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Costume Designer Jenny Beavan On ‘Cruella’, ‘Furiosa’, Merchant Ivory Memories & Why She May Soon Retire – Production Value

'Cruella' costume designer Jenny Beavan on Production Value

As the costume designer for Disney’s Cruella, Jenny Beavan would have the opportunity to craft dazzlingly inventive designs befitting a world of fashion, and to put her stamp on a classic Disney character. Still, she admits that when she was first approached for the Craig Gillespie film, her initial response was one of “fear, not excitement,” given the fact that she would need to prep the “massive” production in just 10 weeks.

“I did think long and hard about whether I could do it, but one of my great crews was available, and I knew if you had the amazing backup of a great crew, you stood a chance,” Beavan says in the latest installment of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “I just thought, ‘Oh, well. Let’s give it a whirl.’ And so I did.”

Set in London during the 1970s, Cruella serves as an origin story for 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil (Emma Stone), watching as the young, aspiring fashion designer formerly known as Estella comes to embrace her impeccably dressed, villainous alter ego after delving into a world of petty crime. While fashion was never Beavan’s principal interest, she came to the film with a wealth of knowledge as far as looks of the ’70s, having lived through the period herself.

One of the designer’s principal tasks on the project was arcing out the visual evolution of its title character—and here, she closely followed the script. She then tried to work out “the degrees and the levels” of transformation manifest in each scene—first, as Cruella came into her own as a designer, and then as she descended into darkness.

Another principal character giving Beavan a lot to work with in terms of style was The Baroness, the haute couture designer played by Emma Thompson who employs Estella at her fashion house, later coming to realize that she plays a much larger role in the young woman’s story than she could have imagined. “She had to be slightly old-fashioned, even though she was a very good fashion designer. She had to be wonderfully frightening, very slightly heightened,” Beavan explains. “We just found this sort of asymmetric look which became her trademark, and I think people do that. They do tend to find a style that suits them and stick to it.”

One interesting creative challenge on the film came in crafting an assortment of “wacky” designs for Cruella and others that spoke to the heightened world in which they lived. One of the most notable looks, worn by Stone as she makes a dramatic getaway on a dump truck, was a dress with a 40-foot train, patchworked together from countless pieces of fabric of different colors and textures. This dress was described in Dana Fox and Tony McNamara’s screenplay as being part of The Baroness’ 1967 spring collection. “I’m not sure if those lines ended up in the final edit, but it needed to have a look of spring colors, and a lot of those are real dresses in there,” says Beavan, “but they’re obviously not particularly good ones. They’re ones we could find in relatively cheap shops.”

While it’s hard to believe in viewing the film that this piece was brought to life without the use of visual effects and physically dragged from a garbage truck, this was in fact the case. “Totally physical, totally Emma Stone on the back of the dumpster truck, done at two in the morning at the bottom of Regent Street,” shares the designer. “Every time I pass it, I remember how we were all set up down there and it was freezing cold, as it is in London by November or whenever we shot it. It was absolutely done for real.”

Fabricating the dress was Kirsten Fletcher, an “extraordinary” Australian cutter that she’d previously worked with on Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. “She’s brilliant at putting together these massive, crazy pieces. Actually, one came runner up in something called the World of WearableArt in New Zealand, where they do incredible work with clothing that is more like architecture, often, than actual clothes,” Beavan explains. “So, I was blessed with an extraordinary crew of makers, without which I really would have had trouble.”

While “that very sharp, caped coat” that Cruella wears toward the end of the film was one of Beavan’s favorites to design, the “rat costume” crafted for the dog Wink—that Cruella shares with friends and fellow grifters Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser)—was another. “I know it sounds silly,” she says, “but…I think on the whole, I’m just quite pleased with the whole thing…I loved all the bits as we did them because they were such fun moments.”

Beavan is a two-time Oscar winner and 10-time nominee whose first draw was to theater rather than film. She was struck by the magic of the stage at age 10, when her grandfather took her to see Dame Dorothy Tutin in a production of Twelfth Night. “I simply fell in love with the idea of theater, and I really didn’t know much about it. That’s in the ’50s. We didn’t go to the theater very often,” she says. “It was a great treat, and I just knew somewhere along the line I wanted to be part of it.”

Her crash course in theater design came by way of a course at London’s Central School of Art and Design, which had her studying under Ralph Koltai, a set designer who was “absolutely at the peak” of his career. “He used to take us to all the dress rehearsals for opera at Covent Garden and the English National Opera, and the plays he was doing, and he was inspirational,” says Beavan. “I really, really wanted to be a theater set designer. It never occurred to me to be a costume designer, let alone in film. So, that sort of happened by chance, as life takes you on these journeys through people you know.”

