The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood


 
Sam Wasson doesn’t force depth and emotion into his writing, and that’s why I love his writing. It flows naturally and vividly, it keeps you engaged, it is unpredictable yet beautifully constructed, it is accelerating and seamlessly connecting phrases even when he leaps from one idea to another, from one time to another.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood* is about the making of Chinatown, one of the best movies in the history of cinema, on the background of the lives leading up to it of the four most important men who made it possible. Screenwriter Robert Towne – “Be they dreamers or detectives, the original heroes and antiheroes of LA crime were palpably screenwriters in disguise, losers of varying degrees of honor as far from their big score or big just as were screenwriters, divested of their creative ownership, from their dream, their writing.” Jack Nicholson – “Ray’s The Music Room, Olmi’s Il Posto, Bitter Rice, Umberto D, Seven Samurai, Rififi at the Beverly Canon… Through all these permutations and youthful poetry I came to believe that the film actor was the great litterateur of his time.” Producer Robert Evans – “Luck, my friend, is where opportunity meets preparation.” And Roman Polanski – “Hollywood was just the name of the place, but it happens that this Hollywood is giving me the tools to do what I want to do.”

Robert Towne was friends with Nicholson and he wrote J.J. Gittes for him. Evans was the one who brought Roman Polanski back to Los Angeles after the tragedy that would mark his entire life – suddenly, reading more about Polanski’s life with his wife, Sharon Tate, and that fatidic day in August 1969, made me love Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and its ending – that beautiful “What if? What if Sharon Tate’s fate had been different?” ending, when you hear the “enchanting, fable-ish”, as Quentin himself described it, music, Miss Lily Langtry, by Maurice Jarre – even more. Chinatown was a teamwork, from pre-production, to the actual filming. But it was also an all-encompassing art form brought together by a director’s masterful vision. Not all films are. Reading the book, it has a dizzying, revelatory, meandering effect on you. Writing and making Chinatown wasn’t easy. Watching it, it gives you a nightmarish feeling that goes rampantly against the bright Los Angeles light, the way it uses the noir genre but evading the visual vocabulary and the defining elements of that very genre, it fascinates against all the wrong doings that you witness. Why should reading about it be any less demanding, less haunting and less rewarding?

The Big Goodbye takes us to a Los Angeles where people went because they had dreams, dreams that belonged only to California, and to a Hollywood where people went not just because they had dreams, but because they had hope. “He was not ashamed, as many of his film-school contemporaries were, of swimming in a warm bush of thrillers, musicals, westerns, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Maltese Falcon, Snow White, popular genres that were to Polanski “what cinema” – what Hollywood – “is all about”. These were not dreams, Roman didn’t understand dreams. These were hopes, as real as the people who made them, sent to Poland from a magical but non-imaginary place on an actual map fantastically far from Soviet rule.”
 
 
* For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the book, I have linked to the publishing house. However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore we will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.
 
 

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The Birth of the Androgynous Look: Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”

Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photo: James Manatt, MGM

 
 

This Summer We’re Channelling: a recurring seasonal series
in the journal that celebrates both style in film and summertime.

 
 

 
It was 1929 when Greta Garbo introduced trousers into women’s fashion, when she appeared in her lover’s clothes in The Single Standard. Among the clothes she borrows from her lover, there are wide-legged pleated trousers, shirts, sweaters, swimming shorts, plain tank top, socks, sneakers, an oversized bathrobe and a sailor’s cap. It was Garbo who paved the way for Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn. She invented the androgynous look. She was the first nonconformist.

In real life, she preferred a natural, simple style, too, menswear inspired, and favoured trousers, flat shoes, turtlenecks, trench coats and polo-neck sweaters. She loved to wear trousers because her tomboyish nature wanted her to be active and comfortable while walking and moving around. It was her who launched the tuxedo, which she had custom-made by the tailor Watson, and which only later became the trademark of Marlene Dietrich. Both Dietrich and Hepburn were influenced by the Swedish actress, both developing a personal style of dressing that emulated Garbo’s and eventually became to represent an evolution of the androgynous style that Garbo gave birth to. It is a look that is also reflected in the clothes she wore in The Single Standard and in other films. Always the mysterious, refusing her life and dressing style to be a continuation of her films and characters, never yielding to conventions, proposing a new feminine form and a new model of beauty. “She was a woman with an elegant line, slender but strong, so contemporary with her vaguely boyish allure to rewrite the rules of glamour and charm,” writes Giusi Ferré in the book Greta Garbo: The Mystery of Style.
 

Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photos: James Manatt, MGM

 
 

It is however her star image, and, above all, her face – framed to perfection by the costumes of Adrian, brilliantly shot in the publicity stills of Ruth Harriet Louise and Clarence Sinclair Bull, whether intense and enigmatic and unattainable or emphasizing the woman’s power to seduce, and, according to Roland Barthes, the face that “catapulted viewers into the most profound ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image” – that places her in the collective imaginary. But you’ve got to love the way she straddles both androgynous look, stripped of any “feminine” artifice, and feminine playfulness and pensiveness, with only her iconic face to celebrate femininity, in The Single Standard. She showed that being strong and beautiful are best paired together. There is an adventurous side to girls and women and Greta Garbo made the world aware of that. There is nothing more powerful and attractive than the combination of the femininity of her pose and the masculine style of her clothing. Because, as it is noted in the aforementioned book, “she is the one who lends her unique face to characters, though always remaining herself, never renouncing – in her interpretations – her own physical and intellectual typicalness”.

Greta Garbo perfectly understood the Hollywood star-making system, and she was the ultimate star. Yet, although she let the studio resort to all its devices (colour photography could have never illuminated her beauty the way black and white did) to underscore the power of her sculpted face in creating her intriguing and seductive characters, she never let the movies take hold of her life, she never let go of her original self. That’s why the mystery endures. Living her own life away from the movie world, unadulterated by success, championing her understated way of dressing, leaving things unsaid, leaving people want for more. Because when everything you do and say is out for display, what else do you leave for desire?
 

Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photos: James Manatt, MGM

 
 
In The Single Standard, directed by John S. Robertson, Garbo plays Arden Stuart, a free-spirited and independent-minded young woman from a wealthy family who thinks beyond her social status and conventions and wants to live her life by her own rules. “There are many theories about love, but only one answer: equality – the perfect freedom!” That’s the kind of love and relationship both Arden and her lover, Packy Cannon (Nils Asther), believe in. When she runs away with him on his boat, it is something unplanned. She hasn’t brought any other clothes along, so she wears his clothes for the entire duration of their trip. But it is something that comes very naturally to her, because it reflects her own beliefs and personality. She clearly feels energised, free, and, most certainly, a little rebellious.

Adrian was the costume designer, one of the most talented and creative costume designers who have worked in Hollywood, at his second collaboration with Garbo. Adrian would dress her for 19 films and they would strike a long friendship. Garbo’s style on screen will forever be inextricably linked to Adrian, but the designer acknowledged that he created her image based on her own radiant beauty that called for singular treatment, always trying to let her true personality and natural beauty shine through even behind the most glamorous and exotic film costumes. And whenever she didn’t play period or historical parts, he dressed her with simplicity, offering her strength and attitude.

Breaking with Hollywood’s relish for excess, the designer created an understated look for Garbo both in The Single Standard and A Woman of Affairs, their first two films together, and she donned functional and menswear inspired looks in many other films, such as Anna Christie, 1930 (laced shoes, leather jackets and turtlenecks were part of her character’s wardrobe) and Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise, 1931 (she even wears a vest over a t-shirt with belted trousers).

One of the pieces Adrian designed for Greta Garbo for A Woman of Affairs was a trench coat, one of the first examples of trenches for women, remarks Christian Esquevin in the book Adrian: From Silver Screen to Custom Label, and one bearing the signature of what would become known as the Adrian look, the wide shoulders. “In A Woman of Affairs I put her in sport clothes… I created the broad shoulders for her, which has become the silhouette of today. Broad shoulders give a smaller hip, great youth, independence, all of which are part of Garbo’s character.”
 

Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Photo: James Manatt, MGM

 
 
Garbo is also seen in a multi-striped pyjama look in The Single Standard, another item that caused a sensation, and one that intentionally called to mind men’s pyjamas (another striped pyjama outfit will make again an appearance in Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise, two years later). Arden wears this piece after she parts with her lover, when she no longer wears his clothes, thus making it clear that she has always preferred a modern, boyish style of dressing.

