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So I went to Switzerland to do a fitting with her and you walk into this house and you're in Sofia Lauren's living room but you feel like you're at home. There's a level of comfort there. The same thing with with Charlton Heston when I went to his house, it felt like yeah, come on in, you know, there was no security. It was just like you walk in, you sort of do the thing and you go,.
yes, that is today's quadruple Oscar winning guest Colleen Atwood telling me of her experience working with Sofia Lorin. In today's episode, we discussed Collins inspirational story of getting into the film business, while being a young mother, how she designed the famous Hannibal Lecter mask in Silence of the Lambs. Her experiences working with Tim Burton and Michael Mann, what it's like to stand on stage at the Oscars, and so much more. Let's get started. Hello, and welcome to Red Carpet rookies. My name is Mike battle, a film crew member turned screenwriter working in London. Each episode I bring you life lessons and stories from the people behind your favourite movies and shows to help demystify the business for aspiring filmmakers and fans alike. Thanks for joining me. Let's get started. Today's guest is one of the most accomplished costume designers in the world today. Starting out on features including Michael Mann's man hunter, she has since travelled the world designing 10s of our most beloved films, including The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and the fantastic beast series. Most notable about her career though, is her long standing relationships with directors Tim Burton and Rob Marshall, which produced the likes of Edward Scissorhands, Chicago, Alice in Wonderland Dumbo Memoirs of a Geisha, and next year Disney's live action Little Mermaid. On that journey, she picked up four Oscars and three BAFTA wins, making her one of the most decorated people we've ever had on the show. Our guest is Colleen Atwood, how're you doing today? Good. Thank you. Now Callie and I asked each one of my guests the same first question, and that is what did your parents do? And how did it affect your career choices if at all.
My mother was a school teacher, she taught history and elementary and then high school and my father was a farmer. My father was a very literary farmer, he was a romantic. So my father's would read me the most like I one of my biggest memories of my father is he would read me, like you read me Moby Dick when I was probably like, six. And I couldn't wait for the next night for the next chapter. So he introduced me to storytelling in a way that you know, where I grew up, we weren't allowed to have a TV until I was out of the house. Literally, my parents were really conservative about television, which made me really go sneak around to the neighbours and watch it because my mother was so like, the educator, you have to read, you have to do things outdoors, you have to do these things, and you can't sit around and watch TV. So I think both of those things made me want things more that I didn't have. And I think the fact that I grew up in such a, you know, was very stressed in my family because I think especially on my mother's side Irish immigrants first generation with an IT college education was very important in America and that that it still is but it at that time, it was a big deal to have a degree. And of course I didn't get one so I'm like my sisters, both Matt my sisters both have doctorate degrees. When I'm like, I'm I always say I'm the dumb one in the family.
Lovely stuff. Now your parents weren't the only people that you learned from though was it? Could you talk a little bit about what you learned from Grandma Rose and grandma Rogers Colleen?
Yes, my my grandmother's were very different. My my grandmother Rogers had grown up in you know, finishing schools and she had that kind of sort of polish to her. She was from a wealthier family on the east coast. So she grew up in Maine, Massachusetts in New York, so she had an amazing eye she had incredible style. She lived on a ranch by the time I knew her, but she and her husband both had all their clothes custom made like Gabbard Dean shirts and trousers, like you die for today. I mean, really great stuff and, and if she dressed up it was with amazing style and everything she did from her garden, to her house to everything was was extremely different than anybody else that I knew in my world. It was a next level kind of thing. My grandmother Rose was next level in a different way in the sense that she had a garden too, but she actually lived off her garden. It was amazing, beautiful, you know, fruit and you go and can the fruit and you know the whole process of of that it was a different, totally different lifestyle. And she taught me how to darn and how to sew and those kinds of things that were so ingrained in her approach. thinking of making things last longer stuff. But you know, it's really a great skill set to have to know how to iron. So dharnas sock make things, you know, because even in movies, you get new stuff, but sometimes you have to make them look like they've been darned. So you just, it's just a good skill to have. So they both enriched my life in that way, that I had a working mother who didn't do that kind of stuff. It wasn't her thing. So so it was really great to have those two grandmothers in my life.
