The Mosquito Coast: Interview with costume designer Justine Seymour

Justin Theroux in “The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+

 
Forty years after its publishing, Paul Theroux’s book, The Mosquito Coast, which, with the incredibly vivid creation of Allie Fox as the escapee from society who abhors modern life and uproots his family for a deluded utopian mission in Central America, gave us such an unnerving and fascinating read, has inspired a contemporary retelling of the story. The series however, created by Neil Cross, starring Justin Theroux, Paul Theroux’s nephew, and co-executive-produced by the writer himself, unlike Peter Weir’s faithful 1986 adaptation for the big screen, bears little resemblance to the book and follows Allie Fox and his family’s dangerous journey across the border to Mexico, before arriving at the title location, in a tensely plotted thriller and family drama.

The story begins with the family – Allie, brilliant inventor but who has a hard time selling his inventions for profit, his wife Margot (Melissa George), and their two homeschooled children, Dina (Logan Polish) and Charlie (Gabriel Bateman) – living mostly off-the-grid in Stockton, California. Allie has a job on an asparagus farm and is working on an ice machine that’s the core element in the book but barely carrying any importance in the series. Justin Theroux’s Allie Fox is adverse to technology and consumerism, but the reason his own disillusioned character uproots his family from an America mired in materialism and conformity is not leaving by his own free will in order to remake a better civilisation elsewhere, at least for now. Why tell the same story twice? He and his wife Margot have to flee the US when they suddenly find themselves on the run from the US government and their mysterious past. But the urge to leave, to go somewhere else has always been there, I think, for this contemporary Allie Fox, too. Maybe Justin Theroux’s egomaniacal patriarch is more a stubborn optimist than an idealist, and he certainly is deeply flawed and has a distorted perspective on reality (at least by the standards generally accepted by society), but his unabated conviction in his own beliefs is liberating, and feels liberating for the times we are living, too, which fuels this differently shaped story.

From embodying key character traits and themes from the book into the wardrobe of the leading cast – “It was something you could boast about, it made our life seem dull and home-made, like the patches on our clothes,” Charlie fantasies in the book about that other world, the ordinary world, his father had forbidden them to enter – that evoke the simple living and breaking of the status quo, centered around style choices of recyclable, re-used and sustainable clothing, of the Fox family, to embracing the rich colours and design of Mexican culture and subtly incorporating them into the development of the characters, costume designer Justine Seymour was responsible for the art that conceals art. Especially in a film that requires dressing down rather than dressing up, costume design is the thing that often goes unnoticed. And so it should. Because everything is part of the alchemy of film-making – creating a world and the characters that inhabit it. But there are some people who simply rise above whatever you put on them, or you make the choice of using a Hawaiian shirt as a beautiful tribute to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in the original film and costume designer Gary Jones while remaining truthful first and foremost to your own character. And that is what makes dressing a film all the more fascinating.

Right after the series aired, I talked to Justine Seymour about her design process, her style references and this new world the entire team have created in The Mosquito Coast.
 

Justin Theroux and Melissa George in “The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+

 

How challenging was it to work on The Mosquito Coast given the legacy of the book and of the 1986 feature film?

The book and original film compared to Neil Cross’s TV show are very different. Our show is a prequel to the original story. I, of course, watched the film again, I read the book, and did quite a bit of research into alternative living ideas. I wanted to get a good base understanding of how the Fox family were living. Once I had read Neil Cross’s script, I started my design process. I always embrace a challenge and this one was a fun adventure!

Where do you start and where do you look for inspiration? What were your references for the wardrobes?

We contemporised the world in this show, so it would have political relevance to today’s issues with waste and the environmental issues we are facing. But I did start with the original material from the 1980s, with Paul Theroux’s book and the issues Allie Fox was obsessed with back in the 1980s.

I also watched all of Justin Theroux’s previous work and looked at about a million images of him online to see how his physicality worked with clothing. I did the same research for Melissa George, in addition to a lot of research into migrant workers, refugees trekking across the desert, and families that go on adventures across the country.

Once the story moved down to Mexico, things became so much more colourful and vibrant. It was such fun exploring the markets and cultural differences, finding wonderful handmade items to place on my characters. Dina is wearing a handcrafted sundress at the dinner party, and Justin is wearing a very classic linen Guevara shirt. I love incorporating traditional handcrafts from the region.

But they are still wearing their boots, all of them. Is it a way of reminding the viewer that their clothes are in fact not theirs, but what Enrique Salazar has chosen for them to wear?

Yes, exactly, well spotted. The clothing is given to the family, as their personal clothing is caked in sand and sweat from the three-day desert crossing. The clothing fits our beautiful cast very well, leaving the boots hinting that this was some sort of façade, and the Fox family have walked into a very serious situation. The miss-matching of the clothing supports the unease experienced so acutely by Margot.
 

Logan Polish and Melissa George as Dina and Margot Fox in “The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Dina is wearing a locally handcrafted sundress and Margot is wearing the dramatic, out-of-character red Hispanic-style
dress given to her, reflecting both her unease and the faded glory of the Hacienda.

 

Margot may be the most intriguing and enigmatic character and her clothes give us glimpses into the character that could hardly be revealed otherwise. Were Margot’s dresses, the striped day dress and then the red and black patterned dress for dinner at the Hacienda, also sourced locally?

They were sourced in the USA since I needed multiple dresses, allowing for Margot’s stunt double and picture double. The dresses from the Mexican markets are unique and don’t have multiples, so they would not have worked.

