• Awards

“Sketch to Screen” – Oscar Nominees’ Costume Design Panel

For once, costume designers were center stage at UCLA Film School’s James Bridges Theater last Saturday. The five Oscar nominees for Best Costume Design were the main cast of characters in a lively and interesting panel moderated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a renowned costume designer herself (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Indiana Jones, among her many film credits).

Nadoolman Landis, who graduated with a Ph.D. in the History of Design from the Royal College of Art in 2003, is the David C. Copley Chair in Costume Design at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. She is also Director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA.

The five nominees on the panel were Jenny Beavan (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris), Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever), Shirley Kurata (Everything Everywhere All at Once), Catherine Martin (Elvis) and Mary Zophres (Babylon).


Nadoolman Landis started the conversation by rallying the audience to repeat her mantra as an artist. “The role of the costume designer is to bring the people in the story to life!” she made everybody yell playfully. And more: “Costume design is not just about the clothes…  It is the external manifestation of a state of mind!”

Nadoolman Landis introduced the five nominees, all women, saying, “My colleagues, these women, they’re not craftspeople. They are not artisans. They are neither costumers nor dressers. They are costume designers who read and interpret the text, then the script, and then discuss, argue, interrogate the story with their directors. Only after the reading, considering, discussing, contemplating, researching, does the designing begin. Inspiration is found everywhere. Costume designers are artists who use clothing to manifest new personalities.”

Carter, an Oscar winner for the first Black Panther in 2019, remembered working with Spike Lee in the seminal Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. “Working with Spike [Lee] was a game changer for me:  he was a new filmmaker. The film itself – Do The Right Thing – was a protest film. We really didn’t look to the mainstream for attention. I feel we had accomplished our goal to make a film that had to do with race relationships in New York.”

Zophres was asked what the difference was between designing for a film such as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Damien Chazelle‘s Babylon. She answered, I don’t think it’s different. You’re using different color and different textiles, but you’re still interpreting the script and telling the story through costume. Fargo, for sure, was smaller and had less money. We had $30,000 for the costumes. Where I shopped was different and where we filmed was different. But the crux of the work is exactly the same.”

“Both the Coens and Chazelle have the whole film precisely in their head,” Zophres continued. “And you feel like you can ask them any question and they’ll know the answer and the intent and the meaning behind every scene. And also, both screenplays were very clear in regard to the details.”

Kurata started her career in fashion and styling. When asked by Nadoolman Landis how she came to costume design, she said, “I started as a customer, and I worked for many years just learning the trade on whatever low-budget TV or film that I could get my hands on. I started off by interning, and then just for many years, worked as a set customer. Eventually, I got steered more toward the styling world of music videos, fashion shoots, and commercials, and was kind of in that world for many, many years. And missed the sort of sense of family that you get working on films. So I really wanted to get back into it, but I wanted to find a movie that really spoke out to me and really meant something to me. There’s a lot of scripts out there. They’re not always that great. So, I think that it’s really important to find one that speaks to you, because it takes a lot of time and it’s hard work. If you’re going to invest in months of hard work, you should really stand behind it.”

Kurata explained how EEAAO came about. “I was able to have a meeting with the [directors] Daniels through producer Jonathan Wong because I worked on some commercials that Jonathan was a producer for. The Daniels were looking for a costume designer for Everything Everywhere All at Once. And Jonathan told him, “I have the perfect person for you.” And so, he made the introduction. Here I am. I was very lucky.”

She was also asked how many costumes were actually in the movie. “It was one of the hardest scripts to break down,” she said. “And honestly, the only way I could break it down was just dividing it by worlds. It didn’t make sense to break it down in the normal way you would break down a script, which is a day breakdown and by scenes. Because it jumped so much that it was just like, I’m just going to break it down by the world and they’re going to be wearing this one outfit in the world. And then it’s kind of breaking it down like mini-movies. Michelle Yeoh wears close to 40 costumes in the film.”

Beavan, a three-time Oscar winner for Room with a View (1987), Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) and Cruella (2022), talked about her new nomination. “The film [Mrs. Harris] was partly done in Budapest in the middle of COVID in Hungarian, which is about the most difficult language on Earth. And a lot of the crew did not speak English. Russian is their second language. But honestly, there were some joyous moments as well. I don’t want people to think in any way we had an entirely miserable time. We had lots of moments of joy. And Leslie Manville was utterly the center of that joy.”

“Recreating Dior, I have to tell you I was lied to by the director on Paris, that I would be working alongside Dior and Dior would be doing all the Dior bits,” she continued. “I went to the archives and realized they don’t have a lot, that you’d never be able to use it. But we ended up sitting around the table, Dior lot on one side, our lot on the other. They endorsed it. They had to say it was okay, so we must have done something right.”

Carter was asked about the worst moment in Wakanda Forever. “I have a joke that I tell about. If anyone calls me again and they mention that things will be underwater, hang up!” she answered, laughing. “There is a 20-foot tank on the lot at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, and every time I drove by that stage, I could hear it roar at me and I ran. But putting costumes in water, there has to be chemicals in that water. Whatever it is, it fades fabric. You would like to think that costumes and silk do this beautiful thing when you put them in water, but is not true. It really just does that until you weight it and you tether it and you test it. The Jabari tribe wore fur pelts and grass skirts, were going to dive into this tank and save someone’s life. I felt they needed to save their own life because they were going to float like a log. And they didn’t until we just figured it out. That water tank was the death of me.”

Martin, a two-time Oscar winner for best costume design for Baz Luhrman‘s Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby (she happens to be married to Luhrman), talked about Elvis (again, by Luhrman). “Telling people we were shutting down because of force majeure for COVID was the worst part,” she confessed. “I was a producer too on the movie, and what happened was that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson got COVID and they were doing a huge scene with rehearsing, Elvis going through the crowd with Tom.

“Patrick [McCormick, producer] and I were the only ones not on set at the time. Patrick kept calling me and I was trying to do something in wardrobe and I was trying to concentrate. I don’t think people think that you actually do that. You actually have to think when you’re designing, there’s a process and you have to get into the mood and you have to have quiet, without people asking me questions or just random things.  And he kept trying to call me and I just kept pressing that I’ll call you later. I’ll call you later. Anyway, I finally saw his face coming through the window in my office, totally hysterical. And they were both sick. And Baz wasn’t able to tell the cast and crew in person because he was in quarantine. So, he was basically taken off the set and in quarantine for 14 days. And so, that was horrible because we got so close. We were actually a day away from shooting. Can you believe it? So that was horrible.”