Colleen Atwood

Colleen Atwood

Colleen Atwood has had a long an illustrious career as one of cinema’s best costume designer having worked on the likes of Edward Scissorhands, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago and Public Enemies, bringing her two Oscar along the way.

Her last project once again saw her team up with Tim Burton for Alice In Wonderland, which is out on Disney DVD and Blu-Ray today. So I caught up with her to talk about a new look for Alice, working with Tim and Johnny and what lies ahead.

- You have designed the costumes for Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, having worked on so many of his other movies, so how did you two get together?

We met actually through a production designer that I had worked with who recommended me to Tim when we were doing Edward Scissorhands. I met Tim and we hit in off in our interview and he basically hired me right then, which was very exciting.

- What is your working relationship like with him? How closely do you work together is he very hands on in bringing ideas to the table?

Basically we start with the script, we usually have an initial meeting and he talks to me about the general feel of how he sees it and I go off and do my research. I then bring him materials, which he reacts to, and then we go on to the next stage which is the design process.

We start researching fabrics and fabric ideas; he enjoys all the textiles and visual materials, so he sees all that. 

Once I start making the clothes he usually comes in on the second fitting, once we have got the initial boring stuff done, and has a look and we take it from there.

-  And what makes you keep wanting to work with him?

I really like him as a person, which is very important, but I also admire him as an artist and I’m always excited to see when he is thinking for a project, he has always had a very interesting view on what he wants to see.

- What was your inspiration behind the look of the film did you look at the books and films that have gone before or were you very much encouraged to design something new.

I think that you tell for the script that we were encouraged to forge a head with new ideas without any disrespect to the old. I certainly was familiar, even from my childhood, with the original stuff and I sort of used it as a starting point but then we were totally set free by the fact that Alice’s dress didn’t shrink and grow with her in the story, and that really was a turning point. There were also plenty of new characters added so there was all this new material which was freeing.

- Alice is still seen in the famous blue dress so how has that changed from what we have seen in the past? And how does the design change from when Alice is in the real-world to when she is in Wonderland?

What happens is that the blue dress is a full skirt but it’s on a young woman and not a child so it isn’t a pinafore/little girl dress, there’s a moment in the flashback where little Alice is with the Hatter and she has on this very traditional Victorian child’s dress.

But young Alice is in a neverland between adult clothes and children’s clothes, which is why I made the blue dress the way that it is, it doesn’t quite touch the ground, it doesn’t have a hoop, it doesn’t have a corset but it has embroidery around the hem which acknowledges Wonderland in a way but without saying it.

When she goes through the rabbit hole into, I call it Tim’s wonderland, as she falls down and lands and drinks the liquid she shrinks out of that dress and is just in her under things, which were huge and I just tied them up around her like a little slip.

But when she ate the cake it became almost like a little tutu. When she become gigantic she doesn’t have anything so the Red Queen’s court has to make her something out of the curtains, there’s a little interlude where she is only three inches tall and the Hatter fashions her a little dress out of her old dress.

So we had a lot of chances to change it up and give Alice something that was based on the beginning but was also something new.

- The Mad Hatter is the heart and soul of the movie so how did you go about developing that costume?

Well that costume I kind of had an idea for it early on that it was a wonderful walking carnival as well as having remnants of his past. There were all sorts of hat making bits that were incorporated into his costume such as ribbons, scissors and shreds.

And when I had a fitting with Johnny I offered him all this stuff and that’s when we really started playing with it and making it work, in the way that a great actor does.  I was really into his shoes and the colour of them, they have a beautiful orange lining which you never see, everything just has this nice detail to it which I really enjoyed doing.

When I had a fitting with Johnny we had a proto-type for the hat, and I had the leather that I wanted to use for the hat that I had already shown Johnny and Tim, and we had a fitting, we used not the final wig but a bad wig; because you really can’t tell what a hat looks like without the wig, but we really went for it in that fitting and sort of created the character.

His coat we wanted it to reflect that he was like the weather his moods changed a lot so his madness was reflected in his coat, it had a layer of thin silk with other layers of thin silk with different colours dyed over it and threaded away, it was kind of like a mood ring coat.

I just had this idea that his fighting gear should be a kilt, by this time Johnny was already in his Glaswegian accent, so we had some fun with that.

- Johnny is an actor who you have worked with on many occasions so is he easy to work with and does he collaborate with you when developing the costume?

He is very very collaborative and he’s very, as you can tell from his work, very open to try different things and he’s not afraid to put on something that’s totally ridiculous (laughs). You can have a laugh in a fitting with Johnny it’s not just ’oh do I look good in this?’ for as handsome as man as he is he is very unvain.

-    Alice In Wonderland is a 3D movie so what challenges did that bring?

In this particular case it wasn’t really shot in 3D it was shot using green screen so the limitation wasn’t major for me. I played with the aspect of 3D in my mind, I used like against dark and things that popped a little bit to have a bit of fun with it, but as far as restrictions or it dictating what I was doing because of the technology that we were using it was pretty normal.

- Tim Burton’s movies tend to be gothic and quite dark so how great is it for you to go and work on something like Memoirs of a Geisha?

The think that’s great about being a costume designer is you never know what’s going to be next, you never what world you are going to enter. The movie I went from to Memoirs of a Geisha, I think, was Planet of the Apes and I remember when I met the director Rob Marshall I had just finished Planet of the Apes it was weird going from apes to beautiful men. Oh no it was Chicago not Geisha, but Geisha was a spectacular gift.

- When working on projects that are not fantasy based, such as Public Enemies or Nine how much research do you do before sketching your first design?

I have a fairly quick prep period on those movies; the prep period is probably a total of four months so you kind of hit your ground running with your research. I do archival photo research while, at the same time, a lot of stuff online, which helps, but there is nothing like touching a book.  But at the same time that I’m doing research I’m designing to make it all work.

- You won an Oscar in 2002 and again in 2006 when they read out your name what was the first thing that went through your mind?

Not much, your mind kind of goes blank in a way (laughs). It’s exciting as well as being a relief, your heart is literally pounding in your throat, and I think anyone who has gone through that feels the same way. Either way, win or lose, it’s such a relief when that name is called.

- How did you get into the world of costume design in the first place, is it something that has always interested you?

I grew up in a small down in Washington State so I wasn’t really aware of costume design as a career growing up but I loved clothes, I remember I saved all my money and the first thing that I bought was a white blazer; which was to the horror to my parents. But I have always had a strange connection with clothing.

But then I wanted to be a painter and I went to art school and studied painting, so I have always been close to it but when I was young I didn’t know about it as a career. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I entered that world, I had worked in fashion, I moved to New York and started my long career., at the very bottom I might add.

- You have worked on so many movies is there any one that’s your favourite or any particular costume that you are really proud of?

I always say that they are like children and you have affection for all of them but the accomplishment is special. I like films that I have done that I feel are classic that my family and people can enjoy for a long time, that being said different people have different taste for some it’s Mars Attacks and for others it’s Memoirs of a Geisha, I feel like I have been extremely lucky with the material that I have had.

- Finally what’s next for you?

Well I don’t know I’m sort of waiting. I think the next project that I’m going to design, but I’m not sure because of schedules, is either a small futuristic movie called The Immortal or go on to another project with Tim Burton called Dark Shadows, based on the seventies TV show.

Alice In Wonderland is out on DVD now.

FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw

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