I wanted the day dress to feel as if it once belonged to someone less fortunate, that had not managed to escape the spider web of the Hacienda. But also keeping her colour palette in the motherly world of white and dusty pink stripe, mirroring her earlier shirt. This supports the reveal when she emerges in her strong red Hispanic-style dinner dress. This dramatic red dress was an old cast-off from Lucrecia the Matriarch (in my back story), reflecting the faded glory of the Hacienda.

And we also see Allie in a Hawaiian shirt. Harrison Ford’s own Hawaiian shirt from the movie comes to mind, but the shirt has a different meaning here, as, again, it’s a piece of clothing that isn’t the character’s choice. Was it your intention to reference the original or you just felt it appropriate for that part of the story?

The yellow Hawaiian shirt was an homage to the original film, celebrating Harrison Ford’s Allie and Gary Jones the costume designer from Peter Weir’s feature film. A perfect introduction to a slightly out-of-character shirt, replacing the cool, minimal, utilitarian clothing Allie had worn in the first three episodes. It allowed me to have him adopt a tourist feel for episode 7, while setting up this shirt for later seasons.
 

Bruno Bichir and Justin Theroux in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie’s Hawaiian shirt is a tribute to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox and Gary Jones the costume designer in Peter Weir’s 1986 film.

 

Did you make or have made any costume for any of the characters?

Yes, I did have some of the clothes made. I started by finding Allie’s cap, it was a copy of Quint’s cap, played by Robert Shaw in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws. Rupert Wyatt, our director for Episode 1 & 2, loved this idea. I also had the American flag pained onto the cap of the Militia leader played by Brett Rickaby. Then, in Episode 4, all the maid’s uniforms were made to measure. Lucrecia’s played by the amazing Ofelia Medina dinner party dress was also made to measure. Then, in Episode 7, I made the dress Margot wears at the gas station and beach.

And, for the character Hershey, I had been looking for the perfect hoodie for this petty, criminal beach bum character with little success. Thinking outside the box, I asked my buyer to go to the market and get samples of the fabric used in Mexico for cleaning the floor. The fabric is woven in long 15” panels, a wide loose woven cotton, available in many colours. My heart was set on a colourful stripe. Later that day, Sam, my lovely buyer, presented some options, and I was delighted to have found the fabric I was looking for. Then the ager/dyer overdyed it to a warm, over-washed, sun-bleached colour. The tailor then built two hoodie tops for Hershey. We needed two for the waterworks, just in case one got wet during the shoot, continuity from shot to shot is super important, and water scenes are always unpredictable.

Of course, there are always many alterations and often over-dyeing to make clothes look and feel authentic.
 

Justin Theroux and Melissa George in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
The classic white linen Guevara shirt worn by Allie Fox brings traditional handcrafted design from Mexico into the story.

 

What a great style reference, Quint’s cap in Jaws. It somehow makes sense. Robert Shaw’s rough-edged, old sea dog Quint is as anti-social and anti-conventional as one can be. His clothes serve one purpose and one purpose only: to be worn, and everything about his clothing suggests that the last thing on his mind is to impersonate a social creature or to belong. I think Allie would have liked him. How did you come to think of Quint’s cap?

I agree that there are similarities between Quint and Allie Fox, both are very practical men, salt of the earth type guys, that make no apologies for who they are. Rupert Wyatt had talked about Quint’s cap as a reference and when I found that I could get the exact copy, we both just laughed, and it was perfect.

Is the writer or the director usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution?

When you make a TV show the size of The Mosquito Coast, the showrunner (writer) is the final decision maker, but I work very closely with the directors and, of course, the cast. It is a very collaborative department, I have to work with the production designer and the cinematographer as well, to make sure we are all working on the same narrative and ensuring we are creating worlds that all fit together perfectly.
 

Ofelia Medina and Bruno Bichir in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
The beautifully elegant Ofelia Medina put her own spin on the character of the Matriarch, Aunt Lucretia.

 

Ofelia Medina, whom you’ve mentioned earlier, does stand out when we meet her, through poise, attitude, and clothing. Was the script your only inspiration for the character?

The character of the Matriarch, Aunt Lucrecia, turned out more glamorous than Rupert Wyatt and I had originally talked about, but that was also due to the casting. We had talked about a cigar-smoking, drug cartel, cruel and scary. But the casting of the beautifully elegant Ofelia Medina added another dimension and she put her own spin on this character, and it was wonderful to watch her character develop into a much more stylish woman. Plus, the location was so grand, I felt that all the wardrobe needed to be elevated from the original conversations to match that spectacular Hacienda.

Do you ever feel that contemporary film costume doesn’t get the attention it deserves and that people are quick to overlook its relevance in telling the story?

I do feel that not many people understand the costume department world and how much work goes into creating a character. A period costume gets more recognition as it is easier to see the difference, but a contemporary piece is well done if you don’t really notice the separate pieces but still understand the character.

Is designing a contemporary film more difficult than a period film, in the sense that you don’t get the control of designing the costumes, choosing fabrics, and fine-tuning colours?

No, not really, and you still have a choice of fabric and colours. I often over-dye and even more often alter to get exactly the shape I am looking for. It does get tricky when you are working on a film that is set in a different season. Let’s say the shops are full of summer stock and you are looking for that perfect winter coat, that you might need 4 of exactly the same coat then it can become tricky. There are always challenges to be overcome in my department.
 

