Interview: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Talks ‘Into the Woods,’ ‘Big Eyes,’ & Career


As a thorough critic, I look at absolutely everything when deconstructing a movie – including the costumes. Over the years I have mentioned Colleen Atwood on many occasions in reviews, all in a good way because she is brilliant. Among her 2014 work is Into the Woods, a major new release from Disney based on the Tony-winning musical that combines and revises a variety of classic Brothers Grimm stories. She is a humble three-time Oscar winner and someone who loves the craft she so perfectly creates, which includes the evil Lector mask in The Silence of the Lambs and the iconic Edward Scissorhands.

Colleen Atwood – So, there is a Newcastle in Australia. I saw your name and location then thought, wait, I only knew of Newcastle in England and a Gosford, too, as a matter of fact. Who knew?

Shane A. Bassett – Right, just like in Gosford Park, and yes, the Newcastle here is vastly different, better.

SAB – You have won three Academy Awards – do you keep them anywhere in particular?

CA – I have a little work area in my house, they are on a shelf next to a bunch of costume books. It’s nice; they are there working, kind of holding up books.

SABFresh Horses is one of the great romances. I loved your work on that classic.

CA – Oh my god that goes back. It was fantastic to work on and look at the cast – Ben Stiller was just starting out, and all were brilliant.


SAB – How far in advance do you usually find out you’re a designer on projects?

CA – Depends on the film or director. With a director I have known a long time, if they know what they are doing next I get an alert or heads up that something is happening in the next few months, other times I get a call out of the blue, “Hey! I got a movie. Are you available?” I then think it would have been great to know this already but mostly it works out. Sometimes directors are really secretive, not calling until the last minute, then I read in the trade press they are into something and I think, “I wonder who they hired?” Then a day later I get the phone call. You never know; it can be a humbling experience being chosen.

Credit: Women’s Wear Daily

SAB Into the Woods was in development for years. Were you always involved?

CA – No, it was set up, it went away, it came back, and I was actually prepping a different movie for Rob (Marshall) until it went down, then all of a sudden Into the Woods rose to the surface again. It’s something Rob always wanted to do and it was suddenly there, he was there, it just happened. That’s the way the film industry is anyway – I was on board at the last minute.


SAB – Was Into the Woods more of a challenge than usual? Did you change concepts to suit your vision or go with the Brothers Grimm source art?

CA – I used some elements of the Brothers Grimm artwork, but I used my memories of how I remembered it in the 60s so I had that take on it. That was to keep it not too typical and I had never seen the Broadway play before I got the film. It was fresh material to me, I didn’t look back on the play when I started, and I felt it was more liberating not to. Moving ahead in the world that I was creating seemed right.

SAB – Are you on set at all times in case alterations are needed?

CA – Oh yeah, especially on productions like that when you have people that are doing so much work in the costumes. If I’m not physically on the filming set, I’m only like 50 feet away in my workroom. I go back and forth not standing there like a costumer all day pestering people, but I’m definitely present.


SAB – How do you juggle multiple productions simultaneously, such as Big Eyes and Into the Woods?

CA – It depends on the scale or what they are. With Big Eyes I did all of the sittings for the crowds and principles ahead of time. Making costumes before shooting? The casting was in place, money on it was extremely tight, they didn’t want me on the show all the time financially, and I set it up and then had a key assistant run the show. Being shot in Vancouver I used someone I have a long working history with as a supervisor; we did Little Women. People I knew and trusted, while Tim (Burton) and I have a long time trusting relationship, so I was able to come back and forth. Then once Into the Woods began I had to stay really close to that.

SAB – Do you get booked in advance years ahead by regular directors you have worked for?

CA – I never count on that and you never know.

SAB – Do you get requests from actors to keep articles of clothing?

CA – Sometimes they want something, usually little things, but if they don’t have the costume contractually in their deal it becomes archived at the studios. Especially if they are major props like Into the Woods, so much labor involved. If it’s modern day clothes not so much. Thankfully across the studios they archive costumes, some actors archive themselves in their deal. In my experience they are beautifully run. It’s all organized in a perfect way. It’s tricky to be able to give one of mine away unless there are really lots of them. I might add I have nothing kept from across all my films, how weird (laughs).