It was Adrian, with the help of Garbo’s star persona, who made pyjama lounging suits popular, transforming them from European boudoir and beachwear to multi-functional dress, further notes Christian Esquevin. When he dressed Garbo in velvet evening pyjamas in Inspiration, he foresaw that “due to the pyjama craze, I am certain women will adopt trousers for formal evening wear within the next year or two,” revealing that what he was trying “to create for the screen are ultra modern clothes which will be adaptable for the street.” In the promotion catalogue for Wild Orchids, 1929, where in one scene she appears in a safari-inspired costume, Greta Garbo encourages women to show restraint in adopting eccentric dressing and to channel their interest instead towards sports clothes, which she finds modern and elegant. “And the loveliest thing,” she adds, “is that sports wear can be worn all day long. It can be seen at formal dinners and in tea rooms.” In Adrian, Garbo found the perfect ally to popularise her style philosophy on-screen, too.

 

Left: Greta Garbo in “The Single Standard”, 1929 | Right: Adrian and Greta Garbo in her pyjama suit on the set
Photos: James Manatt, MGM

 
 

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Creating a New Visual Reality: Interview with Illustrator Katherine Lam

Cover art by Katherine Lam for The Criterion Collection release of “Toni”, 1935, directed by Jean Renoir

 
It was Jacques Tourneur’s film I Walked with a Zombie that sparked illustrator Katherine Lam’s interest in the history of cinema, the gate that lead her to the films of the likes of Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa and Tarkovsky. Classic cinema opened up a new visual world and the possibility to experiment with art in ever changing ways, and, most importantly, in ways that are specific to the medium of illustration – because artists who choose to create in a visual medium should accept and pursue the challenges of form-creating work, Katherine believes. Bernie Fuchs, whose creative restlessness was one of his biggest assets, and Edward Hopper, the visual bard of American solitude and a masterful painter of light and shadow, are two other big influences on her work.

An element of surprise permeates Katherine Lam’s art. Her illustrations have a distinctive mood, she has a way of working suspense and voyeurism into her pieces, beautifully contrasting dark corners and streaks of light. Hitchcock comes to mind again – his suspenseful visual narrative tactics remain unmatched to this day. Katherine invests her pieces with a sense of suddenness in sights that compress time, her subjects feel taken by surprise, and we, the viewers, are too, from afar. It’s as if we are waiting for something to happen and the moment keeps being prolonged. And it all happens in a single image. That’s the work of a true visual storyteller.

In our interview, I am talking with the artist about her timeless cover art for this week’s Criterion Collection release of Jean Renoir’s Toni, about what fostered her creativity as a child and, naturally, about Hitchcock.
 

Illustration by Katherine Lam

 
I rewatched Toni for our interview and I am glad I did because there were certain details that I didn’t remember well, like the bee sting sequence. It’s a key moment in the film, the moment that unleashes all the events that follow, and one that you beautifully used to illustrate the Criterion cover art. But I find that these key moments that can capture the essence of a film are not necessarily easy to land, and it requires tremendous talent from the illustrator, especially in this case, when your design grabs the viewer’s interest by showing restraint rather than making it more explicit. What was the process behind your work on Toni?

Most of the credit for using the bee sting scene as the cover will have to go to my art director, Eric Skillman. He came to me with this project and asked me to center the piece around that scene. I wouldn’t have been able to conceive the cover without him. His idea was that the bee sting scene, where she flirtatiously lowers her dress for Toni to suck out the poison, and a later scene, where she lowers her dress to show Toni the abuse that she had faced at the hands of her husband, was a nice visual rhyme that showed the stark contrast of the first half of the movie and the later half.

The scene in the film was flirty and cute, but later, the film takes a dark turn, and I wanted to make sure the cover showed the ominous overtones of the film, even if the subject matter is innocuous and light.

Do you ever seek for inspiration outside the film itself?

Yes! I was looking at Edward Kinsella, who makes a lot of portrait work that is a little eerie, and I believe this is achieved by his mostly dark monochromatic colour palette. I decided with a sepia-toned colour scheme to get that old, dramatic look. I was also looking at Hammershøi a lot for this cover. Hammershøi’s work is quiet, still and also a little eerie, and most of his subjects aren’t facing him. His soft rendering of shadows and light makes his subjects and rooms look like they’re glowing. Usually my work is flat, but I like the soft glow effect in his work, so I was inspired to render the piece out more.

Besides its subtle and defining references to the film, there is something more about your cover art for Toni. It has a timelessness to it, the kind of artwork you want to frame and put on your wall, that has a lasting life of its own, regardless of the film’s. Is it important for you that a film cover can stand as artwork in its own right?

Definitely! As an illustrator, my work tends to be more artwork-centric and I enjoy creating poster artwork that doesn’t depend on familiar faces or typography. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing film posters where the poster was treated as a placeholder for a celebrity’s face. Posters can draw viewers in just as well as a trailer or a familiar celebrity. They are meant to be eye-catching and informative. You can get creative with them and make some really great pieces.
 