Justin Theroux in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie Fox is wearing his well-worn elbow-patched cardigan at the beginning of the series.

 

Allie Fox loathes the consumerism that is choking America. There is a line in the first episode where he is talking to his son, Charlie, and he is revolting against the waste the modern society is capable of, against the fact that people don’t mend and fix anything anymore, they are just throwing it away if it doesn’t work anymore. He is a tinkerer. He is wearing a patched-elbow cardigan in the first sequence. I suppose he is wearing an old cardigan patched up, not the kind you buy designed in that way – use what you have, make things last longer.

Yes, I wanted the family to be dressed in secondhand clothing from Goodwill or even collecting from the tip and Allie resurrects many household items found at the tip, why not including clothing.

Margot has a slightly retro feel to her pants and shirt when we first meet her, all are well worn and soft. And, yes, I did buy the cardigan Allie wears, then aged it down by putting patches over the holes in the elbow so that it looked well-worn and well cared for.
 

Justin Theroux and Melissa George in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie’s overalls are old and lived-in, and reminiscing Harrison Ford’s character again.

 

The overalls are again something old most probably, recalling almost by definition a feeling of resourcefulness, and also reminiscing of Harrison Ford’s own dungarees in the 1986 film.

His overalls were about 10 years old to start with, and then we aged them, ground-in dirt to the knees and elbows, giving an extra lived-in dimension.

Was there anything in particular you felt you needed to insist on because you felt it was important for defining a certain character?

Not really, I don’t think so, we work as a team and bring the story to life step by step. All is talked about, images are shown, fittings and options discussed and worked out, both Justin and Melissa were very much involved with creating their characters and we found the looks as a team.
 

Ian Hart in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
The character of Bill Lee is “an elegant Hit Man” and the Cicada bolo tie that looks like a cockroach
was used by costume designer Justine Seymour to reflect his underworld connections.

Ian Hart in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Bill Lee goes undercover, trading his elegant suit for a short-sleeved shirt and straw Fedora.

 

Ian Hart’s character seems to steal the show whenever he wanders into a scene, not in the least through his clothes.

Bill Lee, played by Ian Hart, is an elegant ‘Hit Man’. Neil Cross and I spoke about Rocker Billy’s influences, but that got diluted and became a Bolo tie, suit-wearing elegant killer. With his army of street kids, he has eyes all over the city. The street kids’ wardrobe was broken down and aged to make them look scruffy and homeless, the ‘forgotten children’ that Billy Lee utilizes and supports, while, in return, the kids organise themselves and hunt down the Fox family. I chose the Cicada bolo tie as it looked like a cockroach, representing Bill Lee’s underworld connections, moving through Mexico unnoticed, killing his pray with grace. I wanted him to be an elegant thug, with neatness that contradicted his line of work. He goes undercover to the beachside town in Episode 7 and I change him into a short-sleeve shirt, and a straw Fedora. I enjoyed that the look just barely changed, but to him, he was fitting into a tourist world. This character was such fun to play around with, and Ian Hart was always game to go to the next level.

“His army of street kids, the forgotten children”, I love that. They were such a crucial part of the world that you created in Mexico. How are you addressing dressing the extras?

I am very involved with Background Artists (Extras), they are so important for setting the mood of the scene and, of course, the colour palette.

Before the shoot day, I collect palette images, style images, and references relevant to the scenes being shot. The images and instructions are sent directly to the Background Artists, asking them to match the images as best they can. I also have a stock of clothing to change things out once we see the Extras, that don’t match the world I am trying to create.

The Tomato factory scene is a perfect example. We had about 100 extras on that day, they all came dressed according to the reference images. Then my team gave them pre-aged and pre-dirtied garments, hats, shirts, bandanas, and character pieces to add to the basic layer they arrived in. Creating a world of workers, where Allie chats to his friend Hector over lunch surrounded by the perfectly aged, sun-bleached, sweaty, and dirtied workers. Hector is Allie’s connection to the Coyotes.

Creating worlds with Neil Cross and Rupert Wyatt is a joy, the clues throughout the script are wonderful pop culture references.

Let’s end on a little quiz for your readers: Hector’s name, can you spot the reference?
Hint Episode 2.

Thank you for letting me show you my world of thought behind the design.

Thank you, Justine, for taking us on this journey with you, and I will get back to you with spotting that reference.
 

Justin Theroux, Logan Polish, Melissa George and Gabriel Bateman in ”The Mosquito Coast”, 2021 | Apple TV+
Allie’s cap is a copy of the cap Robert Shaw wore in “Jaws” – both are “very practical men, salt of the earth type guys,
that make no apologies for who they are,” says Justine Seymour. Melissa George is wearing a dress created for her character.

 

Photos published with permission.

 
 

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Posted by classiq in Film, Interviews, Style in film | | Leave a comment

June Newsletter: On Drawing on the Quiet Moments of a Film and Childhood Summers


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

“There was life everywhere, mysterious and energetic.
In time I came to cherish our surroundings.
We led our Peter Pan existence –
Bambi my spirit dog with the deep sad eyes.”

