Oscar noms bring original touches to period films

Click here to see the Costume Designers Guild Awards Nominees

That quick-on-the-draw demon barber of Fleet Street kept his trusty razor in a Western-style holster. Virgin queen Elizabeth ruled and raced through England’s castle corridors in Balenciaga-inspired brocade. Images of Edith Piaf, amour and chanteuse of Paris, recalled Brassai’s smoke-filled bars of the 1930s. The sex-and-drug-hazed ’60s were a fantastical color circus. And lovely Cecilia, draped in that hot modern take on a ’30s frock, found a lot more than romance in the library.

The five Oscar-nominated costume designers — Alexandra Byrne (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), Colleen Atwood (“Sweeney Todd”), Marit Allen (“La Vie en rose”), Albert Wolsky (“Across the Universe”) and Jacqueline Durran (“Atonement”) — all faced the same drama: how to remain historically accurate in a period film while giving the costume designs their own personal spin.

“In a period film, one isn’t doing a museum archive of the period. It’s an interpretation,” Byrne explains. “The problem with being overly historically accurate is that it becomes a bit of a barrier to the audience. I wanted the audience to almost be salivating over Elizabeth’s appearance, a bit like flicking through the pages of Italian Vogue.”

Byrne had worked with director Shekhar Kapur on the 1998 “Elizabeth,” which centered on royal power. “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” shifted the focus to the queen’s divinity and immortality. In her research, Bryne came across leading French couturier Balenciaga, who, in the 1940s, had designed theatrical costumes inspired by a 16th-century royal portrait of Isabelle de Valois. “Ah! This is the way forward,” Byrne thought. “Elizabeth meets couture.”

Over the years, the musical “Sweeney Todd” had been set in many different periods. “It was a lot to live up to,” Atwood says. “The biggest challenge was making it my own.”

Atwood pulled on those textile techniques she had used in “Memoirs of a Geisha” — employing combinations of materials and using tiny silk screens to enhance and alter color.

“I wanted Johnny to almost look like a tango dancer or a bullfighter,” she says. “I wanted him to have a sleek silhouette — almost poetic — because I felt that his movement was important to the character. Johnny’s coat was made out of black leather that I had laser-cut in stripes. It was great fun using that technology and then using the cut of the period to make something that combines the best of all worlds.”

Even Sweeney’s razor got special design attention.

“He has to get to it quickly, so we came up with this idea of this leather holster,” Atwood explains. “It’s sort of a bit of a smile toward the Old West. In the marketplace, he kicks back his coat like an old-time gunslinger.”

On “Atonement,” director Joe Wright wanted the 1930s section of the film — the window of remembered perfection — to look fresh and new and be crossed with the modern.

“When you’re doing a period film, you stop your modern eye from looking at things,” Durran says. “You’re usually trying to get into the period’s aesthetic. But, in this instance, I was consciously staying in the 2007 aesthetic.”

While designing Cecilia’s striking green gown, Durran scoured references of 1920s and 1930s couture, combining details she liked from various dresses.

“I saw a 1930s dress with the wrap around the hips, and I saw many that were backless,” she says. “In the act of combining the elements, what I was making was not really a period dress but a modern dress.”

For Wolsky’s work on the epic “Across the Universe,” the key was using color and balance in order to create visual differences. “It was a total design job,” he says. “You work like a painter. I gave each section a feeling of time and place — by reducing things to abstract moments or being very specific in color.

“I used grays and blues in 1940s Liverpool, which was still recovering from the war; brown tones in straight-laced Boston and black for the Detroit riots. (For the more psychedelic ’60s scenes) I started introducing more color. Everything was rooted in reality and then what we call the ‘Julie Taymor Moments’ — the fantasy parts. Those we let go totally with the color and the theatrical.”

“La Vie en rose’s” Allen, who died recently, found inspiration for Piaf’s wardrobe in French photographer Brassai, whose chronicle of Parisian nightlife “The Secrets of Paris of the ’30s” was a constant reference. Allen brought Brassai’s book along for her first meeting with director Olivier Dahan.

“I didn’t want to make a biopic,” Dahan recalls. “I wanted to make something more personal. Marit was very accurate about the period, but at the same time, she was very creative in a period movie, which is not so simple. Maybe it will be a flower or the black dress with the full sleeves — little details that don’t belong to the period itself, something more modern. She added in every frame little details that were important.”

COSTUME DESIGNERS GUILD AWARDS NOMINEES
WHEN: Tuesday
WHERE: Beverly Wilshire Hotel

CONTEMPORARY FILM
“Blades of Glory,” Julie Weiss
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Olivier Beriot
“Into the Wild,” Mary Claire Hannan
“Juno,” Monique Prudhomme
“Ocean’s Thirteen,” Louise Frogley

PERIOD FILM
“Atonement,” Jacqueline Durran
“Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Alexandra Byrne“La Vie en rose,” Marit Allen
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Colleen Atwood
“3:10 to Yuma,” Arianne Phillips

FANTASY FILM
“Enchanted,” Mona May
“The Golden Compass,” Ruth Myers
“Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix,” Jany Temime
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” Penny Rose
“300,” Michael Wilkinson

SPECIAL HONORS
Swarovski President Award: Paula Wagner
Distinguished Director/Producer Award: James Mangold, Cathy Konrad
Lacoste Career Achievement in Film Award: Ruth Myers
Career Achievement in Television Award: Ray Aghayan

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