SEEN ON SCREEN: Luis Sequeira and Jennifer Johnson, two of the costume designers nominated for Costume Design awards at this year’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts ceremony, took to the stage for the BAFTA Costume Design Craft Session, supported by Swarovski, at BAFTA headquarters in London over the weekend to discuss the films for which they’ve been nominated, their processes and the “chemistry” between actors and their costumes.
Both films are period works, but that is where the costume similarities end. Sequeira is nominated for his work on “The Shape of Water,” a romantic fantasy directed by Guillermo del Toro and set in the Sixties, while Johnson had a shoestring budget and a very limited timeframe to create the costumes for “I, Tonya,” which tells the story of Tonya Harding in the Nineties, when her husband arranged an attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan.
“There is something strange that happens [when an actor accepts a costume], it’s almost like a pH-chemical [reaction]. The body warms up, they accept the costume and everything sort of relaxes in the body and the [costume] just becomes them,” explained Johnson, whose previous work includes “Hard Candy” and “20th Century Women.” “It can’t just be riding on top of them, it has to enter into their sphere and comfort and become part of their body, so to speak.”
“It’s a magical time when an actor feels so incredibly whole with a costume,” agreed Sequeira, recalling the moment that Hawkins puts on the dress she wears to dance with the film’s amphibian man in a black-and-white dream sequence that echoes the dance movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
That dress is pivotal to the story and significant to the evolution of the character — and it caused Sequeira no shortage of stress.
He described the scene in which the dress appears in the sequence as an “Ode to Ginger Rogers” because both Elisa (the central role played by Sally Hawkins) and [her friend] Giles (played by Richard Jenkins) watch old movies. He said that in initial discussions, the team was thinking about copying a dress from a film of the era. “Then I thought, ‘Well, this is a dream of hers, so let’s do an interpretation’,” he said.
Thus began development of the film’s most showstopping look. “The fabric for this dress was just shy of 10,000 Canadian dollars ($8,000), the lace was 450 Canadian dollars per meter (about $359), so we had to be really sure of the design. We started in half scale and went through about five incarnations of the dress in half-size, fluting a bit more and deciding on some of the details, before we did a full-scale muslin that Sally used for her rehearsals.
“So I would be sitting on the floor in the corner, hiding away, watching these rehearsals to see what I could do to enhance the dress for the choreography and, also, I was incredibly terrified that she was going to trip,” admitted Sequeira, who is known predominantly for his work in the horror genre, on projects like the 2013 version of “Carrie” and “The Strain,” the vampire television series created by del Toro.
Once the design was finalized, Sequeira and his team made the real dress, which was constructed from multiple layers of fabrics. Chiffon over sequins, then a lace layer painstakingly appliquéd with more lace and embellished with feathers and Swarovski crystals. “We used about 3,000 Canadian dollars worth of Swarovski crystals and we were putting crystals on it until they were, like, ‘Come on, the dress has gotta go [on set]’. We had five people gluing away. We probably would still be doing it now if we had the time,” joked Sequeira.
“The crystals were uber important in this scene, because it was black-and-white and the crystals were not only there to add the glamour aspect, but also they mirrored the amphibian man, who had this light within him,” he told WWD.
“But [the process] was incredibly rewarding because I remember when Sally put it on at the end and she covered her mouth and was just so overwhelmed. She said, ‘It’s just like a wedding dress.’ She was just so taken by it. And, for me, that’s just like a jewel.”
The big costume moment in “I, Tonya” is the blue spandex leotard with silver leaves lining the neckline worn by Margot Robbie as Harding in the scene that shows the moment when Harding became the first American woman to land the famously difficult triple axel jump at the 1991 U.S. figure skating championships in Minneapolis.
That jump was a big deal. To explain, Harding was never able to pull off the triple axel at the Olympic Games and it was only last week, 27 years later, that Mirai Nagasu became the first American to accomplish that feat, at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.
“This is my favorite state [competition] costume,” explained Johnson. “It’s single-stretch jumbo spandex — it’s really awful and thick and doesn’t stretch and that’s on purpose because it shows the time period and the lack of technology and the lack of access that Tonya would have had to the latest materials [because she was] living in Portland, Ore.
“Tonya made this costume in real life herself,” said Johnson. “Her mother made her costumes up until Tonya was a teenager and then Tonya, who was quite a good seamstress, started making her own because they couldn’t afford [a dressmaker] and they didn’t have sponsorship.”
Johnson added that the way in which the spandex bunches under the arms is important because it shows its homemade quality. “We took license and lined all the leaves with silver so that when she’s spinning in hyper slow-motion it would have more of a dazzling effect,” she said.
“This costume really represents Tonya’s individuality, her sense of how she really knew how she wanted to present herself to the world and that she had made this costume and she made it quite well, but it’s not perfect and that kind of summarizes Tonya, I think.”
Sequeira and Johnson said costume design is a collaborative effort. “Basically, we’re painting on film. Each of us is a brush toward creating a beautiful image; sometimes not so beautiful. Sometimes it has to be ugly. For me, having that relationship where we’re constantly talking and comparing really brings it all together and you see it in the film.”