 

”I think people tend to get caught up in telling a good story
or having great visuals – a book can tell a great story,
a photograph can have great visuals – I want to see
something that only film or illustration can do.”

 
 

Poster art by Katherine Lam for The Criterion Collection release of “Panique”, 1946, directed by Julien Duvivier

 
Your work with The Criterion Collection includes Julien Duvivier’s Panique and Yasujirō Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, another two classics. What would you say is the biggest difference between contemporary and classic cinema?

I think a lot of contemporary cinema has reflected the change in the industry where movies are made quickly to appeal to as many people as possible with the purpose of generating revenue. Obviously, this is not the case for all contemporary films, but for me, the difference between contemporary and classic cinema is that one tends to care more about revenue and one tends to care more about wanting to say something. Classic movies are timeless and everybody of all ages and eras will be able to resonate with that, even if the time period or culture is different from the one that we’re used to, like Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Roma, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, etc. It’s a movie that leaves you with more questions than answers, that starts a conversation rather than ends one.

If you could choose one classic film to make the official poster art for back in the day, which one would it be?

I would love to make a poster for the horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I love working with anything that has an atmosphere of suspense, and the film is so stylish and abstract, I think trying to capture its essence in one poster would be exciting.

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, it is a dark and visually striking cinematic experience that uses sharp-pointed forms, oblique and curving lines, structures and landscapes that lean and twist in unusual angles and shadows and streaks of light painted directly onto the sets. And the original poster art for the film, some of it by Otto Arpke and Erich Ludwig Stahl, is a visual experience in itself. Is there any artist who has had a defining influence on your work and style of illustration?

Edward Hopper is definitely the biggest influence on my work. His work has always stood out to me because of the mood and atmosphere he creates in his work. I am drawn to the fact that his work looks like the world has stopped, as if time froze and everybody is stuck where they are and we are only spectating them from afar. I see a lot of art that is very immersive and tries to make it so that the viewer feels like they are a part of the action. I find that Hopper’s intentionally distanced work to be an interesting diversion from that and I try to incorporate that into my work.
 
 
 

”Illustration can create a whole new reality of its own.”

 
 
 
What is your first drawing memory?

My first drawing memory was when I was a kid, about 6-7. My mom had signed me up for an art class, and the first assignment I had to do was to draw some cartoon fish. I still remember pretty vividly how confidently I drew those fish, and how sloppily I scratched on the blue colour of the ocean around it! I actually didn’t like drawing at all at that point and it wasn’t until later in my life when I drew in my free time that I gained an interest towards it.

What was it that ultimately fostered your creativity as a child? In his autobiography, Kurosawa wrote that in his school days “art education was terribly haphazard. Some tasteless picture would be the model, and it was simply a matter of copying it. The student drawings that most closely resembled the original would get the highest marks,” continuing with praising his art teacher, “but Mr. Tachikawa did nothing so foolish. He just said, ‘Draw whatever you like.’” Do you find it important for an artist to have formal education in art?

I definitely agree with Kurosawa. When I was young, being able to draw whatever I wanted was what got me interested in making more art in the first place. I had a pretty active imagination as a child and I had a bunch of crazy ideas, and drawing for me was a way to materialise those ideas into a reality. Trying to make me copy something that already exists exactly the way it is has never really interested me and, more often than not, hindered me. The class that my mom had put me in when I was younger was similar to that – she would give me a copy of a still life that she had drawn and asked us to copy it. My interest in art came from trying to draw fanart for my favourite shows and books.

I personally don’t find a formal education in art to be necessary in becoming an artist. While it can be very beneficial to learn from veteran artists and be among other creatives, art is one of those things where you can learn a lot from self-study. Art is also one of those things (as with most things) where your portfolio matters more than which school you went to. And especially these days, where a formal four-year art education is synonymous with a lifetime of debt, it’s no longer the one and only way to being a “real” and professional artist. There are so many resources online that are free or cheap that will give you more than a BFA ever will.
 

Illustration by Katherine Lam

 
You also do editorial illustration and you have collaborated with some great print publications. What does an illustration bring new to an editorial in comparison to photography?

I think illustration can bring so much to editorial in terms of trying to depict certain concepts or trying to depict a mood that photography can’t capture. Photography has to work with reality, while illustration can completely dismiss that and create a whole new reality of its own. It’s better for depicting concepts, or things that can’t necessarily be seen, while photography tends to be better for more factual depictions such as portraits or news events.

