Nominated for both films by the British and American Academies, we present to you double BAFTA and triple Oscar-winning costume designer – and all round amazing person – Sandy Powell!
Tell us a bit about your background – did you come from a creative family, what was your relationship to film growing up and when did you first realise that film was the industry for you?
I didn’t come from a creative family, particularly. Both my parents are working class. My father worked in casinos and my mother was a secretary. Except she liked art and I was brought up around art. I was dragged off to the national gallery at weekends to be bored to death looking at Turner paintings of which my mother loved. That put me off going to galleries for a long time.
What my mother did though was she sewed. She made all my clothes for both myself and my sister. So from a very early age I was aware of clothes and fabrics and the actual construction. I loved clothes, drew clothes from an early age, made doll’s clothes and, from really very young, started making my own clothes. So my mother would say she wasn’t creative but really she was. That’s how I started. She encouraged anything artistic.
I watched films from a very early age. Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music were probably the earliest ones. And Theatre, Pantomime etc. My Dad was really into Laurel and Hardy. I was always aware of that medium and had been interested and attracted to it.
I guess I was in my teens when I first saw Death in Venice and that was the first time I noticed costume in film, costume in film and the beauty of film was brought to my attention. I saw it 7 times. I used to bunk off school to go and see it. Then when I was about 16 or 17 I saw Lindsay Kemp perform at the roundhouse in London. I’d discovered Lindsay Kemp, through being obsessed with David Bowie and heard that Lindsay was this person who invented Ziggy Stardust with Bowie. I saw him at the roundhouse and got obsessed and thought ‘I want to work in this world’. Theatre was where I wanted to work, which is where I did start working.
I started working with Lindsay Kemp, funnily enough. Many years later, during my second year of art school, I met him and I just said ‘I love you. I want to come and work with you’ and he said ‘OK’ and I left college. I did a few years with him in Europe alongside doing fringe theatre in London. I was doing sets and costumes, except when I was with Lindsay where I did costume, and then eventually I contacted Derek Jarman.
You studied at Central St Martins?
I did a foundation course at St. Martins and then a theatre design course at Central, which I didn’t complete. I did 2 years.
So you phoned Derek Jarman?
I did yeah. I cold called [laughs]
That worked then?
It did back then. I’d done theatre for a while and I was going to see films and I’d seen his films and loved them and I thought I’d like to try out film and who’d I’d like to work with. It’s the naivety of when you’re young. You think ‘I want that and I’m going to go for it’. I had friends who went to Heaven and one of them said ‘Oh yeah, he goes to Heaven a lot’ and one of them had his phone number and I got the phone number and cold called him.
I had a show on at the ICA which I designed the costumes for which was quite extravagant and I said ‘do you want to come and see my show?’ and he did. I saw him afterwards and he took me under his wing.
I was so lucky with both of those. Lindsay Kemp and Derek Jarman. I think I had no experience at all really, I was just lucky and cheeky enough to go for it and say ‘Here I am, I like your work, give me a try. Let me have a go’. They were absolutely brilliant teachers and guides.
Did you, even then, have the managerial sensibility required?
I guess I must have done. I had a department and things got done on time. Things were made and fitted and got put on actors and arrived on set on time. Arrogance of youth. I had the confidence, I guess.
The thing is, also, Derek made it so easy. He was one of those people where, if he was on set, setting up a scene, he would ask anybody their opinion. He would ask the person sweeping the floor or the person bringing him a tea what they thought. Whoever was there, he would include them and involve them. It felt like there was no hierarchy.
One of the most important things Derek ever said to me was ‘you have to go to work every day as if you’re going to a party. With that much excitement and anticipation. Otherwise it’s not worth it.’ You’ve got to give up so much of your life to work in film, it’s not worth it if you don’t like it.
What did you learn from Derek (and later Neil Jordan) when you were at that stage where you were learning?
Doing films with Derek was extraordinary and probably like nothing else I’ve experienced since. Apart from the film I just did with John Cameron Mitchell. The experience of that was actually quite similar to the early Derek films.
None of us knew what we were doing on Caravaggio, my first film. It was most people’s first film. I think the average age was 25, which was extraordinary. He had an experienced production designer and cameraman but everybody else across the board was new – art department, my department. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t even know you had to have somebody on set with the actors and the costumes making sure it looked OK until about the second week when the script supervisor came up to where we were making the costumes and said ‘can somebody possibly come and have a look and see what’s going on here?’
I didn’t know you had to change. I didn’t know you had to wash things. Michael Gough‘s wife called once and asked if we could possibly wash the stockings he’d been wearing every day for 2 weeks [laughs]. Nigel Terry used to hide his costume every night because he thought he’d never find it if he left it with us. It was that bad (but of course.)
