This year several awards-worthy films — including “Take Shelter,” “A Dangerous Method” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — explore the troubled minds of their protagonists, and each production relies on a variety of visual clues and cues to help illuminate the inner turmoil.
For costume designer Denise Cronenberg, who’s worked with her brother David since “The Fly,” the big challenge on “A Dangerous Method” was how to deal with two real-life titans of the subconscious — Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Jung (Michael Fassbender) — and one disturbed patient (Kiera Knightley) “in a period (1904-13) when the rules of dress were very strict. Even if you had a breakdown and were being hauled off to a mental asylum, you dressed very formally, as if nothing had happened,” she notes.
Working in tandem with production designer James McAteer, art director Sebastian Soukup and makeup artist Stephan Dupuis, Cronenberg and assistant costume designer Nigel Egerton visited Freud’s homes in London and Vienna and did “tons of research on the looks and styles of the period” before having most of the costumes made at CosProp in London.
“Using those costumes to signal any inner turmoil was very challenging,” she says. “In a film like (David Cronenberg’s 2002) ‘Spider’ (which also tackles mental illness), the character’s mental state is far more obvious. But in this, we had to adhere to the conventions of the day, so all the women wear high-necked white blouses in the summer. Sleeves were long, so you didn’t show any skin, and women wore layers and layers of underwear. Men wore frock coats and suits, and never dressed casually. All that restrictive clothing was based on strict rules everyone followed.”
At the end of the film, Cronenberg dressed Jung in a specially made cardigan “to help show how he was unraveling — but even then, not much,” she says. “It’s not like today where you’d wander around in sweatpants or a housecoat, and it’s easier to show a character’s fragile mental state.”
That state is far more evident in “Take Shelter,” set in the present, where the protagonist’s apocalyptic dreams signal a complete mental breakdown. Production designer Chad Keith worked closely with writer-director Jeff Nichols, art director Jennifer Klide, costume designer Karen Maleck and makeup artist Julia Lallas “to create a very trapped, claustrophobic and dark look and feel — especially in the storm shelter itself,” says Keith. “Michael Shannon’s character has all this inner turmoil in his life, and the very act of building the shelter underscores that trapped feeling and emotion.”
Keith and Nichols also emphasized the escalating crisis by using real locations instead of sets.
“It took us a long time, but we found the perfect house in Ohio with the right layout, and were then able to go in and give it an entire new look,” he says. “It had these vast, empty, open landscapes all around, which gave it even more of a trapped feeling.”
By contrast, when Keith and his team built the storm shelter, they made it “as dark, grimy and claustrophobic as we could.” And working with Klide, Maleck and Lallas, Keith evolved a drab color palette throughout the film “that also evokes the character’s mental confusion.”
In “Martha Marcy May Marlene” Elizabeth Olsen plays the central character, a young woman traveling on a physical and mental journey as she escapes from a religious cult on a commune in upstate New York.
Keith also happened to be production designer on “Martha Marcy.” As in “Shelter,” he made use of real locations, in this case a farmhouse “which we adapted to give it that weird, ‘culty’ separation between the women and men,” he says.
“There was a communal bedroom, and I moved the kitchen to the barn to get it out of the house,” Keith adds. “But we wanted it to all feel very real and unforced.”
Costume designer David Tabbert also made a point of “avoiding any over-the-top looks, as they would have just looked too contrived.” At the same time, any clothing that was “too tight or constrictive would have been equally inappropriate,” he notes. “I wanted to convey a sense of comfort in Martha’s clothes in particular, as she’d experienced so much trauma on the farm.”
To that end, Tabbert dressed Olsen in a big men’s sweaters, and oversized T-shirts for nightwear. At the farm “you also got a sense that all the women were sharing the clothes, (which) strengthened that feeling of community and comfort.”
To find the right looks for Olsen and the commune members, Tabbert visited thrift stores, shopped at K-Mart, had costumes made, and even contributed some of his own shirts.
“I’m 6-5, and Elizabeth is pretty small, so that visual contrast helped tell the story,” he says. “Clothes can reveal so much about the inner life of a character, depending on the emotion of the scene. I always try and factor that in to the clothes.”
Scenes reveal souls | Makeup for beauty more than skin deep | Helmers, designers take the edge out of war | Realistic, exotic look for ‘Lady’