It’s breaking box office records and winning critical plaudits around the world – but Wonder Woman would be nothing without its threads. Sean Wilson talks to Oscar-winning costumer Lindy Hemming about the movie…
After several false starts the DC Extended Universe has finally got itself on track with Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins’ terrific, character-led blockbuster that fuses striking action with humour and surprising levels of pathos and emotion.
There’s lots to admire about the movie, Gal Gadot’s winning central performance for one, and one of its greatest achievements resides in the level of costume design. I caught up with designer Lindy Hemming, responsible for the likes of Topsy-Turvy, Casino Royale and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, about the challenges of communicating Wonder Woman’s design to a contemporary audience.
So in your words Lindy, how do you define the role of a costume designer and what is your role in terms of pulling audiences further into the drama?
Oh, gosh. Well I think that without being too obtrusive, we should assist the actors, director and other storytellers – we’re all storytellers, after all – in giving the characters an extra dimension. We should make it easier for the audience to find out who the characters are by giving them more information. But it shouldn’t be done in a showy way. It should be subtly helping.
To that end of course you start work prior to filming, collaborating with the director and the designers. You draw on your own research, putting together storyboards of images that interest you and so on. You build up a picture of what you think the character will be like. Then you use those visual items and present them to both the actors and the producers, so you keep everyone on track with what it is you’re meant to be doing. That’s about my best shot!
Was there a particular movie that inspired you to become a costume designer for cinema?
No, because actually I started work in the theatre and I was there for a long time. It’s through the theatre that I ultimately became a costume designer. I went to RADA and wasn’t certain what it was that I wanted to do. But I went there because I knew I’d like to work in the theatre. And whilst there I became inspired by watching the actors and thinking about the contribution that costume makes to the performance.
I did all sorts of theatre, National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and places like that, and then I started working for directors like David Hare and Mike Leigh. So I was brought along with them into film, and that’s how it started.
You mentioned Mike Leigh there and you’ve worked across an extraordinary host of different films, from Leigh’s works to the James Bond blockbusters to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. What’s the secret to great communication with the director and the rest of the crew?
Well being collaborative is the most important thing. There have been, of course, designers who have made standalone costumes but my approach is being collaborative with regard to the entire film. So I try to work closely with directors, and I’ve been very lucky to work with those who allow a sense of space.
I’m trying to work out what they’re trying to say. To work with them and to talk with them and to try and see what vision they have, all the while trying to further that vision. That’s what I learned from the likes of Mike Leigh and that’s what extends to my work with people like Christopher Nolan and Patty Jenkins. To be more than helpful, essentially.
Is is a bigger challenge to design for a movie like Four Weddings and a Funeral, which is rooted in a more recognisable kind of reality, than something more overtly fantastical like the Bond movies?
Yes is the answer to that. The challenges in making a contemporary film are unrecognised, I feel. So many great designers are working on contemporary films and nobody credits them with anything at all.
When the audience already knows what people look like and yet maybe haven’t thought about it fully, that’s the definition of subtle work. It really helps with characterisation, especially in humorous films, which is what I’m most interested in. Those small details, or sometimes large details, are often the things that give an extra kick to the character.
I think it’s an awful thing that contemporary costume design isn’t recognised in the same way as, say, period costume, because in that instance you have a lot of parameters and people are a lot more accepting of what you do.
Because surely if someone’s looking at something that takes place in the modern-day, they’ve got a greater frame of reference?
Absolutely, they definitely have.
Onto Wonder Woman, then. So this is a character whose image is famous not just from the comics but also the 1970s Lynda Carter TV series. How did you work with director Patty Jenkins to update Gal Gadot’s take on the character?
Well it’s important to remember that the Wonder Woman costume existed, as worn by Gal Gadot, in Batman v Superman before I came onto this project. So my job really was to work out a back story logic to the whole of the Amazons, which helps one understand why she ultimately puts on that costume to become Wonder Woman.
You’ll see in the movie the background to the Amazons and their island home, Themyscira. I was trying to find a why of explaining how the classic Wonder Woman costume could have come out of their culture. That’s how I approached it.
And there are of course hundreds of different costumes in the movie. There are 1918 costumes, there are costumes from thousands of years ago worn by the Amazons, so it was a big challenge to design. It was all about working towards that design that Michael Wilkinson had established in Batman v Superman.
