An Oscar-nominated costume designer known for collaborations with Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Richard Curtis, Joanna Johnston this year realized her ninth collaboration with Robert Zemeckis, with the thrilling, romantic actioner, Allied. A timeless film of old Hollywood appeal, Allied tells a tale of love and deceit set against a gorgeous intercontinental backdrop. Speaking with Deadline, Johnston shares her admiration of Zemeckis and his innovative drive, which has persisted since their first collaboration on 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Bearing in mind that Robert Zemeckis is one of your longest-standing collaborators, what was it that grabbed you about Allied?
Well, Bob. It’s very easy. I think all his work is very appealing, and the story. It was very simple. I loved the story. It was very fresh.
What unfolded in your early conversations about the film?
He hasn’t done anything this early in a live-action film, so he just said, “Let’s make it look good,” and then I propositioned that we give it this quite glossy look, as regards to clothes, primarily because the two lead actors, I thought the idea of a polished, glossy look would work particularly well with them, because they’re so good looking already. Trying to go up to their level, both of them. That was the start of it, really.
Every part of the film, from the costumes to the casting, has an elegant, timeless quality to it. Did you look to certain classic films of the period for inspiration?
That’s good. That’s sort of what I wanted. It’s got the old fashioned quality, but it’s got a modernity to it which is appealing today. I slightly tailored it into those two aspects. We were on funny times at the moment, and I like the idea of something which was a bit escapism, as the Second World War. The films made in Hollywood, particularly in Hollywood over that time, they gave that sense of a time away from everything else. You get lost into another world.
I think they did make them more lovely and more glossy, and the stars at the time were revered to a point where everything was just so beautiful about them. Wasn’t it? The big stars of the day… It’s so classic. Cary Grant and his looks were always that finessed, tailored perfection in his attire. Robert Taylor, all those guys—the grooming on their hair, everything.
At this point in your career, do you still go through a thorough research process when approaching a project?
Yes, the Imperial War Museum, I work with on all my war films. War Horse, Valkyrie, Saving Private Ryan… They are one of my favorite sources of research on anything militarily. I knew a good deal about London during the war, but I did not know about North Africa at all, so that was quite a lot of learning of what was going on there. I also didn’t know about French style during the war, and what the French fashion plates were doing. [Pitt and Cotillard], at the beginning, are pretending to be a French couple…
You never know, not even half a film, even if you think you do, because there’s always geographical, social specifics which you’ve got to delve into and research. I love research and I looked at the Hollywood stuff, as well, and I hadn’t done that really, either. It’s lovely to research actually, this show, because it was very diverse, all the different aspects. Very, very diverse.
The film has a strong sense of place, and sections of the film are broken down across continents. I’d imagine that presented its share of challenges.
You’re absolutely right. Yes, it was challenging because we were very rarely in the country that the story is telling you you’re meant to be. The only place we were in which was right was London for London. When we were on the streets, like Hampstead. That actually was Hampstead. I can’t say that we were in any other place. We were never in France. We were never in Morocco.
You’ve got to sell it with the costumes, but actually, probably more importantly, it’s the faces. With the extras, we have to get a lot of Moroccan faces in London, and also we shot in the Canary Islands, so we had to sell Morocco in the Canary Islands as well. Whether you slightly over-egg it or not, I don’t know, but you’ve got to convince the audience that’s where you are. Whatever that takes.
What materials were used in crafting your costumes? Were they all created from scratch?
On this film, pretty much built all the principle characters, to give it whatever the look is that it might have. You’re also buying and sourcing and looking at original things for reference, or detail, or cut or cloth. We looked at a lot of original uniforms for the Royal Canadian Air Force uniform that Max wears. Actually, we started with some original uniforms from the date, because they last quite well there. They’re quite a heavy cloth.
With Brad Pitt, we put on some original tunics for him. It’s helpful, I think, for the actor to see what the origins were with something like that. But it’s all kinds of different things that you’re doing all at the same time, buying fabrics, making patterns, looking at original things. Photographic reference.
The colors in the costumes shift seem to shift from light to dark as the plot thickens. What was the idea there?
It is for her. Yes, and also for him to a degree, but when we go to London, Max is Max. When you go to London, Marianne is not Marianne still. She takes a mantle of what she’s pertaining to be. In Casablanca, she’s a chic, stylish French woman, living in a hot country. The design is very clean. It’s very smooth. It’s graphic. When she goes to London, it’s cool as well, and it’s primarily cool in color. When she goes to London, she goes, as you say, darker. She goes into wools. She’s more hairy in the cloth. Her patterns are more muddled and there’s slightly less definition to her. It’s subtle, but you picked it up, so you did really well.
What was the process of working with the leads on Allied?
They were fantastically collaborative, very professional, very interested in the design. It involves a lot of sittings for both of them, when you’re making so much stuff. I understand the toil that that takes on an actor, because they have to come and stand with me, particularly Marion, because she had so many different diverse pieces. It’s hard when you’re tired and you’ve got a whole lot of other lines to learn, and shooting hours to shoot. They both were doing a film right up until we started shooting our film. You’re juggling time with them, so you’re often doing fittings in the middle of the night. The first time I met Marion, it was like ten o’clock at night.
Having worked with Zemeckis for so long, what is it that stands out about him, in relation to your craft?
First of all, I have to say, I think I’ve been really lucky. Bob has got a remarkably clever head on his shoulders, and he loves the technology and always has. Like when we did Forrest Gump, he was totally breaking new ground. Every film, Roger Rabbit, all of those… He’s always breaking new ground. He never makes it easy on himself. He always gives himself quite a complicated scenario, but I suppose that’s just how he functions.
This one is this old-fashioned way, which is it was a studio film made primarily in the studios, but he had all the new technology, with Kevin Baillie, who does his visual effects now. They’re these guys with this incredible toolbox of extraordinary abilities now. Every film I do with Bob, the bar has gone higher and higher as to what he can do. Some of the complications of the shots in this film are staggering.
I think he’s got his own singular way of not only being a great storyteller, but having all these other aspects to the filmmaking. He has them in the front of his head from the outset, it seems to me. I don’t know, you’d have to ask him, really, because I can’t really speak for him, but he’s just clever.
It certainly is complicated—Brad and Marion turning over tables and shooting up the room, bombs going off and hospital beds being wheeled through the streets. Do you think about imbuing your costumes with a certain practicality to work in concert with these complex maneuvers?
Yes, always on any outset of any scene, you have to look at all the arcs and curves and the practicalities of what they go through. They’re going through rain, they’re going through a dusty Moroccan street, they’re running, they’re jumping, they’ve got debris falling. You’ve got to be aware in the design process of everything that’s got to happen, so therefore you give the actor what they need, you give the director what he needs, and then you make enough repeats of what you need so the production have got what they want, in regards to stunts, or wet, or whatever it is, as well as doing the design you want it to be.
It’s a sort of multiple platform process, as you say, with some of these scenes. Not all of them, but there were quite a few on this.