Hollywood recognized Colleen Atwood’s gift from the very start. Just consider the first six filmmakers the four-time Oscar-winning costume designer worked with when launching her career in the mid-’80s: Michael Apted (twice), Michael Mann, James Toback, Ridley Scott, John G. Avildsen and . In other words, six of the most decorated directors in the business at the time, and who all saw a star in her field emerging. (Even before Atwood became a costume designer, her first credit was as a production assistant on 1981’s Ragtime… directed by Miloš Forman.)
“I was really lucky early in my career to work with those people right out of the box, Atwood, 75, tells us in a new Costume Director’s Reel, specifically calling out Demme, Apted and Mann. “And they were all very different in their process, but it really taught me a lot about different styles of filmmaking and how to approach it.”
Of course soon came Atwood’s most fruitful collaborative relationship, that with wizard of goth Tim Burton, whom she’s made 12 films with in the past three decades — 14 if you count their canceled Superman movie and the upcoming 2024 sequel Beetlejuice 2.
Most recently, Atwood worked with David Yates (the Harry Potter series) for Pain Hustlers, a dramatic thriller starring Emily Blunt as a high school dropout and financially struggling mother who finds a lucrative career in hawking painkillers for a morally questionable pharmaceutical company.
“I’d done story arcs before of a character from humble beginnings to wealth and sort of leveling out,” Atwood says. “But I’d never really told that story per se about a woman. So it was interesting to tell that tale about a single mother in America at this point in history.”
From first meeting Burton to costuming Hannibal Lecter to entering the Wizarding World with Fantastic Beasts, here’s Atwood looking back at some her career highlights in her own words.
On making her first feature film experience, as a production assistant on Miloš Forman’s Ragtime, and how it kickstarted her costume designing career:
“I was never allowed on the set. I wasn’t in the union and New York was hardcore back then. But I made hats in [production designer] Patrizia von Brandenstein’s loft with her daughter Kimberly for set dressing. And then the hats went to set and were part of the decor for the Lower East Side. And what happened is the costume designer liked the hats. So she started using the hats we were making on background and people in the movie. I had never made a hat before in my life. So I think the takeaway is, ‘You never know.’ You can’t do something until you try. And I made hats that I would actually still like today. And it was a really fun thing to do even though it was something I never had done before. So that was kind of a great summer of my life, listening to Bob Marley and making hats in a loft in New York without air conditioning.”
On which of her earliest film experiences were most formative:
“I think it was Married to the Mob, my first collaboration with Jonathan Demme. Making a movie Jonathan-style in New York, the idea of embracing a family the way Jonathan did as a filmmaker really gave me a sort of love of the idea of the team as a factor early in my life. It was very inclusive. The intellectual kind of collaborations with Apted on his movies [1984’s Firstborn, 1985’s Bring On the Night and 1987’s Critical Condition] that he hired me on in the beginning were a great learning process because he really showed me what a director did and said stuff in a way that was collaborative in a way that really helped me later in my career. And of course the takeaway from Michael Mann [1986’s Manhunter] was it’s an extremely tricky work environment sometimes on his films, but he’s a great filmmaker and you always learn something every time you work with a guy like Michael Mann.”
On first meeting Tim Burton for 1990’s Edward Scissorhands:
“I’d worked with Bo Welch, the production designer on Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) right before Edward Scissorhands. And I think initially on Edward Scissorhands they were going to bring the British designer Bob Ringwood from Batman (1989), and then they couldn’t get the paperwork for him. And so they were looking for a costume designer. And Bo recommended me and I went in to meet with Tim and I was sitting there talking to him and we weren’t even talking about the movie, we were just talking and he said, ‘So do you want to do the movie?’ He hired me in the room, and that’s kind of the only time that that’s ever happened to me in my life. Usually they’re like, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and then they call you a couple days later or not. But Tim and I just immediately had a sort of strange connectivity in sort of the things that we gravitated towards visually. I don’t know how to really describe it, but it was an instant sort of connectivity and sort of comfort with each other. And we’ve known each other since then. It’s been a long friendship and collaboration.”
On costuming Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands, the artificial humanoid whose iconic look has become a fixture at cosplay events like Comic-Con:
“Tim has these drawers of people that he draws because he’s such a great characterist, and Edward Scissorhands was really his vision and his character from when he was in art school. So the first time I saw Tim’s take on Edward Scissorhands, which was a few lines with a big head of hair and the hands, not specifically nor tightly drawn, but just in a special way that I immediately sensed that this was a character that had so much heart and spirit, so much human spirit, but was still an outsider, obviously. And then we got Johnny at a very young age and made the costume. We only made two Edwards Scissorhands costumes and we shot in South Florida, which was really hot and there were so many things about the costume and compiling it out of all these old pieces of leather that were really tricky. And it was really hard to find somebody that understood what I wanted. And I finally found this tailor who had done work for the ballet, and he knew how to get what I wanted with the super-skinny legs and to actually construct the costume [using a bulky material], which was a huge win for me at that point in history, before all the stretches were in place that they are today.”
