Hi Film Folk,
The much-awaited reboot of cult classic ‘Blade Runner’ was released last month making over $240 million at the global box office and already gaining the original’s cult status.
Read below to find out how Renée got to where she is today and all about her experience on Blade Runner 2049.
Renée, how did you start out? When did you realise you wanted to work in film and specifically costume?
I grew up in Montreal, Canada. I went to theatre school but very quickly turned to movies.
One of the first films I did was ‘Quest for Fire’ with Jean-Jacques Annaud. We shot in Scotland, Africa and the North of Canada. It was a really difficult shoot because of weather and the elements – the actors were basically naked except for a bit of fur. I was up at 2 every morning to be on set for 4am but I was really happy to be there. I thought “if I can survive this I can survive anywhere” and that is how I got the bug.
I studied costume and set design. I started in a little shop doing prop costumes and one day they needed someone on set: so I went. I was a set supervisor, assistant and prop maker. I was in my early 20s and I knew I wanted to be an assistant to the designer.
Even though I was working as a supervisor on set I knew that’s not what I wanted to be, I wanted to be involved with everything behind the costume.
In Montreal in the 70s there was not a lot of culture or any kind of background for movies. There was a lot for me to learn and I had to learn it all by myself. I made mistakes and learnt from them. I was lucky because when I started designing I did a lot of period costumes and at the time, Montreal had a kind of European look. This meant that I could do things that were based in the late 19th century – early 20th century.
I got to work on pictures that were under the radar. Movies with around a 30 million budget so not too big that the studio would hire someone with a bigger name.
I learned a lot from that and kept my eyes open, I would look at the trends from other places and bring back that knowledge. I learned on the job.
How did you make the transition to being a costume designer?
I was working on a film and the set designer produced a little film and asked me to design it. It was based on the depression of the 30s and featuring Kiefer Sutherland. It was the first film I designed.
What was your first major break?
I got a call from Norman Jewison and he was doing a film with Jane Fonda called ‘Agnes of God’ and he asked me to work on it. I was 32 at the time and I couldn’t believe it!
I loved it and Norman was absolutely lovely. Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft were so great in it, I was overwhelmed. That was my first chance and I was very lucky indeed.
Ken Adam (Dr. No, Dr. Strangelove, The Spy Who Loved Me) worked on that too and he was absolutely fantastic. It was a great experience.
Which is your favourite movie you’ve worked on?
I’ve seen the best and the worst, I’ve worked in movies for over 40 years but ‘Agnes of God’ was really good.
Also my first time on set, I was 3rd dresser on a movie with Robert Altman and it was amazing. Robert always wanted everyone to see the dailies and every time it was a celebration. I was very lucky in my beginnings to see such genius at work.
Most of my early films were in Canada as I had a son, so that was a choice I made as he was my priority. Once he started college I started to travel, almost too much actually.
For me this is one of the hardest things of the job, being away from your family for so long.
What’s your general work process? Where do you start?
For me it’s always story first. My job is to help the actors and directors to tell the story as best as possible. If I wanted to work on my own stuff I would be a painter or sculptor but that’s not me. Sometimes you need to be flamboyant and other times very humble – but you need to be able to do both.
I normally start out with sketches. I sit with the director and talk about it. Sometimes there are a lot of surprises. You think something will be one way and then someone is cast that makes you realise that won’t work and you have to dig further and rethink it. I feel that sometimes brings the best out of you. It’s a process.
Still, to this day, my favourite part of the job is fittings. I think you have to love it! I know not all people in my role feel like that though. It’s the moment the actor and I will make a character happen – the birth – so you have to be open and happy to be there. You need to help make the actor happy to be there also. If the actor is happy and trusts the director then all the process is happier and easier.
Every actor that shows up on set with Denis Villeneuve loves him. He’s very open and candid – what you see is what you get. In turn, they are happy and willing to try new stuff and go further – that’s the best scenario.
Sometimes you do movies (such as big action movies), which I was curious to work on at first, but I don’t do anymore. It’s a lot of work with 3 or 4 units and 50 staff. It becomes a mathematical process and it’s very different.