I think editorial illustration can only be successful once you’ve done a good amount of research and gained some knowledge on the topic at hand. Most of the articles I get are about social issues, so it is usually expected that I already have some knowledge about the topic, and if I don’t, read up on it on my own time to help get a better understanding of the topic. Conceptualising takes up most of my time, because I essentially need to boil the article down to its main point, and find a way to portray that in a visual metaphor that is easy to understand.

Your print magazine work and movie cover art translate into a physical connection with the audience. Is it important to you, as an artist, to have this tangible relationship with the public?

I’ve never really thought about that, to be completely honest. Most of my work is done digitally and meant for digital spaces. I do think that artwork in a physical form allows you to appreciate more than artwork that you see on a computer because it feels more like an item than an image. It’s always nicer to hold a book or a print and have it exist in the same space as you.

In this time and age, what do you wish people appreciated more?

I wish people appreciated the medium of art and film more, rather than the story or the content, if that makes sense. With film, for example, I love seeing filmmakers experiment with elements that are only specific to film, like time or camera movements, like how 1917 looks like it’s only one shot. For art, I love seeing artists manipulate the canvas, such as Sergio Toppi playing around with comic panels. I think people tend to get caught up in telling a good story or having great visuals – a book can tell a great story, a photograph can have great visuals – I want to see something that only film or illustration can do.

It makes very much sense. That’s why I love Hitchcock’s films so much. His films belong to cinema.

I love Hitchcock! He is definitely one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. All his films feel smart and refreshing no matter when I watch them or how many times I watch them. You can probably tell from my work, but I love suspense and tension, which he does so well. I think the way he taps into our deep inner fears and makes us wait the whole length of the film to get any closure is so effective and smart. Most horror and thriller films these days can barely get under my skin the same way his films do. And as you said, his stories can’t really be told in any other way. I can’t imagine getting the same kind of suspense if I read Psycho in book form or as a comic. A lot of his work inspired a lot of the way I approach my work, especially with the voyeurism aspect.
 

Illustration by Katherine Lam

 

Website: katherinelam.com | Instagram: @katherinelams

 
 

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From the Period Authenticity of “Meek’s Cutoff” to the Contemporary Realism of “Boys Don’t Cry”: In Conversation with Costume Designer Vicki Farrell

Michelle Williams in “Meek’s Cutoff”, 2010, directed by Kelly Reichardt | Evenstar Films, Film Science, Harmony Productions

 
 
A film is as good as the sum of its crafts, crafts that must seamlessly wove the threads that spun the illusion that is the story we watch so earnestly. That is why I find that it is fascinating to talk about a film from the point of view of each craft, such as costume design, because it opens up wider ways of interpretation of and interconnectivity with the film.

Kelly Reichardt has carved out a distinctive universe with her films, especially her westerns. It is a different kind of West that her characters are part of, a West they do not conquest, maybe do not even inhabit, but survive: quiet, spare, rendered through a visual naturalism and a realistic, subdued approach, but with more provocative messages running underneath. In Meek’s Cutoff (2010), the director builds drama with endless landscapes and endless days and an endless journey and characters gradually lost in front of the wilderness. Watching the film, you get the grip of the reality of the wagon trains going West, and of so many broken American dreams – there’s nothing spare in that. The landscape is so vast, but the characters’ world is so confined that you come to inhabit their world, aware of every single sound and fact about their everyday life, about their moves, about their manners, about their clothes.

Their clothes in fact are so much part of the story, every little detail sewn into the characters, that I reached out to the costume designer, Vicki Farrell, to talk at length about the costumes for the film. We have touched on other films as well, from the realistic contemporary design for Night Moves (2013), to cross-dressing Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the colourful costumes made in-house for the television series At Home with Amy Sedaris. An incursion into the very many universes that a costume designer’s work is paramount in creating.
 

Bruce Greenwood in “Meek’s Cutoff”, 2010, directed by Kelly Reichardt | Evenstar Films, Film Science, Harmony Productions

 

Meek’s Cutoff is at its 10th anniversary this year. It is a world so beautifully and skillfully crafted in a certain period of time and place that, regardless of the decade when you are watching it, it simply draws you in, reminding us once more that cinema is primarily visual. The hooded sun bonnets the women wear, for example, hide their faces, casting deep shadows, and it’s hard for the viewer to see into them, the face of the women wearing them, and I expect this is a very accurate depiction of 1845, when the action takes place, that these hooded sun bonnets were meant to serve their purpose. Clothes that speak about the character, the story, and which are not concerned to make visible the actress wearing them. How rigorous was the historical research you underwent for the film and what was the most challenging part for you, as a costume designer?

