With the BAFTAs and Oscars just around the corner the Film Doctor team enjoy another In Conversation by speaking with fabulous nominee, lovely person and Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer – Jenny Beavan!
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 did come from a creative family. My father was a professional cellist and worked with the philharmonia orchestra, my mother was a viola player, also with a philharmonia. I think I realised when I was 10 and went to see Dorothy Tutin in Twelfth Night at the Aldwych Theatre and then I really wanted to be something to do with theatre. I just loved it. Even at that age I was pretty sure it wasn’t acting.
Later on I went to arts school – the Central School of Art and Design as it was called in those days – and had a fantastically inspirational head of department Ralph Koltai, who was probably at the peak of his powers as a set designer (particularly for opera). He always told me that theatre was a true art and not to worry about costume because you can always get someone else to do them and of course later on I find myself doing film costumes but of course that’s life!
After that I did do quite a lot of theatre but a parallel story is that my mother – who was alternative as well as artistic – sent me to dance class where I met a little boy called Nick Young and his path was to meet up with Merchant Ivory through a friend he met at school whose father had a film project. Nick went on to do The Southbank Show as a commissioning editor and commissioned a film for Merchant Ivory and I got involved with it.
That drew me into the Merchant Ivory family and I did everything on that film; crowd collected, acted, did the costumes, looked after Dame Peggy Ashcroft. I then became – really what they saw in me – a costume designer. That’s what led me on and that’s where it started.
How did you get work in the early days?
Well it was a long time ago and things were very different. When I was at school, Morley college ran all sorts of evening classes and one was stage management which had an opera department who did really excellent productions. I think it was a showcase for young hopeful professionals and we did ‘Turn of the Screw’ and a load others and I stage managed and got to know people through that.
They’d put on semi-professional productions and I used to skip outrageous amounts of school to go and paint scenery, collect wigs and do anything. Then when I was at college (Central), Ralph Koltai brought in all his colleagues to work with us and, rather than do my studies, I skipped off again to paint scenery and make costumes.
Of course I had no degree or qualifications whatsoever. Not that it mattered. I think it matters more now.
It was those connections that then helped but also, in those days, there was something the Arts Council ran called a ‘trainee designer’ posting. I don’t think that exists any more but you were paid a living wage. I went to a small theatre (The Welsh Theatre Company) where I designed every other show and the man who ran it – Michael Geliot, who also ran the Welsh National Opera – was doing Carmen at Covent Garden with Ralph Koltai.
Koltai was Hungarian and he didn’t get on with Solti (also Hungarian and coming back to do his return show) they were left without a designer. Michael asked if I’d do it. They took a huge risk because I was 21.
All those connections led to things. I think it still works like that in the industry. It’s apprenticeships. I take on as many trainees and apprentices as I can.
Now you say you don’t actually sketch stuff down – you like to dress around hangars or bodies. So how precisely does that work in terms of presenting that to a director or a studio – particularly in terms of colour, texture etc?
It entirely depends, these days, on who one’s working for and what their expectations are.
I’m a great one for mood boards, I research and look at all sorts of images and stuff and I literally cut and paste and do A3 pieces of paper with images on them. Sometimes, even on the cutting and sticking down, your mind works because your hands are busy. I don’t think I could do it as easily in photoshop on a computer. That’s one very good way of presenting stuff.
My problem with drawing is it’s 2D and I’m not good at drawing, so my worry goes into whether it’s in proportion. Also, you can do a beautiful drawing and it can look great on the wall but it has nothing to do with the body language of the person wearing it.
However, these days, sometimes you do need them and I have a couple of extremely good illustrators/concept artists who can be called upon and who will then photoshop stuff up so it looks absolutely amazing.
For Mad Max, Paul Jeacock did some fantastic drawings. I don’t think we ever copied one but we used the spirit of them. We’d go to some junk heap and find some stuff. There was a marvellous government surplus place in Nottingham where he lives and we’d do drawings from that.
It does have a place (drawing) but I find it very hard and I’m much better at getting the stuff together – and a mannequin – and somehow clamping it all together. Doing it on a body.
I think it’s all the same. All we’re doing, as costume designers, is supporting the actor. We support them with clothes and the production designer will support them with sets and environments.
Be it futuristic or stone age, it doesn’t really make any difference. You’re telling the story of that character. With clothing in my case..
Do you get preliminary information about locations and do you take into consideration the particular locations conditions when designing the costumes? What can affect a costume design location-wise?
You take all those things into consideration. Certainly when we did Mad Max, I did go to Namibia and saw the environments and landscapes and I think that informs you creatively and visually. Obviously that film was a massive stunt film and therefore there was a huge element and we were building harnesses into a lot of those costumes, which wasn’t so much about the environment but what the people were doing in that environment.
Very often these days if a guy is wearing jack boots or something, we’ll make a pair that have a sports shoe disguised in there because quite often those old army boots are pretty hard to do stunt work in. They’re quite heavy and quite hard. I’ve now developed quite a nifty way of transforming a black Reebok into a lookalike army boot. I don’t mean a short army boot, the longer ones.
Also in Mad Max there’s the sand playing around all the time and they’re riding on open vehicles, so we had to incorporate more goggles into the look than I’d originally thought we would.
