Thursday, September 11, 2014

Costume Designer Julie Weiss Shares Her Magic

A couple of weeks ago Kathy Grey, my editor at Florida Weekly, called to see if I could attend a talk given by Academy Award-nominated Julie Weiss at Ringling College of Art + Design.  I had a furniture delivery scheduled for the day of the talk, but it wasn't really a hard choice.  Getting a glimpse into the world of costume design easily won out over waiting around for sweaty guys to deliver night stands for my second guest bedroom.

Over the past year, Kathy has coached me about the dos and don'ts of journalism.  One of her pet peeves is when reporters string together a bunch of quotes and call it a story.  It's not typically an issue I have to contend with.  It's often more difficult to get a usable quote than a surplus of gems.  But I found myself scribbling away frantically when I found myself sitting at a desk in a Ringling College auditorium listening to Ms. Weiss.

The article I filed is set out below.  But before you get there, here are a few of Ms. Weiss' pearls of wisdom that didn't make their way into the story.

"When the costume becomes clothing, you know it's the actor becoming the character."

"Imagination costs nothing. You cannot budget it."

"I love dirt."  (This one requires a bit of an explanation.  Designers use dirt and sand to age clothes and add color around sweat stains. How cool is that?)

"We are thieves of other people's memories."

"You don't want the costumes to arrive before the words."  

Julie Weiss

Costume Designer Julie Weiss Shares Her Craft with Ringling Students
By Nanette Crist, Florida Weekly Correspondent

Clothes make the man. Or so said humorist Mark Twain.  

Perhaps nowhere does this statement hold more true than on the big screen. Costumes play a crucial role in an actor’s transformation into his character. They also give the audience visual cues about a character’s personality and the world in which he lives. All without a word having been spoken. 

It is the job of a costume designer to make this magic happen. And Julie Weiss is one of the best. 

Design for Bruce Willis in "12 Monkeys"
From “American Beauty” to “Frida”

While you might not recognize Ms. Weiss’ name, if you’re a moviegoer, you’ve almost certainly seen her work. For the past 25 years, she’s created the costumes for movies as varied as “Steel Magnolias” to “Hitchcock” to “Blades of Glory.” She dressed Selma Hayek and Alfred Molina in “Frida” and Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in “Twelve Monkeys,” receiving Academy Award nominations for her efforts. And did we mention her work on the visually stunning “American Beauty”? The list goes on and on.  

Ms. Weiss recently spoke to an auditorium filled with Ringling College of Art + Design students and community film devotees. And while her talk was punctuated with numerous clips from films on which she worked, she did not take the opportunity to dazzle the audience with stories about the celebrities she’s dressed and the awards she’s won. Instead, she talked about what draws her to the projects she takes on and her philosophy about costume design. 
Costume design as storytelling

Perhaps a bit surprisingly for someone whose career revolves around the visual, it’s words that get Ms. Weiss’ creative juices flowing. She finds little more exciting than reading a script and thinking, “What are these words? I want to be a part of them.” 

Design for Selma Hayek in "Frida"
The reason for this enthusiasm is simple. To Ms. Weiss, the costumes are an integral part of telling the story. And when she is intrigued by a story, she is eager to help the audience go along for the ride. 

Take, for instance, the movie “Frida,” a biopic about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The possibilities for costumes to aid in the development of Frida’s character thrilled Ms. Weiss. But before she put pencil to paper, there was work to be done. She researched the politics and culture of Mexico during the first half of the 20th century. She studied Ms. Kahlo’s paintings. She pored over pictures of Ms. Kahlo throughout her life. The vibrant costumes she created reflect Frida’s politics and defiant nature and acceptance of herself for who she was. They embody Frida’s character and helped actress Selma Hayek become Frida. 

Honoring the project

Ms. Weiss acknowledged that it’s only human nature for a costume designer to want her work to be truly seen, perhaps to even be the focal point. But, she said, “If this is your goal, put a brassiere on a tree.”  

Instead, she views costume design as a collaborative effort. “[My] responsibility is to bring the director’s vision to life,” she said. The director, she explained, sees the whole picture in a way that others do not. 

Ms. Weiss repeatedly used the word “honor” when speaking about her work. Her goal is to create designs that honor the director’s vision and the story rather than establish her own signature style. 

And then there’s “Blades of Glory”

Ms. Weiss’ choice of projects tends towards messy stories filled with ambiguity. These tales enable her to pay attention to characters who might otherwise go unnoticed and to provide them with a bit of dignity.  

Even Ms. Weiss, though, sometimes longs to create costumes that go over the top. And so she found herself in 2006 working on the hilarious “Blades of Glory,” a film whose characters would never be described as dignified. The movie stars Will Ferrell and Jon Heder as rival figure skaters who team up to compete as the first male duo in a national figure skating championship.  

A character’s wardrobe is typically a combination of pieces specifically created for the project and items purchased or discovered at a costume shop. For “Blades of Glory,” Ms. Weiss found herself laboriously sewing on the stones in Mr. Ferrell’s and Mr. Heder’s sequin-laden, form-fitting costumes. She says she still has scars on her fingers as a remembrance of the film. She also has an Award for Excellence in a Contemporary Film from the Costume Designers Guild for her work. 

Costume design for opera "Carmen"
Screen versus stage

These days, Ms. Weiss’ name tends to be associated with major motion pictures. She enjoys mixing it up a bit, though, with work for television and the stage. In fact, Ms. Weiss’ mantle bears two Emmy Awards for the 1984 primetime movie “The Dollmaker” and the 1995 mini-series “A Woman of Independent Means (Part 1).” She also earned a Tony nomination for her work in the original production of “The Elephant Man” on Broadway. 

Ms. Weiss answered eager students’ questions about how creating costumes for a stage performance is different than designing for the screen. The most significant challenge, she said, stems from the fact that movies are shot out of sequence. When an actor is available to film, his costumes must be ready, regardless of whether his character appears in the first scene or the last. This makes it difficult to “design between the words,” as Ms. Weiss likes to do.    

Stage productions, on the other hand, progress in a more orderly fashion, with a set schedule for dress rehearsals for the entire cast. And yes, costumes for the stage are somewhat “bigger” than those for film as they are designed with audience members in the balcony in mind. 

It’s a wrap

After years in the trade, Ms. Weiss has come to recognize the moment when an actor and his costume have become one. That’s when you stop designing, she says, and “have a little funeral for all the things you wanted to add.” 

It’s this knowledge—together with her creativity and unerring eye--that makes Julie Weiss an artist in the world of costume design.  It’s also what ensures that we will continue to see her work on screen and stage for years to come. 



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