I guess you started learning a few bits on what would really help you later on in your costume career from your grandmother's there. Yeah, but you must have felt quite far away from Hollywood, you know, in Washington.
I mean, Hollywood wasn't even in my radar in Washington, but, but I do think I did love movies. And I used to sneak to the movies and just be, you know, the Pit and the Pendulum to GG, you know, like, like, all those great flicks that were out there at the time. And it was, you know, a world that I knew in sort of bleak, Eastern Washington that that was out there. So it made me it made me want to leave where I was, from a very early age, I knew I wanted to be somewhere else.
And you know, you've felt far away there in Washington. And a lot of my guests have that, because they're not necessarily from near La, or central hubs of filmmaking. But I was interested when I read your story researching recently for you, Colleen, that you had a child very young, didn't you? So that must have made it seem even further away. Masonic, could you talk about that?
Well, it was an interesting way. I mean, you know, sometimes you just don't know what's going to happen to you. And I got pregnant in high school from my high school sweetheart. And he was, luckily, a few years older than me, but not a lot. And we had a baby. So he was in, I put him through college, I worked at night at a factory that made french fries. Wow. And he went to pilot school and got his pilot's licence. And it taught. I mean, it was a Steinbeck kind of experience. I mean, those people, the people whose that was their lives. And I think it really helped me focus on not being afraid to work hard to do whatever I had to do to not have that life is my life. And my husband, at the time, moved on and got a job. And I said, Well, I'd like to go to college now. And he goes, Well, you know, we really can't afford it. And I was like, Okay. And at that time, there were these amazing work study programmes at the colleges in the States. And they gave people that, you know, like me at the time that didn't have money, but were willing to work, a chance to study and, you know, just work at the college. So that was the beginning of the end of that life for me, because I did do that. And I met people that took me to other places, intellectually, and at that time, it was a very explosive time in history in the 60s. So politically, I began to, like separate politically from a lot of the people I grew up with it who were very conservative, and leaning right? To the mid 60s, where everybody was smoking pot and getting high and doing all this stuff with music. And, and I was like, I felt left out of both worlds, it was a really strange time. For me, I didn't process it that way. I just kept working, going to school doing art. And I eventually moved to Seattle, and worked there as a waitress in a fit model and effort or not a drawing model for art classes. And so I did that for, you know, a couple years and, and my marriage dissolved, needless to say, and then I just I stayed in Seattle and did did work. I wasn't really I didn't really do art, because I couldn't, you know, I wasn't that great like to do that and make a living. It's, you know, it's very few good artists really make a living at it. And, and so I got a job in fashion, which I had always had an affinity for. And I worked in a department store, selling some rock clothes and sort of running a boutique within the store of those designers. And I started going to New York, to choose things for clients. And that opened up my world. And at a certain when my daughter was old enough, I moved to New York, and started this life that I have now.
I thought it was really admirable the way you did restart your life as you put it. When you moved over to New York. How did it feel when you were so much older than a lot the other people in that NYU class you enrolled in? Well, it
was an eye opener for me because I really didn't think about it because I was so keen to sort of do this and I was like, you know, they pick stories that they say pick stories that would relate to you and I was picking Cortez stories and I was just like, I don't belong here, you know? And ultimately, they all like in the classes how those break down, I always ended up doing the clothes and the set. So, you know, it's sort of like, it's that Zen moment. Because when I went there, I didn't know you could be a cop. I mean, I was like, Oh, I'll be a director. I'll be this or I'll be that, you know, ultimately, you know, I was already what I was going to be, I just didn't know it. Yeah, which I think happens in education sometimes. So anyway, and then I happened to meet someone on a street corner, who was whose parents were production designers, very esteemed. Her mother was one of the first women that production designed on Ragtime. And I ended up making set dressing in her loft with her daughter, Kimberly, who I'd met on the corner was treated on brand and Stein, and her daughter, and I made all this a lot of the set dressing for their lower East Side said, and the costume designer, notice