So yes, absolutely one takes these things into consideration and also the production designer will show you models, drawings, colours, ideas and locations, together with the location manager.
At what point did you come on board Mad Max?
I came on board in November 2011, we shot through 2012.
The production designer and cinematographer tend to be hired before the costume designer, so there’s a lot of visual work already in progress. Often when I go for an interview, I’ll be taken round the Art Department and shown the sort of stuff they’re doing, to get a sense of what the project’s about.
With Mad Max, there was a previous costume designer called Norma Moriceau who had done Road Warrior and Thunderdome (also Crocodile Dundee!) and she’s a little bit older than I am and I think, by the time they came to make this take on Mad Max, she really didn’t want to do it anymore and they were looking for a costume designer.
In terms of the team, the Kennedy Miller Mitchell family, I was definitely the new girl.
How did you set up about updating transforming such a cult series as Mad Max into this modern version??
We are talking about 4-5 years ago in 2011. I remember our first meeting, he was editing Happy Feet and I remember going over the Sydney Harbour Bridge which was quite exciting. He was really busy and quite preoccupied.
I’d brought a couple of books and talked through what I knew of his Mad Max and asked if he wanted something a little bit different. I hadn’t seen anything they’d put together. They hadn’t really put anything together except there were pictures of Tom Hardy wearing Mel Gibson‘s costume, which were lovely, and bits of pieces that people had started making and obviously abandoned.
There was a warehouse full of stuff which was absolutely fantastic. They’d collected old car parts, bits of cutlery, kitchen bits, goggles, you name it. The stuff that most of us throw out was in boxes in studio in Sydney. I just said ‘ship the whole lot to Namibia’ [laughs]. It was fantastic having real junk.
When I looked back at Road Warrior, it was quite S&M and there were a few pairs of quite thin, slimy trousers that apparently the stunt boys loved because they liked wearing lycra leggings and I said to George ‘we just need to make this gutsier. I want to make it heavier, butcher’ and he was very up for that.
So we just made our trousers and our war boys more practical and they had so little of their privacy they had to have pockets to keep stuff in so they were also based on cargo pants.
Some of the characters are based around the breathing mechanisms. I had a metal worker in my department – Marc Trunk – and we made things. It was terribly exciting.
Were there graphics extensions on any costumes and if so, does that happen as a post thing or are your designs already there and implemented by post?
As far as I know, the only VFX on our costume was the green glove Charlize wore to hide her arm and they also took out wires from the harnesses. Otherwise, every costume is what it is. It’s costume. It’s their clothing. It’s just made for real!
Oh yes and some of the extras – the wretched – they were enhanced. Only for the wide shots.
Obviously you’ve worked on projects back in the day that didn’t use VFX extras, how has the workflow changed in terms of doing big groups of extras. Has it changed much?
No I don’t think it has. I have noticed that our crews are bigger. Thinking back to A Room with a View, there was literally one person on the set dressing everybody on set in the Italian section. One Italian woman Elena Puliti dressed and undressed all the crowds every day.
Now we have proper teams with people to dress and undress the extras. The same visual care – in fact more visual care now – is taken.
You’ve worked with Altman, Ritchie, De Palma, Miller. Is there one singular trait you’ve noticed that all great Directors share that makes them so good at what they do?
I don’t know what it is because they are all so different. Some appear to almost not care, some are so focused they’re almost autistic and what comes out the end is so variable. I just love the process and love that they’re all so different.
That’s the whole joy of the job. Each project is different and you learn something on every one.
Is there a certain trait you’ve seen in all great actors and actresses that you feel they all share that makes them good at what they do?
That’s something that I think comes from beyond anything you can describe. I do find Tom Hardy phenomenal. I just couldn’t believe how good he was in Legend (Ed – see our interview with Legend’s Make Up Designer here). I can not believe he hasn’t been nominated enough for the most extraordinary dual performance.
He is one of the greatest actors around at the moment. He became two people. How did he do it? I don’t know! It’s all a mystery to me, acting. It’s focus, I guess.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about costume designing?
I think the general misconception is that you do this lovely airy fairy job, wafting around with bits of glittery fabric, having champagne with all the stars. The actual reality is that it’s much less glamorous.
You’re storytelling but you’re doing it by going out and finding clothes or making them or scribbling about. Always trying to do it on too low a budget but still trying to fulfil everybody’s expectations.
It’s a great job, I don’t want to say it isn’t, but it isn’t quite the drifty, fun, lofty thing that people seem to think. It certainly isn’t glamorous, not the day-to-day grime.
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?
Learn as many skills as possible. Really learn cutting and sewing, so you really understand clothing. Also attach yourself to a costume department and learn through the apprenticeship thing. I don’t think you want to come out of art school and think you are a costume designer.
You need to learn more.
Films that you think every filmmaker and/or Costume Designer should watch?
I often think of the ones where you don’t notice the costumes at all. Spotlight I thought they did very well, it feels natural. The Big Short. Steve Jobs! She’s done an amazing thing. Particularly at the end with the iconic black polo neck and jeans. I don’t think it’s easy to do that (Ed – see our interview with Suttirat here). The Danish Girl looked extremely good. That’s an interesting one to do costume-wise.
Mad Max, obviously! [laughs]
Thank you, Jenny and good luck at the BAFTAs and Oscars!