On finding the famed flesh-colored mask that Anthony Hopkins would wear as incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Lecter’s one cream tropical “free” outfit at the end of the film:
“I have the [original] drawing of it. It’s so basic, it’s just looks like a pencil drawing with the eyes and the mouth and the nostrils with the rods in the mouth. And we sent it off to this guy to make it who manufactured hockey masks in New Jersey. We were working out of New York. Originally the mask was going to be colored, or chipped off paint, and I got the first prototype of the mask back, which was this raw kind of fiberglass, and it looked like dried skin. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect.’ We don’t have to do anything, which is a really good thing to know, when something’s good and it’s not your idea, but it’s better to keep it. And that’s how the mask came to be. I think there’s only one of those, I don’t know where it is, but I think there’s only one.”
For the prison uniform, “We tailored everything just to fit Hopkins’s body perfectly so it wouldn’t wrinkle… You do see him at the end in Bimini in the tropical suit. That’s the only [street] clothes he ever wore in the movie. And the idea with that was that he was blending in with the tourists and stuff, so it wasn’t really him, but he was just kind of in a disguise per se. But the main idea of his costume was that it was super precise. There was nothing that was wrinkled, it was totally under his control.”
On working on the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, an ensemble costarring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes that earned Atwood her first of 12 Oscar nominations:
“That was a great project in the sense that Gillian Armstrong, the director, really wanted to keep it as pared down simple [as possible]. She didn’t want a frou-frou kind of Little Women storytelling. She wanted it to feel as bare boned as it was. We used one costume twice on one sister and then the other. And it was very, very researched in that sense of the shapes and the materials at that point in history. I used a lot of real clothing that I had to repurpose, but I took that apart and used the fabrics to make the costumes. So the actual costume materials for most of the girls and for Marmee [Susan Sarandon] was originally fabric woven or made in that time period, and then kind of repurposed to fit a modern physique. So it was very controlled in that sense, and it really gave kind of homage to the descriptions in Louisa May Alcott’s book.”
On the bizarre experience of testing Nicolas Cage in his Superman suit the day they found out Burton’s Superman Lives was being canceled by Warner Bros.:
“We did some pretty amazing stuff considering the time period that we were doing that in. We were really advanced for some of the ideas that we were playing with, so it holds up OK [as seen in a meta-cameo in this summer’s The Flash]. We worked on it for nine months and the day of the camera test where they’re all excited to put the costume on to camera test it, and we get the news that the movie [was being canceled]. The production head of Warner’s came over and said, ‘You’re all going to go home now. We’re not going to make the movie.’ And it was just so weird, so weird. I think Tim found out while he was driving there, and I think he told me, I think Nic’s agent is how Tim found out they were pulling the plug on the movie. It was just the weirdest kind of [screeching sound] ever.”
On working with the razzle dazzle of the Roaring ’20s in Rob Marshall’s Best Picture-winning Chicago (2002), which also won Atwood her first of four Oscars:
“The excitement was twofold: the excitement of being able to do a musical with all that dance set against the background of the gritty ’20s of Chicago, and the great depressed side of America. It was beautiful, and Rob’s approach to it was having two worlds of fantasy, the world of the theater and the real world of what was going on outside. So as a designer, you’re creating a universe of an idea of what’s beautiful and a universe of what’s really going on that’s gritty and poor and seedy. So it was a huge, huge, huge job for me. The dancers were amazing. They danced 12 hours a day without stopping, and we shot that movie very quickly. Every number was shot either in a day or a day-and-a-half. And when you look at the film and the level of dancing that’s in it, I still can’t believe they pulled it off. It was pretty amazing. Just to be part of it was so exciting.”
On entering the Harry Potter-verse with the prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), which won Atwood a fourth Oscar while also becoming the first Wizarding World entry to earn an Academy Award:
“I had seen the early Potter films with my daughter, who was at that age that embraced the Wizarding World, but I didn’t lean into it as a designer moving forward [on Fantastic Beasts]. I was setting it in a different world in a different place. And even though some of the characters like Dumbledore [returned as younger versions in the sequels], I sort of used the palette of Dumbledore in a nod to Dumbledore. But per se, I didn’t really lean into [the original series] because our whole idea was that this was a separate world, a separate thing, and we really wanted to [do something new] with those films.”
Pain Hustlers is now streaming on Netflix.