the hats that I was making and stuff, believe me, I never made a hat in my life. I just, I just get it, you know, which was pretty, I mean, I've been around a lot of hats, and I'd exam and hats and I love hats. So you know, I know how to do. I knew how to do it kinda, but they really liked what I was doing. And they started using them, you know, on people and stuff. And then I worked for them for the Von Braun and Stein word soles for a couple years on different things. And then I got a job from Patrice his recommendation for the film division of Saturday Night Live, which was going on at the time, which were the shorts that Saturday Night Live did, but they were separate from the show. And I did it with the great. I mean, I did a couple of great seasons, they Harry shore, you know, Chris guest, Marty short seasons one season with Eddie Murphy. So I got to work with these comedy guys who are just like, really, really amazing. And the scripts would happen at night, and you get them. And I learned how to shop at Port Authority and Grand Central because the stores are opened at five and six in the morning, because of commuters and I get the scripts like I mean, I learned how to do that. And you know, what every costume designers probably done in their life has approached people on the street and buy their clothes off their back. I mean, it's like, these guys have come up with this last minute stuff. So it was really learning on the ground, which was a really good way to learn. One kind of, of design in in the sense of being able to shift gears in the in mid sentence and deliver something that made that the talent happy, which, you know, meaning actors. So it's not the ideal way. For me, as a designer, I much prefer to design something really pretty, and put it on somebody and fix it and make it nice, but sometimes, you know, as they say, shit happens. And you have to be ready for a different, you know, a different take, which early on taught me to to be prepared in a way that you have other ways you can go. And it's not even that you have like a lineup of it. It's for me, it's more like I have a mental thing of a group of things swirling around a possibility. And I think it's helped me a lot in my career.
Amazing. So it you've done your sort of, you know, grunt work working through the art department and then a few jobs in the costume roles. You became a costume designer, and you had firstborn as your first show you did. And then quite quickly, you moved on to working with Michael Mann for the first time on Manhunter who became a collaborator of yours. How did he approach the costume design process working together?
Well, Michael Mann's that singular kind of person, visually, he brings so much to the table. And he's not easy. He's very demanding. He's also interesting in the sense that I went from an a director, you know, from the English BBC training of Michael Mann, who's super efficient about how I mean MiCollab Ted, who I worked with a lot too early days, and he was a different kind of more like a journalistic approach where even though Michael Mann had a journalistic kind of heart he has a you know, he has an eye that's that's that's much more much more cinematic in that way that taught me a lot. But I would have to have a lot of backups for Michael Mann like always, because it's a it's never a total commitment to a costume until it's on the guy. So it's a very fluid process which teaches you that fluidity with parameters so even though he's he wanted you know, a lot of things I always tried to control, the control the choice says in a way that I was happy to. And at the end of the day, you know, our working relationship work, believe me, there were days probably when we wanted to really kill each other. But, but in general it was, you know, it's an amazing process. And as a person, I really love Michael, he's a great guy.
I thought it was interesting how you worked on Manhunter. And then you also did, which was obviously the book sequel, The Silence of the Lambs? Is that why you were chosen for that role?
So not I mean, they didn't really want or no, because I've worked with Jonathan on married to the mob. And then silence came up. And they hired me. And they didn't even know I done Michael Mann. And I set it to I forget which producer whether it was ad or Gary Goetzman. But one of the producers I said, you know, I did you know, I did? And they go Don't say anything. Because they wanted a clean slate. So they didn't want that, like, you know about sort of, no, it's totally different anyway. So I had years later, they call me to do the other version, a man under that. Who was it? Brett Ratner? Did, right. And so I go have this meeting. And like, I read the script and go Yeah, it's really different. And I was like, it's so weird. That's when you know, you're all right, when you're getting like the same script twice, but you know, not really, but you know, just totally different take on it. But But it was interesting that, you know, everybody wants it to be theirs and no one else's.
I think you certainly got the best one. There. On the second one.
