Longtime collaborators help dress the parts

Award Season Focus: The Women

Ask any filmmaker or actor to name the most essential skills a costume designer can have, and the answer is never an eye for color or an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion. What makes a costumer most invaluable to the movie-making process is a deep understanding of character and story and the ability to intuit how clothes can translate these nuances onscreen.

In this regard, Wendy Chuck, who has worked with director Alexander Payne dating to 1999’s “Election,” sees herself as a “social detective,” especially when it comes to the kind of contemporary, character-driven dramas for which Payne is known, and that are often taken for granted when it comes to a costume designer’s efforts.

In speaking about her work on Payne’s “The Descendants,” which takes place in present-day Hawaii, where flowery, short-sleeved shirts and flip-flops are the norm, Chuck says subtle distinctions are key.

“Working in the contemporary field, especially the kind of dramatic comedy (Payne) does is not the easiest thing to do,” Chuck says. “You have to think a lot about your choices because you have to strike the right notes, and I never want the clothes to speak louder than the actors. I want my costumes to support the characters.

“Unless the scene is asking for something to be outstanding, I think subtlety works better.”

The kind of laid-back, comfort-clothes vibe that permeates the Oahu of “The Descendants” is not alien to Chuck, hailing as she does from beachy Brisbane, Australia. And for George Clooney’s well-to-do lawyer in the film, she worked with such established resort-wear venders as Reyn Spooner and Tori Richard to make his character Matt King just a fashion cut above his peers, whose business attire would be hard to distinguish from that of flip flop-wearing vacationers.

But make no mistake, this is not the sartorially resplendent Clooney people are used to seeing. “If Clooney wore shorts they didn’t have cargo pockets, they were more refined,” Chuck says. “He got into character by wearing his pants high and maybe they’re a little ill-fitting. He left his ego at the door.”

Compared to Chuck and Payne’s working relationship, which is relatively brief, costume designers Deborah Hopper, Colleen Atwood and Joanna Johnston have collaborated with Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp and Steven Spielberg, respectively, through decades of work and dozens of films.

Hopper, the costume designer behind Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” first worked with the actor-turned-director in 1984 on a movie called “Tightrope,” back when, as she recalls, women did wardrobe for the female characters and men dressed the men. “Blood Work” (2002) represented her first costume designer credit with Eastwood, and she has held that title for every one of his projects since. “I’ve kind of worked my way up in Clint’s group,” she says. “He allows that to happen.”

Sometimes, particularly when Eastwood is also acting in a film, “he has his own ideas about a hat maybe he’ll want to wear, but he’s pretty good about clothes. Whatever I bring in he usually wears.”

Hopper says some people are surprised by the pace at which Eastwood works (he did, after all, release both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino” in 2008), but this just means more preparation. “I try to prep the whole movie before we start shooting,” she says. “He shoots so fast we have to stay two steps ahead of him.”

No matter what the film — a contemporary drama like “Mystic River” or a period biopic such as “J. Edgar,” where the clothes are fine and scenes take place at glamorous locales like the Stork Club (and in which Leonardo DiCaprio dons a dress) — Hopper’s job is to represent reality, be it drab or dazzling. “Most of his stories are character-driven or about everyday life, and the clothes also have to portray that …Things should look natural, and I think our working relationship is like that as well.”

For “War Horse,” which ranges from the bucolic bliss of Southwest England circa 1913 to the killing fields of France at the height of WWI, Johnston’s research included old family photos (she had an ancestor in the English cavalry) and poring through archives of the Imperial War Museum, which has three of its five branches in London.

“They keep lots of uniforms, so we would ask to see specifics,” Johnston tells Variety from Atlanta, where she’s working on Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” “They have not only British, but they have a lot of German stuff as well, which was incredibly helpful. Seeing all of that visually, and seeing so many details, that was all a complete springboard to go forward.”

In contrast to “Lincoln,” which deals with actual historic figures (and a reliance on the iconic photographs of Civil War chronicler Matthew Brady), “War Horse” afforded Johnston and Spielberg a bit more creative leeway, even if both were adhering to period accuracy.

“When you see ‘War Horse,’ and the clothes don’t jump out at you in any way, then I’d say the job is well done,” says Johnston. “They shouldn’t draw attention, they should be just right within that place.”

Johnston’s relationship with Spielberg dates back to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), on which she assisted Anthony Powell. She graduated to costume designer on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which Spielberg produced, and took over the mantle on the director’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) and has worked in that capacity for Spielberg since.

“In the work I’ve done with Steven, he’s taken me in each one them — apart from the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies and ‘War of the Worlds’ — into these incredible history lessons, with ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ ‘Munich,’ ‘War Horse, ‘Lincoln.’ My knowledge has expanded through my medium. How nice is that?”

The Rum Diary” is just the latest in a long list of wildly imaginative films Atwood and Depp have collaborated on since she first dressed him in intricate leather bondage wear for Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” in 1990. That roster includes other Burton films, from “Ed Wood” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Alice in Wonderland” (which earned Atwood an Oscar), to the forthcoming campy vampire pic “Dark Shadows,” which has wrapped, and 2009’s “Public Enemies.”

“Johnny’s always made amazing, kind of individual choices,” Atwood says.

After 22 years, the designer considers Depp almost like a member of her family, not least of all because the intense time spent on set can mimic a family dynamic. “We have a lot of shared humor and pain together, so there’s a real connection there.”

On “The Rum Diary,” the family dynamic was a literal one, as Depp’s sister Christi Dembrowski was a producer. Although Depp’s character could be construed as his version of Hunter Thompson, take two, Atwood says, “Johnny didn’t want to look exactly like Hunter. … The connection is definitely heartfelt but at the same time it’s more an attitude.”

One of the signature wardrobe pieces was a pair of borderline sleazy gold wraparound sunglasses Depp “pulled out of the bag” and Atwood was able to replicate enough for him to wear throughout the film.

“He really feels his costumes and the mood of them in a way that’s very visceral,” she observes of Depp’s process. “He actually spends less time looking in the mirror than any actor I’ve ever worked with. I guess when you look like that you don’t need to.”

Award Season Focus: The Women
Thesps seize career reins | Brains and brawn fuel nouveau action heroines | Longtime collaborators help dress the parts | Startling discoveries