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A Distinctive Pattern: The Legendary Costume Designer Sandy Powell on "Wonderstruck"

Lovely, nostalgic and wondrous, Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” casts a magical spell through a melancholic tale that intersects two parallel stories set in two separate eras. Adapted by Brian Selznick from his own illustrated book (the author, whose The Invention of Hugo Cabret was the source material for Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”), “Wonderstruck” impressively brings two chapters of New York City’s history to life in following the analogous (and ultimately interconnecting) journeys of two non-hearing children. In one, which receives a dreamy and gorgeous silent movie treatment, we follow Rose (the astonishing newcomer Millicent Simmonds, a real-life non-hearing actor) in the 1920s as she embarks on a quest to find her actress mother Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In the other, Ben (Oakes Fegley) and Jamie (Jaden Michael) lead us into the gritty streets of the city in the 1970s with an adventure and familial mission of their own.

From Carter Burwell’s exquisite score to Ed Lachman’s stunning photography, this overwhelmingly ambitious project—perhaps the biggest film of Haynes’ career from a sheer scale and scope perspective—is a craftsmanship spectacle of the highest order. Unsurprisingly, its costumes—designed by the inimitable and legendary Sandy Powell—play one of the most crucial parts in visually telling the two interrelated tales while presenting two polar-opposite eras of The Big Apple through sublime details of foreground and (especially) background costumes. Recently joining me on the phone, the 12-time Academy Award-nominated and three-time winning costume designer (with previous wins for "Shakespeare in Love," "The Aviator" and "The Young Victoria," while “Wonderstruck” may very well be her fourth Oscar) shared her approach to this monster of a project which she rightly sees as dressing two separate films and the unique challenges of costuming for black & white.

You're an Executive Producer on “Wonderstruck” in addition to being the Costume Designer. Todd Haynes often mentions you first brought Brian Selznick's book to his attention. 

I met Brian during the making of "Hugo," which is the Martin Scorsese film I designed the costumes for. It was [also] based on Brian's book, although he didn't write the screenplay. But we met and became friends. And then I actually didn't read "Wonderstruck," which was the book following "Hugo," until I visited him in his San Diego home in La Jolla. I just one day picked it off the shelf and read it in one sitting, and said, "Brian, this would make a great film!"

I think what I thought would make a great film is (as usual with Brian's books): his books are 50% illustration. He tells the story wordlessly with illustrations. It's either sort of mixed in with narrative, like in "Hugo," or half of it is dialogue and half of it is pictures, which is how [“Wonderstruck”] is. It began with a very visual experience of reading a story. And I just thought visually it would be really interesting. And the fact it actually covered the two periods, I thought, would be a really interesting concept for a film, especially for kids.

How did you approach this giant task of covering two completely different periods from a costume design standpoint? Not only they are two different periods, but also they are sort of polar-opposite periods. The mood in the ‘20s is nothing like the ‘70s.


Was it like costume designing two separate films?

It was. I think that is exactly what it was like. It's like doing two separate projects rolled into one. I mean, you have to think differently for each one. Although the design process is the same. How you go about creating the costumes and creating the looks is thought of in the same way. But you did have to divide yourself and your team almost into two different groups. One dealing with 1920s or certain days of the week dealing with 1920s, and certain days of the week dealing with 1970s. Obviously there were occasions when you had to try and do both in the same day and get your head from the ‘20s into the ‘70s and then back again. That was exactly what it was like. And interestingly enough I'm working on a film right now [Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”] in New York City, which covers three different periods.

Oh, wow.

And that's even more work. Our biggest crowd scene is like 300 people, and you would only ever have those 300 people to dress and move around different scenes. But because there are two different periods, you've got 300 people in the ‘70s and then 300 people in the ‘20s. So, it's actually twice as much work in the same amount of time and for the same amount of money you would normally get to do a film with one period. So that was challenging.

