On any given year, if you’re predicting the Oscar nominees for Best Costume Design, it’s a safe guess that Colleen Atwood will be among the bunch. With 11 prior nominations and three wins—for such diverse projects as Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alice in Wonderland—Atwood has garnered another nod this year for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Though Atwood knows her fantasy realms all too well, Beasts marks her entrée into the magical worlds of J.K. Rowling’s design—a chance to bring a touch of magic to an otherwise conventionally dressed, period world. Speaking with Deadline, Atwood discusses her journey around the world, sourcing costumes for the project, costuming 3,500 extras, and her long-time partner in fantasy, Johnny Depp.
Starting this project—your first in the Wizarding World realm—were there specific photo references that facilitated the process?
I looked at old reels of Jimmy Walker, who was the mayor of New York around that time, and his sort of people, and then a lot of stuff from the Museum of the City of New York, which is a very good reference for New York City. I went back, I looked earlier at Ellis Island stuff, and I looked forwards into the ’30s, just quirky things.
I had a lot of weird photo albums, like pictures of college girls. It was a really different time for women. Women were really finally out there a lot more than they’d ever been before. It was fun research because you actually had photographs of people living life, instead of formal photographs. It’s really an exciting period of photography. I went a little bit later with Berenice Abbott and some of those New York photographers, for working people and things like that.
In choosing a sketch artist to collaborate with in the early stages of your process, are you looking for someone who is particularly fashion-savvy?
I give them images from the period, but the ones that I like the best are almost like animators, and they don’t just draw clothes. Their strength is really getting the feeling of the character, and the way the character moves and stuff. I have them do weird poses and all kinds of things, rather than just a presentational kind of drawing.
For me, as a designer, my real design process takes place with my cutter on the form. The sketch and the research are really good shorthand for that process, and also for explaining it to a director, and a studio, and an actor. They don’t come in and look at the muslin—they don’t know what the heck they’re looking at, but if I can convey a mood, a feeling of a situation with the fabrics, then I can explain it and communicate it to others.
With the help of your assistants, you took a journey around the world looking for vintage or period clothing—starting, of course, in LA. What was that journey like for you?
The story was set in America, so it made perfect sense to start in the costume houses in America, which are very strong in that period. The quantity of clothing I needed was huge. I started in Los Angeles and, with a team, pulled the costumes that I liked for New York. A lot of New York came from there. I had a big evening scene, and a lot of that came from the Helen Larson collection at Western [Costume Company]. I had stuff from Motion Picture, from American Costume, from Palace Costume, and I purchased things from American vendors a lot.
Then, I went to New York, because I have a person there that I’ve known for years from when I lived in New York that has kind of eccentric eye, and I pulled some things from her collection, and from a collection that I’ve used frequently in Toronto. Then, of course there’s Angels and Cosprop in London, which are the big London houses, which gave me a lot of work wear, and that kind of stuff. I also bought a lot of stuff from a vendor at the flea market in Paris—some work wear and some really interesting and wizard-y evening wear.
It was interesting, going from place to place and seeing the things in period, and how they were interpreted in different cities. The Parisian stuff was very unique. It wasn’t necessarily rich people’s clothes. It was probably more middle class people’s clothing, but it was really interesting how they interpreted the period. Then I went to the costume houses in Rome. I had an immigrant area, and one of them was really great for that. I don’t know if it was from an old Italian opera, or what it was, but there were some great kind of character, folk-type things.
The other one, strangely, the owner of it’s father had passed, but he bought a huge American collection for a movie years and years ago, and he’d never rented it, so I was the first person to come in like 20 years after it was purchased. It was great stuff, it was all from New England, it was really pristine, and it was an amazing shock to both him and I that it was there. [Laughs] He says, “I’m finally renting this, I can’t believe it. I’ve been sitting on it for 20 years.”
You’re very specific with color choices for the costumes your characters wear, and have sometimes struggled to find a shade that will photograph in the right way. How did you end up with the specific shade for Newt Scamander’s blue coat, which he wears throughout the film?
The thing is, a lot of [Scamander’s] creatures had sort of luminescent color, and I wanted him to have a sense of being one with them, but not standing out, like he’s in some neon outfit in the middle of the street. I came to this blue with a lot of green in it, and it has a little bit of brown undertones. It’s an interesting blue because in different light, it photographs differently. I didn’t want it to pop too much, and I played with it a little bit.
