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Digging into Costume Design, from Oscar-Winner ‘Anna Karenina’ to ‘Les Miserables’

Digging into Costume Design, from Oscar-Winner 'Anna Karenina' to 'Les Miserables'

For the third year in a row, the symposium Sketch to Screen was one of the highlights of Oscar Week. Mounted by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and moderated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the director of the Copley Centre for the Study of Costume Design, this year’s entertaining and revealing panel on Friday at the James Bridges Theater included Academy Nominees Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln”), Paco Delgado (“Les Miserables”), Jacqueline Durran (“Anna Karenina”) as well as “Argo”‘s Jacqueline West, “Moonrise Kingdom”‘s Kasia Walicka and Mark Bridges (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Master”), last year’s Oscar-winner for “The Artist.” (Colleen Atwood, nominated for “Snow White and the Huntsman,” did not attend and sadly, the fifth Academy nominee, “Mirror Mirror”‘s Eiko Ishioka, passed away last year.)

Oscar-nominated designer Landis had recently returned from London, where her costume exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum was well-received, and kept the lively conversation moving. While the Academy tends to nominate designers from epic, period films, especially those featuring spectacular gowns, one of the joys of this symposium is it reminds us, whatever the era of the film, how much creativity, skill, planning and collaboration goes into the craft. New costumes have to be “aged,” multiples of the same costumes created, especially for action scenes, and there’s the ever-present need to economize.

Since “Les Miserables” took place between 1815 and 1845, when poor people wore clothes that had been fashionable twenty years before, Delgado took costumes from the early scenes and put them on the extras in later scenes. Another little secret that was revealed: in spite of the name Sketch to Screen, it turns out many of the designers don’t do elaborate sketches in advance and often if they are made at all, it is for the studio’s marketing department long after the film has wrapped.

Working conditions, budgets and timing vary widely: Walicka had only three and a half weeks of prep time for “Moonrise Kingdom” and Steven Spielberg first mentioned “Lincoln” to Johnston in the mid 1990’s. Once Johnson knew that “Lincoln” was a go, she started designing for Lincoln himself. She was surprised to learn how many photographs there were of the 16th President and while there were fewer of Mary Lincoln, there were enough to give her faith in the accuracy of her designs. Each of the designers talked about their research: many headed to libraries. But with few books containing photographs of working class Philadelphians, Mark Bridges went out for Philly cheese steaks, tried to casually snap pictures, and ended up buying some of the “Silver Linings Playbook” costumes at the King of Prussia Mall.   

As for the garbage bag that Bradley Cooper runs in, it was mentioned in the novel “Silver Linings Playbook.” Bridges laughed when a critic told him that the bag was an important metaphor for Cooper’s character belief that he was “trash.” No, Bridges clarified, it was just the character’s way to promote sweat and get fit faster. Bridges also revealed that a plastic bag is not necessarily a plastic bag. They had to be especially made out of silent material; ordinary bags made a crinkling noise that interfered with recording. 

Bridges also designed the costumes for “The Master,” so even though he wasn’t nominated, he dressed seven of the twenty actors in the four acting categories. He talked of the character development he witnessed as Joaquin Phoenix “grew into” his high-waist pants, changing his walk and the character’s physicality accordingly.

This group of rarely heralded craftsman more often praised their coworkers than their own work. For instance, Walicka spoke of her dependence upon the Boston factory that managed to turn out the scout uniforms in record time and the staff of cleaners who picked up those uniforms every night after filming to clear them of ticks and any poison ivy residue before returning them to the young actor’s rooms in time for them to dress in the morning.

Eventual Oscar-winner Jacqueline Durran has worked with director Joe Wright on several of his other films. It was liberating, she said, to design for a director who could tell her ahead of time just how a particular dress was going to be filmed. “Anna Karenina” marked the third time Durran has dressed Keira Knightley, who was “never distracted by vanity,” thr designer said, and instead focused on the costumes as a way to build her characterization of Anna. However, she did acknowledge Keira was “very excited on the day the jewelry arrived, but we can forgive her for that.”

Jacqueline West had previously worked with Ben Affleck on films in which he was an actor and was impressed with how articulate and specific he was about what he wanted while hoping her ideas would elevate his. She had the audience laughing with tales of how she had to keep a watchful eye on the extras, particularly the Iranian women in both Los Angeles and Istanbul, because they kept taking off their chadors. They were proud of being fashionable in their current lives and as much as they wanted to be in the movie, they removed the chadors as soon as no one was looking, often hiding them in their purses. West also had to have some “Argo” costumes ready sooner than she had anticipated: as a form of rehearsal, Affleck took all the actors who were to play hostages, dressed them in 70’s clothes and put them in house in Hancock Park for 10 days without cell phones, watching 70’s television shows and playing 70’s board games. Miraculously no one was voted off the island.

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