I must say it was more difficult when I was younger as I had to prove myself but now that I’m older (perhaps they don’t want to hurt the old lady!) everything comes easier. Sometimes I will say “I’m sorry, it doesn’t work” and we will take a break and come back to work on something and it will be fine. However, in order to do that you need to be in sync with yourself and know your capabilities. It’s better to say that than trying to sell a costume you don’t believe in.
It doesn’t mean I’m easy on myself, in fact, the opposite, but you learn from your experiences.
How do you start on a costume?
You have a character and you read it. Sometimes if a character only has one line I will tell myself a story about this character, and I will bring this to Denis.
I remember we had a film with a teacher in a school who had one line and we only saw them getting coffee and going to class. So I invented this story about how she had 5 cats at home, looked after her mother and drank too much. The actor loved it. To imagine where she came from and who she is, might not improve the line but it made the actor feel better.
An actor with a background will understand their costume better. They will know why the skirt is not nice instead of just seeing the costume and seeing a horrible dress. Sometimes you need 100 yards of a certain fabric you know you can’t find, so you have to work around it or compromise.
The most difficult costumes were for Cirque du Soleil. I know it’s not a film but to work with athletes whose costumes had lights and fireworks that had to be replicated for every suit. It was very complex.
Working with athletes is very different and it was the most challenging project of my life. The show was directed by Franciosi Gerrard, who I worked with on ‘The Red Violin’, which was also difficult – it felt like a marathon. We were in Vienna prepping for two weeks and shooting for two weeks and then the same in Shanghai.
There was a small budget and it was very challenging but also very enjoyable.
How do things differ for you on a period film?
Sometimes on a period film I will be asked to do something that is not period and I will say no, I won’t do it. For example, having a girl walking down the road with her hair down and no hat, that would never happen and I won’t do it.
Sometimes you’re more open and it’s something you can play with.
In ‘The Fountain’, I did the Queen’s costume and her dress was like a branch of trees. The cut was period but the design was not. That was on purpose not a mistake.
It was really interesting and I enjoyed working with Darren Aronofsky. I love him and Hugh Jackman also. He was so generous and such a good actor.
How did you end up working with Denis? You’ve worked with him for five films now.
My agent wanted me to do another big action movie, that I was not really anxious to do. Then I got a call out of nowhere from Denis saying he’s doing a small movie in Toronto with Jake Gyllenhaal. I had already done two with Jake (Source Code, The Day After Tomorrow), I knew of Denis and really wanted to work with him, so I chose to do the small film for less money and that’s how we met.
After three or four weeks, he approached me and said he was working on a film afterwards in Atlanta and that he wanted me to work on it. I asked if he was sure as we haven’t finished our first one together yet, and he said yes! I would turn away other work to work with him as I think he is one of the best directors.
Denis has his team: Don Sparks as 1st AD, Roger Deakins and me. He likes to keep his crew. It’s like a family. I know them and I know I can go to them or go to Roger and say I have a problem or “does this colour work for you?”
No power trips or anything to prove: just a great team.
What was it like working on ‘Blade Runner: 2049’?
It was a difficult movie despite us having worked together. Denis had to find that world and the bar was set so high. There was a lot of pressure but he was very graceful. To begin with, we went everywhere.
I did do many sketches, and that’s part of the process, but in the end I scratched 90% of them. It was about the story, not about me coming up with strange costumes. Then he said he got it. The world would be like the first ‘Blade Runner’ but worse. The world is brutal – which is an adjective he used a lot. It’s not the future of a nice world. This world was dying.
In the first one, it’s raining and dark but in this it’s also cold, dirty and so polluted that people have to wear masks just to breathe the air. We tried to stay close to the first film, it’s the future of that film. It’s the same world but even worse.
It’s a very good story. I’m very happy. We see so many fiction movies set in the future and sometimes the story is not there but here it is the most important thing.
How long was pre-prod and the shoot? What did you get up to?