I think I got Yeah, silence and, you know, I mean, they're all something but silence really turned out to be a film that none of us when we were in the room realised it was going to be it was so you know, you just do it in your you know, Jonathan's a very, was a very family kind of director and it was very, we'd have dailies at night and you know, a big room and everybody sit together and we'd watch and it would, you know, it'd be great but we had no idea it would resonate in the way that it did and with the audience's
was it yourself that was responsible for Hannibal's famous mask,
I made the mask i The mask is a good story in the fact that I have one like really sad sketch drawing of it on onion skin and it's kind of really almost like a hockey mask. I mean, it's not like I reinvented the wheel but the guy that made it sent it to me to try to try on him before it was because originally it was going to be finished like a hockey mask has this you know, kind of glaze on it of of paint, but it was the raw material, the raw fibreglass, which kind of looked like dried up skin. And it was so it was just one of those things when the what we call a happy mistake, like we had no idea that's what it was going to be and then that came and you go well, that's it you know, it's perfect. We don't want to touch it.
I saw a video actually of Anthony Hopkins trying on various different ones. Were there other any other random ones that you designed that never actually got made?
We had a kind of wire kind of one that was more like a catcher's mask. thing. We had different ones because at one point he had, he had that one and then but we ended up settling, you know, for for that one.
Amazing. It was just before Silence of the Lambs that you did Edward Scissorhands with Tim Burton for the first time. And he obviously famously draws due to his animation background, how did you find space and continue to find space in your relationship with Tim given that he can already draw so well and particular on Scissorhands? He gave you sketches, didn't he? Yes, Tim.
I mean, Tim can draw a character with like two lines. I mean, it's an amazing, I mean, he comes from animation and you really see how he can visually create a character in the simplest way. But what happened actually, I worked I, I went from Silence of the Lambs, which we finished in Bimini. I caught a pontoon plane from Bimini to fly to Miami to drive to Tampa, which is where we shot Edward Scissorhands. So literally, I went from one set to the location of the other to start to start the movie. And the Edward Scissorhands costume was a drawing of Tim's that was, you know, pretty, really close to what the costume was, but it was really the the React, trying to realise a character like that with real materials and stuff is always a hard journey, which is hats off to superhero designers and the people that do that work, but it's in back then they didn't have all the stretch materials and ostrich leathers and all the stuff that we have today to make those kinds of costumes and we were shooting in Florida, which the humidity is as high as the temperature often. So you idea of something that wouldn't just stretch and bag off Johnny's body. And I finally found this, I had a real struggle with it because it was leather. And I was trying to make a tie. And I kept saying, No, we have to mount it on a stretch, and then you know, so there, nobody's gonna see it's black. And these tailors just couldn't get it through their head in there, I finally found a tailor in the back room at what was Western at the time, who was from the Russian ballet. And he's who helped me he's who understood that costume so it could work in the way that it does in the movie. So even though you have an idea and and stuff that you're delivering, you have to figure out a process in a way to make the costume work for people to act in it moving it and for it to look good on camera. The rest of the movie, we we sort of created that kind of suburban pastel world together with the production designer, Bo Welch, who kind of came up with all that ticky tacky thing, and it was a blast to do, you know, everybody's outfits in the neighbourhood. So it was, it was a great movie to work on. I really enjoyed it.
I'm aware that we don't have that much time, Colleen, and your career is so expensive. It's hard to get through it all. But I did want to ask about another one of your collaborators, Rob Marshall, who you've done lots of musicals with and amazing work in that arena. And you've recently been working on the Little Mermaid, is there anything you could say about how you approached designing...a you know, a real life mermaid? I don't know how to describe, you know, a fictional creature like that? Did that affect the way you designed the costumes? Is there anything you can say about it?
