Timeless Clothing: Michael Wilkinson talks about Noah

Trevor Hogg chats with Michael Wilkinson about weaving a new adaptation of an epic Biblical story…

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NOAH“There was an opening in my schedule,” recalls Michael Wilkinson who had completed the costume designs for Man of Steel (2013) when an opportunity arose to work on Noah (2014) helmed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan).  “My agents introduced me to Darren who was looking for someone to help design this epic movie.  I had a series of Skype interviews, was awarded the job and headed over to New York to work with him.”  The native of Australia remarks, “I always like to have images in front of me when I’m meeting a director.  Other costume designers do things differently.  For me, it’s all about beginning to see if there’s a dialogue that flows between the two parties.  Even if I show images that are wildly different from what the director was thinking at least it gives them the opportunity to say, ‘That’s the opposite and this is way.’  Suddenly because of that design idea there are concrete things in front of you.  I like to get things started right off the bat.”

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NOAHThe Biblical tale about the great flood induced by God and an ark built to house the remaining inhabitants of Earth offered a new opportunity for the Australian who has worked on the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games, Babel (2006), Watchmen (2009), Tron: Legacy (2010), and American Hustle (2013).  “It’s wildly different,” states Michael Wilkinson.  “That’s one of the reasons I pursued it so strongly.  I was intrigued as soon as I talked to Darren.  The first thing he said was ‘I want to the audience to not know whether the film is taking place 5000 years ago or 5000 years in the future.’  That got my creative juices flowing and my mind ticking over.  I realized for him that this film was a work of art.  There was point of view.  It was a piece of creative expression.  It allowed me to liberate my design process and cast my net wide with my references.  I was not only looking at early textiles and clothing but futuristic clothes, post-apocalyptic clothing, modern couture from my favourite contemporary designers, and paintings and sculpture from around the world.  It was an incredibly imaginative and creative time for us all.”

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NOAH“This film is definitely Darren’s biggest budget to work with and he enjoyed the amazing creativity that it allowed,” notes Michael Wilkinson.  “There was nothing reining him in as far as resources.  At the heart of that is he’s an auteur, a cinematic visionary.  It was important to him not to make a big Hollywood blockbuster but to make an epic film that has a psychological drama; it is character driven, compelling, cliché free and highly original.  It’s interesting to align those ideals of an auteur with the big framework of a Hollywood blockbuster.”  There was room for creative collaboration.  “Darren is the perfect balance; he’s highly intelligent, has a fierce point of view and is well versed in all sorts of visual imagery.  When I came to the project there as a whole world he was building with the Production Designer Mark Friedberg [State of Play] and the DP Matthew Libatique [Requiem for a Dream].  I was expected to contribute, and bring my point of view and ideas to the table.  Ultimately, we all got on the same page quickly and were talking the same language with our references and for things we felt passionately about.”  Wilkinson remarks, “When we bring ideas, visual references and points of view he chimes in and agrees and disagrees. There’s a lovely fluidity and intellectualism behind all of the ideas.  Nothing is just because it looks cool.”

347365xcitefun-noah-2014-movie-wallpaper-2 “I enjoyed working with Mark Friedberg,” states Michael Wilkinson.  “He has the heart and soul of an artist.  Mark is bold with his ideas and is generous with his process; he let me in.  We talked a lot about the worlds that take place in this story.  We talked about the materials that would be available for the people.  Not only to build their environments but to build their clothes.  We talked about the resources that existed and had disappeared.   We talked about the technologies that had been around and had disappeared; that helped us to get on the same page as far as the production design meshing with the costume design.  With Matthew [Libatique] it was more about colour pallets.  We realized that the danger was to have everything look muddy and we wanted to find flashes of colour mixing with earth tones and to use every single earth tone available to us.  Shooting in Iceland the pallet was extreme from white slopes drifting through the mountains to the black sands of the landscape.  It’s wonderfully cinematic.”

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NOAH“It is like doing a superhero movie because there are going to be a lot of people who hate it,” observes Michael Wilkinson.  “You explore lots of different avenues.  You listen to your intuition as to what is right for the world you’re constructing with your filmmaking collaborators.”  A principle served to motivate the costume design.  “That was to combine handmade and raw textiles but to use contemporary silhouettes and shapes with the clothes.  We thought about these characters as being survivalists.”   The clothes blend in with the environment.  “We realized that Noah’s family were the first vegans; they didn’t want to use any animal products. They were all about having compassion for other human beings as well for other plants and animals they were sharing the planet with.  We wanted to use vegetable dyes, plant fibres, flaxes, linens, cottons, and hemp.  We put them together using a lot of interesting techniques because we wanted to avoid what was expected with a Biblical story – the robes and the sandals and typical Biblical silhouettes.  We were looking at hand looming textiles, primitive knitted textiles, and braiding.  We had this wonderful vocabulary of different textures that we were creating which made things unusual and hopefully primitive.” Wilkinson states, “It didn’t seem that the clothes should be at all ornamental; they had to be intensely practical. The family after all is a family of nomads.  They had to be multiuse.  Hoods had to roll down to become capes.  We liked the idea that jackets could become shelter.  There was also a recycling element to the material they used.”