You know, making costumes for superhero movies is fascinating. You don’t just make clothes from fabric but you get to work in a much more technical realm. A world of plastics and metals and molds directly onto the bodies of the actors. There was tonnes of that in the making of Wonder Woman. Much more technical design that’s aligned to the characters and performers.
This is a rare superhero movie that not only occupies the mystical realm of Themyscira but also a historical setting in the form of World War I. What sort of visual opportunities does that afford to you and your team when it comes to making the costumes?
I think the challenge was to create an idyllic world where, although they train for potential war against Ares, it’s still peaceful, and then to contrast that with the workings of the Great War. When Diana leaves Themyscira she enters a man’s world and we wanted her to have a very bleak view, initially, of what war is. It’s the first time she even realises there is a war. You get her into the horrors of war and therefore colour-wise, design-wise, you can bring a different colour palette into play.
That’s one of my challenges. The other of course is that this is a film with humour. Ultimately this is a comic book world and we need to have a sense of heightened reality among the principal actors’ costumes so that Diana’s costume doesn’t seem so outrageous or out-of-place. The people in the movie aren’t caricatures, that’s not the right word, but they’re characterful. That will hopefully help the audience in not seeing her costume as weird.
Wonder Woman is a very complex character because on the one hand she’s a young woman and yet she’s also a warrior as well. How did your design of her capture that journey because, as I discussed with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams, she goes on a very noticeable arc throughout the movie.
So the costumes on Themyscira are almost like sportswear in a way, archaic sportswear, because that’s really that’s what the Amazons are. I researched a lot of modern sportswear and training gear and I called what they wear on Themyscira their “training armour”.
So with Diana, we start the movie with her as a child and she is sporty and active and also very, very well-educated. So her clothing is relatively innocent until the moment when she leaves, during which time she finds the armour, puts it on and starts the process of becoming Wonder Woman. She leaves the island as Wonder Woman.
So there’s that first part of her character arc: finding the costume of a warrior. Then the second part of her arc is to design a cloak that she wears to hide her armour as she leaves the island and heads towards London and the world of men. That’s the middle part of her story whereby she hides her armour.
Also at this point she tries on the fashions of the time and she hates them. There’s a lot of humour to be had in her trying on these clothes and that’s greatly helped by the fact that Gal is very funny, that she’s able to act funny.
It’s a real development for her: preparing to go into battle, being forced to accept that men won’t allow her to fight, and then finding a suitably tomboyish outfit, one that won’t look ridiculous and which also covers up her Wonder Woman armour. Then of course when she gets to the war itself she reveals herself in superheroic fashion as Wonder Woman, and she then proceeds as Wonder Woman.
It’s a great thing for a costume designer to do. It’s a lovely story, a lovely arc and something you almost never get to do. I’ve done it obviously with Batman but by that point, he’d already been done about 100 times! A girl’s story allows you to have a bit more fun with the costumes, and in terms of the period designs some of the things people used to wear were quite silly anyway.
She also has to go to a ball at one stage, incognito, yet she still has to have her sword with her. So you’ll see that she has a very beautiful evening dress and her weapon is almost like a piece of jewellery. That’s part of the fun, and the fact that she also looks stunning. From the point of the blue dress onwards she remains Wonder Woman. It’s a really rich opportunity for a costume designer.
Just one last question, then. Significantly this is the first comic book movie to be directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins. What was it like working with her and what was her vision for the movie?
We worked together very, very hard for several months in the beginning, nailing everything that we could before we started shooting. So I’d say she’s a focused director and she had always wanted to do Wonder Woman anyway for years. So she had strong ideas, albeit more about how the storytelling should be. She was totally receptive and collaborative about costume because she loves costume and clothes.
This was probably the biggest costume team she’d ever worked with and I have to say she had time for everybody. And everybody really loved her. She would come to the costume department and talk to everyone about what they were doing. It’s so rare for a big costume department to be aware of how appreciative the director is. I hope I get to work with her again because I really, really enjoyed her company.
Also, maybe because she’s a woman, there was a much more down to Earth approach in the communication between her and everybody else. I saw people talking to her all the time about other things, not just the film, which is really rare. People are usually so wound up and involved that they don’t think to talk much about life or what’s going on in the world. Patty has an interest in the world as well as an interest in the film itself.
Many thanks to Lindy Hemming for taking the time for this interview.
Sean Wilson is a journalist, writer and soundtrack enthusiast and can be found on Twitter @Seano22.