Colleen Atwood woke up before dawn on Tuesday, Feb. 15 to her phone ringing off the hook. She had just received her third nomination for an Academy Award this time for her work as costume designer on the Tim Burton film, “Sleepy Hollow.”
While the film received mixed reviews, everyone praised the costumes and production design. Atwood was credited with giving a sumptuous and macabre look to the film’s 18th century costumes.
Atwood usually works with Tim Burton and Jonathan Demme, designing the costumes for “Beloved” (for which she was also nominated for an Oscar), “Philadelphia” and “Silence of the Lambs” for Demme, and “Mars Attacks!,” “Ed Wood” and “Edward Scissorhands” for Burton.
Right now, Atwood is working out of a cluttered costume house in Burbank, preparing costumes for a short film, “200 Years of California History,” that is to play at the new Disney theme park being built in Anaheim. In her small office, Atwood is surrounded by designs and fabric swatches, as fabric cutters and fitters run in and out from other areas of the costume house.
Her next project will be “Minority Report,” her first film for Steven Spielberg, which is slated to be released in 2001.
Question: Is your job as glamorous and fun as it seems?
Answer: It’s glamorous in that there’s travel involved, and you get to see beautiful things and create things of beauty. On the other hand, the hours are very long. It involves going to places you’ve never seen before, you’re trudging in the mud, you’re dressing total strangers, and looking out for a lot of people on your staff. Sometimes you’re overseeing as many as 20 people on you crew.
It is fun and it is glamorous and I love it but it’s still work. It’s not about standing around in designer suits and having people doing things for you. If you’re going to fit an actor who doesn’t want a lot of people around, and you’re going to their house, you’ll end up carrying a lot of clothes for them to try on.
Q: How did you end up in this career?
A: Originally, I wanted to be a painter. Even as a child I admired and noticed clothes. My grandmother especially influenced me in fashion. She had a huge visual influence on my life she was very artistic in terms of the way she lived her life, and the way she dressed.
After art school I moved to New York at the end of the ’70s and took a seminar course in design at NYU Film School. I met the daughter of (legendary production designer) Patrizia von Brandenstein and (her husband) Stuart Wurtzel, and I got my first job working as a production assistant for Patrizia in “Ragtime,” making street set dressing for her. Then Stuart hired me to do bits and pieces in “The Chosen.” Then I started getting other little jobs, and I started to do work on small films for first-time directors with little or no money, and that’s how my career evolved.
Q: You say Tim Burton is your most admired person, professionally. Why?
A: He is able to open himself up to the world, through his own world, which is very unusual. His work has a very separate and personal voice and it comes from a very true place. At the same time it’s incredibly entertaining.
Q: Who are your favorite or least favorite actors to work with?
A: I’ve gotten in trouble for talking about people in the past, so I think I’ll pass on that question.
Q: OK, then what star from the past would you have liked to dress?
A: Clark Gable or Gary Cooper would have been great to dress especially Gary Cooper. But getting to dress Johnny Depp makes me feel like I didn’t miss anything he’s just such a wonderful actor. Dietrich would have been amazing, or Katherine Hepburn. You know, anybody who is a fine actor or actress is always great to dress.
Q: Burton’s work is so different from Demme’s. Are they different to work with?
A: My work relationship with both is very similar. My best time with both of them is before we start filming. We meet and talk about the script and the characters and I try to show as much (costume possibilities) as I can to them before we start. There’s always something in their vision that’s different from mine and that’s why we go through all the costumes ahead of time. There are times I don’t always nail it.
Q: Ever any surprises or disasters?
A: It’s hard to think of all those amusing moments people like to hear about because it’s kind of a blur. At the time, it’s kind of a nightmare you want to forget about. Usually on the shows I’m doing, I know what the walls and set dressing look like in advance, so really, there are hardly ever any surprises. Still, if there’s something that doesn’t work, there just isn’t time to change it. I always have a plan for another option for every actor in a scene, so if there is something that has to change, the wardrobe supervisor knows what the option is.
Q: What’s a typical pre-production day like for you?
A: I’ll get into the office between 6:30 and 8 in the morning, depending on what’s going on. I’ll check with the workroom and my team, and we’ll plan the attack for the day. The day will usually include going to fabric stores, museums, the library for research, things like that. I’ll also check in with and visit the vendors and costume houses, checking on costumes. Toward the end of the day I’ll come back to the workroom, and check on stuff that’s being built (costumes being sewn from scratch, as opposed to being purchased or rented). By then it’s 7, and I go home.
As it gets closer to the shoot I start pre-fitting extras and principals. As it gets really close, we start dying and aging the costumes. At this point, I’ll spend a lot of time in the workroom, while the makers are building the costumes, so I can keep close tabs.
Q: What’s a typical production day like?
A: Say, on a day when the townspeople are working in “Sleepy Hollow,” the day starts between 5 and 6 in the morning. We’ll start dressing the extras and getting them ready. Then the principals come in, and by 8:30 or 9 a.m. we’ll get them dressed. After that I’m monitoring everyone’s costumes on the set. Once I know the actors are established, I can leave the set and prep for the next day, and possibly fit another principal actor. Then I’ll return to the set in the late afternoon to help get everyone out of their costumes. In the evening I’ll see dailies (of the previous day’s shoot) and get home between 8 and 9, if all is going well.
Q: How much traveling do you do?
A: Half the films I work on are on location. “Sleepy Hollow” was shot in England, and I was there for nine months total the shoot was five and a half months. I prepared a little bit here, and then prepared most of the show there. That was a show that went from being an American production to a British production in the middle of pre-production, so that was a bit difficult. I was allowed to take my “ladies cutter” with me and that was it. I fought for her because she’s really my right-hand in design. She figures out the patterns, and the cutting, and how the costume goes together and fits on the person. I figure out the ideas my ladies cutter makes it work for me.
Q: Doesn’t a costume designer need to know how to make clothes?
A: You do really need to know the principles and what fabrics work and which ones don’t. You may not be the best sewer, but you need to know how the pieces fit. I had a period in my life where I sold very expensive high-end designer clothing in a shop in Seattle. I got to see the couture clothes up close and examined them and I saw how they fit together and I saw how they fit on different bodies. I also learned an incredible amount from working in workrooms (where they make the clothes) and costume houses.
Q: How has the business changed from the glamorous days of Edith Head?
A: In the old days, as in the golden days of Hollywood, the studio had huge workrooms set up. Back then you could prep a couple movies at once, because you were on contract to the studio. Sometimes the actors would insist that certain designers do their clothes. It was much more of a family structure at the studios. You had a huge labor force behind you to put costumes into work. Prep times were more generous, and you had more time to work, and they really made costumes instead of buying them. Back then the films were about glamour and there was a real effort to make a spectacle.