Production and Costume Design Propel Films to Kudos Contention

Collaboration between key artisans holds the key to success on the awards circuit

Production and Costume Designers Give Films Their Awards Credentials
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Warner Bros.

Whatever happens on Oscar night, “The Danish Girl” costume designer Paco Delgado and production designer Eve Stewart will always have Captain Morgan’s Rum.

It’s hard to imagine a wider gap between the cool, austere look of “Girl” and the set on which they first worked together while director Tom Hooper was making a commercial for the brand, yet the pair were a match made in heaven. Since then, they’ve scored Oscar nominations on each of their subsequent collaborations. (In addition to “Girl” they both worked on 2013’s “Les Miserables.”)

Unsurprisingly, there’s great affection between them.

“Paco is a genius,” says Stewart. “I’m really careful and quite logical; he’s thrilling and running through doors with a feather, screaming ‘This is it! This is it!’”

Delgado is no less effusive. “We share the same passion for color, for texture – she has an amazing visual mind,” he says. “We have a very good time.”

This year, three films (of five) are nominated for Academy Awards in both production and costume design (“The Revenant” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” are the others). And while costume and production designers tend to be hired separately, it does appear that a seamless, organic final product grows naturally from a true meeting of the minds.

Still, it’s not an easily explained or manufactured concordance. Stewart feels that her simpatico with Delgado is helped by their shared art school and fashion backgrounds. “There’s a little less conformity in those places,” says Stewart. “The rules are not so rigorous.”

“I love to work with a person where you share the same sort of inspiration, and I feel like I can follow her lead,” says Delgado. “When you have an understanding like you do between me and Eve, we sometimes come to the same conclusions before we talk to each other.”

The more often costume and production designers are paired, the more the bond strengthens, creating a shorthand that adds value for a director.

“If I was a director, I’d want a unified visual package,” says production designer Jack Fisk, who paired for the eighth time with costume designer Jacqueline West in “The Revenant.” “When you’re working with a director for the first time you have to earn it a little, but once you have that trust he can relax. We’ve got his back.”

Fisk and West both have a shared interest in the great outdoors and Native American/First Nations culture, interests that dovetailed ideally for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

But it’s not just about pleasing the director. Shared mindsets mean the designers can produce a shared vision that meshes on the screen. “You’re already halfway there when you’ve worked with someone before,” West says. “I don’t have to show Jack everything I’m doing, or travel miles to the set. You feel you’re all working to paint the same masterpiece.”

Yet a shared history isn’t always a requirement for potential Oscar success: “Mad Max” was the first time costume designer Jenny Beavan paired with production designer Colin Gibson, and both ended up with nominations this year. In their case, respect for their mutually very different backgrounds was key: Beavan is best known for what Gibson calls “bonnet and bustles” movies.

“This was outside her area of expertise, but her different viewpoint added to the language of the film and brought a freshness to it,” Gibson says.

“I was absolutely a new girl,” she says, acknowledging she was coming on board a production train that had been moving on and off since the mid-1990s. “Colin was busy in his workroom and always changing stuff so I didn’t always see a lot of him.”

It was a process that worked, based on a final product, and involved some creative invention – the key young actresses were asked to help design their outfits, for example. But it also led to some creative differences: dozens of sandals and shoes were constructed for the starving masses, then ultimately abandoned to better serve story.

Still, even without a grand connection, Beavan was astounded by the expansive work Gibson accomplished with the vehicles, weapons and sets. “There probably were moments when I could have killed him – there’s a moment on every film where you want to kill everyone, because we’re human and it’s stressful, but I remember my mouth dropping in awe the first time I saw the vehicles set up in that armada,” she says.

In the end, what matters is what shows up on screen – and by its very nature that means that all the hard work by both production and costume design takes a back seat to the story. For West, that’s absolutely the sign they’ve done very well.

“When I went to see the film at the premiere, I thought they were blowing cold air in the theater,” West says. “I was freezing. I had forgotten I did all those costumes; I was so pulled into the story. And that’s the test: Is everything right together? Then we know – we’ve all succeeded.”