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Interview Exclusive Interview: Oscar Winning Costume Designer Jenny Beavan (The Nutcracker & The Four Realms) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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Academy Award winning Costume Designer Jenny Beavan abounds with creative talent. The London native was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 20 for her dedicated services to drama production, and her vibrant filmography is testament to that dedicated and craft. Having served the memorable period Merchant-Ivory classics, including A Room with a View (a collaboration which earned her first Academy Award win), Maurice, and Howard’s End, she has contributed her design prowess to numerous productions big and small.

She has ventured across genres ranging from adaptations of literary classics (Sense and Sensibility) to noir crime drama’s (The Black Dahlia), to action-adventure mysteries (Sherlock Holmes (2009)) and into science-fiction (Life) and the post-apocalyptic (Mad Max Fury Road, a film which would earn her a second Academy Award). Multiple Oscar nominations, and BAFTA nominations and wins, Primetime Emmy’s, Costume Designer Guild Awards, Tony Award nominations – you name it.

For Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, her costume design talents would find an enormous canvas to find form, with elaborate designs for multiple characters, soldiers, regents and much, much more. Home Theater Forum spoke to Jenny Beavan from her home in England.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is available now to rent and own on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD from Disney.

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HTF: In a production like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which is a lavish production filled with so much detail in all the sets and the costuming, what is that first call or first meeting or first day like when you coming to understand the vision that you'll be supporting for the production you're working on?

“With something that's unusual as Nutcracker, there's no reference to what it should look like unlike if you're doing Jane Austin, or even something like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ [where] you've got a lot of photographic evidence.”

Jenny Beavan: Well, I find in most of them, it's a sort of immediate, incredible excitement followed by, "Oh, my God. What have I done?" And I have no idea what it should look like. Which I think is fairly normal. Then, you start working and chipping away at it. The first meeting with everybody sitting around the table and mood boards and all that, you're thinking, "My God. Okay. So that's what it's going to look like. How do I fit in here?" And then you just sort of start finding your way.

I mean, one of the great advantages of being a bit older, which I am although I don't feel it, is that you do have the experience to [not] panic. Just let it come. The ideas will flow. With something that's unusual as Nutcracker, there's no reference to what it should look like unlike if you're doing Jane Austin, or even something like Bohemian Rhapsody [where] you've got a lot of photographic evidence. But this is really out of one's imagination, then it starts to become a bit clearer. You get a little idea here or there and you build on it. And hopefully, it comes together.

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HTF: And what keeps you coming back? I mean, obviously, you're extraordinarily good at it, but outside of that and the enthusiasm at the start of production, what juices you up in the process to keep you coming back again? Because I'm sure you're asked to deliver in half the time with half the amount of money that you ultimately need, but there has to be something that keeps you coming back despite the stressors.

“I love the job and the fact that each job is so different. You go from ‘Mad Max [Fury Road]’ to ‘Child 44’ to ‘Life’ to ‘The Cure for Wellness’ and then ‘Nutcracker’ and ‘Christopher Robin’. I mean, how great is that?”

Jenny Beavan: I mean, I do enjoy it. It's got more difficult. Either there's more control freaks or there's less money and you're expected to do more. [Then] there's more instant communication so things can change all the time which, of course, they couldn't when I started. But you see, I wouldn't know how to retire [laughs]. I do love the challenges of the job. And clearly, I love the job and the fact that each job is so different. You go from Mad Max [Fury Road] to Child 44 to Life to The Cure for Wellness and then Nutcracker and Christopher Robin. I mean, how great is that? And I suppose in a purely practical point of view, I still have a mortgage to pay [laughs].

HTF: That's a very compelling reason to do a lot of things [laughs.

Jenny Beavan: I haven't quite got out of that one yet. Another five, six years and I might do. But even then, I think I'd still want to work.

HTF: Well, it's a passion that drives you!