SAB – I find that amazingly hard to believe.

CA – I know. Pieces of fabric, swaths of material, but no costumes themselves.

SAB – Maybe you could have a side business making bridal gowns.

CA – (laughs) You know, I have made only three wedding dresses in my time. Two were for my daughters and one for someone else. But I do have a handbag line I’m launching soon and I would like to get into a few high end clothing things, but wedding dresses may not be one of them.

SABNine was much underrated. I loved it. Do you ever become disappointed when some of your films don’t find an audience?

CA – Sometimes, yes, with Nine, or movies I believe were a lot of fun that I think people will connect with, they just don’t give it a chance. It’s always kind of sad to me, it’s effort, and I like the movies, so you never know how they will turn out as movies when you’re working on them.

SAB – Does it help working with talent such as Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp on Into the Woods, having collaborated with them before? Is it just a breeze?

CA – Nothing’s a breeze; if they don’t challenge you, you challenge yourself. They have trust in you to do something great – I acknowledge that trust which is coming from a very high level, and it’s intimidating in a different way.

SAB – Is it easier to dress men or women performers?

CA – It’s strangely equal, sometimes the men can be much trickier than anyone realizes, or the women are complicated. You’re dealing with actors under pressure figuring out who they are, so I put them together as actors, not men or women. As actors the gender thing doesn’t really come into play. We all work together.

SAB – You worked on both Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs – was it your decision to change how Hannibal Lector was dressed in each film?

CA – Yes, I have a funny story about that. When I got Silence of the Lambs, it was early days with Jonathan (Demme), who just completed Married to the Mob, and prior to that Manhunter, for Michael Mann. Jonathan didn’t know me that well but I found out he really did not want to hire the crew from Manhunter to do Silence of the Lambs. He hired me, then the producer looked at my credentials rolling his eyes saying, “Oh my god, she did Manhunter (laughs). The whole movie I was saying to myself, “I haven’t told Jonathan.” But it was a different time, different actors, and different scenario. It didn’t matter in the end, but it’s pretty funny.

SAB – Did you design the iconic face mask Anthony Hopkins wore?

CA – I did, it was so simple. I have a really good story about the mask. We sent it to a guy to be made from a drawing, and all I wanted was a hockey style mask. He sent it back to me in raw fiberglass to check before it was to be painted and glazed. It totally looked like it was made out of a piece of skin or leather. Straight away I said, it’s so much better doing it this way than doing anything else to it. So that’s how that mask came to be. That’s back in the day when multiples were not regularly made or marketed so I think only two of those masks exist in the world.

SAB – What inspirations did you have growing up as a young designer?

CA – Growing up I wanted to be a painter, so it wasn’t my dream to make costumes; I wanted to be an artist. When I began desiring to come into film was during the 1970s. The first movie I saw that was jaw-droppingly stunning to me other than Wizard of Oz, which I had always loved funnily enough not from a costume standpoint, was The Leopard. Seeing that for the first time in my twenties at some weird film festival in Seattle, I remember coming out of that movie into a massive snowstorm which was unusual there, then just kind of saying “This is what I want to do.” The Leopard was the movie convincing me to become a costume designer. From a costume standpoint it is impeccable, beautiful.

SAB – Working with him so many times, what can you tell me within reason about Johnny Depp that maybe nobody else knows?

CA – Hopefully there are many things people don’t know about Johnny; it’s hard enough for him to keep private or away from the limelight on downtime. However, I will say as a person in the room when you’re with him he is absolute magic, so kind, such a decent human being to the people that he knows and loves. Takes care of his family and close friends, he never forgets the people he grew up with. Put it that way and I have had the pleasure of working with Johnny since Edward Scissorhands.

SAB – Thank you so much for your time. Good luck with that handbag range, if you bring it down under I’ll be happy to endorse it, not use them. Also good luck with possible Oscar nominations for Into the Woods and Big Eyes.

CA – (Laughs) We can get them out there. Thank you Shane.


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