History lessons

Designers strive for the truth through research and meticulous re-creations

Even though no one really knows exactly what Pontius Pilate was wearing when he condemned Jesus to death, it was still important to “The Passion of the Christ’s” filmmaking team to make sure what’s onscreen is authentic.

Authenticity in films dealing with real history and people guides the artists designing the sets, hair costumes and makeup.

“If my historical reconstructions would have failed, part of the movie and its meaning would have been ruined,” says “The Passion’s” production designer, Francesco Frigeri.

Their yeoman efforts began with extensive research, but the result reveals a delicate balance between accuracy and employing techniques to make their work look good on screen — especially when little is known about the subject matter.

On director Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which traces the final 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, fake wood and enamels or modern touches were off limits.

Lisa Westcott, the hair and makeup designer for “Stage Beauty,” considers herself a disciple of the purist approach. “It’s crucial that you have a lot of respect for the period you want to portray,” she observes.

For this reason, she’s highly selective about the directors she works with and resists emphasizing glamour at the expense of accuracy.

But in Westcott’s case, there wasn’t much to go on where the lead character was concerned. She and a half-dozen hired hands in her department turned their full attention to England in the 1600s under King Charles II, who lifted the Puritan ban on legit perfs but also forbade the tradition of men playing women onstage. Billy Crudup portrayed Edward Kynaston, the last male British actor who made his mark portraying women, on whom the film is loosely based.

All that was known about Kynaston is his assault at the hands of thugs hired by the patron of the first woman to act on the English stage. So Westcott played up the flamboyance of his theatrical background.

She was charged with transforming Crudup’s square-jawed masculinity into the era’s prettiest and most celebrated leading lady. She began by softening his prominent jaw, which included closely shaving a strong beard line and plucking his eyebrows.

Another challenge was to perfect the shape of Crudup’s silhouette; part of this enterprise involved wire frames, which propped up his red wig.

Jan Roelfs, the production designer on “Alexander,” faced a similar challenge. “There are an awful lot of historical facts on Alexander you can get from libraries, but there’s only so much description available in terms of visual references,” he says.

In the end, he thinks historians were pleased with Oliver Stone’s attention to detail despite criticism of the director for loosely mixing fact and fiction.

“We really tried to stay very true to the history,” Roelfs says. For example, the India palaces Alexander conquered were built with wood since there were no stone remains. Set decorator Jim Erickson also took great care to exclude yellow rose petals in the rain of flowers showered on soldiers when they entered Babylon because they existed only in China in the 4th century B.C.

As part of his research on “Alexander,” Roelfs read everything he could get his hands on and consulted a team of advisers to absorb the reign of Alexander the Great, who led his nearly invincible Greek, Macedonian and Eastern warriors across 22,000 miles of rugged terrain to conquer the world.

Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan oversaw the creation of more than 20,000 items of historically accurate dress from the period. She and Roelfs received key assists from Robin Lane Fox, a fellow at New College, Oxford, whose 1972 biography of Alexander has sold more than a million copies, and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, doctor of ancient history at Exeter University whose specialty is Persian dress.

“I tend to do better knowing what the truth is,” Beavan says.

For “Passion,” Frigeri viewed archeological documentaries to pinpoint details about stone and color that would serve as the basis for building designs, while Gibson made suggestions about re-creating the mighty temple in Jerusalem and Pilate’s circular praetorium — the only building that integrated Roman architecture since it was build by the governing Romans.

He faithfully followed the Assyrian-Babylonian influence to re-create the architecture of ancient Palestine.

And since expatriate Romans of the era imported their own furniture, fittings, curtains and braziers, “Passion” set decorator Carlo Gervasi notes that everything had to be unmistakably Roman and without any contamination from other cultures.

Costume designer Maurizio Millenotti’s challenge? “I knew that I would not be able to find many visual references of life in Palestine.”

He found inspiration in pictures of Palestine from the early 20th century. “I started reading books and studying how fabrics were made at that time and tried to understand the colors, how they prepared them and obtained such colors.” He also talked with historians and “visited many museums.”

“Stage Beauty’s” Westcott gathered reams of material about Restoration London and paid a visit to several museums and national portrait archives. Given an airtight budget and eight-week shooting schedule on the indie production, she was forced to be resourceful in anticipating problems so that mistakes didn’t show up on screen.

Jackson was relieved to see her own sweat equity pay dividends. “I think in the end there was nothing that was badly stuck out of place,” she says. “We went for a sort of feeling, and I think part of the film’s beauty is that the cast and crew instinctually trusted its feelings.”