Another life-changing opportunity bringing Beavan into the world of costume design for film came when she was introduced to producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory of the famed Merchant Ivory Productions by Nick Young, a friend she’d met in a dance class when she was just three years old. Young got acquainted with Merchant Ivory by way of a “study mate at Westminster School,” coming to work on Melvyn Bragg’s “very influential” ITV arts program The South Bank Show after graduating from Oxford.

In the early days of her theater career, Beavan learned that Young had commissioned a film for the program starring Dame Peggy Ashcroft, which would be made in India for very little money. When Young found himself in need of someone to put together “a wardrobe of clothes for [Ashcroft] to be an eccentric English art collector,” he decided to reach out to Beavan. “At our second meeting, Dame Peggy asked me if I’d go with her because she was a little nervous of going to India on her own,” the designer recalls. “She’d been offered a first-class ticket and would exchange it for two economies if I went with her. So, there I was, a minute later in India, with Dame Peggy Ashcroft, slightly to my surprise.”

It was in Jodhpur that Beavan first connected with Merchant and Ivory—and on this TV movie, titled Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures, she wound up filling a number of roles—”helping collect the crowd, doing props, helping with costumes, looking after Dame Peggy, and acting in it, because they were short of an actress to play a Scottish governess.”

At that point, she says, she “just became part of the Merchant Ivory family. My whole theater career sort of disappeared, and my film career sort of took over, and they asked me to work on all their forthcoming films.” She would design many of these iconic titles—including A Room with a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day—with John Bright, an Oscar winner who would become a major mentor figure for her and remains one of her “best friends” to this day.

One major takeaway from Bright with regard to the craft of costume design had to do with the importance of fighting for authenticity in period projects. “When you’re in the period…it’s really better to be very true to it, because people worry about it less. That’s something I very much notice, particularly with directors who say, ‘Oh, I hate hats. I hate bonnets.’ You know, actually that’s what they wore,” Beavan explains. “When I see people without hats in 1800 films, it worries me, and I think it actually worries people, because it’s just not right…You know, it’s just silly because if you just do it right, nobody even thinks about it. They just believe it.”

Even with all she accomplished early on with Merchant Ivory, and in the decades thereafter, Beavan considers Mad Max: Fury Road to have been her big break as a costume designer. This is particularly notable given the fact that she’d already been working in film for nearly four decades and had secured nine Oscar noms prior to her team-up with George Miller on the 2015 blockbuster. “[Prior to Mad Max], I think the perception was I did nice, English period, bonnets and corsets movies—and suddenly, there I was doing something that was post-apocalyptic and pretty wacky, and extraordinarily stunt-based. So, that, without a doubt, has opened up my career extraordinarily,” she says. “I loved doing my Merchant Ivory films because they were so complete. The script was so good, the actors were so good, and you really got invested in them. But for me, obviously Mad Max was just really out of my comfort zone, and I’m really thrilled I could do it.”

As it happens, Beavan is currently preparing for a return to the world of Mad Max with Furiosa—a prequel to Fury Road, starring Anya Taylor-Joy. “I’m doing [prep] with one assistant here in London, but working with a crew of 60 in Australia,” she shares. “We do it at all hours of the day and night via Zoom and FaceTime, which is challenging, but has become the new normal.”

Between Cruella and Furiosa, Beavan took on three features—including an adaptation of the “lovely Paul Gallico story” Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, the WWII drama White Bird and one telling the story of English poet Alexander Pope—and while there’s no doubt much more within her to express through costumes, she’s truthfully considering at this point whether she wants to continue working as a costume designer. “I get more anxious as I get older and more experienced. I don’t find [the job] easier,” she admits. “I find I get really anxious about whether I’m getting it right, and I’m not entirely sure I need to spend the last few years of my life being anxious.”

Beavan thinks the next chapter of her life may involve teaching, charity work and other pursuits that have “nothing to do with costume or theater or film” or anything of the sort. “I just think there’s something else maybe out there that I could do that’s different, because I’ve had the wonderful luck of working with the top directors and fabulous projects, but it’s not easy. It’s a very tough profession,” she says. “It’s fine when you’re younger and you can sort of bounce off things. But I don’t bounce as much now, both mentally and physically.”

Beavan adds that when she does retire, she will look back most fondly on “the challenge of thinking up ideas and the storytelling aspect” of her work. “I very much enjoy that, and I enjoy working with people…My favorite place is the workroom where I can talk with the makers and we all bounce ideas off each other,” she shares. “I’ve met lovely people and made really good friends. So, there’s lots of good.”

Cruella hit theaters and Disney+ on May 28, spurring the development of a sequel after garnering critical acclaim and grossing over $233 million worldwide. Beavan has thus far been recognized for her work on the film with Critics Choice and HCA Award nominations, among others. Check out our entire conversation with the decorated costume designer above.

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