Colleen Atwood – Famed costume designer wows her audiences again with her incredible designs on the latest “Alice Through the Looking Glass”. Film Inside’s Will Hulihan sat down with the incredibly talented designer for an exclusive interview and learned what it takes to make a mammoth of a movie like this come to life.
Being a movie buff have you been interested in seeing behind the production lines and learn more about the people that create the magic we experience when we see a movie? Now is your chance… Colleen Atwood, master designer for “Alice Through the Looking Glass” unveils the magic and tells Film Inside’s reporter Will Hulihan what it takes to get a project like this off the ground.
Colleen Atwood, took time out of her busy schedule to tell me about her journey from growing up in a small town in Yakima Washington to working on some of the most iconic films there are: “Silence of the Lambs”, “Edward Scissorhands”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” just to name a few. I met Colleen at the Hotel Essex on New York City’s Central Park West. She entered the room with a big smile and reached out her hand to greet me as if we were old friends. Colleen offered me a seat on the sofa next to her where we began to chat about her incredible journey…
Where do you get your inspiration from, was it a direction you thought you were going to go in your life?
No, I studied painting in school, I wanted to be an artist but I wasn’t that great at it (laughs). I wasn’t good enough to make a living out of it as few people are. I went through a lot of different things before I came to costume designing… I sold clothes in a designer boutique in the 70’s and had a business being a personal shopper before it was a thing, I enjoyed it but I was over it in a year… so I thought what else can I do.
I moved to New York and tried to go to film school. I had to take a summer seminar as I already had a child and she was in her last year in high school. So here I was starting my career over again. I was so much older than anyone else and was thinking to myself: “what am I doing here?” Luckily I met someone whose mother was a production designer. That got my foot in the door. Through that connection, I did set dressing for the movie “Ragtime”.
You won three academy awards – “Chicago”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”. When did you fall in love with design and clothing?
I fell in love with it early on. My grandmother who lived on a ranch had an amazing style. She had a beautiful black stone fireplace. She would go out and pick these giant orange poppies and put them in a black pot in front of it…people weren’t doing that back in those days in that place and time, it was very Japanese. She had an amazing artistic ability and tremendous style without realizing it. I think I always loved looking at it and sort of gravitated towards it, but had no idea as a child what design was. I wasn’t one of those kids that were drawing clothes at all. I was drawing landscapes.
What was your favorite costume to design for “Alice Through the Looking Glass”?
That’s a tough question, I loved Mia’s journey from the sea captain to Chinese costume which lived a long time in the movie. I even love her institutional coat. I didn’t realize it until I looked at it: on the roof there is a shot of it where it is spread out like a moth. That was a happy accident. Her final costume was really fun because it was so feminine or whimsical similar to what the Hatter would have come up with…The ribbon sleeves and the wackiness of it all.
My Favorite was “Time” himself – How was creating that costume and making it functional?
That was my next favorite. It was a monster of a costume. We had to make it so he can get in and out of it quickly because the shoulder thing and the cape was quite heavy. Luckily with an actor like Sasha, who is a physical actor, he knows how to move to make it funny and real at the same time. So he saw this stuff way early. We wanted to exaggerate his skinny legs and big shoulders like the craziness of it all. I only had two fittings with him which was scary. In one of his fittings we wanted him to have a tall hat, but we couldn’t figure out how tall we could go, and of course he would have gone to the ceiling… so we got brown paper started making hats and putting them on him. I wish I had photos from that fitting.
How many outfits do you make per character? Do you make extras just in case something goes wrong?
The Hatter’s costume there are 4 of, Time we only had 2, The red queen one. Its usually dictated by the amount of stunt work the costume has to endure on a film. On “Game of Thrones” they have to wear it through an entire season which is different than on a main feature. I think that Mia’s Chinese look, I had 8. There was her, a stunt double and another two different stunt doubles doing different things at different times.
With the intricate details… how do you go about creating the subtleties. Do you go to flea markets, online searching looking every portal.