So happy to start with Meek’s Cutoff! Wow… 10 years. I have such strong memories of that shoot. Kelly Reichardt and Chris Blauvelt are two of my favourite people. Meek’s was my first time working with Kelly and also the film that brought Chris Blauvelt into Kelly’s world. I clearly remember his first day (night!) on set.

I loved working with Kelly. She plans out her films, her locations, almost a year before production and shooting begins. I was exchanging research and sending fabric swatches to Kelly as she was scouting locations and she was sending me pictures of the fabrics in the actual locations in the eastern Oregon high desert. It’s not usual that I get to design the costumes so early in the process of working out the design of the film. In my experience, the costume designer is mostly hired and starts working and designing just a month or so before shooting starts.

I did lots of research on fabrics and colours and natural dyes and men’s and women’s and children’s everyday clothing in the time of the American settler’s journey west. Bonnets!!! Hmm … Yes, there was some discussion and concern about hiding actors faces. I wanted to make historically accurate bonnets that have very large brims to protect the wearer from the sun and dust. Kelly wanted this, too, and her producers were behind her, so in the end I wasn’t asked to shorten the brims. I sewed all three bonnets myself by hand. I knew Kelly was going to do some lingering close-ups and there weren’t machines for sewing around in the 1840s. I think having the pioneer women’s face covered makes you more able to see them, to look at them, to be aware of their reactions and their movements. There was so much hand work on the production. Our production designer Dave Doernberg and I were always proudly comparing our calloused and ragged working hands.
 
 

“The costume design has to bend and grow along
with the character and the actor playing the character
and the script changes and the director’s changing vision…
But I always have a strong design base early on
to keep referring to and to keep the costumes true.”

 
 
I think it’s important that you mention Chris Blauvelt, because the cinematography is a huge part of the costumes’ success in a film, as of course is every artistic department input, but I mention cinematography because how the DP (director of photography) shoots a film, using certain angles, or only shooting from the bust up, weighs heavily on the look of the film and on how a costume designer must focus on the clothes and on what exactly they want to be seen. Have there been times when you had to adapt to a certain style of filming?

There’s always the possibility on set of an unplanned close-up of shoes or a sleeve or another costume detail. I’ve learned not to trust the shot list one hundred percent and be prepared with every detail in place for when impromptu inspiration strikes. Also, it’s good to have backup options in case a costume doesn’t work for some reason once in the location. That has happened to me, but it has been mostly because the sound person couldn’t get clean sound quality with certain types of fabric and the body mics. In fact that happened in Night Moves. I had to give Dakota Fanning my own cotton jacket to wear in one scene of the film as we were ready to shoot and far from the costume trailer.

I’ve worked with some DPs and directors that have some colour restrictions or colour preferences and that design decision is worked out in the planning of the film.

The natural-light cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt envisages the film in sepia tones and the muted colour palette of the clothes, except for Meek’s red shirt, blends right in. Was that intentional or did people dress like that in those days?

I spent a lot of time in my kitchen testing out the aging and fading of the fabrics. The pink of the dress that Mrs. Tetherow (ed. note: Michelle Williams’ character) wears started as a stronger, more reddish colour. Another popular colour for a younger lady’s calico dress at the time was called cheddar cheese. That bleached and faded to a most beautiful golden shade. Early natural dyes wouldn’t have held up as strong colours in the sun and dust of the pioneers’ journey. That’s how the palette of the costumes became dusty and faded.

Meek wears red because he is that person that needs to be paid attention to. Red flannel shirts were popular and that red is close to the madder dyed red of the time.
 

Shirley Henderson in “Meek’s Cutoff”, 2010, directed by Kelly Reichardt | Evenstar Films, Film Science, Harmony Productions

 
Is that why Zoe Kazan’s character (Millie Gately) is wearing a yellow calico dress? She is the youngest female character.

Yes! That’s right. I chose that colour for Mrs. Gately because it said something about her age and her personality. A lot of the actual settlers that went west were young married couples. Teenagers.

All men wear hats, but Bruce Greenwood’s (Meek’s) seems to sit differently on him, it’s concealing, along with its long hair and beard. What story do his clothes tell?

