The subtle craft of transforming transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) in “The Danish Girl” is one of the great stories this awards season involving production design, cinematography, hair/makeup and costume design.
For Eve Stewart, the way into the production design was through the celebratory paintings of Elbe’s wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), along with the dramatic difference in settings (restrictive Copenhagen vs. progressive Paris, though actually shot in Brussels).
For hair/makeup designer Jan Sewell and costume designer Paco Delgado, the contrasts in hair coloring, facial sculpting and fashion were crucial to the feminization of Elbe (born Einar Wegene), who became the first known recipient of sex reassignment surgery. (Additionally, cinematographer Danny Cohen played with light to explore the physical and emotional journey and made subtle adjustments in camera height to accentuate Elbe’s feminine side.)
Stewart was also inspired by Victor Horta, an architect who worked in Brussels and became a master of Art Nouveau. “We went to a couple of his buildings and the expression of femininity and the sinuous lines that he used were so thrilling,” added Stewart. “It was such an epiphany. But it took quite a bit of wrangling to persuade the producers to let us shoot in Brussels. Ultimately, it came down to figures. I worked out the math with Tom and it was much better for the production to spend some money on train tickets rather than parking in London and build stuff. When you walk into a real building of the right period that has not been touched, it gives the actors something special.”
But the biggest stroke of luck was going on eBay to find their Parisian apartment. Stewart typed “French-paneled room for sale” and one actually came up: “We drove all the way to north of England, opened up one of these rusty containers, opened the doors and there it was,” she rejoiced. “It was meant to be. We put it together and changed the colors but it gave us the complete backbone of the set for their apricot Parisian apartment.”
Meanwhile, Sewell steeped herself in research for making up Redmayne, particularly the transition from masculine to feminine. “I asked Tom about a timeline and he just said look at Gerda’s paintings,” she recalled. “And she painted Lili with the most vibrant colors and this wonderful auburn-colored hair, which worked like a treat for us because of Eddie’s coloring. Also, she painted Lili with very dark hair and early on I said to Tom, put every color of wig based on the 1920s shape and let’s see what’s going to work for us and it was pretty clear he looked gorgeous in dark hair almost as much as the auburn with his coloring and freckles and eye shape.”
Sewell sharpened Redmayne’s features as Wegene, bringing out the bone structure and jawline to make him look masculine. “Later on, when we see Eddie a few more times in this over-feminized Lili, I softened his features, I put the colors on and took away all the shading that hardened his face. It was as if Lili could never be removed and he became more feminized as Einar.”
Delgado took advantage of the difference in fashion between provincial Copenhagen and progressive Paris. “It presented us with the idea that Lili was trapped in a body that was like a cage,” he revealed. “We could picture her through heavily-structured Edwardian garments with high collars and tailored suits. And restricted tones of blues, grays and blacks.
Delgado’s favorite costume is a softer-looking tailored suit that Elbe wears when she’s beaten up in the park. “It depicts for me how clothes can provoke different emotional responses. In this case, rage because it didn’t conform to what society expected.”
For Delgado, though, “The Danish Girl” represents a tragic love story: “I always mention that Paris was a happy moment for Lili, but there’s a lot of pain for both of them obviously because Lili was gaining her freedom, but at the same time they’re unable to carry on as a couple.”