Racking up a pair of Oscar nominations in 2018, costume designer Jacqueline Durran may well do the same this year with her work on two remarkably different period dramas: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Sam Mendes’ 1917.
The seventh film adaptation of a classic 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women centers on the March sisters, as they come of age in the wake of the Civil War. For this project, Durran needed to capture the essence of 1860s American fashion, while grappling with Gerwig’s nonlinear storytelling, keeping the sartorial evolution of each sister clear in her mind throughout production.
Meanwhile, on 1917, the costume designer had several substantial challenges to overcome. For the World War I drama, which was meant to unfold as one long take, Durran would have to craft perfectly realistic military attire with an extreme attention to detail, maintaining continuity in support of a rare kind of cinematic illusion. Heading into the 1917 shoot, which occurred between April and July of this year, the costume designer had only 12 weeks of prep to figure all of this out.
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Below, the Oscar winner discusses costuming the pair of critically acclaimed projects, as well as her next film, The Batman, which will bring her into the realm of superheroes for the first time.
DEADLINE: What excited you about the prospect of designing costumes for Little Women?
JACQUELINE DURRAN: I think it was about the subject matter. It’s not so much the basis in the book, funnily enough. I did read the book as a child and I liked it, but it wasn’t something that stayed with me my whole life as an inspiration. But I just thought those fantastic young actresses and Greta Gerwig, and the moment that we are in time, in terms of looking at different female subjects, were such a brilliant combination. I also felt that I’d like to have a go at looking at the Victorian period, through Greta’s lens, so I was excited about that possibility.
I do think that the combination of Greta, and Saoirse Ronan, and Florence Pugh—all of them—they’re inspirational. It’s great to work with inspirational, younger people and see what they bring to it.
DEADLINE: What were the first steps you took on the project? What did you discuss with Greta Gerwig early on?
DURRAN: First, I re-read the book. I didn’t look at any of the previous adaptations; I hadn’t seen them, to be honest. The 1991 one came at an age when I wouldn’t have watched it, so it wasn’t in my world. So, I went back to the book, and I looked at original photographs and paintings, and everything of the date.
We talked about the type of family the March family were—about them being bohemian artists, radical thinkers, intellectuals—and all the background to the Alcott family that fed into the March family, in a slightly overlapping way. Then, Greta came to England, and we went through a lot of visual reference that I’d put together, and found things that chimed for different characters.
We were looking for real Victorian photographs from the period that didn’t necessarily fit the way that we tend to perceive Victorians as being. In fact, there were lots of ways to be a Victorian, but we tend to reproduce the same way, over and over again. So, I think it was looking at people that had different lives at that time, and how that looked, and then trying to extrapolate what the Marches would have been like, from those images.
When you’re taking liberties with things, or trying to change the way something looks, you have to go hand-in-hand with the vision of the film. At the time, you don’t actually know how the film is going to turn out, so you’re imagining and taking a leap of faith, just hoping that you’re all going to stay in line, as you go along.
DEADLINE: Was it challenging to keep all of your designs for the March sisters clear in your mind, given the fact that the film constantly jumps back and forth in time?
DURRAN: Yeah, it was a pretty mind-boggling thing. You sort of needed a big diagram for the linear processes they were all going through, and how those would interconnect in the movie. But then again, I didn’t do it, because as you’d imagine, the edit changes from the script. So, had you done it, you would have not quite hit it.
But it was extremely complicated because what followed sequentially isn’t what followed in the linear form. So, you were always trying to work out whether you were going to be making a bad costume choice, given what it was going to end up next to.
But the gist of it, really, was that I made a child’s wardrobe and an adult’s wardrobe. I tried to have the internal logic of each one, and the connection between the two, so young Jo and old Jo had a direct connection. She starts off with a shorter skirt; she shows her bloomers. She’s less conforming than she is when she’s older. She wears boys’ clothes, her father’s things, men’s shoes, theatrical boots, and she generally is very free in her environment.
Then, when she moves to New York, she feels, as a character, that she would try and become a little bit more proper, but not entirely proper. So, she doesn’t wear a corset. We did experiment with the idea of her having a hooped skirt, which is very much of the period, but we decided it was just too big a leap for the character. We didn’t want to see her changing that much to accommodate her living in New York, so we pulled back on that. It was always about working out the logic of the character—how Saoirse felt about the character, and how she wanted to play it in the two spaces.
Then, each character had a core color. Jo’s core color was red, but because I didn’t want her to wear red all the time, it was always combined with blue. That’s quite a boyish color combination, so that was her theme. Meg’s was green with lavender, Beth’s was brown and pink, and Amy’s was light blue, and the reason they had those colors was, they were the colors of the books that Marmee gave the girls on Christmas morning. So, the whole thing tied in together. I think the color was a thematic thing, and then it was just about that.
Meg wore a corset when she was older some of the time, but not all of the time. Amy wore a corset when she was young, and when she was old, and Beth didn’t wear a corset ever. Each one, I tried to think of as a character. Then, it was almost like putting that character out into the world, and seeing how they interacted. Obviously, they [also] had their Christmas costume, their play costume, their theater costume, their party costume…There was a costume for everything.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your work on 1917? How did you approach the challenge of crafting realistic World War I military attire for the film?
DURRAN: We had a whole wall in our office of pictures, archived photographs from books. We took stills from Peter Jackson’s documentary [They Shall Not Grow Old], and looked at them constantly, through the whole prep period.
We looked for details, and different ways in which people wore a uniform—how they customized it, what they wore with it. Different jobs in the trenches that meant that people wore different things, whether they were waders [boots] or spades, all these different things. There was actually an endless number of details evident in these photographs, so that was our object.
David Crossman, who co-designed it with me, knows so much about uniform, and about the detail and the history of it. Because he’d done the period before, he knew that people generally used World War II helmets for World War I, because there’s less World War I helmets around. He put an original World War I helmet onto a modern head, and worked out that the scale was wrong, because modern heads were bigger than World War I heads. So, we had a helmet which was 100% the size of an original World War 1 helmet. Then, we had 106, 108. We went to extreme detail to try and represent the scale that a period helmet would have on a modern head, really trying to make it as accurate as possible.
DEADLINE: How did the film’s single-take conceit impact your work? I imagine that maintaining continuity became a huge point of focus.
DURRAN: For us, it was a question. The main impact of that was [the necessity of keeping tabs on] miniscule details of continuity. For the two standbys that were on set with the actors the whole time, it was a collaboration with the continuity woman, with everybody, to just get it absolutely pin-accurate. It was just fractional moves all the time.
So, it was a lot of that, and there was an impact on the number of duplicates that you need, because if you have to go back to the beginning of the take every time, you may need to change. It had a huge effect in the amount of work it was, because every day, you’d have everybody out. You’d have the whole run of the trench, the crowd and all those things.
We had breakdown people that were doing mud for the whole shoot. They’d come to set and redo the mud, and they’d be mud matching, knowing which take they were matching to. All of those things were critical, really.
DEADLINE: You’re next taking on The Batman, a film unlike any you’ve worked on before. What excited you about this project>
DURRAN: I think it’s all about new worlds, really. What Matt Reeves’ Gotham is going to look like, and what the world that he’s creating around Batman is going to be, working that out—working out the characters, and the logic of that world—that’s the attraction of it.
It is like a myth, isn’t it? It’s something that just repeats, and you can repeat it, because you can change it—just like Little Women is changing, depending on which era we’re making it.
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