Meek is a character playing out the role of being himself. That’s why his hat, his beard, his hair, his red shirt and his buckskin suit are all a little larger than life. At one point in the film, he was supposed to appear by the campfire in a gentleman’s smoking turban. I was sort of against it at the time, because I thought it was too much, but now I wish it was in there. Meek could have pulled off a costume shenanigan like that!

Do you believe that costumes not only relate to the characters who wear them, but also to the modern audiences who watch them? Is that why you didn’t reproduce an exact replica of Meek’s headpiece? And does it take a lot of convincing for the director to accept a different approach that the costume designer proposes?

I was concerned the turban might have looked too comical in the film. That turban may not have even been Meek’s own. It may have been a prop in the Victorian studio when the portrait was taken many years after the time of Meek’s misguidance of the Oregon settlers.

There can be constant adjustments to the costumes as the project evolves. Lots of things influence the final look of the film’s costumes. The costume design has to bend and grow along with the character and the actor playing the character and the script changes and the director’s changing vision and even the locations as the film comes together. But I always have a strong design base early on to keep referring to and to keep the costumes true.
 
 

“The hands-on experience of making Meek’s Cutoff
was very special and not usual.”

 
 
Do you usually talk about the costumes with a director or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution?

My favourite films have been the ones where there was a lot of conversation early on with the director. Getting excited about exchanging reference pictures and paintings and even sharing written references. For instance, Kelly and I read the settler women’s journals of the western journey and there was a lot about their everyday life and workaday routines that influenced the way the costumes looked.

Are the opening and ending film credits really sewn on a piece of cloth?

Yes!! Not only are they embroidered on cloth, but it is the actual canvas cloth that was covering the Tetherow’s covered wagon. The artist Marlene McCarty created the Meek’s title artwork and we both hand embroidered the title cards. The idea came from a picture I found while researching the pioneers of an example of an embroidery by a pioneer woman with a family portrait and the words “A Piece of the Old Tent”. She had embroidered an old piece of canvas and it was a memory of her journey west with her family as a young woman. The original embroidery was kind of offset, crooked and imperfect and seemed heartfelt.

How often does the work of a costume designer call for this kind of craftsmanship and attention to detail these days?

The hands-on experience of making Meek’s Cutoff was very special and not usual.
 

Zoe Kazan, Bruce Greenwood and Tommy Nelson in “Meek’s Cutoff”, 2010, directed by Kelly Reichardt
Evenstar Films, Film Science, Harmony Productions

”The original inspiration for the Meek’s Cutoff title cards is the embroidery on the cover of the
museum exhibit pamphlet on the left,” explains Vicki Farrell.

 

Night Moves was your next film with Kelly Reichardt. Does working on a contemporary film differ radically from period films, from the costume designer’s point of view? How did you approach costuming the characters in Night Moves?

To me, designing a contemporary film is more difficult than a period film. You don’t get the control of designing the costumes, choosing fabrics and fine-tuning colours. For contemporary films, I am mostly finding the costumes, shopping for them, instead of making them or having them made. I still like to have a lot of research compiled and try to find what the real people who are like these characters wear. I like to keep things true and realistic if that’s what the film calls for. In Night Moves, I felt the main characters would like it if all people just disappeared back into the earth. The way that Josh, Dena and Harmon dressed was the opposite of standing out.

But I also think that contemporary costume design may not often be acknowledged as it should be and that the audience can easily overlook the fact that in a good movie, nothing is left to chance, not even a plain t-shirt or an hooded jacket.

I agree!! Finding the right t-shirt or hoody or jeans can be a lot of trouble! My stockpile of costumes consists of lots of vintage basics like sweatshirts and t-shirts and jeans and belts. The basics are the most useful costume items that I collect. People think that, as a costume designer, I must have the coolest collection of vintage costumes, and I do, but what I really value and what I use the most from my stock are nicely aged basic clothing items like jeans and sweatshirts.
 

Peter Sarsgaard in “Night Moves”, 2013, directed by Kelly Reichardt | Cinedigm Entertainment Group

 
 

“The costumes would disguise her figure, but not be
too baggy and loose, which could make Brandon
look as if he was playing dress-up.”

 
 

Speaking of jeans and sweatshirts, I would like to talk a little about Boys Don’t Cry. In cross-dressing narrative, the relationship between clothing and body plays an even more crucial part in forming an identity and in establishing how the character is looked at by the other characters and by the audience. What was the starting point in dressing Hilary Swank’s character, Brandon Teena?