Well, in Little Mermaid, we have, you know, the world above the water, and we have the world under the water. So we kind of wanted them to be kind of symbiotic in a way that you wouldn't be aware of so much so there's that going on with motifs above the water that sort of tie in with the underwater world texturally and colour wise and things like that. And then the mermaids, there's Ariel and she has a family and a father and you know, so we have the Seven Sisters from the seven seas. So I kept going to you know, we were going to all these aquariums on field trips watching fish move, watching how you know undersea life and all that and I was like...I backed into it, my take on it was that each sister of the Seven Seas design as a mermaid was, or I call as a mermaid costume was based and influenced by a fish from the sea they're representing - loosely. So that was my inspiration, kind of starting off point for their costumes. So I took fish, actual, I mean, fish designs, I mean, you could design fabric off fish for the rest of your life. And that sort of made, you know, was where I started with them, and how I evolved their looks, and also their hair and their whole thing, you know, just kind of incorporating that. And then we had an amazing experience on that show in the beginning. For Rob, who, you know, has a heavy knowledge and experience in the dance world, we had a group of the Harlem ballet came in, and we had a choreographed dance thing that represents like the musical numbers underwater. So the visual effects guys could actually film that and make it you know, more like the combination of it in live action and in, in the film, and they came in and, you know, it was just a rehearsal deal, but I couldn't resist like doing like costumes. So it was kind of, you know, on the cheap and stuff, but it was really fun to do. We just did little things. And you know, it helped everybody see, the thing is if you do costumes that move a certain way. And there are certain colours, it helps the animators and the people doing that work visualise something they might not be coming up with, which was a really interesting challenge of that movie, and something I really enjoyed about it, you know, learning, dipping into that world, where I sat, you know, with his artists, and did the sisters designs with him, like combining human and fish. And it was really a great learning, you know, a new learning experience for me, which is great.
When you take on characters like that, which are, you know, even in your career with your stature in the business, it's a big thing to take on those characters that are known and beloved by people around the world. Does it ever scare you at all when you take on, you know, an REO or a dumbo, that sort of thing?
Well, like, you know, Alice in Wonderland, you know, erielle any of those Disney kind of princesses or Disney you know, the Disney family. It's, you know, they're so loved and known as animated things. The thing that I always feel is my blessing is I always give it a nod because It's, you know, Dumbo is going to have the hat, Alice has got to have a blue somewhere. And I think that that gives it a connectivity to the, to the earlier work and an homage to the earlier work that that honours it. And then you can go do your thing like it but it's it is intimidating, and you do think about it, and you do spin it and you do you know, the thing was, like for instance in in with both Rob and with Tim Burton, they have their own take on it. They don't want to do exactly that they want to they want to have a new look at at something that works really well previously, and and it can be really difficult to because it did work so well as an animated thing. To put it on a human doesn't necessarily mean it's going to look great. So it is a it is a big challenge to sort of mash the two in a way that serves both worlds of commercialism and you know, the the movie that you're making
amazing. Now, one of the things I noticed about yourself clean and also made largely with your work with Tim Burton, but you've had quite an influence on pop culture with your designs and people wearing them to cosplay and Halloween and we sort of things they are recognisable silhouettes that people understand. And there's usually one question I always have to ask one of my guests and my one for you is you've worked with someone who was a genuine pop culture icon, which I noticed which was a feeler in or nine, what was it like to be in a fitting room with someone from the Golden Age of Hollywood?
It was pretty amazing. I mean, there there there's a presence that goes with someone like Sophia Loran, that is not a presence that you experience in other ways. And it's kind of I mean, I had it with Vincent Price, her Charlton Heston, like there's just a presence and a sort of calmness to their approach to the work. That's just something they own. And lots of times like when I met with Vincent, we didn't even talk about the character. We looked at his art we look to use all his stuff that because he was so into painting and collecting great art. And you know that we got to the costume, but it wasn't the focus of it kind of evolved in a way was Sophie and my first fitting with her was at her home. And at that time, she was in Switzerland. So I went to Switzerland to do a fitting with her. And you walk into this house and you're in Sofia, Lauren's living room, but you feel like you're at home. There's a level of comfort there. The same thing with with Charlton Heston when I went to his house, it felt like yeah, come on, in, you know, there was no security it was just like you walk in, you sort of do the thing and you go, but their whole take on it was very, you have to listen because they definitely have the way they're going to do it no matter what you do. And Sophia on nine would come to work. She did her own makeup and hair. And she would come to work early, always totally composed, ready to work, would ask to get dressed. And she would just sit quietly on the side of her. We had like rooms there. She just sits quietly on the side of her bed and wait to be called to set. Totally poised. She didn't go hang out by the coffee machine. You know, you brought her her espresso and you know, but she was totally, like, sort of there in that headspace. And then, you know, she'd go to work do her thing. And, you know, and all the actresses were so I mean, they were as excited to be around Sophia Loren is as Rob and the rest of us the other the actress is working with her. It was like her children her family, you know,
amazing. Thank you for humouring me with that one Colleen. Now to wrap up on red carpet rookies. I do a little quick fire questionnaire, which is my own Ode to in the actor studio questionnaire. Now they're just little quick questions. So if you wouldn't mind thinking of, you know, the first thing that comes into your mind, is that okay with you, Colleen. Hopefully, hopefully something will take as long as you'd like. Now the first one is what is one of the best pieces of advice you've ever been given?