Neil Jordan, I was a little bit more experienced by the time I worked with him. I think the first film I did with him was in ’89/’90. Then in ’94 we did Interview with the Vampire which was my first big, big film. That was the scary one.
What changed for you on that?
Well the difference was the scale. On the Derek films – certainly the early ones – I was making the costumes. I had some costume makers but I wasn’t in charge of a work room and teams of seamstresses. I was actually doing it myself with a couple of helpers. Then with the early Neil films, the first I did was contemporary ‘The Miracle’ and then the one after was ‘The Crying Game’ also contemporary.
The budget was huge, the scale was huge and it had Tom Cruise.
Did you have to go and meet studio heads?
No. I was employed without question. I guess Neil must have insisted. What I had to do was employ an assistant that was more experienced than me and thankfully I did because I don’t know if I’d have known how to handle it. I didn’t have the experience to deal with it. It was a lot to do. There was a huge work room setup.
The assistant, at the time, ran that – which is what they have to do – and I was just the designer. I couldn’t be making at the same time. It was a challenge but after that I kept on doing a mixture of small budget and big budget films.
Did you ever move to the US?
No. I never worked there. I’ve done a little bit. Vampire went to New Orleans for a few weeks but that was all shot at Pinewood. The Scorsese films were in Boston and New York. We did 3 weeks in LA for The Aviator but I’ve never done any work in LA. A couple of Todd’s films have been East Coast as well but I’ve always lived in Brixton.
What do you talk about with directors when you first start a project?
The first thing I’ll ask a director in a meeting – whether it’s an interview for a job or whether I’ve got the job – is ‘What is the world that these characters are in? What is the background? What is the look? Is it based in absolute reality? Are we going to be as historically accurate as we possibly can or is it gonna be heightened or a made up one?’
On the whole I don’t really do things that are 100% historically accurate. You’re not creating something for a museum. You’re not making documentaries, you’re telling a story.
That said, everything is right for the period in terms of cut and silhouette and feeling but it’s not exact and it can’t be. The fabrics and machinery aren’t the same as back then.
You collaborated regularly with big directors such as Derek Jarman, Neil Jordan, Martin Scorsese, Todd Haynes. Is there one singular trait that you’ve noticed they all share?
Yes absolutely. They’re all visual. They all have a strong visual sense, understand visuals and are able to communicate that. All differently. Neil is really visual but he wouldn’t be able to express it verbally but knew what he wanted. In The Butcher Boy there was some reference to Kienholz the sculptor and painter. He’ll give you something and won’t mention what to take from it but I’ll go away and look at it and take what I take from it.
Derek was a designer and painter so very visual of course.
Marty always has a ton of research. Before you begin a job with him half your prep is done for you by his research department. You’re given reams of visual material and stuff to read. Of course every reference Marty gives you is a film reference. Whatever you talk about there’ll always be some film that comes up. I had to sit through an entire film to look at the shape of a collar on somebody. He’ll remember that. He’s got the most amazing memory. Encyclopaedic. He likes clothes too. He’s a real clothes man.
Todd is super visual, super prepared and he provides his own visuals at the beginning of the film. He starts with a look book of images that he’s compiled over the months and months. He’s almost OCD about it. In a good way.
Your use of colour is remarkable. Would you say it is a consciously developed “signature element” as a Costume Designer or is it more something instinctive?
It’s not developed. It’s just what I do and what I love. My choice of colours is always instinctive. People always want to put symbols on things. It’s hysterical when I read people’s analyses of my work, it’s really funny. I think ‘I didn’t think of that!’
Every decision I make is instinctive.
You two cents on film vs. digital and how it’s changed what you do?
I much prefer film. Only because I was brought up on film, I understand film and I understand what colour does on film. On digital it can be anything. Anything can happen. You can’t control it. For me colour is really, really important and I get a colour in my head that I want it to be and, if I can’t find the colour in the fabric, I’ll make the colour. I’ll dye the fabric or produce the fabric to the colour. I’m really very, very specific about colour and combinations of colour. Then when you look at the rushes and it’s been shot on digital, it can be way out. It can go from a blue to a green or a green to a blue. It’s horrible.
It happened on Wolf with the dress. It’s the dress that Margot Robbie wears the first time she meets Leo (Jordan). The interesting thing about colour is, do we see the same thing? I don’t know if what I see is what somebody else sees. I would call the dress a greeny blue. It was definitely a turquoise verging on the green but in the rushes it came out Royal Blue like..’Thatcher Blue’ I call it. It’s a really cheap blue. It’s old, it’s ageing, it’s wrong. ‘Argh! What’s happened?’