I watched the documentary The Brandon Teena Story many times. At the NY Public Library (before looking things up on the internet was the norm!!), I researched the places where Brandon Teena lived, Lincoln, Nebraska and Falls City, Nebraska, and the time, the early 90s. Thought about what it would be like to be a young person then. What music would you be into, where would you hang out, where would you buy your clothes and how would you create your look.

We prepped and filmed Boys Don’t Cry in 1998 in Dallas, Texas, which is not that far from Nebraska and only 5 years after the murder of Brandon Teena. I thrifted most of the costumes in used clothing stores in the outskirts of Dallas and it really seemed like I could find actual clothing from that place and time.

I had two fittings with Hilary to figure out which types of clothing worked best to help her pass as a young man. So the costumes would disguise her figure, but not be too baggy and loose which could make Brandon look as if he was playing dress-up. Also, what the best method of binding her body would be for Hilary’s comfort. I had a binding vest that was made for that purpose, but it was too tight and uncomfortable and not working. What ended up working best was wrapping Hilary with athletic bandages.

I remember reading that director Kimberly Peirce was very specific in not wanting anyone meet Hilary Swank (who was at her first major role in this film) as Hilary and wanted her to pass as a boy everywhere as much as she could. Was there any specific part you played in this, in not only helping the character, but also the actor playing the character, get into this other identity offset?

I didn’t really have any part in the character preparation that Kimberly and Hilary did offset. I think that happened in NY and LA before everyone came to Dallas for the shoot. But during the shoot all the cast and crew stayed in the same hotel in Dallas and I think that really helped with pulling everything together. We could all meet up and exchange our ideas and our work and really create the film as a group.

 

Chloë Sevigny and Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry”, 1999, directed by Kimberly Peirce | Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

We’ve only talked about main characters. How are you addressing dressing the extras? Because it’s so crucial that they feel that they are part of the world that you are creating.

I agree one hundred percent that the background players are so important to the look of the film. I prefer to have fittings with the extras ahead of shooting if I can. I would like to always have a specific department that just focuses on getting the background costumes right. You can get so many interesting details in there! I’m always checking out what everybody’s wearing in the fringes of films.

You have also worked for television. Does costume designing for television differ much from designing for the big screen, especially today when the bar has been set pretty high for television with so many interesting new series?

I know! So many great things to watch! For me, the difference is that in designing for a TV/Web series you have the luxury of more money and more crew to work with. I just finished the 3rd season of a comedy series called At Home With Amy Sedaris this February. It’s a super fun show with most of the costumes designed and made in-house. Lots of crafty colourful costuming and flashy sets. Very different from the realism of Meek’s Cutoff and Boys Don’t Cry!
 

Website: vickifarrell.net

 
 

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Sounds and Tracks: On the Road


 
“Maybe this world is busy enough, yes?”

During my interview with Dylan Haley earlier this month, there was something he said that resonated with me only too well. He said that lately he had been listening to “a lot of Bob Dylan and Hank Williams and other traditional music often with just one guy or girl singing and playing the guitar and that’s it. Now I can hardly listen to any other kind of music, it just sounds like noise,” resembling his recent more minimalist approach to design to a good folk song. I think many creatives are likely to experience this in response to everything that this world has been going through, not just in the last six months.

I have been listening to a lot of early Bob Dylan myself all summer long (I finally understand why Mats Wilander is so hooked on listening to Bob Dylan on his road trips), including his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, from 1973. Sam Peckinpah’s Western marked Dylan’s first dramatic role, playing an associate of the gunfighter Billy the Kid, and stealing the scene while doing it, and his first soundtrack album. And I couldn’t leave Jeff Bridges’s Hold On You from Crazy Heart (2009) out either. I always mix movie soundtrack songs with other favourite tunes. I just wish I had a good old mix tape every time I feel like gathering all the songs I’m currently listening to in one place. Remember those? The human element.
 
 

 
 

1. Hold On You, Jeff Bridges / 2. Out on the Weekend, Neil Young / 3. Perfect Day, Lou Reed / 4. Union Sundown, Bob Dylan / 5. Lay Lady Lay, The Birds / 6. Summer in Siam, The Pogues / 7. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack), Bob Dylan / 8. The River, Bruce Springsteen /
9. Out on the Road, Norah Jones / 10. Main Title Theme (Billy) from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, Bob Dylan / 11. Words (Between the Lines of Age), Neil Young / 12. Jersey Girl, Tom Waits /
13. Sara, Bob Dylan

 
 

Bob Dylan in “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”, 1973, directed by Sam Peckinpah
Photo by MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

 
 

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