UPDATED on January 8th at 12:30 PM with clarifications.
Courtney Hoffman is rapidly becoming one of the most well-known and respected costume designers in Hollywood for her star-making work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, as well as on such well-regarded indies as Palo Alto. Previously collaborating with Tarantino on Django Unchained, as one of several costumers working under costume designer Sharen Davis (The 5th Wave, Get On Up), Hoffman has found a fruitful collaborative relationship with the auteur and had a lot of fun tinkering with western archetypes on Tarantino’s latest. Here, Hoffman discusses her transition to Tarantino’s official costume designer, her love of the western genre, her collaboration with the hair and makeup artists on set, and her upcoming work on films by Matt Ross and Edgar Wright.
You did some costume work on Django Unchained, but The Hateful Eight is your first Tarantino film where you handled all costumes yourself. How would you characterize that transition?
I think one of the biggest strengths of that transition was that I was first-hand witnessing the needs of the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie. I witnessed his enthusiasm. I witnessed his deep care and love for his crew, his attention to detail, his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants improvisation. And from there I really felt armed with the knowledge of the needs of the film. On Django, we also did a snow unit so I had a taste of the terror that was ahead of us, in that degree.
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It was a really wonderful opportunity to come back into a family because, really, Quentin creates a family, and I had the opportunity to prove myself in a new way. In the same way that Quentin’s actors benefit from the fact that he doesn’t choose the biggest star—he’s not choosing the movie star of the moment, he’s choosing the person that’s right for that role—he does that with his department heads as well. I think Yohei (Taneda, production designer) would agree with me, that being given that opportunity and having that shot, everyone does their best. You look at (Walton) Goggins’ performance, and that man is through and through a movie star. But had it not been for Quentin taking him from television, he might not have that life that he will have now. So I think we all benefit from the fact that Quentin uses his power to really look for the people that he believes in, and not just pick the people that might be obvious.
What were your early conversations with Quentin like regarding the costume design?
It starts with a script. Quentin gives us a wealth of information. It’s a trail of breadcrumbs, drops of different places that these characters have been, that they’re coming from. Whether it’s actual descriptions, like he’s wearing a cavalry coat and has a Lee Van Cleef vibe, or facial hair, and starting with the script, it’s about really knowing every prop that comes out of every pocket or every tiny reference… Whether it’s Oswaldo in a three-piece gray suit—he’s like an English fop, he’s a little man—or Joe Gage, who’s a tough cowpuncher—whatever it is we’re getting from that script.
Starting from there and working from that imagery, I then start to work with actual imagery—whether it’s research or filmic references—to have a touching point of “Yes, no, yes, no.” My fitting room is all set up like Minnie’s— it’s a white snowy backdrop with furs and antlers. I try and create the world as much as I can. And then I had mannequins. So it was like, here’s four versions of this character, here’s two versions of that… Obviously, filmic references were the main part—spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and ’70s. From there we get the actors and it becomes alive. So as much as I execute what we’ve agreed upon, I also always have a stash of wild cards, because we just as easily could say, “You know what, let’s try a white hat, let’s try a top hat.” It’s really fun. Quentin is in every fitting, which is a very rare thing to have. And it really enhances that experience because I am there to facilitate the moment when that actor becomes a character. And the creator of that character is there to manage and direct the entire experience. You get answers and you know right away what does and doesn’t work. Sometimes maybe we’re stumped for a couple of days, but overall it’s a very hands-on process. (Quentin) has a lot of opinions. He brings such magnificent ideas to the table. He always takes things to the next level and he likes to say that he drags us kicking and screaming into greatness.
Are you a fan of the western genre?
Actually, like two months ago, I was flown to Colorado to be on a panel about westerns. My first film I designed was a western. And I was literally in New Mexico on the plains, by Georgia O’Keefe’s ranch, dirtying up a cowboy when I got the call to go work on Django. It was such a serendipitous thing because I had already started immersing myself in the genre. And I would say I have now lived in the 1800s for three or four years and I’m loving it. I’m like “Captain Pioneer Woman.” It’s such a wonderful genre because there’s a set language and within that language you build new sentences, and that’s a really exciting thing to be able to do. To work within a framework, especially on a film like Hateful Eight, it’s basically setting up the western archetypes—the bounty hunter, the sheriff, the prisoner, the damsel in distress.
And then from there, you’re breaking and recreating them and playing with the things people are going to rely on seeing. The best parts about the design, that we didn’t even intentionally set out to do, are two things. The first is that it feels like each of the characters has just come out of their own western, so they almost aren’t all in the same world but they look like they’re part of this new universe, which was the success of Quentin’s aesthetic. The second was that it starts as a spaghetti western, aesthetically, and it ends like a Peckinpah movie. By the time you end it, it’s like that last scene in The Wild Bunch. And the two of them are gritty and bloody and real and sweating. And you feel it, and you feel the pain. That was a really organic discovery.
