Beauty of the Beasts

Colleen At­wood on dress­ing the wizards

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - WORDS BY TARA BRADY

If you’ve watched an award cer­e­mony – any movie-re­lated award cer­e­mony will suf­fice – the odds are you’ll recog­nise Colleen At­wood. The cos­tume de­signer and reg­u­lar Tim Bur­ton col­lab­o­ra­tor has won four Academy Awards to date (for Chicago, Mem­oirs of a Geisha, Al­ice in Wonderland, and Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and been nom­i­nated for eight more. She has, ad­di­tion­ally, won three Baf­tas and an Emmy for her work on a 2006 Tony Ben­nett spe­cial.

She’s re­mains rather mod­est about her many gongs. “Well, it’s al­ways a thrill to be nom­i­nated be­cause it’s a nom­i­na­tion from your peers, but I think for cos­tume de­sign­ers – be­cause we’re on the tech­ni­cal side – it’s not some­thing you think too much about,” says At­wood. “The Os­cars show is very ex­cit­ing and win­ning is such a deer in the head­lights mo­ment that you can’t even take it in. It’s like a fan­tasy. But then the next day, you know, you get up and you go to work. For some, for ac­tors, it can prob­a­bly be life chang­ing, but I for­get about it– un­til some­body you meet finds out you have an Os­car and gets re­ally ex­cited and it makes you ex­cited all over.”

As we speak, At­wood is be­tween live ac­tion Dis­ney re­boots. Per­haps. Hav­ing just com­pleted du­ties on Tim Bur­ton’s Dumbo, in which the tit­u­lar pachy­derm be­friends Colin Far­rell, she is cur­rently at­tached to Dis­ney’s re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of The Lit­tle Mer­maid.

“For the mo­ment, The Lit­tle Mer­maid is a twin­kle in some­one’s eye,” she says. “It’s so far out from start­ing pro­duc­tion that I don’t re­ally know what will hap­pen. It would be a spe­cial chal­lenge. The Lit­tle Mer­maid, the Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen ver­sion, is quite a story and very dif­fer­ent from the car­toon. I don’t know where they’re go­ing to go with it. But it could be in­ter­est­ing. I ac­tu­ally have dressed a mer­maid. I made a fan­tas­tic cos­tume for a lovely Scot­tish ac­tor called Sharon Rooney for

Dumbo. But she’s more of a cir­cus mer­maid.”

There are shades of mer­maid to be found in

Fan­tas­tic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindel­wald. Back in 2015, the vet­eran cos­tume de­signer sat down to pon­der what a Magizoolog­ist’s uni­form might look like. The oc­ca­sion was

Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them ,a spin-off and pre­quel to the Harry Pot­ter film se­ries cen­tred on Newt Sca­man­der (Ed­die Red­mayne), Hog­warts’ Huf­flepuff house’s most fa­mous alum­nus. At­wood set­tled on a colour she calls “dirty pea­cock blue”. The same gar­ment is back for the se­quel.

“It def­i­nitely has that mer­maid tone to it,” says the 70-year-old. “The first time I went to the art depart­ment and looked at all the crea­tures they were cre­at­ing and I felt like Newt should have a colour-bond to some of the crea­tures. That colour is present in a lot of wild things, a lot of birds es­pe­cially, pea­cocks be­ing the most tame of them. To me, Newt has some of that qual­ity so I teamed that colour with a warm gold waist­coat be­cause – and this is go­ing to sound crazy – but I’ve al­ways loved how robins look!”

Ded­i­ca­tion to de­tail

At­wood is famed for her ded­i­ca­tion to de­tails and re­mains on set with her ac­tors and cos­tumes through­out each shoot. Much of her craft goes un­no­ticed. Newt’s dirty pea­cock coat boasts more se­cret pock­ets than a Birkin bag, com­part­ments that will likely never be dis­played on screen.

“We had this en­tire in­ter­nal struc­ture for the crea­tures,” ex­plains At­wood. “But some­times that stuff just doesn’t re­ally fly in a movie. In the ac­tor’s mind and your mind you think it’s go­ing to be re­ally spe­cial but then no­body re­ally wants to deal with it on the day. It was still fun con­triv­ing all those lit­tle pock­ets

es­pe­cially the lit­tle fly-out pocket for Pick­ett. It looks like a lit­tle smile.’’

Grow­ing up in ru­ral Wash­ing­ton State, At­wood had, well, no de­signs on her fu­ture pro­fes­sion. She stud­ied paint­ing at Cor­nish Col­lege of the Arts in Seat­tle in the early 1970s, be­fore mov­ing to New York. She ap­plied for a course in NYU but didn’t get in. She worked in fash­ion re­tail, in­clud­ing an Yves St Lau­rent bou­tique at a depart­ment store be­fore land­ing a job as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant on Miloš For­man’s Rag­time.

