Quincy-reared costume designer Colleen Atwood has won two Academy Awards for her work on “Chicago” (2003) and “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005). She’s been nominated five other times, for films including “Little Women” (1994), “Beloved” (1998) and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” (2004), and worked with directors like Tim Burton, J.J. Abrams, Kevin Costner, and Jonathan Demme.
Her latest work can be seen in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” draping Johnny Depp in the finest Depression attire.
Go! Magazine has long sought an interview with Atwood — through film studios, publicists and even family members. We’ve got a slew of things to ask her about, but she’s quietly turned us down each time. In sheer desperation, we decided to get her on the record another way: We interviewed her DVD commentaries. (Colleen, if you’re reading this, please get in touch. We’re not bad people!)
Go! Magazine: You worked on both Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (1986) and Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). What was it like to be involved with clothing two different versions of Hannibal Lecter?
Colleen Atwood: One of the most fun yet trickiest costumes for the movie was the ice skating costume, because they were really skating on artificial ice with a lot of fake snow. The snow was cornstarch and they used water, so it was sort of like glue on the costumes. I had done a lot of research on ice skating costumes of the period, and I wanted to combine something that was authentic for the period but looked like it was kind of a makeshift thing for all of them, because they really weren’t the sort of people that went ice skating in Central Park when it was winter in new, new ice skating gear. So I adapted something that looked like it might have been a dress that Winona had almost outgrown, and shortened it a little bit and made it look sort of sporty that way. ¹
Go!: You’ve collaborated with Tim Burton on seven of his last 10 features since “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). Are you the first designer he turns to?
Atwood: We had people that were from all over the world in the film. We had our principals, who were from Indonesia, Japan, China, America, and then some days … I had a guy that worked for me that was half Japanese and half Chinese, so he spoke, fortunately, both languages. And then one day we’d have an extra that we wanted that we loved the look of, and we’d say “We want him to do this over here.” And we’re all trying to tell him what to do, and I’d say, “Jackie, Jackie, come tell him what to do.” And Jackie goes over to the guy and starts talking to him, and all of a sudden he starts laughing. He says, “Oh, he’s from Thailand, he doesn’t understand any of us.” ²
Go!: The look of the wardrobe in “Gattaca” (1997) is very sleek but very noir. How did you decide what engineers and executives would wear in the future?
Atwood: Luckily, Johnny Depp makes all of that very approachable, because he works with you on the character, and he’s an actor that really is not a vanity-driven person. So he borrowed slips in preproduction to get used to wearing women’s clothes. He got into the character deeply, which helped me with organizing his costumes as a woman. And fortunately, he’s got a great body to be a woman or a man, so either way, it works on him. It was helpful that it was him. It made my life easier than it would’ve been if I’d had somebody that was overweight or had other weird issues about themselves. Johnny was totally free with that, which is really the spirit of Ed Wood. ³
Go!: How can a costume be used to define a character?
Atwood: When we went to New York in the story, I felt like I had to shift direction from the countryside to the city. I did that by adding, of course, a level of wealth that wasn’t really happening in the rural area, and also a level of poverty that wasn’t particular seen in the rural area. It was after the war, there were a lot of people who were struggling in the cities as well as in the countryside, and there was also a huge influx of immigrants, so I did research for people from different parts of Europe who were coming to America. There were Germans and Irish, and I tried to reflect their clothing in the people that lived at Kirk House and on the streets of New York. ¹
Go!: Did costuming Tom Hanks for “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990) help you get the job when Tom Hanks directed “That Thing You Do!” (1996)?
Atwood: He was in a state of poverty, but he had a lot of dignity. So the combination was to go with the sort of European gentleman, dignity side of who that man was, and not have him be like a bum or something like that. That didn’t make sense, and it’s a sort of a cliché to make him too much of a bum, just because he doesn’t have money. He still has his style and his class that he always had. ³
Go!: One last question — was costuming on “Planet of the Apes” (2001) the strangest job you ever had?
Atwood: Yes, we had some waterproof kimonos. ²
¹ “Little Women”² “Memoirs of a Geisha” ³ “Ed Wood”
Jefferson Robbins: email@example.com