Patti Smith, Woolgathering

 
Summer is here. Are the engineered entertainment machines that we now call movies back, too? I am eager to go back to cinemas, but I hate the feeling of picking it up from where we left off. Stories told over and over again in prequels, sequels and franchises. I’m thinking I must choose wisely in order to make the best of returning to movie going. To mark the moment. To feel that something has changed for the better. Maybe I am too much of an idealist in thinking that we all have learned something from these past fifteen months, in hoping for even a small change in the way we see and do things. And when it comes to movies, I realise I may be dreaming too big. My first experience returning to cinema would be an open air cinema, where I could watch a classic, a return to form, to the magic of cinema. It would be the right place, small yet big enough for people to join and dream together and laugh together and be awed together, with their eyes “upwards, into the horizon, with perspective”, as Maialen Beloki, the deputy director of the San Sebastián Film Festival, beautifully expressed it in our conversation last year. The collective imagination is more likely to be born out of a moment carefully building tension, out of the quiet moments of a film than out of the noise and constant distraction of blockbusters. In his book, My Life and My Films, Jean Renoir recounts how his father believed that the empty spaces in a painting were as filled with life as the parts crammed with matter, and continues to express his own beliefs that “a pause in music can be as resonant as a fanfare by a dozen military bands”.

Remember those childhood summers, Generation X? When there was so much play, but also so much time to dream away, to be in your own world? A long country road would put your own imagination in motion, the dirt path stretching ahead paved with ideas. The surroundings and the books you read would weave their stories together. And again I am thinking of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and those of Satyajit Ray, too, when there are moments when nothing seems to happen, moments which give both the characters and viewers the respite to just be present, leaving time to breath, but feeding the imagination, too.

In the same conversation about the experience of movie going mentioned before, Alessandro de Rosa, film music composer and author of the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words, recounted one of his experiences, from San Francisco: “While walking around and exploring the city, I ended up in the Union Square area. It was a relatively cold and windy night, and from far I thought I heard a music I knew, a beautiful song sung by Bing Crosby. When I finally turned the corner and got to the square, totally unexpectedly for me I saw a lot of people gathered in the middle of the square around a big screen on which they were projecting Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. The audience was so varied: children, elderly and young people, families, homeless, all watching this masterpiece together. I described this unique moment in the last novel I wrote with my brother: “The guitar which survived the desert” (“La chitarra sopravvissuta al deserto”, yet to be translated in English). That unity, in spite of differences and distances… that night I seemed to see a photograph of the United States of America.”

This is it about cinema. It brings people together. But I also feel that the world is becoming so preoccupied with catching up speed again, too fast. Like the fleeting exhilaration (for whoever feels that) of a summer blockbuster. I would rather ride on summer’s quiet moments that can take you higher and further away long after the special effects have stopped. I wish I could find some of them at the movies, at a special summer gathering, at a cinema as a nature film set of sorts.
 

 
Viewing

After young Mary is orphaned by an earthquake in India, she is sent back to England to live in her uncle’s castle. Soon, she discovers some dark secrets emerging from the castle wrapped in fog, but a beautiful garden, too, and sets out to explore its own secrets. The Secret Garden (1993), directed by Agnieszka Holland and adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book by the same name, has both beauty and darkness in it, which I think is enriching for a child and everyone watching. And, most of all, I love the character of Mary Lennox (played with such feeling by Kate Maberly), how genuine she is. Rarely is a child depicted on screen as innately having both good parts and bad parts (which I think is very true with every child, as with every individual) and it’s beautiful how the story, and the film, charters this character, not by taming her, but by letting her shine in her own time.

There is an American patina and texture in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), but it is so offbeat and deadpan funny and perfectly minimalist that you sense that the drive behind it was a desire to express things independently and as freely as possible. It is a movie and a road movie with a narrative so unconstricted that it allows the viewer incredible freedom of interpretation. It has that “make-it-in-the-garage” aesthetic, as Jarmusch himself described the filmmaking and musical scene of the late 70s-early 80s, that was not about “trying to be famous or have a career, or be a virtuoso, or be flashy”, but about “having real emotional feelings that you expressed through whatever form” (and this is why I love the 80s so much). Stranger Than Paradise is filmmaking in the most raw and free and genuine form.

Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952) is formed of three parts, three different stories, three people of different backgrounds who experience pleasure in different ways – an old man who wears a mask of youth in the first, a man’s lust transformed into life devotion in the third. It is the second part however, La Maison Tellier, I loved the most because, quite frankly, it reminded me of Jean Renoir. Julia Tellier, who owns a small-town brothel in the city, takes her girls on an outing to her brother’s village to attend the First Communion of her niece. Their loyal clients are taken aback when they discover the brothel is closed, the villagers are taken aback by the presence of the girls, the girls are moved to tears by the ceremony, and Julia’s brother, Joseph, played by Jean Gabin (who so beautifully gets his greatest effects with the smallest means, as Renoir remarked), becomes infatuated with Madame Rosa (Danielle Darieux), one of the girls. Everything is as funny as it sounds, and Joseph’s amorous intrigue seems to be his only object in life, but there is a realism behind this ludic spirit that is subtly felt. The shot towards the end of this second part, when Joseph stops his carriage on the way to the train station so that the girls can pick up flowers from the field seems depicted from a Renoir-the father painting.

I could watch Jeff Bridges (a former shock DJ who has a breakdown after an incident caused by an unstable caller) and Robin Williams (a former professor who lives in a world of his own creation to insulate himself from a tragedy in his past) over and over again in The Fisher King (1991). But the surprise for me was Mercedes Ruehl in the role of Anne. She is right there besides them. One of the great, memorable, completely natural comedic roles.

I hardly ever like the endings in romantic comedies (I hardly ever watch romantic comedies in fact). But there is The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), with Jeff Bridges and Barbara Streisand, and its ending, when the credits are already rolling. I love that sense you get that a great love story is about to begin. You don’t think that you’ve just watched a great love story throughout the film, you in turn imagine what’s about to come, that the most beautiful part is just beginning, and I won’t admit this often, but I think it’s wonderful to be left with that feeling of hope, and wondering, and happiness smeared all over your face.

In Marcel Pagnol’s The Marseille Trilogy (Marius, Fanny, and César), Marius and César (Raimu), his father, own a bar on the harbour front of Marseille. Marius is in love with a local girl, Fanny, whom he seems destined to marry, but can not overcome his urge for the unknown that the sea holds for him. Everyone’s life changes with Marius’ leaving and it’s beautiful how Pagnol presents us throughout the three movies the different destinies that life has in store for each of them. The atmosphere of old Marseille, the typical south of France culture, the way people talked and interacted. These films are fundamentally French yet incredibly universal. “Not only did he restrict himself geographically, like Bergman,” Jean Renoir wrote about Pagnol, “but he did so also in the historical sense. His company, Les Films Marcel Pagnol, operated like a medieval workshop. While I was working on my film Toni, I saw him constantly. He used my Vieux Colombier electrical equipment. He collected technicians, actors and workpeople in his country house like a fifteenth-century master-carpenter.”

That pastoral holiday cottage house in the Provence hills in Le château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle, 1990)… I am not usually one who looks for escapism in movies, but I loved the effect this film, based on Marcel Pagnol’s childhood recollections, had on me, as I drifted to another time and place, as if joining my mind elsewhere.
 

 
Reading

Patti Smith’s writing somehow reminds me of the characters in Yasujirō Ozu’s films. But in saying that, I don’t want to take away anything from the uniqueness of her writing. On the contrary. There is something so nobly quiet about her. It seems that hardly anything is allowed to interfere with her interior life and art, and this lack of artifice, her pared-down way of being is what draws you into her story and reasoning and feeling, into understanding the soothing nature of life, despite whatever may come its way. If you read Patti Smith, try to read it uninterrupted. I usually do, because I don’t want to interrupt that beautiful, natural flow of the narration, floating between present and past. She’s living so many lives in her writing, and it just fills “the reader with a vague and curious joy,” as she hoped she would when she wrote Woolgathering, as she confessed in the preface to the book. “The air was carnival, responsive. I opened the screen door and stepped out. I could feel the grass crackle. I could feel life – a burning coal tossed on a valentine of hay. I covered my head. I would gladly have covered my arms, face. I stood and watched the children at play and something in the atmosphere – the filtered light, the scent of things – carried me back…”

I am an admirer of Sylvie Lancrenon’s photography and I am happy she has published a book, Ombres et lumières – in a time when everyone seems to be releasing a book, whether they have something to say or not, I long for books telling the story of truly deserving artists. “I love natural light from dawn to dusk,” she told Elle France in an interview discussing her book. “I hate flash, heavy makeup, touch-ups that take away the magic. I seek the soul of those I photograph, the moment of abandonment. It’s just a fleeting moment, a look that suddenly is given to me and must be caught.”

I had only watched the film. Now I have finally read Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast. It’s the storytelling and the writer’s imagination (the story is much darker than the film, as I thought it would be) that grabbed me. Allie Fox is such a vivid creation as the man who uproots his family from the US for a deluded utopian mission in Central America that it’s both unnerving and fascinating. It’s just as unnerving and fascinating for his son, Charlie, whom River Phoenix so flawlessly brought to life on the screen.

In April, Paul Theroux’s new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, was published and he was interviewed by Penguin Publishing House. He mentions Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (mentioned above) as the first book remembers loving as a child. When asked what his favourite book is, he answers: “For all sorts of reasons, I would have to say The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. […] The writing of this book is just magnificent. But your question is a cruel one.”

In commemoration of 100 years since the birth of Satyajit Ray, two new books of his are being released this year. Another Dozen Stories is a collection of 12 stories for children. Actress Sharmila Tagore has penned the foreword of the upcoming book: “It is such a joy to be able to revisit some of Manik-da’s most memorable works in this genre. The stories translated by Indrani Majumdar highlight everything we have come to love and admire about Manik-da’s multifaceted creativity. It’s all here—the element of the unexpected, a hint of the supernatural, a whiff of the macabre with a generous measure of humour. This is a collection that makes me want to curl up in my bed with a pleasurable anticipation and let my imagination soar to the power of these timeless tales. This is a befitting tribute to the master on his 100th anniversary.”
 
 
Listening

Brian Johnson of AC/DC interviews musicians for his interview series Life On the Road, and a little while back he met up with Dave Grohl. Will you look at Dave’s look on his face at the beginning when Brian Johnson arrives in his van? Great recollections, great musicians, great fun.
 
 
The playlist*


 
 
Making

Sometimes, often times, it takes a new comer to clearly see the uniqueness of a place and the dormant values of a community. That is what happened when a couple, sculptor Virgil Scripcariu and art historian Adriana Scripcariu, moved to a little village fifteen years ago. In Piscu, a village about 35 km from Bucharest, they found a community of potters. Romania is a country packed with peerless craftsmanship, and this village has been making pottery, functional, simply adorned vessels and plates, for generations (one of the most valuable piece in the museum’s collection is a traditional wedding pitcher that one of the elders of the village donated to the museum a couple of years ago), even if today there are only two potters in the village still honing their craft. Despite their tradition, the village had a low name recognition, and that’s why the founders wanted to bring it the appreciation it deserved.