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NOAH“For the costumes of the film we made 95 per cent of what you see from scratch,” reveals Michael Wilkinson.  “Because of trying to do something original combining these raw materials with modern shapes we had to go into production almost like we were producing a fashion line.  For our background people we had 20 to 25 different pieces that we made in different lengths, fabrics, colours, and detailing.  We made hundreds of different pieces that we dressed hundreds of our background players with. All of the principle stuff was handmade.  There’s an incredible amount of hand sewing that goes with all of costumes.  We didn’t want it to feel like it was done by a sewing machine.”  Wilkinson flew to Australia to have a first fitting with Russell Crowe (The Insider).  “It was his first contact with the production so we were introducing him to the aesthetic and the thinking behind the design of the film.  We had lots of discussions about what that was.  We had these shapes and silhouettes we were trying on him. There was lot of to and fro of ideas and how we saw the character.  Russell did help to shape the final look of the costume; he wanted it to have a strong heroic silhouette.  We worked hard at that.”

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 “Methuselah [Anthony Hopkins] is the oldest known person on Earth,” states Michael Wilkinson.  “I’m especially proud of the textiles we produced for him.  I was working with an incredible textile artist named Matt Reitsma [Jupiter Ascending]; he helped to create many of the incredible fabrics that you see in Noah.  Matt did everything from laminating three or four fabrics together, etched things with acid, rubberised things, and burnt fabrics.  He did all of these amazing techniques to come up with some beautiful and unusual fabrics.  What you see with Methuselah is this amazing fabric which is laminated with an inner fabric.  It has a metallic foiling on the inside lining. It’s a beautiful thing that makes Methuselah feel like he’s part of the landscape.”

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“Tubal Cain [Ray Winstone] was an interesting guy because he was from a contrasting world than Noah’s family,” observes Wilkinson.  “He was from the city and represented resources being extracted out of nature, refined and there’s this sense of aggressive consumerism and industry – the worst of capitalism and communism.  He’s a warrior who challenged Noah.  With Tubal Cain we were able to use a lot of animal products.  We used a huge horse tail that is coming off one of his shoulders almost like a beautiful cape.  Tubal Cain has this dried snakeskin as part of his ornamentation that is used as this metaphor through the whole film.  We came up with some fantastic armour for him that looks like plates of raw metal that are sewn together.  With him we were able to show a whole other approach to existing on the planet.”

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“The Aging and Distressing Department was headed up by Matt Reitsma who was our textile artist; we had people assisting him in creating fabrics from scratch as well as making things incredibly old, ancient and handmade.  I was inspired by an artist whose name is El Anatsui; he had an exhibition in New York two years ago.  El Anatsui creates these textures that he hangs on the wall of recycled materials which are sewn together into these incredible fabrics.  They’re made out of beer cans and lids of jars that he makes these incredible textiles with.  I had colleagues in Morocco make fabrics to our specifications and they did in invented and specific ways; they combined together straws and woven them together with twine, wool fibres, leather strips, and all sorts of interesting materials.  They came up with all of these textures that helped us make this world of recycled materials, almost a post-industrial decayed civilization by mixing the old and the new together in an interesting way.”

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“There were certainly times where we felt that we might not quite make it but we always pulled through and got the costumes on the screen but it was definitely hugely ambitious,” states Michael Wilkinson.  “We had hundreds of pieces made and did it mostly in New York City which is unusual.  They haven’t regularly built that scale of costumes for films in many years so we drew upon all of the resources of the city.” The modern shapes and material were utilized for a specific purpose.  “We wanted the costumes to be stark and strong but also be something that the audience could relate to.”  Wilkinson notes, “The combination of ancient history and future metaphor is quite unusual.  I can’t think of other films that had dealt with that concept.   People are going to be compelled by the imagery and story.”

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Images © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Many thanks to Michael Wilkinson for taking the time for this interview.

To learn more visit the official websites for Noah and Michael Wilkinson.

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

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