“Be­fore that I had no idea I’d get in­volved in the film busi­ness,” she says. “I grew up on a farm. I loved movies. I was al­ways good at draw­ing and I was never dis­cour­aged. But the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of earn­ing a liv­ing was the pri­or­ity in my fam­ily. Shortly af­ter Rag­time I got a job work­ing for what was the Satur­day

Night Live film di­vi­sion. So I had some ex­cel­lent on-the-street train­ing from some of the great com­edy ac­tors of the early 80s. I did the fa­mous syn­chro­nised swim­ming one with Harry Shearer and Chris Guest and Martin Short. Some of the short films in that era were hi­lar­i­ous. But those guys would come up with stuff on the fly that was so last minute. You learned how to think on your feet and im­pro­vise. You learned ev­ery store in New York that sold buck­ets and how to get there quickly.” Hit­the­groundrun­ning

To this day, the job is still mostly about think­ing on your feet, she says: “Nowa­days we don’t have the lux­ury of sit­ting around dream­ing and draw­ing and then go­ing off to buy books of fab­rics. You have to hit the ground run­ning. So ba­si­cally I’m do­ing ev­ery­thing at once. I walk around. I look at my old books. I look on­line. I start sourc­ing fab­rics very early, be­cause like a lot of other things in the world, the va­ri­ety of fab­rics is not as great as what it once was. So I like to cre­ate prints on top of prints and do in­ter­est­ing tex­tile things. Of­ten de­tails you don’t even see. But def­i­nitely change the qual­ity of the fab­ric. And it gets my juices flow­ing.”

At­wood’s most iconic cre­ations ex­ist some­where in the nexus be­tween fairy tales (Into the Woods, Snow White and the Hunts­man) and dark fa­ble (Le­mony Snicket’s A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events, Miss Pere­grine’s Home for Pe­cu­liar

Chil­dren). Her drift into the fan­tas­tic was, she notes, com­pletely ac­ci­den­tal.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing be­cause I like all kinds of film,” she says. “Grow­ing up, I loved the great Ital­ian cinema of Vis­conti. I loved Kuro­sawa. I loved that kind of epic sto­ry­telling and I loved po­lit­i­cal films, es­pe­cially Costa-Gavras’s Z. But I guess fan­tasy grabs peo­ple in de­sign.”

At­wood has col­lab­o­rated sev­eral times with di­rec­tors Rob Mar­shall and Jonathan Demme and is a reg­u­lar player in the DCEU hav­ing worked on Ar­row and The Flash. She is ar­guably best known for her work with Tim Bur­ton, hav­ing de­signed for all of his live ac­tion films since 1990. “I met Tim for the movie Ed­ward Scis­sorhands,” she says. “He is one of two di­rec­tors that ac­tu­ally hired me in the room. That doesn’t hap­pen. Usu­ally you hear: ‘We’ll be in touch’. But we talked and I got the job right then and there. There was just some­thing about him that was so read­able and ap­proach­able. We have sim­i­lar tastes in a funny way. There’s a shared sen­si­bil­ity. At this point there’s a real short­hand. When you work with a direc­tor like Tim or with David Yates, the se­cond time al­ways eas­ier. You know what to ask and when to ask. I think I’ve done 12 movies with Tim at this point. So we’re at ease with each other.”

Through Bur­ton, At­wood has found an­other reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tor in Johnny Depp, who she has worked with on var­i­ous Bur­ton and non-Bur­ton pro­jects, in­clud­ing The Tourist and The Rum Di­ary.

“Ob­vi­ously the ac­tor I’ve worked with the most is Johnny Depp,” says At­wood. “I’ve known him since Ed­ward Scis­sorhands and I love de­sign­ing for him. He’s such an in­tu­itive artist. He’s some­one who re­ally feels the cos­tumes. I’m work­ing with Char­l­ize (Theron) again, who I’ve worked with three times. I love col­lab­o­rat­ing with her; she’s so smart. I had a great time with Zoe Kravitz on Fan­tas­tic

Beasts. And a guy like Ed­die Red­mayne is so in­volved with the move­ment and feel of his cos­tume. He just owns it.”

She laughs: “It’s re­ally hard to pick a favourite ac­tor.”

The same is true for movies, she says: “I’ve had so many great ex­pe­ri­ences on movies. Be­ing sur­rounded by dancers on Rob Mar­shall’s Chicago was spe­cial. But there have been so many other great mo­ments. I’m work­ing on a book. Very slowly, I might add. It’s been fun be­cause I’ve been go­ing back and look­ing at my work. And I’m kind of shocked be­cause I’m look­ing at stuff I had for­got­ten and I re­alise, even though I might not have thought it at the time: ‘Oh, this looks pretty good!’”

Fan­tas­tic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindel­wald

opens next Fri­day


Top to bot­tom: Colleen At­wood with her Os­carfor for Fan­tas­tic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2017; Liam Aiken, Shelby Hoff­man and Emily Brown­ing in A Se­ries of Un­for­tu­nate Events; Zhang Ziyi in Mem­oirs of a Geisha; Mia Wasikowska in Tim Bur­ton’s Al­ice in Wonderland.

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