I think the best piece of advice I've ever been given is if if you're going to disagree with someone in a movie on a movie set, you make sure you're right.
Love it. Number two, do you have a favourite film?
I have so many favourite films. It's a hard one for me to answer. You know, I guess as a designer, I love the the Curacao movie ran and I love el gato part of the leopard that that those two movies for resonate with me as a designer,
lovely. Number three, what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day for a day of costume design.
I think the idea that I have to go there and see what I'm going to figure out that day that it's always new. There's always something to do to solve
number four, which job in the industry would you do if you weren't doing yours?
You know, is as the years go by? And I'd be involved, I think probably at this point, I'd probably be more like a producer than anything else. Not because it's easy, but just because I think I the things I've learned would be helpful.
You've seen it. Oh, yeah. Number five, this is a really hard one. If you could work with one person living or dead. Who would it be? Oh, my
God. Yeah, sorry. person. I mean, I guess a person I most admire living and dead right now in my life is Barack Obama, whether it would be any contribute? contributor? I don't know. You know, no, that
counts. Someone recently said their grandfather, which was a nice one. So it doesn't have to be someone in the business. Oh, sweet. That's lovely. Number six, what is a book that everyone should read?
Oh, my God, I love so many books, is a guy named Michael Ondaatje. And it's called,
I just didn't he wrote The English Patient. He wrote, The English
Patient can say The English Patient to it's pretty great. But it's not the one I was thinking of that you worry,
that's all good. And then the last one I was asked, which is normally quite a straightforward one. But for you, Colleen, I normally asked basically, if you want an Oscar, who would you thank, but Colleen, I must ask you, who did you thank and why, but you've won so many, we might be able to?
Well, to me, the person that I I mean, your mind goes blank, of course. I mean, I guess you think of the people that got you there, which is your team, which is very important, because who does the work on the costumes and Who makes it happen is a huge part of the process. And the director, to me is kind of who I connect with generally on, on shows on the newer stuff, like the streaming stuff, it's, it's a different thing with, because you're much more involved with the producer sometimes. But it's usually the director, the team, the director, and the producers, and the actors, because, you know, they, they make it all work. So it's, it's hard to know where it really comes from. And it's also just luck. But those are the things and then you're, you know, you're sort of get up there and your mind goes totally like, blank, I'm sure for anyone, even people that are used to being in front of people, it's scary. But for technical people like me, it's very, you know, you, you're looking and there's all these people in front of you. And there's, you know, smiling at you and wishing you well. But it's still a kind of brain freeze moment, you know, and when you go to the Oscars, which I have a lot where I haven't gotten an Oscar to talk about that. You kind of you have until your category comes up, you're just kind of you're trying to be cool and all that. But your heart is kind of just like here, racing in your throat trying to like just get and once you're done, like one way or the other. It's fine. It's a night out. But up until that point, and people don't get it they think oh, your thoughts because it's fun. You know, you bring your family and everybody's with you. And you're just like ready to like die. Just waiting for your thing to act. Just like nobody taught. It's a it's a crazy old thing, you know, may at last May it survive, right?
Of course I agree. And on that note, our time has come to a close. Thank you so much, Colleen Atwood for joining me today, banks vice and telling us about how some of the world's most famous costumes ever made. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to another episode of red carpet rookies to help us grow and be able to interview more amazing film and TV professionals. Please do subscribe and drop us a rating on the Apple podcast store on your iPhone or online if you're an Android user. If you're interested in regular updates, the best thing you can do is to join our mailing list at red carpet rookies.com. Or alternatively, find us on Instagram at Red Carpet rookies or Twitter at RC rookies pod. I also tweet regularly about my own learnings in the business, Mike battle on Twitter. So please do come and say hi, thank you again for listening. We'll see you next time.