Jenny Beavan has done it all in her lengthy career, costuming musicals, period dramas, plays and winning an Oscar for A Room With A View. But Mad Max: Fury Road was an entirely new experience. It was the challenge of working on a tentpole directed by George Miller that attracted Beavan, who scored her 10th career Oscar nomination and already won the BAFTA for her work on the massive spectacle of a film that created a world all its own. She discusses taking on new challenges, her gypsy-like nature, and the Internet sensation that was Coma-Doof Warrior.
Your nomination for Mad Max marks your 10th go-round at the Oscars. How are you feeling about the experience this time?
It’s always exciting. I’m not so cynical—this is particularly thrilling because I was doing something that was very different from what is perceived of what I normally do. The opportunity to do it was amazing, but then to be recognized was just really thrilling. I’ll be honest. I was thrilled.
In past interviews, you’ve said that your attraction to projects stems usually from characters and their unique problems, rather than from a certain visual reaction, but I’d imagine the visual spectacle of it all must have been something of a draw to Mad Max.
Absolutely. I’ve always thought I’d love the idea of doing something futuristic— space age—and I love the deep past as well, but this is almost the perfect vehicle because it’s such an extraordinary vision out of George’s head. It’s not like the big Marvel or these great superhero things, which I think are somewhat prescriptive of what a costume designer can do. And I’ll say, George has very strong ideas and he’s worked from this graphic novel with Brendan McCarthy, and it was still a real opportunity to do something completely off the wall. It was a particularly brilliant opportunity for someone like me who was looking for a new route, a new world, really.
You’ve worked with some of the greatest directors, living or otherwise. How would you describe the experience of working with George Miller?
What I love about all the directors that I’ve have had the privilege of working with is that they’re all so terribly different. George can’t always articulate first time around, it takes time and I wouldn’t say it was the easiest process always, but there’s such a warmth in him and such a reality.
There’s something about him—you desperately want to please him. He stands there, looking at you through his owl specs with a lovely style and his gorgeous hair, in the middle of the desert, wearing the same leather jacket he’s worn every day. There’s no fight to him. There’s no grandeur. There’s just this extraordinary brain ticking away—you can see him looking at things, and sometimes this little smile comes.
The production of this movie has been somewhat infamous, discussed widely for its intensity.
I’m a bit of a gypsy, and that was the reason Iain Smith, our line producer, who I’d worked with on Alexander, thought I might get on with George when they were looking for a costume designer. I will say that Namibia is probably one of the most beautiful countries on earth. It’s an extraordinary and interesting place to be. It’s not that hot— on the coast, you get interesting current mixes and it can be really cold and damp. It’s a real old mix, and that of course meets the desert.
But I had a great crew. I was really happy to go to work every morning. I had a minor problem with a trapped nerve in my shoulder, which actually did holler some of the time, but they have great hospitals there and fantastic old pharmative practitioners. And in and out it went. God knows whose manipulations or aromatherapists or holistic whatevers did it, but it did go, though that didn’t make the first bit easier. But I must say I would never ever have not wanted to do it, although it was lovely to come home in the end. It was tough; lonely and tough.
Every film that you design is a world unto itself, but you got to do some extraordinary world building with Mad Max, which applies as much to the costuming as to any other facet of the design.
We were aware of the previous designs [in the franchise]. Tom [Hardy]’s costume, the underneath bit of it, is Mel Gibson with a different T-shirt, but everything that went on top was to do with Tom and his feelings about where his Max may have come from. George always said, “It’s not the fourth Max— it’s another Max.” I changed lots of things, and I think we got it away from what I would call the look of the Road Warrior. We went to a grittier place, which was great.
You rightly say that with each film, you’re creating a world, and this was simply a very different world, and by doing that in Namibia with a local crew of a lot of Namibians, a lot of diversity…Heavens, they were all Namibians, they’re all black and very talented organic leather makers, and what have you. I think it’s our costumes, that organic look, we would’ve really struggled to do in England or in Australia where you just have more film-savvy makers, but you wouldn’t have got some of the weird and wonderful things.
The only tragic thing for the Namibians was the distressing of costumes: we’d work from brand new army boots, because obviously the stuntmen had to wear something solid on their feet, and then you’d see them grating them and scratching them and burning them, and almost weeping, because to them, it was a brand new pair of boots, and we were just wrecking them.
What do you make of the huge fan enthusiasm on the internet for the Coma-Doof Warrior, the flame-throwing guitar player who is stationed on one of the war vehicles?
I was very surprised. My tragedy with that is that underneath that costume is the most fantastic Australian cabaret artist called iOTA and you don’t even see his face, and he’s such an amazing man and a brilliant painter, artist and musician, and there he is, wearing this ridiculous red onesie and this extraordinary mask.
As a costume designer, you have an intimate and unique collaboration with actors. How did the actors on Mad Max contribute to the costuming process?
I started with Tom—I went over to his house, and he was very, very interested in the whole business of how war affects soldiers in Afghanistan, and he’d been working with soldiers with traumas, and he got very interested in all the kit and was incredibly knowledgeable about all these bits of equipment. So we created the whole look for Max at the beginning.
And then Charlize [Theron]—if you’re going to wear a prosthetic arm and it’s on a harness, you need a very firm base for that. It wasn’t purely about women in corsets and comic strips, it’s actually that you need something pretty strong, and obviously you’ve got to have a lot of freedom to get that on and off. Half of it, George wanted incredibly simple and the other half was that just because they’re in the wasteland, things didn’t have to not be beautiful.
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