Jacqueline West is one of Hollywood’s most respected costume designers with four Oscar nominations for Philip Kaufmann’s Quills, David Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One.
She is also Terrence Malick’s go-to costume designer, after a recommendation from his long-time production designer Jack Fisk, working with him on The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, while other credits include Stephen Norrington’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ben Affleck’s Argo and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers Of The Flower Moon.
Talking about her career in a masterclass for the Doha Film Institute, West said she fell into cinema by chance after connecting with Kaufmann through a clothes store she set up in Berkeley in the 1990s after majoring in art history, having originally planned to study sciences.
“I never planned to work in cinema,” she said.
As the daughter of a fashion designer, West grew up surrounded by the paraphernalia of fashion design such as a tailor’s dummy in her bedroom that she would dress for fun but had no plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps, even if she had a strong sense of style.
“When I got out of school, I taught kindergarten for a little while in a private school,” she recounted. “My husband-to-be said you should be in the clothing business because everyone wants to know where you got what you wear and he went out and rented me a storefront,” recalled West.
The premises were next door to Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant founded by farm-to-table pioneer and cinephile Alice Waters and named after her favorite character in Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy, Marius, Fanny, and Cesar.
Waters’s boyfriend in the early days of the restaurant was the producer, cinephile and Telluride Film Festival co-founder, Tom Luddy, who died in February
“It was kind of a centre for film people because of Tom Luddy, a friend who just passed away sadly. This bought a lot of filmmakers into my store, one of them being Philip Kaufmann who decided I should be in the film business,” she said.
“It didn’t happen immediately. I created a clothing line that went international. About five years later, he said it again. I thought okay, I’ve done the clothing business. I have that down, maybe I should try to learn to do something else.”
West’s first experience on set was working uncredited as an artistic consultant on Kaufmann’s Paris-shot 1990 drama Henry & June about the entangled relationship between Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and his wife June.
“He said, ‘Now, I have to pay you’ and I said, ‘No, no, you’re my friend. I had so much fun doing this.’ He said, ‘So you’re doing my next movie’ which was this huge Hollywood movie with Sean Connery (Rising Sun). It started like that and never stopped.”
West would secure her first Oscar nomination in 2001 for her work on Kaufmann’s drama Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis De Sade during his final years in an insane asylum, where he was held in solitary confinement and deprived of quills and parchment.
The big challenge of the film was creating De Sade’s suit which is covered in texts written in his blood, which to write in the absence of ink.
“Blood didn’t work, it turned black on the suit, cows’ blood we tried that. We tried everything and it ended up being a mixture of many kinds of things and also some organic materials. But it was labor intensive,” said West.
“When Geoffrey saw it, he started to cry. We were filming in Luton Hoo outside of London. He put it on one night and just walk all over the grounds. He is very fluid, he became the marquis. It was so beautiful.”
West revealed she often takes a very academic approach, citing the example of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, for which she did in-depth reading to recreate the fur-trapper costumes for the 1820s-set wilderness adventure because there was very little visual material.
“For the trappers, there was really nothing. You just have to be a reader. I don’t see how you could do the period, a lot of the periods I’ve done, without reading. For The New World, I read all of John Smith’s journals,” she said.
“I remember reading 40 Years A Fur Trader [Forty Years a Fur Trader on The Upper Missouri by Charles Larpenteur). He said that when trappers would come back to St. Louis, after two years of trapping, the people would comment that you couldn’t tell what their clothes were made of because they were so dirty and so caked with grease.”
On the basis of this description, West created a compound consisting of paraffin and bootblack.
“We put it all over the clothes… Alejandro would say what is that stuff, more of that stuff. We came up with the term ‘black wax’,” she recalled.
West said she was surprised when her agent called her to tell her the news that she had been Oscar-nominated for the work.
“I was driving to set on a movie, It was like five in the morning. I couldn’t believe it because those clothes were so dirty and so foul. Alejandro wanted them to get really smelly so that they would really feel like trappers,” she recalled.
“I thought those clothes will never get noticed. I even told the publicity person don’t put too much energy into this because these are dirty, filthy, greasy pieces of skin and leather. To give Alejandro the level of realism, he was looking for, I had to do that.”
West also talked about the process behind obtaining the bearskin worn by Leonardo DiCaprio.
“The bear skins were a whole other deal. They were extremely, extremely expensive,” she said. “They were bought from the park’s department. They have an allotment. They only cull two of the oldest bears, which they think will not make it, a season. And you have to bid on it with several people, so I went into a bidding war to get those. I had to become a fur trader and take out a fur trading licence. Fortunately, it’s very, very governed.”
West has just come off the set of Dune: Part Two, having been Oscar-nominated for her work on part one.
She revealed she had initially turned down Villeneuve when he first contacted her agent for Dune on the back of her work on The Revenant.
“I said, ‘I don’t do sci-fi. It’s not my thing.’ I said no. He hired someone else, and I guess he wasn’t happy because he called my agent a second time and said, ‘Can I just talk to her.’ Mary Parent, who produced The Revenant and was producing Dune, got me in her office and put me on FaceTime with him on a big screen,” recounted West.
“He was so compelling. He said, ‘I want you because I do not want it to look like sci-fi. I want it to be classical. I don’t want it to look like a video game.’”
West recounted how she had taken inspiration from the Touareg people as well as old paintings of the Middle East for interior costumes on Arrakis.
“I spent time in Morocco, I was always fascinated by the “Blue Men in the desert”, the Touaregs who would wrap their faces in the cloth and how the dye would come off on their faces. It was a beautiful image for me, and I always remembered the robes and the wraps,” she said.
In an example of her attention to detail, West had the robes worn by the main cast members cut out of cotton cloth hand-woven by a friend in Italy.
A key challenge was recreating the “stillsuits” worn by the Fremen people on the Planet of Arrakis, protecting the wearer from the elements and recycling the body’s moisture.
“It had to have all of the pumps and the tubing had to be somehow visible so you could believe it could do all that,” she said.
West recounted how she consulted the Dune Encyclopaedia, the 1984 work collated by Willis E. McNelly detailing the worlds of Dune, and brought in a concept artist [Keith Christensen] to fine-tune the design.
“Some people don’t trust that encyclopaedia but it’s pretty well documented,” she said.
One costume – the flowing white dress worn by Zendaya against the backdrop of the desert in fleeting vision scenes – was not the result of painstaking research and prototyping.
West revealed it was from a line she designed for Barneys in the 1990s called the Nomad Collection, which she repurposed on the fly after Villeneuve asked for a dress out of the blue.
“We were shooting out in the Californian desert, east of Bakersfield, a pick-up shot with Zendaya. It’s the first time you don’t see her in a stillsuit. They haven’t made it to [Fremen settlement] the sietch (the Fremen settlement) yet, so you don’t see the seitch clothng until Dune: Part Two
“Denis asked if I had a dress for her and I was like: “A dress? No, she never wears a dress in the script,” she explained.
“I went home that night and went through my sample trunk from my old clothing line and found that dress. She just walked into it and fell in love with it and so in Dune: Part Two, he (Villeneuve) said can we do more of your Nomad Collection.”
West said that Dune: Part Two was a lot more intense in terms of the costumes with the film expanding the worlds of the Harkonnen stronghold of Geidi Prime as well as Arrakis.
Reflecting on her journey from ready-to-wear fashion designer to Oscar-winning costume designer, West said her earlier career – involving the designing of multiple collections across the year – had prepared her well for the rigors of Dune.
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