Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Colleen Atwood on Burton, "Alice": "It's Going to Be Amazing"

Renowned award-winning costume designer and frequent Burton collaborator Colleen Atwood sat down for an interview with MovieLine.com, and discussed how she met Tim Burton, how new technology has affected her method of designing costumes for Alice in Wonderland, what we can expect from Burton's upcoming Alice in Wonderland, and much more:

You’ve worked with Johnny Depp many times now.

I have … Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow … Let’s see … Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland

It must be a treat to design for an actor who can disappear so seamlessly inside his characters.

He really is a chameleon, and he takes on the character in the clothes. They don’t ever look like costumes on him; they look real, and that really helps my job.

Your partnership with Tim Burton — how did the two of you first come together?

I was recommended to him on Edward Scissorhands by a production designer — Bo Welch — who I’d work with prior to that. So I met Tim through him, and we clicked in our own way, and we’ve managed to have a long run together and still enjoy working together. I just went to Tim’s show at MoMA last night, and it was fantastic. Really amazing.

Do you conceive of the costumes together through sketches? I know he frequently begins on paper.

There’s something that he captures that is kind of the soul of the character on paper, and there’s often costume elements, but we’re not married to that at all. I mean, for sure on Edward Scissorhands, because there was so much involved with that, but with the Mad Hatter, with Sweeney, with those costumes, he really doesn’t give me a drawing and say, “This is what I want.” I think it’s because he knows the other people working with him are artists, so he gets very excited and enthusiastic when we show him what we have. He has a wonderful eye himself, and so he’ll a little magical touch to something.

How did the new 3-D technology he used in Alice in Wonderland affect your designs?

I did a lot of the computer animated costumes — I knew what the animated world was going to be, and I knew a bit about 3-D anyway, and so I sort of tried to make stuff that you could play with in 3-D. Stuff that pops in and out. We ended up physically making a lot of the other stuff and it would later end up being animated. It really helped Tim to see things as physical costumes first, and it gave the animators a lot of help as far as depth and texture and things like that. I think what we’re going to see now is the mixture of live and animated people and costumes in an animated world. It’s going to be a really amazing, fun thing for the audience.

I know he wanted to depart with the traditional narrative. How tied were you to the original illustrations, and what were you reference points for designing a new Alice in Wonderland?

It was really freeing, because there’s Lewis Caroll’s own drawings, of which there aren’t very many and they’re quite simple. As Alice went through various eras, there’s classic references for them. Because this is so different from what people are going to expect — Alice isn’t a ten-year-old girl, she’s a young woman — there’s a nod to the classical need for that. But once she goes into Wonderland, we took it to another place. The Hatter has a hat and the recognizable elements, but we explored the world of hat makers in London in the period. So we pulled from that for inspiration more than the previous illustrations, and Johnny used that for his character. They called hatters “mad hatters” because they used these toxic glues and dyes all the time, and they were actually quite mad, a lot of them. So it was quite cool to read about that business in that time, and that they were actually quite in demand and made a quite decent living at that period.

Now when you do something historically accurate and less fanciful than something like Alice in Wonderland, such as Public Enemies, how much research goes into it before you even sketch your first drawing?

In a story like Public Enemies, it’s about people who existed, so you go to that trough, using what few images of them existed. Actually when I do period work, I really like to read about the period as much as I like to look at pictures, because sometimes the written word is much better at conveying what their lives were really like and how much they had, and where their clothes came from. Because a lot of time, people dressed in their Sunday best to pose for a picture. They didn’t take snapshots until much later — there certainly wasn’t much of that going on in the 1930s.

For most of these guys, it was mugshots and prison entrance and exit clothes, but I had a lot of people do online research, and Michael Mann of course had been on the project for a long time and had very deep research and was quite specific. The production designer usually starts a show before I do and they usually have a depth of research. So it’s a combination of all that.

You have some TV credits as well, such as The Tick. Did you design The Tick’s costume?

Yeah. The pilot.

Is it true The Tick’s moving antennae cost $1 million to produce?

Not the ones I did. Maybe later when they did the series they spent more money, but I did the pilot. I remember the amount that costume cost, as a matter of fact, and the budget for that kind of TV pilot is usually much higher. I didn’t have the kind of R&D you get when they decide to really go for it.

What was the most expensive costume you’ve ever made?

I’d say probably the most expensive costumes I’ve ever made were the costumes in The Planet of the Apes, because of the research and development that went into them and the amount of layers. I got the cost per costume down, but because it involved so many processes, with sculpting, and bodysuits, and cool suits, and oversuits, and helmets, and footwear, and handwear, that had to work for action and look like monkeys, that was probably the most expensive per-unit costume ever. The period stuff I spend a lot of time on, I have good textile artists. They’re not cheap, but they’re not out of control expensive either, because you have to make it work.

Speaking of making it work, do you watch Project Runway?

I have watched Project Runway, but I’m not a devout watcher of it. But I think it’s a great show, what I’ve seen of it, and I think Tim Gunn is a very positive, amazing guy.

I ask because they’ll often dismiss something on the show as looking “too costumey,” and I’m wondering if you take offense to that.

No, because I think the street world that it’s in is different. People like to stir up the fashion vs. costume world, and I think what they mean by “too costumey” is that it’s too much, or not real enough for everyday wear. You couldn’t say that about John Galliano’s shows, right? I mean they’re awesome and they’re total costume. It’s just a different thing. They do like to slag off costumes a bit — not on that show, but in the fashion world. I don’t know why they feel they have to compete.

Are you ever tempted to, or maybe you do, design your own clothes?

You know, it’s strange. Like, I’ve designed my Oscar dresses and my people have made them for me, but my own clothes per se that I wear? No — but I do a lot of fitting. Like I’ll buy something and completely recut it. I’m so used to thinking that my clothes are fairly neutral, it’s other people’s clothes I like to design.

Next up you’re working on yet another Johnny Depp film — The Rum Diary. What’s the look you’re going for there?

Well, it’s real. It’s a guy that goes to Puerto Rico in 1960, who’s kind of like an average guy. He shows up with very few clothes. There’s contrasts in the story, between the haves and the have-nots, the Union Carbides vs. the locals, so I pushed that side of the contrast a bit. But it’s very research-oriented and real clothes a lot.

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