Dressing Abe: Joanna Johnston talks about Lincoln

Trevor Hogg chats with Joanna Johnston about her Academy Award-nominated costume design work for Lincoln…

“Steven [Spielberg] asked me to do it when we were doing War of the Worlds and that was 2005,” explains Joanna Johnston as to when she first became involved with the long in development biopic on American President Abraham Lincoln.  “I had heard mumblings about it before then.  I remember the moment he asked me to do it and it was like I had won the jackpot.  In my mind it was an amazing production at that stage and also I’m British so I thought that might work against me. From then I didn’t do much.  I did some budget stuff over the years while it went through different configurations, chapters of digestion.  We got the final green light go at the end of 2010; it was going to shoot the following autumn.  I had just taken another film so I had to slightly dovetail at the end of  Jack the Giant Slayer [2013] and latch onto Lincoln (2012); it was quite tight.”  Not being American did not hinder the costume design process.  “Good designers should be able to put their hand in anything whether it’s something on their doorstep or in another territory.  There is something about an objective view point.  If something is over familiar you have to re-educate yourself to look at it again.  People do get protective about their national heroes and I would completely understand if Steven or a director would say, ‘This is more of a national thing.’”

An Irish actor who previously collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Schindler’s List (1993) was originally attached to play the title character.  “We did do an early test with Liam Neeson [Taken] which was more to do with prosthetics,” states Joanna Johnston who focused her attention on the actor hired to replace Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot).  “All I was doing with Liam was putting clothes on him that were of the ilk, not right on the money, with something that already existed.  With Daniel I started with the process of making everything such as his frock coat.”  Black and white images served as key visual references.  “I did 95 per cent of my research on photographs because they gave me more information.  What you get from paintings are the colours but I took liberties with the colours on the men.  I gave them these slight hues.  The men’s frock coats are usually black and I did tell Steven that it would be dense with all of those frock coats just in black.  We dyed an enormous amount of clothes in different dark colours to give it arc and curve. For Lincoln, in my head originally, I was thinking about a dark green but in fact I went for this dark walnut brown colour which seemed right as I liked the warmth of it.  The warmth of it helped the character of the man which was one of the subtleties of the cloth.”

“The hat is a great part of Lincoln,” says Joanna Johnston.  “We researched Lincoln’s actual hat so we knew what it was but then rest of it I made to work for Daniel.  You’re tweaking it.  You’re not doing everything as an exact reproduction.  You’re making your own take.”  The number of costumes made for Daniel Day-Lewis was influenced by Lincoln being a dialogue driven story.  “Not that many because he doesn’t do anything physically strenuous in that film.  The most strenuous thing he does is ride a horse.  Normally we would be doing repetitions of somebody going into the rain, getting shot, or going through mud or getting attacked by somebody; it was not that kind of film.  But normally most films you’re doing large repetitions.”  The native of Britain notes, “It didn’t make it easier because it was a big film to man which had a more expansive film of speaking parts than I have ever heard of.  If it had been an action film on top of what it was that would have been pretty tough.”

“I researched on Mary Todd and she was my main woman,” remarks Joanna Johnston.  “I did some very easy research into her favourite colours which were violet, pink, purple, blue and cream.  Mary Todd had a strong sense of what she liked colour wise.”  Physical alternations were required so to meet the needs of the storytelling.  “The character of the actor is enormous.  You have to create the illusion of something which maybe slightly different from the actor’s physicality so that is part of the process; you’re shifting it in the construction to give the illusion of something which maybe different from what it is.  In my example of Lincoln is Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.  Sally Field is slight in build whereas Mary Todd Lincoln was quite plump.  Sally put on weight but also in the design I had to give the sense that she was plumper than she was.  You’re always doing things like that.  The clothes are the foundation of the character as they are saying who this person is the whole time, particularly, for the audience.”  Johnston adds, “Mary Todd Lincoln was the most time consuming but it was fantastic and she had more costume changes than most.  Mary Todd Lincoln was a great dresser; she had an extensive wardrobe.”

