Colleen Atwood: Chicago’s Secret Weapon
One of my favorite things about Oscar season here at Le Blog is the annual write-up on the Best Costume Design category by therealadri. It’s a component of movie making that I think most of us take for granted. The September 2002 issue of Movieline magazine included a profile piece on costume designer Colleen Atwood. Her designs for her next movie, Chicago, would win her the first of her four (to date) Oscar statues.
There are very few costume designers with a résumé like Colleen Atwood’s. She’s gone from the Old West (Wyatt Earp) to mod ’60s (that thing you do!) to the present day (The Mexican) to the future (Gattaca), suiting up stars like Kevin Costner, Liv Tyler, Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman. And she’s had a hand in some of the most unlikely transformations on-screen, from turning the willowy Michelle Pfeiffer into a big-haired mafia wife in Married to the Mob to helping re-create Tim Roth as a villainous, armored primate in Planet of the Apes.
Originally from Seattle, Atwood moved to New York in the ’80s to take a stab at film directing, but it wasn’t long before she realized her passion for fashion would steer her more toward costume design. After a fortuitous apprenticeship under acclaimed costume and production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein (Saturday Night Fever, Amadeus), Atwood struck out on her own. Now she’s landed a costume designer’s dream job–creating the wardrobe for the film version of the hit Broadway musical Chicago, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere.
Q: How did you get hired for Chicago?
A: I met with director Rob Marshall a year before the movie started filming. I told him I’d always wanted to work in the theater and would love to do the project, and he said he would call me. A long time went by; I finished Planet of the Apes and still hadn’t heard anything. Then all of a sudden I got the call. Rob had done exactly what he said he was going to do, which most people don’t do in this business.
Q: What can we expect to see in Chicago?
A: We venture out into the world that Roxie Hart [played by Zellweger] inhabited. In doing so, we were able to embrace the ’20s a little more accurately than you can with just dance numbers. This movie is about working-class people and we tried to capture that in the clothes, this real raw world that Roxie lived in. But I’m excited about the dance numbers and to see how it will all come to life in the film. You’ll be able to see the transition between reality and Roxie’s fantasy life that she lives onstage. The play version doesn’t do that. You never see the gritty side of the story in the play. In this movie, the audience will care about Roxie Hart because of the character and because Renee is so amazing.
Q: What was your first big break?
A: Married to the Mob got me recognition on the West Coast. Sometimes you think you’re working on the greatest movie in the world and then no one likes it. With Married to the Mob, I had no idea it was going to be so well-received, though it was disliked intensely by the Italian community, who thought the costumes were over the top. But everything in that film was based on something real that I had seen in Long Island or Brooklyn.
Q: Of all the big-budget films you’ve worked on–Sleepy Hollow, Wyatt Earp, Planet of the Apes, Chicago–which presented the greatest challenge?
A: Planet of the Apes was the most difficult. We had to make the costumes function on a practical level, but still have them create a world and make it look like something besides monkeys in leotards.
Q: Which characters have been the most difficult to costume?
A: It’s always challenging to take an actor through time. Like with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, where there were large but subtle changes in his character’s physicality [due to complications brought on by AIDS]. But Tom was losing weight while we were shooting, so it worked, and it helped that we were shooting linearly.
Q: You’ve worked on both period pieces, like Little Women and Chicago, and sci-fi films, like Gattaca and Mars Attacks! Which genre has a bigger disadvantage?
A: One of the challenges with period costumes is, on a technical level, making the scale of different periods work on contemporary bodies. We’re much bigger than what people were in older times. As for futuristic costumes, I loved doing Gattaca because I’m a minimalist at heart and it’s a very minimal film. Plus, with Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke and Jude Law, how could you go wrong? It’s fun conjuring what people will be wearing in the future. We exist in this world today, and yet there are people walking around who still look like they’re in the ’60s. When Blade Runner came out, it was revolutionary in realizing that the past wasn’t going to disappear. That makes the future so fun to design because you can have all of it, you can have elements of 1860 in 2060.
Q: What kind of research and preparation do you do before a film?
A: I love looking at art photography and paintings, and I also read books set in the period. When I started Little Women, I read diaries by women from the post-Civil War era and it was so educational. Reading about that period of poverty and war in America was an eye-opener. The other movie in which the research was just staggering was Beloved. It was almost unbearable–so sad. I read Langston Hughes’s A Pictorial History of the Negro in America and it contained information that wasn’t in any history book I’d ever read.
Q: What are some of your favorite movies?
A: The Wizard of Oz. I’ve always been a huge fan of Adrian’s.
Q: Did you always have a feeling you’d become a costume designer?
A: I grew up in a small farm town in Washington and it was a huge idea for me just to think that I wanted to be a painter, which I did originally. But it’s ironic because there was only one movie theater in town and my parents were strict about what movies I could see. So I used to sneak to the movies all the time. I loved them, but I never thought I could be part of the moviemaking process.
Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: I can create clothes for so many different time periods. I’ve always tried to avoid being pigeonholed. Plus, everything I learn about design and costume from one movie somehow works its way into something else.