In designing the costumes for Ron Howard’s mystical oater “The Missing,” Julie Weiss connected with her task on an almost spiritual level.
“You dress in rhythms,” she says. “At the moment that (the character) is called upon to use every ounce of their soul to get through the day, that’s the moment they look so beautiful. It’s not about vanity, it’s about purpose.
“That’s why you run to a Western,” she says. “It’s not about the guns and the bullets. It’s about the independent thought.”
Last year, two Westerns with strikingly different tones took contrasting approaches to achieve their purposes. Sony’s “The Missing” starred Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones in a taut thriller that presented a disturbing vision of the Old West.
The story was ultimately about reconciliation and redemption, weaving in metaphysical elements of Native American culture. By contrast, Disney’s “Open Range,” directed by Kevin Costner, was a traditional-feeling homage to classic oaters such as “High Noon,” “Shane'” and “Rio Bravo.”
Weiss used the themes of “The Missing” to devise a costuming strategy.
“In this script, you needed history, but you also needed the timeless moments that make the soul dance,” she says. “That is what mysticism is. It takes part of you away and gives back either more or less. So the clothes can’t be armor. (The characters) are all influenced by their journeys in the West.”
With “Open Range,” the goal was to make an old-fashioned Western, the kind Costner and producer David Valdes grew up on. Unlike “The Missing,” where authenticity mixed with the otherworldly, Costner’s picture had to be as grounded in reality as a Gary Cooper stare.
“It’s so hard to sell a Western,” says Valdes, who also worked on “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven,” both with Clint Eastwood. “When you do find financiers, you want to make it as realistic as possible and do lots of research.”
Gae Buckley — on her first project as a production designer, though she’s worked as an art director since 1985 — collaborated with Costner to design the town organically, based on history and the script.
“I was able to envision what he had in mind in terms of the action of the movie; then I tried to wrap the scenery around that,” she says.
Since “Open Range” was shot near Calgary, Canada, which is logging country, Buckley benefited from being able to have lumber milled to the specifications of the period, then either rough-cut or sandblasted to make it look aged and weather-beaten. She also reproduced a jailhouse, marshal’s office and saloon from old photos, using many of the original design elements.
“The more we looked at the material of the time,” she says, “the more touching it seemed that these people came to the wilds and didn’t try to design something, but were trying just to survive. One thing led to another and a town would be built.”
“We tried to achieve a look as authentic and anthropologically correct as possible,” says Kevin Walters, prop master on “The Missing.” “It helped capture the mood of the picture, particularly the mysticism of the Apaches. We did that with primary research. We had Apache elders there to assist with the language and religious and magical-mystical parts of things.”
Walters also brought in a coyote, an owl, a hawk and certain pieces of jewelry, snakeskin and buckskin to contribute to the metaphysical nature of the tale.
“You will see an amulet,” Weiss says, “that someone has passed down from generation to generation, and so you want to see what’s inside. There’s nothing inside. It’s the power of the belief.”