By Antony Teofilo
I first (quite literally) ran into Albert Wolsky as we milled shoulder-to-shoulder in the pressure cooker that was Gene and Georgetti, the miniscule Italian eatery that played host to the Chicago post-premiere party of ROAD TO PERDITION. We spoke briefly about the triumphant design work on the movie we had just seen, and the unique challenges with which two-time Oscar award winning designer Wolsky had been presented.
While RTP is indeed a gangster movie, it's set in America's Great Depression. You will see no heroic double-breasted suits, sweeping cavalier-like fedoras, flashy spats, or two-tone shoes. It's a grimy world, the grit of which saturates the simple fashion of the period. America was poor, Wolsky told me. In many cases, a man had only one suit to wear. Clothes were worn until they were utterly destroyed, and then thrown out, a fact which limited the pieces of actual vintage clothing available for research purposes. Fabrics were different then, and carried a weight that is not available in today's cloth.
"Without the right fabric, you lose the period," Wolsky contends. "We tested the current fabrics and there was just no way to fake it. The weight dramatically affects the way the clothes move."
Wolsky found a weaver in upstate New York named Rabbit Goody who recreated the much heavier fabrics in the copious amounts the production would require. To view the actors clothed in such dour, flat detail is a bit of a shock: there is no element of glamour or Robin Hood in these gangsters.
I caught up with Mr. Wolsky again the following day, standing in a room where some of his work was exhibited, and then later again at a roundtable session, the results of which are both condensed here:
ANTONY: [Looking at one of Newman's exhibited costumes, a black wool coat and tie] What should this costume tell us about Paul Newman's character [John Rooney]?
WOLSKY: Newman was very always very nattily dressed, but not 'gangster natty'. In fact no one in this movie is dressed like your average gangster. This coat appears later in the film, and we were trying to shrink [Rooney] a bit, make him look as if he's losing weight...
ANTONY: As a result of the conflict between his 'adopted' son and his real son?
ANTONY: A costume that really emphasizes a character's gait and personality is Jude Law's 'Reporter' clothing. He has such a unique physicality. The clothes are draped over him make him almost appear a living skeleton. Can you talk about the development of that costume?
WOLSKY: That's the kind of thing that happens between actor and designer, especially when the actor is very involved and has deep feelings about costume. Jude does. He's also fearless and loves to experiment. As a result, you go places you wouldn't go. [One] can't do it alone. You have to go with the body of the actor. All of [the Reporter's costume] was done very consciously and carefully. I could do things on Jude I couldn't do on any other actor.
I started with all real clothes to get some sort of a shape and get an idea of what to do. Sketches are wonderful, but the body has to wear it. He wanted his pants too short. His shoes were barely held together they were so old.
PRESS: He didn't mind that he didn't look pretty?
WOLSKY: He went out of his way [to look ugly].
ANTONY: When you fit him, do you measure him with the character's slouch?
WOLSKY: No. You measure him totally correctly, and then you compensate. He's got to able to move in them when he stands up.
ANTONY: It's interesting to hear about costuming as a collaborative process. I tend to think about the designer up there on the mountain designating what people wear...
WOLSKY: No, it's mostly collaborative. I prefer it that way.
PRESS: What were the biggest challenges to your costumes throughout the production?
WOLSKY: The rain, and keeping [costumes] dry. We had a lot of rain. I expected the bullets [which necessitate bullet wounds]. The multiples [costumes that require duplicate sets] can be the worst problem. The rain was the worst. [In the movie] there's a lot of rain at night, and it doesn't show [on film], so they use torrential rain. It was like we were doing a Dorothy Lamour movie like THE HURRICANE, just sheets of rain. At one point, Tom [Hanks] put his head down and the water [was so heavy] he started to laugh. He couldn't concentrate. I should have done hats with funnels in the back.
ANTONY: You've made maternity clothes for a man [Arnold Schwarzenegger's JUNIOR]...
WOLSKY: I'm not too proud of that [Laughs]...
ANTONY: You designed GALAXY QUEST. How do you begin the research process when you're designing such a wide range of movies stylistically?
WOLSKY: Each project tells you somehow what you need. I know my [historical] periods very well. You have to start from scratch because you have to be specific. [ROAD TO PERDITION] was Depression '30's, so all my research, all my intent, was what describes [the period], how people wore clothes, what they wore, and then you have to make choices as to what describes the period quickly for the camera.
PRESS: Which is more challenging: a period design, or a modern design?
WOLSKY: I find describing character, which is what I do, in contemporary clothes is very hard to do. Everybody wears everything. To tell something about somebody in today's fashion is very difficult.
PRESS: Do you have problems with actors and how they feel about their costumes?
WOLSKY: I have problems with actors in contemporary [clothes]. It's very hard unless you're Lawrence Olivier. English actors I find tend to always want to see what they look like so they can describe their character. Most people in contemporary clothes tend to [want to wear] what they [themselves] would wear.
PRESS: What's your technique for helping actors get comfortable with how they're going to look?
WOLSKY: I have to work, explain, show...[use] the mirror. It usually ends up being a compromise. If an actor doesn't want to wear anything, even if you make them wear it, forget it. The clothes just die.
PRESS: The color scheme for this movie is very monochromatic. Do you have to use more texture to try to enhance the character of the costumes?
WOLSKY: I was surprised how much of the texture did show. I knew from the beginning [there would not be a lot of color]. Film is very insensitive to color. Very dark brown, very dark blue, it all turns black. But I didn't want [the audience] to feel that everyone was in black and white.
PRESS: How do you feel about the final look of the film?
WOLSKY: Last night [at the premiere] the one thing I did feel was I couldn't tell who did what, Conrad [Hall], me, or Dennis [Gassner, the production designer]. I thought they were just wonderful images. I was thrilled. It happens very rarely.
PRESS: Do you ever get to keep any of the pieces you make?
WOLSKY: Not really...I have in a little ball, hidden away, the finale costume from ALL THAT JAZZ.
Read The Previous "On The Road To Perdition Column"
SHOOT-BACK HERE! |