Anthony Powell is a British costume designer for stage and screen. He has won three Academy Awards, for Travels with My Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile (1978) and Tess (1979). He has worked with directors such as Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, George Cukor, Robert Altman and David Lean. Among the stars who have worn his creations are Paul Newman, Bette Davis, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Roger Moore, Maggie Smith, Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp.
To mark the BFI’s Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) release of Tess, he talks to Patrick Fahy about his career.
Tess was the first of four films you’ve made with Roman Polanski.
Roman’s extraordinary. He could do the job of anyone on the set, except, possibly the costumes. He says he knows nothing about costumes but I don’t think it’s true; he always knows instinctively if something is right or not. In real life, we have very little in common, but in work, we have this extraordinary telepathy. Every time we’ve worked together, he just rings me up and gives me one sentence, and I just go away and do it, because I see exactly what he’s got in his mind. When he asked me to do Pirates (1986), he said, “17th century, and I love all those enormous wigs and huge hats.” Immediately I saw the whole picture. I don’t think we ever discussed it again.
Is it true that the costumes for Tess had an influence on the fashion world?
Yes. It happens a great deal. Look at Bonnie and Clyde (1967), with the beret and the cardigans. It had a huge impact. And I once realised that whenever I did a period film that had interesting or amusing hats, one or two of those would always appear in the next Paris collections. After Tess came out, girls everywhere started wearing the blouses with puffed shouldered sleeves. I saw them all over the world. And Ralph Lauren did all these Tess-type clothes for three consecutive seasons, which he called ‘the Prairie Look’. It’s very flattering. There’s nothing you can do about it. I mean, we all work the same way, because when you’re designing something, you are on the lookout the whole time, if you’re on the bus or the tube or walking down the street, and even if it’s a period film, you’re looking for ideas.
Now, at the time we were doing Tess, Laura Ashley was making these beautiful romantic dresses using fabrics that were all exact reproductions of 19th-century printed cottons. So I went there with my assistant, wonderful Joanna Johnston, thinking they’d have loads of stuff that we could buy by the yard. Which indeed they did. And I just happened to mention that we wanted to use these printed cottons for quite a few of the costumes for the film, because I thought they’d like to know, and they said, “Oh no, you can’t do that; you’d have to get permission.”
And the joke is that Joanna somehow knew Laura Ashley and some time after the film came out she was staying with the Ashleys at their country house. Now, Laura didn’t know that Joanna had worked on Tess, and after dinner on Saturday night, she said, “I hope you don’t mind but we always watch Tess on Saturday nights, because it’s just full of such good ideas that we can copy!” Isn’t that the funniest thing ever? The shop wouldn’t let us use them because we’d need permission, but they’re nicking all the ideas.
When you’re designing for a period film, how much are you guided by the research, and how much is it from the imagination?
Totally the research. I mean, nowadays, films are thrown together at a minute’s notice and nobody has the luxury of doing it any more. For Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) they had a year’s preparation. Nowadays you can’t even imagine that. They approached me to do Bel Ami (2012), a very good script and a big production with banquet scenes, balls and a wedding in the Madeleine in Paris. Almost as an afterthought I said, “When are you starting shooting?” And they said, “In two weeks’ time!” I said, “Excuse me – !”
What time scale would you expect to prepare for a film like that?
Three months would be pushing it. You’d have to work jolly hard.
What difference is there between designing for the stage and for the screen?
It took me a long time to realise this, but you see more of the costumes on the stage. I was trained in the theatre, so I was trained to do top to bottom. So I’ve always done wigs and make-up and the whole lot. Very, very difficult in films now because so many of the hair and makeup people come from television, where they’re taught that the costume designer’s work stops at the neck. You get into real problems with some of those very intractable people who think you’re telling them how to do their job. I would never go in and trample on anyone, but we need to co-operate. It’s just trying to get an all-over, coherent look to the whole thing.
You must have to employ a few tricks of the trade at times.
I remember doing Sorcerer (1977), Billy [William] Friedkin’s remake of the amazing French cliff-hanger The Wages of Fear (1953). Billy thought that if he took the same subject but threw millions and millions at it, it would be a million times as good. Well, no! Doesn’t work like that.
But I remember that Roy Scheider had a long, long sequence of travelling through many countries and deserts and swamps, always wearing the same shirt and trousers. Each country had a different coloured earth, so his clothes got more and more broken down with different colours and aged, in a way that you couldn’t copy. At the end of every week, we would take this same shirt and trousers out of his trailer, saying, “We’re just taking these to the cleaners for next week.” We’d spray it all with disinfectant, and let that evaporate over the weekend so you couldn’t smell it, and then we put a cleaners’ transparent bag over the top of it and hung it back in his trailer for Monday morning. So he wore the same shirt and trousers every day for about six months, the poor man, and never realised.
Being in charge of the costumes, you have to be there, presumably, from the start of the day right through to the end.