It was a wool that I had in my sock, actually, that I dyed to get the color that I wanted, so it was a process to get the color right. Taking more yellow in, putting more yellow out. Little tweaks with it, but I finally got to a point to show it to the Davids—that would be [director] David Yates and [producer] David Heyman. Eddie [Redmayne] and I were all over it, we loved it, but we were like, “Well, I guess we’d better show it to them, because it’s a big commitment.
At first, they were like, “Whoa. It’s kind of a blue-themed coat.” I was like, “Yeah, but if you put it around black and navy and the colored coats—the grays and all the colors around it—it’s still going to work okay. It’s not going to be the only thing you see in the frame.” That was how it evolved and how it became what it is.
We played with the shape of it a lot, that coat, because Eddie squats down on his case a lot—does a lot of up and down movement—and he has a sideways gait to him that he evolved for Newt. It’s almost like an animal walk, in a way. I really wanted something that served him, too, and we did a lot of rehearsals with it to make sure it all worked for him, with his acting.
Certainly, one of the other standout pieces would be the dress and headpiece worn by Carmen Ejogo.
It’s funny. It was a funny show, in the sense that I find these weird things in my journeys for different jobs. Sometimes, they sit in my storage room for a very long time, and then all of a sudden, they have a place. I had this piece that was actually based on an Indonesian wedding crown, and I disassembled it and reassembled it in a different formation, but the elements in her crown were all disassembled from that.
She wears a turban the rest of the time, just to set her apart from people. I wanted her to have this sort of tribal beauty to her, but also feel powerful. The back of that’s kind of a turban, but the front’s a huge kind of garden crown, and it gave her scale. She was in quite a huge room for that shot…I mean, it added probably ten inches to her height. Not to mention the shoes I had on her, but just to give her a very vertical and powerful sense in a room of powerful people.
It suited her face. She has an exquisite kind of beauty to her face. Not everyone can plunk that on their head and look good. [Laughs]
The hats were a standout element among the film’s costumes. What inspired your choices in that area?
It was a huge period for hats, because the women wore cloches, and the men wore the high crown fedora style hats, and they also wore Homburgs, and all classes of people wore different kinds of hats, traditionally.
Like everything else, as soon as you make a rule, it gets broken in clothing. I wanted the women in the film, and especially the women in the wizarding world had cloches, but I made the ’20s style in the front, but then with the back I did little twists, like traditional kind of witch hat points and things. I didn’t really want them to be running around in witch’s hats, per se, but I gave their hats a little bit of a twist and an elegance that kind of was a play on the period.
I sort of did the same thing with the enforcers, with their leather coats. They’re based on the period, but they have a lot more swing to them, and they could almost be now, or they’re almost kind of futuristic, but they still have the ‘20s vibe to them, and they’re patterned off a real coat that I found. When you make that style in a different material, like leather, it kind of transforms it into something else.
Some scenes required an astounding amount of extras. How did you go about costuming them all?
I think we did around 3,500 fittings for the film. We kind of fit the people in groups of where they were shooting. We just were fitting every day of the film, basically, that we were shooting. We were pre-fitting for the next scene. I had a fitting team of about six people that would just do fittings all day long, and we were able to stay ahead of the game that way. Also, I had a couple people that all they did was repair clothes. A lot of things had to be hand washed, as opposed to dry-cleaned, things like that. I was very particular that the clothes that we were using were taken care of properly, so they could live through a couple more movies.
Having worked closely with Johnny Depp on a long list of films—including this one—how would you describe your relationship with him?
I just love Johnny. I’ve known him since Edward Scissorhands—he was very young when I met him. So was I, I guess. [Laughs] I think because a lot of our work’s been with Tim [Burton], because we have that longevity, we have almost like a strange, family relationship. He’s such a magical and graceful performer, Johnny, that in the fitting, I always give him a lot of little things that are part of the costume, because he always notices them. Because he notices them, he uses them, and it’s a really special thing to me as a costume designer, when an actor actually says, “Oh, wow. That pocket’s great. I can do this with it,” and they kind of discover their character as you’re discovering your costume. Johnny’s always been one of those people—it’s a comfort for both of us.