Jenny Beavan: Oh, yes, there’s a passion. It's a real Marmite job though. Even today, I've gone from the highest to the lowest depending on what idiocies other people are doing. Wonderful moments, [when a director] is so thrilled and loving what we're doing, finding a new way of doing it and then some idiot says, "Well, you can't do that." Money! We can't afford it! It's a fantastic job really. And very collaborative. You're part of a team. You're never lonely. People to work with and friends to be had.

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HTF: With the landscape of bigger productions today which then tend to be more heavily reliant on visual effects, do you get called in to consult with the visual effects artists and help them design or "dress" characters that may never exist in the real world? To make sure it's consistent or in line with the aesthetic, you're developing and designing for the rest of the production?

“On Christopher Robin, we knitted Pooh’s sweater and Roo’s sweaters [and so on], and we had absolute input on [The Voyage of] Doctor Doolittle, [which] hasn't come out yet. And at the moment, I'm doing my first so-called superhero movie and we're doing the bits and pieces and even creating the look for something that will become a visual effect.”

Jenny Beavan: In the films I've done, yes. I've never done those massive Avenger-type ones, so I don't know how they do the big effects characters. [But] the ones I've done, I've always been consulted. On Christopher Robin, we knitted Pooh’s sweater and Roo’s sweaters [and so on], and we had absolute input on [The Voyage of] Doctor Doolittle, [which] hasn't come out yet. And at the moment, I'm doing my first so-called superhero movie and we're doing the bits and pieces and even creating the look for something that will become a visual effect. On Nutcracker, the blue soldiers that come down with Sugar Plum, we made a costume and dressed the guy up. Jenny Shircore did his makeup and hair and then the visual effects scanned him and then took him and used him to become what's obviously a very king soldier look. But, yes, we were completely involved in Nutcracker with anything that was then going to be turned into a visual effect.

HTF: And designing for the regents with their elaborate flower and ice-based flourishes, Richard E. Grant, always fun to watch. Does that kind of design challenge excite you more because there's a little bit more freedom and experimentation and not a reference point, or is it more challenging because there is no reference point for it?

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Jenny Beavan: No. I think it has to be, in my experience anyhow, just more fun to do the things like the regents and that whole thing. Because when there is a reference point, you're always quite worried whether you should follow it or not but this is just straight out of our heads. And that was really great.

HTF: When working with the different actors and you're designing something, are you designing it for the character in the story or does whoever they've hired to play the part influence how you might do something? I think maybe an example would be for Christopher Robin and Ewan McGregor, a wonderful actor. If they had hired, say, Christopher Walken instead, would that have influenced how you might have dressed him?

“…something I'm doing at the moment I haven't been able to design one of the characters because I'm waiting to hear who they cast. And the two choices were so different that you would absolutely not dress one like you'd dress the other…”

Jenny Beavan: I think in that case, not so much because the character's fairly strong. It's circumstance on the time, like, early 1950s is quite strong. And Marc Forster is a wonderful director and very clear with what he wanted. So, I don't think he would've looked very different. But the other characters...something I'm doing at the moment I haven't been able to design one of the characters because I'm waiting to hear who they cast. And the two choices were so different that you would absolutely not dress one like you'd dress the other, so I think that's sort of up to the individual case.

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And there are things like Nutcracker where we were probably dictating more than I would normally dictate about what people are wearing because they were fitting into an imaginary world. And things will happen like Kiera Knightly with the Sugarplum dress, and you’ll start to use the fact that it kind of bounces along as she moves. Every film's different. Every actor's different. In certainly the Christopher Robin case, because he was grey, sad, after the war, and they had limited clothing, you want to be appropriate when you're going into the woods. He couldn't be well-dressed really, in a business suit and a Mac to have her walk in the woods with a bear!

HTF: Well, thank you so much for speaking to me today. It's been a real pleasure.

Jenny Beavan: It was a pleasure! Thank you!
 

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