Absolutely. I mean, everybody works differently, but I’m sort of hands-on. From bitter experience, I would be there every second that they’re shooting, because the minute you go away, something always goes wrong. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun (1982), everybody was dressed in period costume from top to toe. They had the correct period underwear, everything. James Mason was fully dressed for a scene, including some original 1930s period braces that I’d given to his dresser. I had to go away and do fittings, and when I came back, the director had decided in mid-scene that he wanted him in his shirt sleeves. Which shouldn’t have been any problem, except that the dresser hadn’t given him the period braces and he’d got modern clip-ons. And there they are in the film. I just crinkle up inside every time I see that.
What was it like working with a dozen or more stars for the Agatha Christie films?
Those casts were wonderful, because they all realised that if one of them stood out of line, the whole thing would collapse, and they all played the game. Maggie Smith was very funny making Death on the Nile (1978), because everybody was slightly intimidated by Bette Davis (who was wonderful to work with). But Maggie and Bette had to play scenes together sitting in chairs facing each other, and Maggie kept having problems with her lines. She said she would look across and see Bette Davis talking and she kept thinking she was watching The Late Show on television, and she’d keep forgetting her lines.
Do you have a favourite era?
The 1660s, 1670s. Strangely, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually done anything for that era. I like most periods. I love the 1780s, the 1870s. Most periods are interesting. The thing I’ve always dreaded was medieval, which I think now I could do, but also, certainly, Greek and Roman. All those people wrapped in sheets!
And this was very sad, because [circa 2007] Roman Polanski was doing a film called Pompeii, based on the novel by Robert Harris, and when I got the script, most of it seemed to happen in the sewers of Pompeii with Roman sewer workers, and I was flummoxed. I didn’t know how to make it interesting. So I went to see Roman and I said, “Look, I don’t know how to do it.” And he thought… I don’t know what he thought, that I didn’t want to work with him? Nothing could be further from the truth. He was terribly, terribly upset. And afterwards I realised I’d absolutely panicked. Any job, even if you think you can’t do it, once you start working on it, something happens. And something would have here. In the event, the film was cancelled two weeks before they were due to start shooting. But I’m not sure that he ever forgave me for that. I’ve always thought, perhaps wrongly, perhaps I’m being paranoid, that he thought I didn’t want to work with him.
You’ve worked with Polanski on the stage, too.
Yes, we did Amadeus on the Paris stage in the 80s. It was funny because I wasn’t used to working with measurements in the metric system. One day I got a decimal point wrong by one place, and when the prop turned up for the emperor’s throne, it was about 15 feet tall.
What happens to costumes once filming is over?
Usually, they go back to the costume house that made them. It goes into their stock. Producers never understand this, and they say, “Well, I’ve paid for it already, why don’t I get it back?” What they don’t realise is that all their hundreds of background people are dressed in costumes that were probably made as star costumes for other films.
So you sometimes see your costumes turn up again in other films?
Yes, you quite often see that. Or bits of them, or a hat. Usually people alter them.
There must be times when you regret that a costume doesn’t appear properly in the final cut of a film.
It isn’t just that. When we were doing Hook (1991), there was a wonderful, self-contained, 20-minute fantasy musical sequence, brilliantly arranged by Madonna’s choreographer, which was actually the best bit of the film. There were lots of costumes made specially for it, with the whole Pirate Town set full of people; pirate beauticians and everything. It was very witty and had terrific music. It was all shot, but in the end, Steven [Spielberg] cut the whole sequence from the film. It isn’t even on the DVD as an extra.
You must have had fun doing the opening musical number in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), with Kate Capshaw performing Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ in a Shanghai nightclub.
I love musicals. Originally that sequence was just a background for the front titles, and I said to Steven, “Couldn’t we expand this, and at a certain point segue into a sort of fantasy sequence, using about 50 girls in completely different costumes, like a Busby Berkeley number, with Kate running down a long staircase with a billowing cloak behind her?” And he said, “Yes, that sounds good. Do some drawings.”
Sean Connery’s look in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) has become very much part of his film identity.
I based it on my grandfather. He wore beautiful shirts made with wonderful cotton with stripes that you just couldn’t find now. In the script there was no point at which he could change clothes, but the suit was made of a rather thick Harris tweed, and Sean has a thing about heat and he sweats like a pig. Steven came up and said “I’ve just rewritten the script and after Venice we’re going to be shooting in Petra.” Incredibly hot. And Sean said, “There’s no way I’m going to wear this Harris tweed suit in Petra.” So what we had to do was photograph a length of the Harris tweed and then screen-print it onto a thin cotton voile. It cost a king’s ransom!
In a film like Papillon (1973), where they’re all in identical prison uniform, doesn’t that make your work difficult, because you don’t want all the different characters to look alike?
Well you do, really.
But wouldn’t some wear things differently, because they’re different types of people?
But that comes from inside. Having said that, I did do a lot of work on Dustin Hoffman’s uniform. Dustin has always been in very good physical shape, and I had to make him look as weedy as possible. He stood for four hours in a fitting room while I played around with making him seem to have narrow shoulders, and altering subtly the proportions to give him a completely different physical appearance.