It is really all of those things. I look online through eBay, amazon… I love the Indonesian dance crowns and I have a couple of them. I have one that I have owned forever and I have a Chinese wedding crown. I buy them broken at flea markets and use the elements in my designs and recycle them. The little metal tassels on Mia’s collar came from one of the wedding crowns that I had in my storage. I keep the small details after a movie so they don’t get ruined and I can reuse them for future projects that are essential assets for the studios. Her actual collar itself, I saw one in an old rotten costume house that was great but totally had seen better days. So I made one by hand out of old silk and leather…It was so much work. The stripes on the culottes I had to paint on because I couldn’t find enough ribbon with the right motif.
I think the biggest and most amazing wardrobe malfunctions I ever had was Helena Bonham Carter. On her first day working she was sitting on a little stool fell off and cracked her armor. I had no idea how she did that – she didn’t even fall that far. I wanted to kill her… I had two sets of it so I was able to repair it, laughing…
How long does it take you to create the designs from sketches to meeting the actors?
It depends on the costume, usually when I meet the actors I show them the colors. If there is anything they hate or dislike I know right away before I put in all the labor. If I am lucky, I will get a second chance to fit them and we can show the director to make sure everything is good and everyone is happy. The Red Queen’s costume took 4 people about 4 weeks full time to make. It is a lot of labor. You work on different parts in the workroom and you have to keep moving through. Mia’s Chinese design took a long time as we had to develop the embroidery and the patterns. Johnny’s costume had a lot of patterns on it because the original layer has a lot on it that takes a long time to finalize.
In the bonus feature you mentioned that Johnny Depp doesn’t like to look at himself in the mirror…
Well with Johnny, when we had our first fitting with the Hatter, I found these vintage spools and cool chain, because he’s a warrior I made abandalori out of the thread. I had the coat shaped up for him and 2 or 3 different hat shapes for him. Then we found the pin cushion ring – my assistant found it online. Johnny is such a visceral actor, its internal and invisible… and it depends on how something feels on his body. On the Hatter’s hat I had a scarf wrapped around it and he said “we need to see it with the wig”, luckily the hair guy was close by, so he came by with the wig. So sometimes when you collaborate with the actor you want to put him in make up and hair to get a better idea of how it would be.
How did you get started with Tim Burton to begin with
I met Tim for “Edward Scissorhands” and I worked with the production designer Bo Welch on “Joe versus the Volcano”. Bo recommended me to Tim as he was looking for a designer for that movie. The designer they had on the Batman movie was British and they didn’t want to bring a Brit over at that point to design “Edward Scissorhands”. He interviewed me and he asked me to do the movie right there and then. He was the only guy that I ever met that offered me the job right away other than John Shanley that hired me for “Joe versus the Volcano”. Tim and I had an easy communication from the start. He grew up in suburban Burbank CA, I grew up in a minimal world and we have similar esthetic in that way.
One thing I have noticed as a crossover from each movie are the black and white stripes
Tim really comes from animation, he’s an animator… he can draw three lines and its a person, he’s an amazing artist. So the use of graphics is really a part of that process for him, so there is that moment of some kind of graphic for him. I think in Miss Peregrine, we didn’t use a stripy sock or anything which is pretty amazing… we skipped it there (laughing) we gave it a break this time around.
Lastly, did your kids have the greatest Halloween costumes out of anyone in school?
(laughing throughout this question): Oh my poor kids, it’s so funny I wanted them to have the greatest costumes, but my oldest daughter by the time that I could have started to do great Halloween costumes, she wasn’t that into it… though she does great ones now with her husband to go to parties. But my youngest was obsessed with Batman and every Halloween for the time when I could have made her amazing princess costumes, she wanted to be “Batman Girl”, (laughing hysterically) so I just make the cape (as I have never made a Batman movie in my life) but it was so funny.. Ok, you can be Batman girl, so I was cheated by it a little bit… but my granddaughter this year for Halloween will be the Red Queen…
It truly was an honor to meet the legendary Colleen Atwood.
“Alice Through the Looking Glass” is out now on Blue-Ray and on DVD with bonus clips and deleted scenes along with a bonus feature.
Here is a exclusive sneak peak of some of the bonus material from the DVD, about Alice’s, Hatter’s and Time’s costume: