Chattering Class

Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Makes the Clothes that Make the Movie

Colleen Atwood is among the most celebrated costume designers working today, with a cabinet-full of trophies for her work in film, television, and Broadway. Among those statuettes are a trio of Academy Awards, for "Chicago," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland." This Sunday she may well make it a quartet, as she is nominated for her work on "Into the Woods" (and that would be her 11th Oscar nomination, for those keeping count).

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Rico Gagliano: You’ve almost certainly admired Colleen Atwood’s movie work even if you don’t know her name. Over the last three decades, she’s designed costumes for more than 50 films, most notably many of Tim Burton’s over-the-top, mind-blowing visions, including “Edward Scissorhands” and “Alice in Wonderland.” She’s earned 11 Oscar nominations. She’s won three Oscars, and this weekend she’s up for a fourth for her work on the Stephen Sondheim musical adaptation “Into the Woods.” Colleen, welcome.

Colleen Atwood: Thank you.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s go back to the start of your career, which Wikipedia tells me was back in 1984, with the drama “Firstborn.”

Colleen Atwood: Well, interestingly enough, when I did “Big Eyes” this year, also, the budget I had for “Big Eyes” was the same as I had for “Firstborn.”

Rico Gagliano: What?

Colleen Atwood: And it cracked me up, because I’ve always remembered that number. And I called the producer, who’s still a friend of mine from “Firstborn,” and I said, “Guess what my budget is on my latest film?”

Rico Gagliano: So, indie films like “Big Eyes” basically have the budgets of a 1984 studio film.

Colleen Atwood: Yeah, exactly.

Rico Gagliano: All right, so the budget numbers haven’t changed much since you started, but I wonder in what ways the costuming industry has changed. I know, for instance, visual effects have changed massively since 1984.

Colleen Atwood: Well, technology has changed a lot. The sort of collaboration with the visual effects teams is quite a bit different than it used to be. In “Into the Woods,” we didn’t have a lot of visual effects that were costume-related, other than Meryl’s flying cape and things like that. But in general, I think it’s definitely impacted. A lot of times, I’ve made the costumes, and they’ve just scanned the costume and plugged it in.

Rico Gagliano: So, you design the costumes and then they digitally put them on the actors after the film is shot?

Colleen Atwood: Yeah, in some cases. For instance, when I did the first “Alice in Wonderland,” we had a character that worked the whole time in a blue suit.

Rico Gagliano: The actual actor?

Colleen Atwood: The actor did, but I made the costume for them to scan, because the actor was actually exaggerated in height and stuff, but at least if they had the real costume, they could stretch it out and use it in that way. That made it more real.

Rico Gagliano: Let’s talk about this, actually, kind of real versus heightened reality in costuming. You won an Oscar for the movie “Chicago,” an adaptation of a musical to the screen. Same thing with “Into the Woods.” There’s immediately a kind of artifice to musicals, right, by virtue of people bursting into song every few minutes. How do you work differently costuming a musical as opposed to a more straightforward drama or a comedy?

Colleen Atwood: Well, I think on a movie like “Chicago” where there’s a huge amount of athleticism in the dancing, you have to design costumes that people can actually do 25 takes of something and it doesn’t fly into pieces, but you also want to make it believable, that it’s real clothes they just happen to be dancing in them. So, it’s kind of a fine line depending on the piece. Like, I also did “Sweeney Todd” years ago, another Sondheim musical, which is really set in an environment, in a, you know, a Victorian environment, and the clothes were really realistic costumes for that film.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah. Based on an era, yeah.

The ugly stepsisters, in beautiful clothes designed by Colleen Atwood. From the Oscar-nominated “Into the Woods.”

Colleen Atwood: Yeah. Whereas “Into the Woods” was a combination of a lot of different eras combined, so it was a trickier thing from a design point of view for me to get a beat on.

Rico Gagliano: You also costumed very realistic movies like “Silence of the Lambs” and, you know, I’ve noticed that movies that seem to win costuming Oscars are the ones with spectacular period costumes or fantastical costumes. But I imagine it’s actually far harder to make a costume that has to sort of not catch your eye. Is that true, would you say?

Colleen Atwood: I think that’s… No, I don’t think that’s true. I mean, you know, that theory’s floating around out there. I think it’s equally difficult. The important thing for both is that you aren’t distracted by it and it’s telling the story. In “Silence of the Lambs,” the costumes were totally realistic, although they were all dipped in kind of a green dye to tweak the color of them.

Rico Gagliano: All of the costumes?

Colleen Atwood: Almost all the costumes in the movie, yeah, kind of have a tinge of green to them. It sets a mood for it. It’s a very grayed-out green but it dirties it up in a way that added a bleakness to the film. It kind of helped sell it a lot, I think.

Rico Gagliano: Was there maybe a time in looking back on some of your costumes where you’re like, “That was too much. I went too far.” That scene now becomes about my costume and not about the movie?

Colleen Atwood: When I first see the movie, I have those feelings. You know, it’s like, “Oh, why did I do that?” Oh, it’s like that. “Why did I use that color?” I really question myself a lot the first few times I look at the movie. Cut to five years later, I can look at it and go, “Oh, well, that’s a fun movie. I really like that.” I’m not thinking about it.

Rico Gagliano: Instead of, “Oh, that stitch was bursting.”

Colleen Atwood: I was like, “Why didn’t they have that button closed on the costume?” Yeah. You know, just like minutiae.

Rico Gagliano: What is your favorite era to design costumes for? I noticed that you worked on the Hunter Thompson movie “The Rum Diary,” which is set in the ’50s and ’60s. I actually remember really envying Johnny Depp’s outfits in that movie.

Colleen Atwood: I love that era. I think it’s really… I’m kind of a minimalist on a personal note, in my life.

Rico Gagliano: That is ironic.

Colleen Atwood: I know. Well, when you look at all that stuff every day, you have to go home to a… For me, understanding negative space is really important. And I think that era really is great for that.

Rico Gagliano: The ’50s and ’60s?

Colleen Atwood: Yeah, it’s so simple and clean. But I love kind of the patina of the ’20s a lot, in America especially. It fascinates me from a design point of view, because so much modern design was going on, but at the same time, we were just stepping out of the Edwardian period. So, it’s quite a complicated period but really, really interesting to me.

Rico Gagliano: The most difficult costume you ever designed?

Colleen Atwood: Well, I just did a second “Alice in Wonderland” that hasn’t come out yet, but I had a really complicated costume on Sacha Baron Cohen, who’s a very, kind of, physical actor. So, I was trying to do this huge scale costume on him, but have it still work in a way with his physical language. We really feel like we did get it right, but I haven’t seen the movie yet so I’m not sure.

One of Colleen Atwood’s costume-confections, adorning Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods.” Both are up for an Oscar Sunday night.

Rico Gagliano: You’ll be going through that period where you’re like, “Oh, that Sacha Baron Cohen costume.”

Colleen Atwood: Going, “Ooh, I don’t know if that was good.”

Rico Gagliano: And finally, is there more pressure on you than on others to wear something amazing to the Oscars?

Colleen Atwood: Well, there’s probably not as much pressure on me as the Best Actress nominees but, you know, in the technical categories for sure. And the hitch in the giddy-up is that my workroom is so busy that I mention the Oscar dress and they kind of glare at me. So, a lot of times I end up just buying one and kind of remodeling it.

Rico Gagliano: You have an entire crew of people that make dresses all year long, and they’re just like, “I’m not making you another damn dress.”

Colleen Atwood: They’re just like, “Really? You want us to do that now?”