By Junsui Films | January 2012
Costume Designer, Wendy Chuck talks exclusively to Junsui Films about her rise through the industry, her creative partnership with long time collaborator
Alexander Payne and tells us all about her work on THE DESCENDANTS…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your fashion background and your progression into film costume design.
Wendy Chuck: My first job was in the Queensland theatre company in an entry-level position. Fortunately I found myself in good company as Geoffrey Rush was also in the company.
From there I worked in the ballet and light opera, eventually landing in Sydney as a cutter fitter with the Australian opera. After that I put in seven productive years as a cutter fitter with ABC TV, ending my tenure there as a fully fledged designer.
After another seven years in London working with the Museum of the Moving Image and getting familiar with the rental houses and building a client base making couture, I moved to New York. When I first came to the States I worked in a friend’s fashion business, in the heart of the garment district, but I knew moving to LA was the obvious choice if I wanted to continue to work in costume. I was lucky to meet with Alexander Payne three months after I arrived.
JF: You worked as a costume cutter and assistant (to the costume designer) on Jane Campion’s The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady. Tell us about those experiences and how they helped your development as a costume designer.
Firstly, thank-you for being aware of my work on these films! Costume designer, mentor and friend Janet Patterson hired me on both films. We shared seven years working together in Sydney for ABC TV when they made a lot more period films for TV. In those days we had a whole department set up to make everything; suits, hats, accessories, handbags. It was an enormous learning curve for me and Janet really took me under her wing for which I am eternally grateful. I was already aware of her level of detail and quality of her work as well as her kindness, all of which set a great example for me.
The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady are a costume designers dream in that you get to really research and re-invent things. For The Piano we shopped in New York and London, eventually setting up shop in Auckland and creating those wonderful clothes there. We tried to keep it as authentic as possible making the crinolines and corsets from scratch. I made Flora’s (Anna Paquin’s) almost completely by hand.
We prepped The Portrait of a Woman in London but had also shopped fabric and trim in New York. Most of the builds were made at Cosprop and we had the luxury of having fabrics custom trimmed. I had the enviable task of wrangling all the jewellery and small hand-props; fans, handbags, umbrellas, some rented, some bought and saw the job from prep to wrap.
For that period there are lots of “bits” and I was given the task of overseeing all the fittings and pulling together the looks for all the big crowd scenes. By bits I mean shoes, stockings, garters, corset, corset cover, petticoat, bustle, earrings, rings, fans, head ornamentation. It really was one of the best jobs ever.
So, from these experiences I took away with me the value of organisation, the way a department works together when filming in distant locations and advance prep. Ways and methods of keeping inventory, so much more than I even realise.
JF: Tell us a little bit about your creative process, starting from when you first commit to a project.
By the time I have been hired on a job I will have done a rough script breakdown giving me a pretty broad scope of the size and needs of the job and if I feel I can pull it off. If it’s a new director I will have already done some basic research before even meeting.
Sometimes I dive in head first with research, sometimes I will just let things sit with me. Sometimes I have ‘designers block’ and will need actor and director input.
Next, I will have (or do myself) a realistic breakdown of the script that tells me how many changes, number of characters and the scene by scene storyline. If I haven’t met with the director by now then this is the time. More research and more and more these days, mood boards or character boards and a studio show and tell. Then it’s time to get to the budget.
It also depends a lot on the material and if it’s new genre or characters to me. Sometimes I’ll bring on a sketch artist to get things flowing. I like to feel clothes so it’s important for me to get samples and fabrics before we start fittings. Of course, every job is different but this is roughly how it goes.
JF: You were the costume designer on the first Twilight film. How did you approach the styling of such an established franchise? Were you at all conscious just how massive the series was going to be?
I was aware when I started the research and as soon as I got the script. That alone astonished me. I knew it was going to be big and from that moment it just got bigger. However, in order to keep doing what I do I had to push that to the side and keep my eyes down. It was a tough prep and we were trying to make the best of it day to day.
I approached it like any other job. Read the script and presented ideas. The studio and Catherine Hardwicke [director] seemed to like my ideas so I was hired. I started with a sketch artist for a couple of weeks and from then it was crazy shopping and fitting. I only built a couple of items but they have subsequently become iconic. What shocked me were the requests I had for the clothes. Who wore what label? Where could they find such and such? Fans interest in this sort of thing had me baffled.
JF: Let’s talk The Descendants. You’re a frequent collaborator with director Alexander Payne. How did that creative relationship come about and how involved is Alexander in the costume process?
Alexander hired me three months after I moved to LA in what has become a real stroke of luck for me. I had been sending out resumes and had a response from another designer in the BAFTA directory that a friend had given me. That led me to an official meeting after I read the script for Election. He told me he hired me “because you have the eyes of an outsider in the American culture”. When I first arrived in Omaha to prep Election Alexander took me shopping and showed me a couple of important locations in his hometown. I often go on scouts with him and Jane (Ann Stewart) [production designer] where we seek the authenticity of the story we are working on.
For Sideways we went to various vineyards and restaurants; believe it or not, that was important to the story to see how people were dressing. Alexander loves what people wear to their auditions and he will want me to look at the audition footage. In all his stories he has been seeking authenticity so I observe and research often banal and obvious people.
Ultimately, he’s involved and has the final say but we work very organically together. Sometimes he will make suggestions or if he’s out of his depth will say, “If you can show me an example of someone wearing that and it looks right then it’s ok”. He trusts me and in our industry that is a gift.
JF: How influenced by Kaui Hart Hemmings’ source novel were you when deciding on the film’s costume choices?
Well, all the information from Kaui’s novel was in the story already but I really had to go to Hawaii and prep to realise it. I had only visited Hawaii a couple of days before I left for my full prep there so it was with fresh eyes that I arrived. Alexander had already absorbed the culture and made some suggestions of places to go and watch people and I went on one of the scouts to Kauai which was really informative. Once I felt familiar with the look the choices were pretty easy.
JF: Like with Alexander’s previous film Sideways, The Descendants focuses on very real, very flawed characters, none more so than George Clooney who fearlessly shed his A-List persona for the role of Matt King. How challenging was it styling one of the world’s biggest movie stars into a regular guy?
My biggest fear before George arrived was that I would have to work hard at convincing him how important it was to embrace these clothes. Alexander assured me he had already had that conversation with George and it was cool. George’s fitting was one of the easiest and fun ones I’ve ever experienced. He loved getting into the Matt King character and seemed to embrace him as soon as those ill fitting pants went on! It was important to get the shoes right too, as he had some serious running to do. We landed on everything in the first fitting and I placed things where I thought were most supporting to the story and tone of the scene. The only drawback was my crew were sorry I didn’t keep him around longer.
JF: You’ve worked with some of the industry’s most famous actors from Jack Nicholson to Robert Pattinson. Who has been your favourite artist to style and dress?
Mmmm, I’d have to say it’s 50/50 split between George Clooney and Jack Nicholson.
JF: And finally, what can you tell us about the upcoming film, Neighbourhood Watch?
It’s going to be a great laugh with four incredibly funny guys, Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughan and Richard Ayoade wearing really cool jackets!