And then there is also a third and fourth dimension in “Wonderstruck” in addition to the two time periods, when you think about dressing Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) while she is acting on stage and screen. Plus, there is also the flashback scene with the puppets.

That's true. We actually cover real life in the 1920s and in the 1970s. And then theatrical costumes for both the stage costume and also for when she's in the silent movie. And then there is the animated section at the end. It didn't involve costume but I was involved with working with the model makers on suggesting what the little models of the characters wore. There are many elements.

This is the first time you've done something in black and white. When you strip off color, you're kind of removing a whole visual layer from your designs. So I'm wondering if the ‘20s segment was a unique challenge for you in that regard. 

It was and it's interesting. You're absolutely right, it was taking away something. And, [color is] usually the element I begin with. It was sort of like going back and starting again and learning a process without a key element there. Normally, I'll have an idea for the color of what somebody is wearing before I know the specifics of it. I do very much think in color. For the 1920s section with no color, [it was not like] there was no color [per se], but there was various tones and monochromes. So I had to think in terms of tone and contrast as opposed to color. I would normally put something together in how it works shape wise, and also very much how colors work together. And how they work together to create a whole.

I would begin by doing what I would normally do. I would fit costumes on [Millicent Simmonds], who plays young Rose, based on how I would like to see them. And then we looked at it through a camera, with a black and white filter on it or took photographs with black and white. And quite often what looks great to the eye, looks really bland on black and white. That was when I had to learn a whole different process of putting things together that actually worked in black and white. Which very often were colors that I would never use together.

Which is quite interesting. On one hand, it made some things a lot simpler. For instance, when we were dressing big scenes of extras, I didn't have to worry about "I haven't got a hat that goes with that coat." Because through a black and white lens, it works. But sometimes I found it difficult myself to actually look at things on set, and think "It looks really weird to my eye, but it's going to be fine in camera." It was a process of photos even when I was looking for fabrics to make costumes out of. I would photograph them first: photograph this fabric against the dress fabric against coat fabric against the skirt fabric or against the texture of the slacks. I would photograph them together before making a decision.

Did you refer to the silent era, watching films from that period? 

Yes, definitely. I actually always look at films from a period [when I’m doing research]. And especially since this one was inspired by silent movies. But, there's only so much you can take from that. You look at how they look and where the contrast is, and then Ed Lachman, our Director of Photography, actually said that for him, it would be much more interesting to have the most textured materials and the most extreme amounts of contrast. He said, for him that would make it more interesting. 

In the ‘70s segment, there seems to be a specific color palette. Sure, there are reds and other colors, but I felt it was more earthy tones like oranges, browns, and yellows ... 

I think a lot of that was to do with how the film was treated, and what Ed was trying to achieve with the look of the film. Because [the ‘20s section] of the film looks like black and white movies. And the [‘70s section] looks like films that are actually made in the 70s where the film stock was different to how it is now. And that was the idea. It does have a very sort of yellowy, orangey feel to it. 

But, having said that, a lot of the colors in the ‘70s were [indeed] browns and oranges. Because we were using original clothing from the period, that's what you got. You got what was fashionable at the time, which was an awful lot of browns and oranges. But, then there were purples and pinks, and there were all colors of the spectrum there. But how it was treated in the filming is how you get that overall feeling. It really does look like the films I remember seeing in the ‘70s, or when we looked at the stuff again for research that was from that era. That really was the purpose and I guess you noted that it worked.

It really did! And the background tells the story of the city in that era. It’s around the “Drop Dead” period of New York City. But then everybody looks cool and defiant, and even rebellious in a way. There are a lot of exposed waists in the clothing you see in the streets. 

