An interview with Eastern Washington native and former Seattle resident Colleen Atwood, an eight-time Academy Award nominee for costume design, and a two-time winner (for "Chicago" and "Memoirs of a Geisha"). She could well be in the awards mix this year for two films: "Alice in Wonderland," with longtime collaborator Tim Burton, and "The Tourist."
You may not know Colleen Atwood’s face, but you’ve seen her clothes. The Eastern Washington native and former Seattle resident is an eight-time Academy Award nominee for costume design, and a two-time winner (for “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha”). And she could well be in the awards mix this year for two films: “Alice in Wonderland,” with longtime collaborator Tim Burton, and “The Tourist,” which opened in theaters this weekend.
Atwood, in a phone interview earlier this week from Los Angeles, remembered living in Seattle for “a few years” in the ’70s, where she studied painting at Cornish College of the Arts and worked in retail, most notably in the Yves St. Laurent boutique at Frederick & Nelson. She drew on that fashion background for “The Tourist,” a thriller set in contemporary Venice and starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.
“It needed to be sort of minimalist chic, set against the rich backdrops of the Venetian buildings and colors,” said Atwood of the film’s simple, classic clothing. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) specifically wanted to re-create the cool elegance of an Alfred Hitchcock movie — “to revisit that world in the atmosphere of a contemporary story.”
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Among Jolie’s costumes are two vintage pieces found by Atwood: a gray Charles James dress (“It’s very rare to find a Charles James dress and it’s very rare to find one that anyone can actually fit into!”), and a suit by the designer Irene, known midcentury for both her movie costumes and her own line of couture fashion. The rest were designed by Atwood and made by hand by her crew, including a stunning black ball gown inspired by 19th-century paintings — “a blur of black against a rich background” — and made of vintage lace mixed with pleated tulle.
Depp’s costumes in the movie are simple, almost plain suits (“He plays the kind of guy that deserves a second look but doesn’t necessarily get it”) — a far cry from his fanciful attire in “Alice in Wonderland,” where he played a redheaded, forlornly demented Mad Hatter. Atwood described the process of finding the materials for his signature, faintly sparkling hat: “It needed to be something that had gone through a sort of holocaust-y moment in his life; it was a remnant, as was his costume, of another time.” In Italy, Atwood found a piece of charred, laser-cut leather embroidered in gold thread, and bought it immediately. “I thought it would be wonderful for the hat, instead of the usual felt. It just took it to a different place.”
Atwood, who’s been working with Burton and Depp since “Edward Scissorhands” 20 years ago, described “Alice in Wonderland” as a “candy box” of a project. She worked closely with the hair and makeup departments in developing each character’s look; particularly Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, whose head was digitally enlarged in the film. “We wanted to make that heart-shaped head work with her costume, so it was a key part. When you make someone’s head bigger, you lose their neck!” And Depp’s hat “didn’t mean anything without the hair — you can’t pick a hat without knowing the hair that goes under it.”
Though Atwood says she does little sewing herself (“I work with cutters and sewers who are such much superior to me!”), she loves the process of choosing fabrics for costumes, which can often take the form of a treasure hunt. For the aged-looking Victorian-inspired costumes of “Sweeney Todd,” for example, she described finding vintage fabrics, “so they had a base of rot setting in already” and then overprinting and aging them,” so that the costumes worn by Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter) would seem as if they’d been packed away in a trunk.
Atwood’s movie career began in the ’80s, after she’d moved to New York — and with a chance encounter. “I met someone whose mother was designing the sets for ‘Ragtime,’ and I ended up getting a PA [production assistant] job on that movie. I just kind of kept going, struggling through the years until I got a few breaks, sort of got a career.”
She met Burton through a production designer with whom she’d done “Joe Vs. the Volcano,” and a longtime friendship and collaboration was born. They’ve completed seven films together (which also include “Sleepy Hollow,” “Ed Wood,” “Big Fish,” and “Planet of the Apes”) and will next team up for “Dark Shadows,” based on the ’60s soap opera and starring Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins.
“Tim and I hit it off really well in our first interview,” Atwood said. “We had a few laughs, and we’ve been laughing ever since.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org