Of course, Rodrigo was adjusting everything for the skin tones. He’s got other things he’s thinking about. He’s thinking about the broader picture obviously. I said ‘but that’s changed the dress’ and he said ‘well it’s a nice blue’. ‘Well, in your opinion it’s a nice blue and it might be a nice blue for someone else in a different scene but it’s not the blue I chose.’
I think it got adjusted in the end but it took a lot of discussion. Even somebody from the lab had to come and get involved because we couldn’t get it to be that colour. It turned out there was some chip missing – I don’t understand any of it – but some element missing from the camera. It hadn’t been developed far enough at that point.
The reason Carol looks extraordinary is because it’s grain was 16mm. Shot on 16 and blown up. It’s grainy and lovely. Some people don’t understand it. My sister asked ‘why did it look so nice like an old film?’ and I said ‘because it wasn’t shot on digital, it was shot on film!’
What I hate about some digital stuff and HD is it’s more than the actual eye can see really. It’s too sharp. You want a bit of softness.
Of course, it’s much easier working with actors you’ve worked with before because you already know a lot about them. You know physically what they’re like, you know what works and what doesn’t and you know whether you like them or not [laughs]. It’s much easier.
The most important thing is to get them on your side as soon as possible. To get them to trust you. You have to get them confident in you and that you’re going to do the best you can to help them. You’re not there to torture them or to force them to wear something that you want, that they don’t want. If somebody really hates something, there would have to be a compromise because if they’re not comfortable then they can’t do their job.
Their opinion is really important. I will read a script and talk to the director and have an idea of what the character is like but it’s not until you know who the actor is that you even begin to think about what they’re wearing. Also, once you’ve spoken to them, they’ve got their ideas of what the character is like.
The most exciting bit of the whole process is the fitting and the point in the fitting where it comes together and it all works. Sometimes that doesn’t happen for a couple of fittings. Then there’ll be a point where the actor will go ‘I can see it now’.
You only start designing once it’s cast?
Yes. Well, there’s no point. If you don’t know the physicality then there’s no point.
What makes a good producer?
I’ve worked with some good producers recently! A good producer gets the right combination of people together. Really thinks about the combinations. Really thinks about who’s working with who, both within a department but also, all the heads of departments gelling with each other.
I’ve noticed there are some projects where you just know that a particular department or head of department is not working well with all the other people. So a producer has to keep it all running smoothly and happily and has to be a liaison between the workforce and the director.
What advice can you give to an aspiring Costume Designers hoping to reach the heights you have reached?
The number 1 most important thing is common sense. The second most important thing is you’ve got to be prepared to do anything. You’ve got to be prepared to start at the bottom. You’re not going to jump straight in and be a designer and you’re not going to jump straight in and be an assistant costume designer because that’s a very experienced position. You’ll get in there at the bottom. If somebody asks you to make the tea, make the tea. Keep your ears and your eyes open and try to anticipate what’s needed.
If people show common sense and keenness and willingness to do anything, they’ll be good at their job and they’ll get recommended.
At the moment the film industry is crying out for people. But worker people – there’s enough people at the top – we need people at the bottom.
As a costume designer, you need to be able to sew. Not be the greatest tailor or sewer in the world but you have to know how things are constructed otherwise you can’t talk to your tailors and your cutters and your seamstresses. You have to be able to understand their job to tell them what to do. You can’t just and not have any knowledge of construction.
Don’t give up.
Drawing. Essential or no?
No. You don’t have to draw. I don’t think I can draw. So long as you can communicate, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a drawing. You can provide reference or describe things. You can do stick man drawings.
I never ever sit down and make the costume from the drawing. It’ll never come out like that because it’s an organic process. I might do a scribble. Do I want long sleeves or short sleeves? Long skirt, short skirt? I’ll do little sketches that I won’t show anyone else (apart from the person I’m working closely with who understands my drawings).
The drawings that I do that get seen, that get produced, I do them at the end when I know what the costume looks like. They’re illustrations. I think I can’t draw but some people like them.
You don’t have to, no, but find a way of communicating.
Films that you feel all filmmakers should watch or maybe some that you feel all costume designers should watch?
And tell us a bit about How to Talk to Girls at Parties…
How to Talk to Girls is so off the wall, it’s going to be brilliant. This film was so low budget that everybody had to take a pay cut. I couldn’t get any of my regular team because they were working on bigger budget jobs where they were getting paid properly.
I had trainees, people who had never done it before. I had a 2nd year fashion student who came to me for an internship and I said ‘OK, we’ll see how it goes’ and she was thrown in at the deep end but by the end of it she was doing everything.
It was a bit like Caravaggio. Everybody was working on it because they wanted to. Not for the money. It really does make for the best working atmosphere. John was so fantastic. He’s one of those guys who goes around and says hello to every single extra and knows their name. Derek was the same.
Thank you, Sandy, and all our luck and wishes for this year’s awards!