What are your responsibilities as a costume designer on set? It would seem like a lot of your work is done before shooting the first frame.
Yeah, absolutely. God bless Quentin for always keeping us on our feet. As much as you would think the set would be in and then you’d just go on vacation, he finds a way to make you sweat for every single day of that shoot. The cool thing about it was that I was able to be a positive presence for the actors. I’m the first person they see in the day and the last person they see at night, and I did whatever I could to help those actors facilitate being those characters, whether it was helping Jennifer Jason Leigh into her corset in the morning, or just overseeing things as whole, trying to find a new type of electric warmer to keep these actors warm. We were running around all the time.
And then when you get to blood… I knew that Quentin agreed on, say, 10 multiples (of the costumes): “We’re going to do it eight times.” I knew that was going to go out the window. The Chris Mannix/Oswaldo shoot-out we did 16 times, and I had eight coats for each of them. That means we’re hand-washing it between takes—we’re scrubbing them. We’re frantically blow-drying and we’re helping them tape new fabric in. It’s amazing that those moments are so quick because if they were any longer, it would be really ghetto and really improvised. But that’s the fun of his sets, is that we all work together. It doesn’t matter what your position is, we’re all in the trenches, we’re all on the front line and we’re all working towards winning this war.
What was it like working with the hair and makeup heads on this film?
Unlike most movies, where the costume designer might have more of a dictation over that, here, all of us work from the understanding that this is Quentin’s vision. Quentin is the one that’s giving the direct orders to hair and makeup. But that being said, when it comes to ways that we can work together, we’re always in communication. There is a thing where Quentin will tell each of us something that the other person needs to know. Without us communicating with each other, we might not get to know. We’re pretty much always like a little underground railroad—“I heard this. I heard he’s going to kill Smithers this way.” It’s almost funny. We all ended up sitting together almost every day, piecing together little bits of information. And it’s really cute, because we all want his vision to come together.
Was your interaction with the makeup and hair team more extensive than it might be on other films, given the extensive bloodshed involved?
Oh yeah. The number of days that you had my costumers on the bottom half of an actor and hair and makeup people on the top half of the actor—it was like a carwash. And let me tell you, Quentin is a-waiting on that car. He has the keys and he’s just tapping his foot. It’s a group effort, and the nicest thing about his movies is, if there’s blood on the floor and you’re a grip, and you don’t have to do anything in that moment, you’re on the floor cleaning the blood off, to help the set decorators. We all work together, and that’s a very rare thing.
At a screening of the film, someone mentioned that Michael Madsen’s character, Joe Gage, is a dead ringer for John Wayne. Was that intentional?
Actually, that wasn’t a direct reference, but it’s funny that you say that because me and Quentin really wanted Joe Gage to look like he had just been opened out of a toy box, and was just a doll of a cowboy. And let’s be honest: If you look at John Wayne, he’s a doll of a cowboy. His clothes are always so perfect, the fit of them. So I can totally see that. In terms of performance, I think John Ruth feels more like John Wayne in some ways. But aesthetically, of course, I get that vibe. Also, if you look at The Searchers, you’re like, “Did anyone really wear that red and that blue, like, really? Was any guy in the 1800s really wearing that, or is that just the ’50’s ideal of a western?” I think there’s that aspect of it.
Up next, you have Captain Fantastic, which just got accepted into Sundance, and Edgar Wright’s next feature, Baby Driver. What do we have to look forward to with those?
Yes, tomorrow I ship out to do Baby Driver. It’s definitely a fruitful year. With Captain Fantastic, (writer-director) Matt Ross is such a visionary. It’s Viggo Mortensen raising his seven kids in the forest of Washington, and after there’s a death in the family, they basically have to reenter society. From a costume perspective it was such a dream job. I was in Washington and New Mexico for it when I was preparing my interview for The Hateful Eight. So I was also in this perfect western setting where I was collecting books and furs and antiques to fill the interview and the office once I got the job. It was really a serendipitous one-two punch, going from that movie to this. With Baby Driver, I couldn’t ask for a better director to follow up Quentin with. Edgar is such a wonderful person and such a visionary. It’s contemporary but I think we’re going to be able to do some really fun things. And I look forward to trying to nail the Edgar Wright universe as much as it was exciting to nail the Tarantino universe.
To see a featurette on the costume design of The Hateful Eight, click play below:
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