There are a number of lingering shots in Lincoln which did not complicate matters.  “The way I run things I work on the premise that it is a long shot on everything,” states Joanna Johnston.  “You never know until the camera starts because the director can change his mind at any given moment.”  Incorporating extra detail is important in the design of the costumes.  “I definitely work on that premise of putting quite a lot of subtle information in there which helps the actor and I enjoy that process.  If you see it, that’s great.  If you don’t see it well I put it there and it’s within.  You just don’t know.  It’s a roll of the dice really.  You may put in an incredible detail in a dress and may not get a full-length shot.  There are so many factors for that.  You work on the premise that everything is going to be seen as a full aspect at any time and that would include extras as well.  I always get worried.  They’ll go, ‘We’ll cut corners on the extras.’  But you never know.  You might suddenly get an extra in a close-up shot right next to a principle.  I personally work, and lot of other designers do, to a full execution of costumes with detail.”

When dealing with historical subject matter a balance has to be achieved between authentic and cinematic pleasing.  “You just find it.  You work from your gut,” observes Joanna Johnston who has been involved with costume design since Death on the Nile (1978).  “That’s the great thing for having done it for some years.  You listen to your gut and go with it and your instincts are hopefully good.  You’re not doing a documentary or recreation, you’re giving the essence.  It’s funny as a designer you’re always working incredibly fast.   You don’t often question it in yourself too much.  You’re always driving yourself to finishing each of these costumes and you’re either turning up or down the dial or kicking it off sideways.  With Lincoln you needed to be in a particular framework because these characters of which Abraham Lincoln where everybody knows what he looks like.  It’s like cooking a meal you put in your own personal mix.  You’re coming up with the appropriate finale to suite that project.”

“I had some extraordinary exemplary people who I worked with and that made the whole thing possible,’ states Joanna Johnston.  “Working with a director, who I know very well, and also all of Steven’s key heads of departments; we’ve worked together a lot the assistant director, production designer, the cinematographer, the producer.  All of those people. Kathleen Kennedy [E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial].  There’s a shorthand that we all have and there is a lot of trust between us. There’s isn’t a development of relationship so we could cut straight through all of those things because of our history with each other which is a huge asset on something like that where we were racing against time.”  Johnston points out, “It wasn’t about what Steven was looking for; he wanted it to look like as I did which is real.  It was about the historical people whom we were depicting; that’s why I worked from these photographs which were so fantastic.  Lincoln was so widely photographed and that was my big study, was studying Lincoln.  I could see the weight of the cloth, the volume of how the clothes sat on him; we were obsessed with this void between his body and where the cloth fell.  If you look at somebody in portraiture in a good photograph you can tell a lot about the person by studying how the clothes are assembled and constructed.”

“It depends on the project and what the project is requiring,” states Joanna Johnston as to the decision to make costumes look new or worn.  “Often it can when you’re making costumes straight out of the workshop and straight out onto the actor they do have that pristine quality that makes them look very new.  Now, often times that is good.  You are sometimes wanting that a pristine look but a lot of the work I do it needs to be more blended in with the body and have a sense of weathering with that person.  That’s a whole lot of process often which goes into the making of the costume to give it a life of its own so that it hadn’t just jumped off the cutting room table.” For her efforts, the veteran costume designer has received her first BATFA and Oscar nominations.  “I think probably the subject matter.  Lincoln is a big iconic person and you can’t get much higher than that; he’s somebody who people idolize and look up to in America.  It’s probably got caught up with all of that.  I don’t know.  If it was a film about a poet, at the same date, who had the same costume minus Lincoln would it have had the same momentum?  I don’t know.  It’s hard to say what it is that captures the Academy’s eye at any one given time.  It could be something completely different next year.”  Contemplating her work on Lincoln, Johnston concludes, “Everything was challenging.  I was happy with everything because it all merges.  There aren’t things that jump out.  Obviously, the female dresses jump out more against the men.  It seems to be well bound together and I’m glad for that.”

Production stills, photographs of Joanna Johnston and costume design sketches provided by Disney.

Many thanks to Joanna Johnston for taking the time for this interview and to learn more read her Attirely Appropriate profile.

Make sure to visit the official website for Lincoln and read our Steve Spielberg profile titled Encountering Spielberg.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.