The Piscu School museum (images 2 and 6 in this article) wants to connect children (and adults alike) with the local cultural heritage, with its beauty and historical relevance, and to be an inspiration to all those who wish to gain a fascinating glimpse into the riches of the Romanian cultural heritage and become acquainted with its values. The museum gathers ceramics from all over the country, but its emphasis is on celebrating the place and community where it was born – imbued with the natural warmth of wood, the building itself was projected to fit in harmoniously with the surroundings and celebrate its landscape. Workshops, summer schools, exhibitions and online courses are regularly organised, and a heritage specialist school, Agatonia Elementary School, is how an important part of the community. It combines traditional and non-traditional teaching, classic methods and play, encouraging a great sense of freedom and curiosity.
 
 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s all three newsletters: Roden, Ridgeline, and Huh. Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin (he has recently interviewed Hans Zimmer). Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Monocle magazine, in print.

*Note: As Alicia Kennedy writes in her latest newsletter, “I’m also aware that Spotify is terrible, which is why I purchase albums, concert tickets, and merchandise as much as possible to support the artists I love”. These are songs I gather from the vinyls, from the CDs, and from the soundtracks of the films in my library. I hope you opt for the whole, immersing experience of listening an album on the turntable and watch a film uninterrupted on a big screen or at least in the player at home on a big enough screen.
 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | | Leave a comment

Daily Little Rituals and Their Lasting Beauty: SAYA Designs


 

Photos: Classiq Journal

 

In this world of fast, SAYA’s regard for detail and wellbeing and nature inspires us to go slow. The story of SAYA Designs started from the desire to make something unique yet functional, something creative yet supporting a bigger cause. A beauty brand that works with nature, based on the idea of interfering as little as possible and, by taking the time to observe, learn and listen, letting nature give us what works well for us.
 

 
Born in Indonesia, a place that founder Victoria Jones chose because of the environment, sense of community and business mindset, SAYA is fundamentally part of its surroundings. From bearing an Indonesian name (SAYA means ‘I’ or ‘my’ depending on your turn of phrase, Victoria told me), to having its hair accessories carved by hand by artisans of Bali from root wood salvaged from abandoned plantations and using as design inspiration the forms and rhythm of nature, reflecting the flora of the region, sustainability is built into the SAYA culture. But the result is more than responsible design and natural beauty, it’s an ode to local nature and culture, and to yourself and your wellbeing.

A respectful exchange, a communion with nature is at the core, an ethos that is carried on throughout their entire range of products, from the organic hair oils, to the wooden hair brushes. Wooden combs and accessories help to reduce anti static, breakage and damage to hair, unlike plastic and metal, and the porous nature of wood absorbs and redistributes your natural oils and maintains healthy hair continuously through your wash cycle. The hair oils are made with 100% certified organic ingredients. A beauty product made with natural ingredients has personality and life in it, and is, in turn, deeply nourishing and moisturising for your hair and skin. And even the box packaging is fully recyclable, handmade from papaya fruit pulp and vegetable inks, which, once used, can be placed in the food compost. Everything in SAYA’s making and aesthetic makes you feel good about yourself and the planet.
 

 
Of the many lessons we’ve learned this past year, one that hit home for many was that too many things still lacked ease and casualness, which made us yearn for a spirit of familiarity that was more personal and comforting. The SAYA products, functional and organic, that can be used daily and feel relevant in the long run, echo that spirit, leaning toward nature’s endless care and one’s renewed need to remain authentic.

To be beautiful means to be yourself. Being with your family, being in nature, feeling the sea breeze in your face that quietly whispers summer stories of play and adventure… that’s when you are feeling beautiful in a natural way, that’s when you radiate kindness and beauty from within. The way one experiences SAYA Designs is a connection with oneself. Self-care is the purest form of beauty and it must be practiced daily. Each SAYA product seems designed around a little daily ritual – accentuating what you love about yourself while unapologetically prioritising looking after your skin and hair in a nurturing and caressing way – that brings you closer to your inner self and your body. It feels soothing and calming, just like the soft blend of chamomile and lavender hues, grounded by the cedar wood base in the soothing hair oil, feels in your hair not just on a perfect day, but on any given day.
 

 

sayadesigns.com | Instagram: @saya_designs
 
 

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Hayao Miyazaki’s Wonderful Sense of Fantasy

“My Neighbor Totoro”, 1988. Studio Ghibli

 
Blessed those who haven’t yet watched Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Until recently I was one of them. Then my son asked if we could start watching films together and so we have started to discover Miyazaki’s fantastical universes.
 
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is about two sisters finding forest spirits when they move from the city to the rural countryside. Watching the film a couple of months ago with my son reminded me of the words of another great filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami: “The most wondrous period in the life of a human being is childhood, when encountering even the most minuscule things becomes a process of radical exploration. It’s a pity we leave those times behind so quickly.” My son was fascinated by the film, but I think I was even more enthralled with it, because I was discovering it myself for the first time and because I was watching it through his eyes, too. It was like a beautiful reminder that it isn’t that difficult to tap into that wondrous period as an adult.

