for Disney's fairy tale Into the Woods and The Weinstein Co.'s Big Eyes, directed by Tim Burton. Asked how it feels to have two campaigns, Atwood winces: "It's a little weird. I did these two projects fairly close together but never thought of them coming out at the same time and being considered in that way. So when people bring it up, I'm like, 'Please don't talk about it!' "

Mark Bridges, Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.)  

Bridges has designed the costumes for all of Anderson's films, from Boogie Nights and Magnolia to There Will Be Blood and The Master. So when it came to Inherent Vice, he knew the rule: No multiples. "We never do them because he always shoots in order," says Bridges. Because Pynchon's work is extremely challenging to adapt (Vice is the first), Bridges pored over the stoner-noir novel before reading Anderson's script and watched 1970 films like The Baby Maker with Barbara Hershey and Alex in Wonderland with Donald Sutherland.

Vice's disparate range of characters includes Josh Brolin's cop; Martin Short's groovy dentist in a purple velvet, double-breasted vintage suit; Reese Witherspoon's prim attorney (she's secretly a pothead); and Katherine Waterston's lost innocent in a vintage apricot crochet minidress.

One of the costumer's personal favorites was inspired by fashion designer Rudi Gernreich's iconic swimsuit, worn by Serena Scott Thomas (Kristin's younger sister). "The suit is very specific to that time, and her character [a mobster's wife] would have had access to it. When she turns around, it's bare on the bottom," he says. "It plays really well -- it's very funny, sexy and of the period."

Sammy Sheldon Differ, The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Co.) 

"We learn quite a lot about World War II in school in Britain, but I didn't know much about Turing," says Differ of Imitation Game's main character, Alan Turing, the genius who broke the German Enigma code and later was persecuted for being gay.

While researching the controversial cryptanalyst, played by Cumberbatch, the costumer discovered that due to wartime secrecy, images were scarce, especially of Bletchley Park, where Turing's code-breakers (played by Knightley and Matthew Goode) toiled. She relied on co-scribe Andrew Hodges' bio Alan Turing: An Enigma, discovering "a strange and quite eccentric man" who wore pajamas in public.

Knightley's codebreaker in a war-rationed coat

With only five weeks to prep, a five-person crew and a small budget, Differ searched out clothing bearing the label CC41 that was rationed during the war. Luckily, people owned fewer clothes then: "A man would wear the same suit and just change shirts and ties," explains Differ.

Although she eschewed the pajamas, she stayed faithful to Turing's habit of wearing a checked tie with a checked shirt, suit or vest. Says Differ, "It's a bit jarring but really works for his character."

Michael Wilkinson, Noah (Paramount Pictures)

The directive Darren Aronofsky gave to Wilkinson on the antediluvian epic starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins was: "No robes. No sandals." Recalls the costume designer, "The challenge was the inherent ambiguity about whether the film takes place 5,000 years in the past or 5,000 years into the future."

Wilkinson designed mix-and-match pieces from rough, raw textiles, a style he calls "modern primitive." He says, "For Noah, everything was knit, woven, distressed, aged, dyed and boiled by hand." Utilitarian silhouettes were distinguished by touches of high-tech outdoor gear, cowl-neck scarves and black vinyl hoods. Subliminal clues of chronological ambiguity were woven in, from plastic straws to loose cassette tape, which Wilkinson felt could have survived the apocalypse.

Examined closely, some costumes look similar to the work of Martin Margiela, an avant-garde designer Wilkinson long has admired. That was intentional: "We wanted to create something that today's audiences could relate to," he says.

There are two groups in the film with differing worldviews. Noah's nomadic, vegan survivalists colored their clothes with berry dyes, while the marauders led by Tubal-cain sported bones, skins, feathers, even horse tails to display dominance over beasts. One of Wilkinson's favorite costumes stands apart: Hopkins' Methuselah. "We laminated a silver fabric, scraped it away, painted then cracked it. It looked as if he had become one with his costume and the costume was becoming one with his cave."

Colleen Atwood, Into the Woods (Disney) and Big Eyes (The Weinstein Co.)

Atwood with Streep's blue dress, Rapunzel's gown and Little Red's riding hood for Into the Woods

Atwood already has been lauded by AMPAS for her costumes in Rob Marshall’s film versions of three Tony-winning musicals — with Oscars for 2002’s Chicago and 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha and a nom for Nine in 2009. But Atwood considers their fourth film collaboration, Into the Woods, to be “one of those wonderful projects where you get to spend a lot of time on the costumes. This is my love letter to the textiles, crafts artists and embroiderers.”

Meryl Streep’s Witch stands out with her transformation from a gray crone into a godmother, her blue bouffant matching her beribboned chiffon gown. “Everything about her was larger than life, the rings, the jewelry, the hair, the nails,” says Atwood, who also perched Streep in 4-inch heels.

Another of Atwood’s favorites is worn by the Wolf (Johnny Depp): “I wanted it to be a zoot suit, not a fur suit, and luckily so did Johnny. It was a fresh way to dress the character.” The dress on Rapunzel “is a naked, pale pink with a sheer that floats over it,” says the costumer, which makes actress Mackenzie Mauzy “look like a ghost of herself because she had been trapped in a tower.”

Even before Big Eyes, Atwood knew director Tim Burton was fascinated with (and collected) 1960s artist Margaret Keane’s paintings. The sad, sooty-eyed waifs in her art influenced the look of Depp’s childlike monster in 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, Atwood's first Burton film. Although Big Eyes takes place in 1960s San Francisco, Keane was far removed from the swinging psychedelic art scene. “She was not a bohemian,” says Atwood. “She was the biggest square in the universe,” which meant dressing Amy Adams in simple vintage designs: “Just like her paintings, there was not a lot of ‘stuff’ on her clothes.”

Atwood used vintage gold moiré she’d personally been hoarding for years for Terence Stamp’s art critic and scoured L.A. thrift shops, flea markets and Western Costume for ’60s accessories overall. “I’d say we used 80 percent vintage,” says Atwood. She did splurge on new Bernardo shoes for Adams: “That brand looks exactly the same as in the ’60s.”