Hi Film Folk!
When did you realise that costume was what you wanted to do?
JT: From very early on. My parents were in fashion. My father had a ready-to-wear company. As a young child I would always dress my dolls and that’s the only thing I wanted to do.
How did you make your start in the industry? Was it directly into film or did you go to a college?
JT: No, not directly into film. I did a Masters in French and Literature then I also did a Certificate for Art History. My first job was at ELLE magazine as a fashion journalist. I spent a few months there as a trainee, then I met an actor and I just went into film, because I wanted to work with him [laughs]. He told me it was the most beautiful job in the world.
In the early days of your career, what was the key to getting work? Luck, proactivity, recommendations from people?
JT: I started as a trainee, back then we had unions in France – don’t know if we still do – so I had to work on short films. When I came into film, I thought the only thing I can do is costume. So I found a job in the costume department and little by little, after two or three trainee jobs, I was in the design team, and then found another job and another job.
It was gradual but after two years I was already designing. Then I went into commercials and photo shoots – I worked with a lot of photographers; it was in the late 1970s, early 1980s, so there were a lot of commercials. Then, after that, features, short films and television. By that time I was already living in Holland, so I did loads of Dutch films, then German films. I did loads of European cinema, and then little by little I worked up and up.
I think my career is based on my work, not because somebody put me somewhere – I just worked like everybody else. I think you can get the first job because you know the right person, but if you are not good enough, you’re not staying there or really progressing.
I think it might be easier when you know people to get a step in the industry, but if you are not good, you are not staying there. Or at least you’re not progressing – you can stay a trainee all your life, of course, but you won’t get the next job.
JT: With Harry Potter, I started on the 3rd one. So there were 2 films before that and they got me because they wanted to change the style and make it more for teenagers and the older public. They told us to give it an older look and more modern look, so that’s what we did. From number 3 onwards, the style of Harry Potter changed completely.
And with Bond…well, I’ve joined on the 50th [laughs]. You can’t really talk about this project in the same way. I felt that we needed to change, to update the look of Bond – the script and everything changed completely, because they updated it for the modern age.
Bond in the 1970s is always going to be different from the Bond of the 1990s or 2000s. But I knew that from the costume side, there were things in Bond that I couldn’t touch. People who go to see a Bond film expect an Englishman gentleman in an exotic situation, so you cannot change certain things, but you can update them. You can think, ‘OK, now he can wear more fashionable costumes.’
Or the girls – the costumes have changed, but now also the perception of Bond women has changed – they are no longer passive or getting killed. It used to be that they would have a little fight and she would end up in his bed. Then the women got more proactive, or they had ‘men jobs’, and they were on the same level. From the moment the concept of women in Bond films changed, you had to change the costumes as well.
What challenges did you face on Gravity, which seems, on the surface, to be simple, costume-wise?
JT: No, no, no. It wasn’t simple at all. On “Gravity”, I had to design those suits according to the script. Like, Sandra Bullock had to get out of the suit from the front – and no space suit opens up at the front – but we had to do that in order for her to get out. So I had to redesign it and readapt all the functions of the suit for front opening.
It was a big research job. The suits were completely fictive, but they looked so good not many people could see that. I got a lot of mail from astronauts, saying the suits were completely fancy – like the helmet – but we needed to see much more face.
JT: Everybody is different. Every Director is different. The only thing that they share in common, I think, is that it’s a very lonely job, directing. At the end of the day, of course, we are here to help, but it’s their film. And you have to understand that when they’re being difficult or hard to follow it’s because it is such a solitary job that they’re doing. It’s their film.
We’re always there; if it’s good, it’s because of you, if it’s bad, it’s because of them [laughs]. Actually, they’re at the top and it’s quite lonely at the top.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring costume designer, starting out today and hoping to achieve what you’ve achieved?
JT: Patience. It takes 30 years to understand what you’re talking about. And you’re all too quick when you start; you want to know it all then. But it takes time. Because it’s an immense job: you have to know so much about technique and cinema, and not only in your own department, but also the other departments, because the costume may look good on the stand, but that doesn’t mean it will look good shot with a special camera, in a special light, in the context of the décor.
And, unless you understand all those things, you won’t be able to understand costume; the limitations and what’s necessary for your costume.
You need a lot of film knowledge to be able to do our job – visual knowledge, historical knowledge, fashion knowledge, technical knowledge; you need to know so much to be able to transform a dress or suit into a film costume.
You always start with a dress, a piece of clothing on a hanger – and then it becomes a legendary film costume. And that takes you at least 30 years of understanding [laughs]. Of course, you can start designing after 5 years, I’ve done that, but to really understand why you are doing what, that takes time.
Do you work quite closely with actors?
JT: Yes. Well, they are wearing it. Of course, they wear what you give them but if they don’t like it or they’re not feeling it, then it will never be worn properly. Yes, you have to work very closely with them. You work for them.
I think to add to the advice for starting out as a costume designer: it’s accepting that you’re nothing in yourself, you are just a service department – you are as good as the people wearing your costume. So you have to be very on board and try to understand their needs.
Any advice for Directors/Producers?
JT: Story. The most important thing is the story; to get a good story. Because, at the end of the day, I don’t think the public wants to see anything other than a good story – whether it’s a sentimental one or adventurous one, or a fighting one – they just want to look at the film and go back home with the souvenir of a lovely story.
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