The two little girls can see Totoro and adults can’t. And it made perfect sense for my son, too. He just accepted it, fascinated by the mystery, not so much wondering about the why’s but eager to meet him again and again and accompany him and the girls in their adventure. The film has stayed with both of us, and we are also reading the book at the moment. Children and adults see this film differently, naturally, but it’s equally important for both children and adults. And it’s all because of the genius of Hayao Miyazaki, who weaves the story together with such emotion and intensity. Reality and mythology seem to coexist so naturally in the Japanese culture and daily life. And there is such a ritual to the everyday life for the Japanese, and I noticed how my son loved observing those daily rituals of the girls, or the moments when nothing seems to happen but moments which give both the characters and viewers the respite to just be present, and that’s something very precious. Because it gives the children watching the chance to just think at what has just happened, imagine for a bit what’s about to happen, without keeping them in constant action and distraction. And that is simply extraordinary, letting the children navigate their own feelings and emotions, while giving them joy and astonishment. It’s about telling the story in the most engaging and in the most emphatic way at the same time, and that’s a true gift for children. This is the kind of narrative freedom that you rarely find in films, but more likely in books, and which, combined with the visual power of cinema, gives birth to an emotional honesty and artistry hard to be equaled.
 

“Princess Mononoke”, 1997. Studio Ghibli

 
Princess Mononoke (1997) is about a prince, Ashitaka, inflicted with a deadly curse by a boar creature when the boy kills it to defend his village. His fate is sealed, the village elders tell him, but he decides to leave and search for the place where the boar came from and the reason for its rage and hatred against people. On his way, he meets San, who calls herself Princess Mononoke, a human raised in the forest by the wolf goddess Moro. San’s plan is to kill local industrialist Lady Eboshi, who has destroyed the animal habitat while and with the manufacturing of iron and guns. It was a gun shot that had transformed the boar, himself an animal god, into an evil creature. And the moment I realised that, the brilliance of the entire film dawned on me.

Inspired by the Muromachi period (1336-1573), which saw the introduction of firearms to feudal Japan, the film is a work of art in the way it conjures a simple natural world where animal gods and tree spirits roam the earth, until they start to be threatened by humanity’s technological progress and cruelty. But another amazing thing about the film is that humans are not explicitly categorized in bad and evil. Each character is flawed, and yet the writer-director does not pass judgment on them. Everything seems to exist at the confluence of tragic and magical, of shadow and light, of good and evil – I smiled when, after we realise what Lady Eboshi is doing in her village, making firearms in order to take over the surrounding natural world, it is revealed to us that she has liberated prostitutes from brothels to come and work for her and made a safe home for the lepers, too. I love how the film refuses to conform to a simplistic, black and white view on human nature, and how it avoids sentimentality and a romanticized ending.

The film is filled with such richness and complexity that can reach children in this seemingly simple way – it may be simple enough for them to enjoy but I think that, even with children of five, it sinks deeper than that. By the contrasting nature of each character, of nature vs civilization, children are shown, even if they don’t comprehend the dimension of it all, the strengths and weaknesses inherent in human nature and instills in them moral behaviour and they are provided with a moral code on which to start to develop their own lives. But that sense of bewilderment and surprise prevails at all times and that’s the film’s secret – when, at the end, after disaster occurs in the natural world and a single small tree spirit appears suddenly, that’s a moment of pure joy and hope. Earlier in the film, tens, and then hundreds, of small tree spirits had sprung one after another in a frame, and that was a joyous and hilarious moment – what a wonderful way Miyazaki has to speak with children at just the right moments.

“I believe that children’s souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” Miyazaki told The Guardian in 2005. “It’s just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that, I would die happy.” He is 80 now, he is still making movies and he still draws by hand.
 

“Spirited Away”, 2001. Studio Ghibli

 
When, in Spirited Away, at its 20th anniversary this year, Chihiro and her parents take a wrong turn on their way to their new home, they stop to look around and go through a tunnel at the end of which they reach a strange world, a seemingly deserted themed park. When night falls, the park becomes a world populated by spirits and witches, dust balls and a river creature whose body has absorbed decades of pollution – again, it’s amazing on how many levels Miyazaki’s stories work. Chihiro has to work at a bath house so that she, with the help of a young boy who himself had long ago entered this world and now can not escape, can save her parents who have been transformed into pigs.

Once again, Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastic world is unlike anything done before, free from typical fairy tale characters. Miyazaki’s characters are driven by their own logic. Good characters can become evil just by a change of scenery, can take the shape of human, animal or river spirit, a child enters a strange world and anything can happen. It’s simply this free flow of events and transformations and beings that just happen, that just are. And the beauty of it all is that they take you along for the ride. And you just have to do what children do: be astonished.
 
 

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Darkness Under the Limelight: Tyrone Power in “Nightmare Alley”

Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
There is something sordid about the atmosphere of a small-time, small-town carnival. Comedians trapped in tragic roles. The performers may be under the limelight, but it is the dim light of a would-be only in hope, because they are always on the way towards something bigger but are often left bitter beyond any hope of achieving it. But they also seem to know more about fame and success than those who have achieved it: the ephemerality of it all.

“Stan Carlisle fascinated me. He was such an unmitigated heel. Here was a chance to create a character different from any I had ever played before.” Tyrone Power was the one who wanted to make Nightmare Alley, based on the 1946 book by William Lindsay Gresham, and he acquired the rights to the novel. He wanted to subvert his matinee-idol image and he sank his teeth into it, with merciless force. It is the story of the rise and fall of a man from small-time carnival operator to spiritualist conman, from putting on a sideshow for the working class to showing off in an upper act for the rich, revealing the dark recesses of his own nature in the process. It is an unvarnished portrayal of moral degradation and self-destruction, a largely pessimistic vision of the American dream, “where to become successful you must prey on the weaknesses of others,” writes Paul Duncan in Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites. “As Carlisle rises from hick to ace charlatan and crashes to become a “geek”, a creature that gets tearing the heads off live chickens in a bran-pit, we see a frightening glimpse of life without money or hope in a society that lives by both,” Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg observed in their 1968 essay Noir Cinema, republished in the book Film Noir Compendium.
 

