Attirely Appropriate: A conversation with costume designer Joanna Johnston

Trevor Hogg chats with Joanna Johnston about her career, the art of costume designing and the Academy Awards…

“My aunt is a painter, my mother is a photographer and going back a rather few generations there are literary and painting people,” states British Costume Designer Joanna Johnston.  “My father was involved with theatre so there was this entertainment thing from him.”  The 1938 production of Marie Antoinette which resulted in Norma Shearer (The Divorcee) receiving an Oscar nomination has left a lasting cinematic impression.  “It was designed by a designer called Adrian and he was a massive eclectic designer from the 20th century.   I have no idea how much his budget would have been; it’s so fantastical that if you see it and you’re young, it’s absolutely beyond.”  Becoming a costume designer for film was an accidental career choice.  “It was serendipity.  I fell under the guise of two brilliant mentors Anthony Powell [Tess] and Tom Rand [The French Lieutenant’s Woman], and I assisted them; they were my teachers.”

Great costume design requires many different elements.  “Being able to turn it up or down or kick it sideways, throw it upside down on its head, and make it quiet sometimes or make it disappear,” says Joanna Johnston.  “It’s the ability to adapt to a constantly moving target.  You need a lot of diplomacy in the job as a costume designer.  You need to be able to work well with people, you need to be able to work well with actors, and deal with any issues which are there.  You got to have a sense of fluidity in what your vision is.”  The requirements for the theatre are different than what is needed for film.  “In theatre you have to be able to project a distance to the audience.  Now with 3D and Blu-ray in the cinema you can put in a tiny detail up close to the face, an absolute minute detail and it’s going to be blow-up to 8 feet.  You can put great subtleties of character in film but in the theatre you have to change the scope of that.”

“The biggest change has been motion-capture work for a costume designer which I have been involved in,” observes Joanna Johnston.  “3D is great and designing for 3D is fantastic. I’ve only done one 3D film, Jack the Giant Slayer [2013].  If I would do another one I would be wiser now on how I could utilize that to a greater degree in the design sense.”  Digital filmmaking is not going to make the profession obsolete.  “I’ve been involved designing for visual effects people so there’s still a place for costume designers.  You can’t control it because it goes into another whole arena which is out of your control.   But if they’re interested in what you have to say, your guidance in regards to the behaviour of cloth which are not within their area but within the costume designer area, everyone can work quite collaboratively.  The process makes it slightly different than if it’s a straight live-action film.”

The movie industry veteran frequently collaborates with Steven Spielberg (War Horse) and Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away).  “They are both absolutely extraordinary directors,” remarks Joanna Johnston.  “Bob Zemeckis is always so ahead of the game always and often takes some years for his films to fall into the present time because he’s an utter genius and a great storyteller.  Steven Spielberg is primarily a storyteller and he’s probably the greatest director in the world.  I like that they have no fear about where they want to go to in their projects.  I like not having boundaries.  Rick Carter does production design for both of them as I do costume design. Rick and I feel that we have that capability to following through their vision in a limitless way.   We don’t say, ‘No or can’t.’ We do say, ‘How on earth are we going to do that?’ Not in front of them.  They’re exciting filmmakers.  I love people who have that trust in you because you can run with it.”  Johnston adds, “I prefer a director not to tell me everything they want.  I prefer loose terminology or adjectives but then with the script you run with that.”

Reflecting on her collaborations with Steven Spielberg, Joanna Johnston provides a series of brief answers to describe the project.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).  “HOT and Harrison!  The Color Purple (1985).  “I only did a second unit section of it.  I didn’t design it.  The word that comes to mind is Africa because we shot my bit in Africa.”  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). “HOT.  It was quite hot during that film.”  Saving Private Ryan (1998). “DAUNTING.”    War of the Worlds (2005).  “I’d call that an adventure.”  Munich (2005). “Serious film.”  War Horse (2011).  “A great history lesson for me.   And horses.” Lincoln (2012).  POETIC and serious.  For her latest collaboration with Steven Spielberg which is a biopic about American President Abraham Lincoln, Johnston received her first BAFTA and Oscar nominations.   A particular film missed out in receiving a well-deserve nomination for Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards. “There was a Danish film called the A Royal Affair [2012].  It was a brilliant film about the Danish Royal family in the 18th century.  I thought that was nicely done.  It was nicely put together visually.  Even though it’s an opulent period which is the mid-18th century it blended in perfectly.  It didn’t jump out.  It didn’t look out of place.  It was well depicted in all of its visuals.”

Many thanks to Joanna Johnston for taking the time for this interview and for more of her insights make sure to read Dressing Abe where she talks about working on Lincoln.

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