Red Stewart chats with costume designer Michael O’Connor about A Private War….
Michael O’Connor is an English costume designer who has been working in the film and television industries since the 1990s. He is best known for his work on projects like The Duchess, Jane Eyre, and Dredd.
Flickering Myth had the chance to talk to him about his designs for A Private War, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Mr. O’Connor, thank you so much for speaking with me. You’ve done work on some of my favorite movies, so this is an honor.
Well, thank you.
Well speaking of my favorite movies, I have to ask you about Dredd as I loved it. You and Diana Cilliers did such a great a job at taking the comic book aesthetic and making it gritty and realistic. I’m wondering, it didn’t too well at the box office, but in the years since have you personally noticed a greater appreciation for your work on it? Cause Dredd seems to have a cult following at this point.
There are several things about Dredd. I’m sad that it didn’t get the recognition or rather the right amount of people seeing it, though I believe that had to do with the way it was marketed. But yeah, afterwards I got requests from people who are involved in making costumes, contacting me about an increased interest – people want to reproduce it and they wear it to those Comic Cons and conventions and stuff like that. So I was very proud of it. I thought we did a good job on those beautiful suits by going back to the original comics and the original books and looking at the illustrations and doing it that way, not so theatrical.
I enjoyed it. It was well done. People seem to think it was a good interpretation, so I am very pleased with it. But it was a short involvement because it was just the uniforms and the judges and the officials and things. However, it was a pleasure to do the film, and it was great to work with Alex Garland, who was involved in writing and producing it. He was very inspirational in how it developed.
No I agree, Alex Garland is an amazing producer and writer, and you definitely did a good job bringing forward that comic book look. I also agree entirely that it was marketed poorly as I remember I didn’t see any TV spots or trailers in the U.S. until after it had come out.
Yeah, it’s very strange. I thought that it was odd because surely everyone that went to see it really enjoyed it. Now someone keeps contacting me about a television series. Is there a television series planning?
Yes, there was a television project announced in the works, and I remember Karl Urban was in talks with those creators. But we haven’t heard any updates in like a year, so who knows if it’s going through or not. I hope they consult you for sure if it does.
[laughs] No, I think people always want to have another look at it, a fresh look at it, that’s the way they do things nowadays.
Yeah, that’s unfortunately true. Thank you for indulging that question, Now let’s talk about A Private War. This is biographical movie about iconic journalist Marie Colvin. I’ll start off with an obvious question- what was it like designing the eyepatch that came to be famously associated with Ms. Colvin? Was it easier or harder than what it seemed?
Actually, it was kind of tricky, believe it or not, because we did have so many options. Looking at the references and looking at Marie’s life, obviously we started from the time she got the eye injury and so throughout her life the eyepatch sometimes changed.
Rosamund has one face and Marie has another face, a different kind of face: Rosamund’s face is much smaller, so it was designed around Rosamund. And then the shapes were changed and what became a really important thing to look at everyday was the angle of the strap of the back where it went over the forehead and how and where it touched the hair and where it came at the back.
That was a constant thing we were looking at. When we were designing it, you’d think we would maybe just buy an eyepatch [laughs], but they were constantly being altered. The eyepatch was brought out on the screen in the close-ups, meaning we had to bring multiples for fear of losing any. Every time there was a change of one or a remake of one we would look at it and think “maybe it’s just a bit too big or was just a wee bit small by a couple of millimeters all along the circumference.” So we would always be changing them, and then changing them again times five or something!
And then there were glittery ones and ones where she’s in the hospital ones that were made because apparently in real life she did occasionally wear sparkly varied eyepatches to parties and things.
Oh wow, that’s intriguing to learn about. It’s easy for people to look at art and think it’s a simple process, but Leonardo da Vinci famously took years just to get the Mona Lisa’s nose right, so it makes sense what you’re saying.
Yeah, it is kind of strange, because when you look at it, when you watch a film that you’ve worked on, it goes by so quickly since you’re literally, for the first time, looking at your work altogether, and you just think of the size of the box that the eyepatches were kept in, which was massive. And it can’t be that you would have it for something so simple.
But yes, you’re right, it became quite a dominant thing, especially repositioning the strap and putting it on correctly so that it would go exactly as Marie had it: instead of going around the side of her head, it went over the top of her head. Rosamund was very very keen, at all points, to get that aspect of it right, as was I.
And it shows through her amazing performance and the top-notch costume design. Speaking of that, Marie Colvin is of course a relatively recent historical figure. As such, there is a lot of footage of not just her but the places she traveled to. Did you watch any of that to help with your designs, or were you more independent because of the distinction between a documentary and film?
Well, what was kind of interesting was because, having worked with several directors now that have come from documentaries like Kenny MacDonald and now Matthew Heineman, I ended up looking at loads of footage. I mean we looked at all of the footage from Sri Lanka for example and all the people that were in charge and everything. In Sri Lanka, we went to many represented war zones, and to represent Sri Lanka we had to print the camouflage for the uniforms because you can’t buy that camouflage anymore. I tried to buy it, but we had to print it before we made the uniforms of the guides, the Tamil Tigers, that were taking her through the landscape.
So, just on that alone, we were looking at the real stuff, real footage of Sri Lanka at the time, real reference of it, and things about Marie that we could find out that she had. We had quite a good access to old photographs of Marie.
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