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Dressing the recent past gets difficult

Oscar history favors certain periods

Movies set in the recent past seldom receive Oscars for art direction or costume design — categories dominated by fantasy and period films.

A quick look at recent wins turns up 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for art direction and “The Duchess” for costumes. Prior to that, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Marie Antoinette” took home trophies in one or the other category.

Earlier, “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge” swept both categories.

Yet, judging by what went into the look of two upcoming films set in the ’90s, accurately reproducing the recent past is a subtle task that can be just as challenging as conjuring up long-lost historical eras or creating fantasy worlds from scratch.

That’s because many people still keenly remember those years and — like the “Mad Men” police, who pounce on every tiny flaw in that 1960s-set TV series, whether it’s a misplaced vending machine or a verbal anachronism — will be turned off by any jarring reminder that it’s only a movie.

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“It’s tough to make films set so close to the present,” said Deborah Lynn Scott, costume designer on the ’90s-set “Love and Other Drugs.” “It wasn’t the most attractive period, and certainly not the most glamorous.” To mitigate the era’s drabness yet still preserve its character, Scott focused on certain key types of garments that were popular at the time, like black jeans and the artsy denim overalls worn by Anne Hathaway.

Patti Podesta, production designer on “Drugs,” delved into the decade’s cultural zeitgeist, which is far more removed from today than its physical look. “It was strange to revisit that time before 9/11 when there was so much luxury and squandering,” she said. Podesta incorporated telltale signs of that atmosphere, including its clunky bigscreen TVs, cell phones and Pfizer packaging (the marketing of Viagra plays a major role in “Drugs”).

Mark Bridges, costume designer on “The Fighter,” set in the same period, faced similar challenges. “The ’90s weren’t that interesting,” he said. “You just look at things and it’s like what were we thinking?”

Because “Fighter” takes place in Lowell, Mass., a town that tends to lag behind the times, Bridges was able to “throw in a hint of the ’80s to make it look more interesting … we found garments that seem foreign today yet aren’t too distracting and take you to the period.”

The film is about real people, so Bridges was able to access their family photos and videotapes. “I could see what the characters were wearing,” he said, “but we didn’t just copy things. I got the flavor of their lives and then tried to delineate them as individuals.”

That said, both movies took some poetic license. Even though “Fighter” unfolds over the greater part of the decade, “we fudged a bit and decided to capture just the early part the ’90s,” said Bridges.

“By necessity, time and budget you have to take some liberties and make the period a little bit mushy,” agreed Podesta.

Bookings & Signings

Claire Best & Associates bookings: producers Sue Baden Powell on Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium,” Joanna Burn on Barnaby Southcombe’s “I, Anna” and Lila Yacoub on Oren Moverman’s “Rampart”; production designer Phil Ivey on “Elysium”; d.p. Florian Hoffmeister on Terence Davies’ “Deep Blue Sea”; costume designers Ngila Dickson on Sam Raimi’s “Oz, the Prequel,” Ruth Myers on Philip Kaufman’s “Hemingway and Gellhorn”and Catherine Marie Thomas on David Chase’s “Twilight Zones”; vfx supervisor Robert Grasmere on Angelina Jolie’s untitled project; stereographer Brian Gardner on Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”; and editors Suzy Elmiger on Debbie Goodstein’s “Mighty Fine” and Plummy Tucker on Curtis Hanson’s “Too Big to Fail.”Innovative Artists has signed d.p. Theo Van de Sande (“Grown Ups”) and editor Jacques Gravett (“Sons of Anarchy”). Agency has booked exec producer Butch Kaplan on Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Courier”; d.p.’s Phedon Papamichael on George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” James Carter on CBS’ “Hawaii 5-0,” Chuck Minsky on Garry Marshall’s “New Year’s Eve,” Checco Varese on ABC Family pilot “Nine Lives of Chloe King,” Theo Van de Sande on Jon Benito’s “Carjacked,” Alex Nepomniaschy on Nickelodeon’s “Supah Ninjas,” Steve Yedlin on Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and Zoran Popovic on Julian Richards’s “Shiver.”

Gersh has signed production designer Jon Billington (“Big White”), d.p.’s Jeffrey Kimball (“The Expendables”) and Peter Zeitlinger (“Rescue Dawn”); editor Billy Rich (“Body of Lies”); and line producer Marty Ewing (“Blades of Glory”). Agency has booked line producers Mark Huffam on Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequel, Denis Stewart on Tommy Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” Colin Wilson on Marc Forster’s “World War Z” and Grant Hill on Kathryn Bigelow’s “Triple Frontier.”

peter.caranicas@variety.com

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