Tyrone Power and Helen Walker in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
There is always a woman by Stanton’s side on his way up – in the book, there was no one by his side on his downward spiral, no good girl “redeemer”, the other female image that appears in noir films, and I will pretend the ending of Edmund Goulding’s film didn’t detach itself from the uncompromising force of Gresham’s novel, which would have been possible in the absence of the Hays Code but highly improbable because of filmmakers’ ardent dependence on the studios. First it’s Zeena, a worldly and hefty sideshow fortune teller who reveals to Stan the word codes for the mentalist act. There is a human “every woman” quality to her, with something good and something bad in her, earnest yet capable of duplicitous behaviour. Then it’s the young and warm-hearted Molly (Colleen Fray), the good girl, who becomes his partner in the entertaining act as well as in life. And then it’s dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist willing to betray her patients’ darkest secrets to become Stan’s accomplice. Dr. Lilith is his match. Played with ice-cold perfection by Helen Walker, “huge-eyed, sly as a cat, Dr. Ritter’s gestures suggest a soulless ambition; the web of hair, the smoothly disciplined face are unforgettable,” wrote Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg.

Nowhere is Dr. Ritter’s sexual allure and superior psychological insight (the two most covert and elusive weapons of the femme fatale) more obvious than in their meeting in her office, him standing up, her siting down, him in a striped suit, white shirt and black tie, her in a suit jacket and white buttoned-down shirt, with its sleeve cuffs peeking from under the jacket sleeves, and neckertie pinned with a brooch. Bonnie Cashin was the costume designer. She had begun her career in New York in the 1930s, as a designer at the Roxy Theater, while also designing clothes for a sports manufacturer. In 1943, she was invited to work at the Twentieth Century Fox, and one of her early assignments was Laura (1944), starring Gene Tierney. Her clothes for the character of Laura contrasted the over-dressing of the America of the 1940s, something Cashin wanted to avoid so that the clothes in the film wouldn’t look too dated, too soon. She had her mind set on the modern woman.

At first, you could swear Dr. Ritter is wearing a tuxedo. She is not, it’s a skirt she is wearing with her jacket, but somehow, surprisingly, this makes her look even more striking and empowering, its somber shade the epitome of formality. That particular scene is lit in a way that casts shadows on the wall resembling prison bars. The world of film noir is usually a world where love is replaced by obsessions and fatal desires. This time, it is replaced by a hopeless addiction to hell-bent success and the one woman who can mitigate it better and faster than anyone else. Her treachery seems better disguised when Stanton pays her a visit by surprise and she is wearing her hair loose and loose she wears her pussy-cat bow, too, of her lounging gown. When they meet again on the pier, for the last time, she is again buttoned-up in her trench coat, forever crystallising the image of the unabashedly unruly femme fatale.
 

Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
That sense of Stanton feeling trapped, in his own doomed destiny, was felt earlier in the film, too, during his carnival days, when he was plotting with Zeena. As they are shown observing the crowd from the back stage, there is a spotlight on the two of them and everything else around them remains in the dark. He is making plans, but the look in his eye is not overshadowed just by the camera play with light. It is however the dramatic lighting that makes his striped jacket, the costume for his act, look like a jail jacket.

Those days he was usually wearing a simple white t-shirt, and often just his tank top. It was before the plain t-shirt was transformed from underwear item into a symbol of rebellion and youth and deemed acceptable on screen to expose more of a male’s body when Marlon Brando wore his as an outer garment in A Streetcar Named Desire, freeing the fifties from buttoned-up mentalities and clothes. Stanton attracts the eyes of Zeena and Molly, but the t-shirt doesn’t necessarily imply that it is meant to be indicative of a certain hyper-masculine physique or virility. His t-shirt is no more than a humble piece of undershirt and he is wearing one because it’s a cheap garment, he doesn’t have anything else to wear when it’s too hot or when when he needs to take his jacket off so that he can use his arms freely as he performs the carnival chores.
 

Tyrone Power, Helen Walker in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
When he finds success, he is wearing a suit. And it must be a bespoke suit, because that’s the height of men’s style, and Stan’s suit is the apogee of his evolution. In its dark portrait of the American dream, the film charts the rise and fall of the man who climbs the ladder of social mobility, the transition point being most poignantly marked by the acquisition of a different kind of wardrobe. From the nondescript tank top and t-shirt clothing to the impeccable suit, his continuing rise is finally complete with the dinner suit, when he reaches the height of his powers. But if the tuxedo, despite its being the most elegant and expensive item in a man’s wardrobe, also has a pre-defined role here, as it represents his entertaining costume, the bespoke striped suit, completed with the most refined details, like a white pocket square and a white carnation, makes a much more individual statement. His new-found power is put on display, just like the erosion of his conscience and downfall will be displayed through his wrinkled, worn-off, humble clothes and his plebeian flat cap when he sinks to his lowest low.

I am curious to see how free a reign will Guillermo del Toro have with his adaptation of Gresham’s novel, set to be released at the end of this year.
 

Tyrone Power in “Nightmare Alley”, 1947. Twentieth Century Fox

 
 

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