The Chameleon

Far from retired, Colleen Atwood is celebrated for her career and artistry

Pity the poor soul charged with editing Colleen Atwood’s kaleidoscopic film career into a “greatest hits” reel when the Costume Designers Guild presents her with its lifetime achievement kudo, dubbed the Lacoste Spotlight in Film Award, Feb. 25. Cut out one film and you could miss a genre. Skip a year and you could lose three films.

Atwood’s career can be celebrated from so many angles. Creative vision. Voluminous output. Influence on fashion. Awards and nominations. Directorial collaboration. She’s a costuming chameleon. A master of segues and surprises.

Consider 2005. No sooner had the dye dried on Atwood’s designs for Ziyi Zhang’s hand-painted “Memoirs of a Geisha” kimono than the designer was jetting off to China and Italy for adrenaline-packed actioner “Mission: Impossible 3.”

The six-time Oscar nominee found the transition exhilarating. For “Geisha,” she had to “hit the ground running, accumulating research madly” in order to create the costumes in the short time period allotted. Atwood utilized drawings by a Mondrian-inspired Japanese artist as inspiration for a sleeker, more stylized version of the traditional geisha silhouette. The film has earned her an Oscar, BAFTA and a CDG nod for period/fantasy film.

Popular on Variety

Prior to “Geisha,” she earned an Oscar nomination and CDG period/fantasy award for her gothic interpretation of childhood in “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

“It was a fantastic year going from that film to ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ ” Atwood offers. “How much better than that does it get in anyone’s design career?”

How does she so easily traverse fantasy and reality, contemporary and period films? “It’s really the thing I like most about my work, that I have gotten to do so many kinds of things,” she says. “And I think by doing that, you stay fresh, so that you’re always learning.”

Designers build “a mental library,” Atwood explains, “and you can draw from it each time you go out of the door to do a certain kind of movie.”

So while they were set worlds apart, the work she did on award-winning films like “Little Women,” “Beloved” and “Chicago” laid the groundwork for “Memoirs of a Geisha.” “The things I learned on “Geisha’ about textiles and fabrics will come to play in my life on other projects,” she says.

Diversity was a pattern she adopted early on, moving seamlessly between comedies (“Married to the Mob,” “Torch Song Trilogy”), suspense thrillers (“Manhunter,” “The Silence of the Lambs”), dramas (“Rush,” “Philadelphia”) — even a Western (“Wyatt Earp”).

But it was Tim Burton’s genre-bending vision that truly brought out the wit and artistry in her creations. She made a femme fatale alien not only believable but chic in his sci-fi comedy “Mars Attacks!” She referenced the Middle Ages for the futuristic soldiers in his “Planet of the Apes.” Her darkly glamorous period costumes for “Sleepy Hollow” could have walked onto a fashion runway or a red carpet.

“Sleepy Hollow” art director Rick Henrichs has said of his Oscar-winning work on that film, “Our set was just a backdrop for Colleen’s beautiful clothes.”

And her efforts on “Edward Scissorhands” helped the film earn permanent cult status. Never has a mistfit looked so weird or so hip.

That film “will always have a place in my heart, because it was my first film with Tim and it’s a magical kind of film,” she says.

Burton credits Atwood with helping Johnny Depp fully realize his character. “I can have an idea about something, he can have an idea, but especially with the more extreme characters, it really does take (the costume) to fully get the feeling of it,” he says.

Burton calls Atwood a true artist. “It’s always nice to work with artists who are doing it for artistic reasons, rather than for business reasons, or getting all caught up in that,” he continues. “You appreciate her on a very pure level that way.”

He also hails her for “trying to service the material. That’s what’s good. She treats what she does as another character in the piece.”

Beyond grasping the storytelling aspect of her job, Atwood’s personality makes her a favorite with actors and directors. She has collaborated on multiple projects with Burton, Jonathan Demme, Michael Apted, Tom Hanks and Rob Marshall.

“I feel there’s a real ally on the set, someone who’s there to support the movie,” Burton explains. “Not just doing good work, but as a person. That’s what she does. You need all the allies you can get on a film and she’s definitely one of them.”

While the designer acknowledged she was “stunned” about earning a lifetime achievement award from her peers, it may be because she’s a long way off from thinking about her career in the past tense. They better name that “greatest hits” reel “Colleen Atwood: Volume I.”