Those street scenes in the ‘70s were probably my most favorite bits of the film. Because what we tried to do with the extras in the 1920s and the 1970s was really create the world, the new world that these kids were coming into from much quieter areas. They both hit New York City. And although it’s in different decades, it's the same effect because they are bombarded with this sort of throng of people. And for the ‘70s particularly. 1977 was a time when New York was a pretty dangerous and dirty place to live. There had been sanitation strikes and things. It was dirty and down, there was unemployment. There was a lot of mess everywhere. And the area that he walks out into on Port Authority is a very mixed area. It's people on their way to work, on their way home from work, but a lot of unemployed people, a lot of poor people, too.

What we wanted to do was really create a huge, broad section of the society. New York is full of different characters, different races. People that he would never have seen before. Which is really fun to do, and really challenging to do when you're fitting extras. It’s not only about putting clothes on people, [but also about] finding the right people that look like they were from the ‘70s to wear the clothes and then create the characters around them. You have somebody come in for a fitting and you look at them and say "Okay, what can we do with this person? What would this person be wearing? Where would this person be going?"

We did the same in the 1920s, but it was different because in the 1920s, Rose comes off the ferry into the Financial District. And this is at a time when it was up, when it was prosperous and thriving and doing well. The crowd there was very different. It's people busy, on their way to work, and there was a lot more affluence. And it wasn't such a mixture or a wide cross section.

I thought there was a clear distinction between how you dressed the New Yorker Jamie [Jaden Michael] versus the suburban Ben [Oakes Fegley] in the '70s segment.

You're absolutely right. That's a good point. The stripe-y t-shirt and the jeans on Jamie was much more urban. And the other kids was, of course, in a checked shirt [and khakis], which is much more generic. 

Michelle Williams wears a fabulous robe at home towards the start of the film. It’s a beautiful piece of garment that made me gasp both times I saw "Wonderstruck." And for the story itself, it’s a very specific costume moment.

There is a story behind [that robe]. In the story, it doesn't really mention that she's wearing anything in particular. But, then when [Ben] comes across his cousin back in their own house, in his old house, and the script says he looks through the door and he sees his mother. And it turns out it's his cousin wearing his mother's clothes. She then quickly takes it off and runs away. And it didn't actually say what the clothing was when it was written for the screenplay. I think it might have been a shawl, and I said, "A shawl is a bit weird." It had to be an item of clothing that was completely distinctive that he would recognize and the audience would recognize instantly as what was seen on the mother. But, it also had to come off really quickly. And I thought, "Well what is somebody going to be wearing in the middle of summer that they can take off really quickly?"

I mean, it's just what it actually is, a robe. It's part of a 1930s or 20s pajama set. And in the 1970s, I remember this because I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was a real popularity with vintage clothing, Especially ‘20s and ‘30s. And as a teenager I would wander around wearing ‘30s tea-gowns in the day. So, it's something that a young, bohemian woman would've picked up in a thrift store. A fabulous piece of clothing that would've cost her nothing in a thrift store. She put it on and it was her favorite thing. But it had a really distinctive pattern on it so that it would actually tell the story.

Ever since Cannes, I’ve been looking online for something similar. I failed.

[laughs] You have to look for art deco pajamas of 1920s and 1930s, or you won't find it.

The other film of yours this year that I've seen in Cannes, "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," I am mesmerized by the look you found for Nicole Kidman. It has this distinct ‘70s punk attitude, but also, and perhaps this is not the right word, it felt sort of futuristic to me. 

I didn't really think of her as futuristic or connected to the aliens. Of course, with alien characters, I was thinking of what the people in the future do. Or what would aliens do when they come to earth? They try and sort of copy what people on earth are wearing. That's what the aliens were. And for Nicole Kidman, I had come up with a punk look, considering she was a fashion designer. And she had to have her own unique look as a fashion designer. So it was really just coming up with something. Everything she wears is made from vintage things and stuff that sounds like the chains on an old tuxedo jacket. It's sort of how clothing, how punk clothing, really started out, making use of what was around. I was just trying to think, If I was a fashion designer in the ‘70s, and trying to come up with a different look, what would it be?

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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