He was wonderful because he would do anything that helped the part. In the book his character was described as having these spectacles with enormously magnifying lenses. I thought it would be a marvellous graphic image on the screen, but that if we gave him such thick glasses he was going to fall over all the time. He’d never worn contact lenses, but we went to an optician in New York to see if they could make contact lenses with the opposite strength to the actual glasses so he’d have perfect vision. And it worked. He could see perfectly, and if he took the glasses off he couldn’t see a thing. I don’t think there are a lot of actors that would go through all that.
We hear a lot about body shape today. You must have to play up the strengths and disguise the weaknesses of the stars.
By and large, women tend to be much more realistic about themselves, because they look at themselves in the mirror and they know every single lump and bump. When we were doing Priest of Love (1980), about D.H. Lawrence, Ava Gardner, who was absolutely gorgeous, said, “I don’t care if it’s right or wrong for the period, but you have to give me the highest heels I can actually walk in, because I’ve got no legs.” And when you looked at her, it was true. She was out of proportion, with these very short legs. Or like Bette Davis, who took virtually all her clothes off 10 minutes into our first meeting, saying, “You might as well know what the problems are.” And she was right. I’ve had a lot more men who think they’re just perfect all over. And you couldn’t say, “Well you have got rather a large bum!” So that’s more tricky.
Do you ever have to improvise a costume?
Quite often. When we were doing Death on the Nile, suddenly a new scene was written in and I needed a new costume for Mia Farrow. We were in Egypt, in the middle of nowhere, so I thought what can I make it of? We had just enough pale blue silk in the workshop to make some pyjama trousers, but I needed something amusing to make a little top out of, and there was nothing at all.
But as I wandered around, there was our tailor’s mother, a wonderful cook, making her paella on the stove, using this quite grubby tea towel covered in grease and garlic and olive oil, but it was white linen with multi-coloured stripes which you could just see through all the grease. I thought there will just be enough to make a little waistcoat, if I can get all this filth out. So we boiled it and boiled it till it was sort of the colour it was meant to be, and we whizzed up this very pretty little waistcoat. We did the fitting with Mia, and I gave her a big straw hat, and she said, “I like this, this is very pretty, but can you smell garlic?” I said, “No, I can’t.” She said, “There’s definitely a smell of garlic; where could that be coming from?” I thought, It’s coming from you!
Which costume designers from the past did you most admire when you were starting out?
All of them! Oh well, Adrian and Travis Banton. Travis Banton did Marlene Dietrich’s clothes for her early films, and they are without parallel in the way of the exoticism and fantasy and invention. Nobody’s ever done anything like he’s done for her.
What is it like winning an Oscar?
Obviously, if you’re nominated, you think how wonderful it would be if I won. When you’re actually there, a tiny little bit of you is thinking Gosh, it would be rather super if I won, but far more is, Oh God, I hope I don’t win, so somebody else will have to go up there and make a speech. Really! The agony. I’d rather have all my teeth pulled out without anaesthetic. It’s torture.
The first time I was nominated, in the very early 70s, for Travels with My Aunt, it never occurred to me in a million years that I would win. In those days you had to pay all your own travel expenses, so it was a big deal. I was working on Papillon in Jamaica at the time, so I just stayed with that.
I was in Hollywood when the nominations were announced, and everybody flocked around saying congratulations, and I noticed the very successful designer Donfeld, who had been very kind to me when I first arrived, hanging back and not saying anything. In the end he came over and said, “You probably think it’s weird that I’m not joining in saying I hope you win, but the fact is that, for some reason, for us, for costume designers, it can be bad luck if you win. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just how it is.” So I thought, Oh that’s weird, but I didn’t think any more about it.
On Oscar night, we were in Jamaica, so there’s a time lag, and the phone rang at three o’clock in the morning, and somebody from California said, “You’ve won, you’ve won.” Everybody got up, champagne and all the rest of it, and half an hour later I got a call from a close friend in London to say that the person I loved most in the world had just been killed in a car crash. So the whole Oscar was just ashes in the mouth. And I thought, My God, this is exactly what Don said. It was weird.
Of course it’s thrilling to have an Oscar, because everybody goes through points of life where you’re out of work or feeling untalented or whatever, and it’s a very nice thing to think OK, once upon a time somebody thought I had something to offer. These people who use it as a doorstop – I would never do that. The thought of the number of people that have been kind enough to vote for you, that’s such a morale booster, and it means something.
You won the Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. What did that mean to you?
A great deal. I’m not sure that wasn’t, in a way, the best moment I’ve ever had. I arrived in New York the night before the ceremony thinking I was going to have dinner with my wonderful assistant there and a couple of friends. But this dear man had actually taken over an entire restaurant, and everybody I’d ever worked with was there, from people like Glenn Close to stage managers, to the people from the costume-making shops, and all the other designers. One woman had flown about 1500 miles to be there. It was so moving, that dinner. The ceremony itself was lovely too the next day, but I’ll never forget that dinner. It was a high point.
What would be a high point of cinema for you?
One of my top favourite films is Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). It’s just perfection. When I saw the restored version some years ago, I was really depressed for a long time afterwards, because I thought, This is so superb, this is why I wanted to work in movies, and it’s a world that’s gone now. The sweep and the power and the sense of vision. It was sort of making dreams. And it doesn’t exist any more.
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