I met with Denis in December with some drawings just to start. Then I went to Hungary where it was shot, then London and back to Montreal before starting in February.
I had people from everywhere in the world: London, Italy, Canada and America too. Through the whole film I had a shopper in LA, Italy and London for fabric. We kept ordering all the time.
Every morning I was doing sketches and ordering costumes to be made, I had very good cutters and seamstresses and assistants who helped.
The shoot started in July. We had almost 100 days of shooting with a smaller second unit. I was concerned that we had enough costumes, as they go through a lot, especially with all the elements.
My biggest concern is that it fits the actors so well that you almost forget about the costume and see and feel the story and the acting. Also to always be ready on time. Sometimes you have things thrown upon you.
For example, I had to do a fitting with Jared Leto two days before we started shooting, so you have to get things right first time. It was a stress but a welcome one and it went very well. For all designers, when the actor only arrives a few days before shooting it’s a lot of pressure. It happens quite often.
Harrison’s costume is really non-descriptive and that’s what he wanted. You would be amazed at how many things we tried. He wanted a t-shirt and some pants, something that was here 50 years ago and will in another 50 years. We argued a little bit about it but it’s Harrison Ford so you don’t complain too much!
Once I looked at the dailies I realised it worked. He is in super-good shape and I think he wants to show it. It looks fine for what he is playing and that is what is important. It’s great for the character.
How has working in movies changed from when you started?
Everything has changed. There is more demand at the beginning, more politics. I remember I did a movie with just one producer, one accountant and that was a big movie. Now you have 20 accountants and 20 producers and you have to answer to many more people. It’s much harder.
I started designing in my 20s and today I think that would be very hard. You have to be able to work with CGI but 20 years ago there was no CGI or second units.
Also, fabric-wise now it’s harder. It’s difficult to find fabric in America – a lot comes from China. The artisans who used to make the belt buckles and buttons don’t really exist anymore, they have retired and nobody has taken over. You have to go further to get your things and that is sad.
However, now you have new toys to work with like 3D printers and laser cuts and amazing things like that. But I look at the younger generation and I see that it’s much harder for them. I was allowed to make mistakes and learn.
Check out ‘Quest for Fire’. We were 25 and in charge of costume. That would never happen now and you wouldn’t get the chance. I was lucky and there at the right time. I worked on very fun and interesting movies.
Sometimes I think that TV is saving us and our creativity but in the same business there are too many big superhero shows. I think it’s the same thing over and over again, like fast food.
Create a story and stop doing the same thing over and over again. Sometimes you come across a jewel. They still exist and they are still out there. It’s hard for original films to find the budget but I guess that’s another story. They need to be heard.
What conversations do you have with the VFX department regarding costume?
We talk to VFX all the time, even just to know what colours we can use. They will look at your sketches and sometimes tell you what is possible or not possible. It’s not my favourite part of the process but you have to do it, and most of the time they are really nice. It’s a part of my work now that didn’t exist before and I can’t avoid it.
That starts right at the beginning of production, sometimes before the scene is even written yet. Sometimes they need to photograph and scan all the extras to make more of them. It’s all very complex and I don’t get it all but I’m getting there.
I remember the first screen test – I looked from the camera to the sweater and they were different, I even asked which the blue we will finally see is. I remember putting loads of colours on actors in the 70s and then when the film comes out all the colour was toned down. You never know what they will do with your costumes.
Any tips for aspiring costume designers?
Buy good shoes as it’s a long road and you will be on your feet most of the time. Make sure you really, really love your job and be happy to be there. Be open and ready, have faith and trust in yourself – don’t second guess yourself. If you make a mistake make it big and it might not even look like a mistake.
Listen to your director. Sometimes they design better than you and sometimes they don’t, so you need to be adaptable. I would say Ridley Scott is a good designer, he has a strong vision and, as a designer, I would trust him. Denis is not a designer as such but he is very clear on what he likes and doesn’t like.
For example. on ‘Arrival’ he wanted those ugly orange suits and that was the right decision to make. If aliens arrived tomorrow then that would be what we would wear, we would look like fools.