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Costumer Lindy Hemming began her decades-long collaboration with Mike Leigh at London’s Hampstead Theater Club, where the director, with his now legendary method of extended improvisation, was guiding his company toward what would become, in April 1977, Abigail’s Party. “At that stage,” Hemming says, “Mike was sort of a twinkle in people’s eyes, film-wise.” Several plays and one McDonald’s commercial later (yes, Mike Leigh directed a McDonald’s commercial), the Leigh-Hemming collaboration graduated to Meantime (1984), a tart taste of working-class Britain, which featured Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in early starring roles. Leigh and Hemming moved on to High Hopes (1986), Life Is Sweet (1989), and Naked (1992), hard-luck films as grim as they are forgiving, and each one grimmer, and more forgiving, than the last. In other words, Mike Leigh’s bread and butter. In other other words, a total contrast to the jolly opulence of Topsy-Turvy. Or not? At the time of the film’s release, critics praised Leigh for venturing out of what they deemed his comfort zone. Victorians? The leisure class? A biopic? But now, more than ten years later, having pored over the film’s array of buried politics, narrative cul-de-sacs, and ceaseless attention to custom and behavior, we can see that Mike Leigh, even when he changes costumes, is still very much himself. Standing beside him for Topsy-Turvy as ever, spinning history into clothing and clothing into character, was Hemming, who won an Oscar for her work on the film—out next week on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD. She called me from the costume shop of her current project to discuss her time on Topsy-Turvy, the designer’s role in Leigh’s rehearsal ronde, and the thin thread linking authenticity and imagination.
Sam Wasson: Was there a point, before Topsy-Turvy rehearsals began, that Mike presented you with an essential idea? “This is why I’m doing the film. This is why I’m here.”?
Lindy Hemming: I believe Topsy-Turvy was something Mike wanted to do his whole life, for as long as he could remember. I don’t know about his childhood, but Gilbert and Sullivan were a presence that had affected him from when he was very young. He was particularly interested in Gilbert, I think, and I did feel that at some times Gilbert [played by Jim Broadbent] was a bit like Mike in a curmudgeonly sort of way. I did feel there was a sympathy between the two people.
SW: That makes sense. He’s said that he was fascinated by the way Gilbert and Sullivan and their collaborators poured so much sweat into material so trivial. It’s an agony applicable to nearly all aspects of show business, and Gilbert seems to be the embodiment of it.
LH: Well, that’s true, you know. But you always learn things, however trivial.
SW: We’ve all heard a lot about Leigh’s process—
LH: [Laughs] When I first came to work in America, I didn’t think anyone would know how it worked with Mike Leigh, and of course most of the questions were about that. Everybody in every studio—independent films and studio films—they all wanted to know that.
SW: We don’t get to work that way in America!
LH: Oh, I know. I know. [Laughs]
SW: I’m wondering if the famous Mike Leigh process has evolved over the course of your knowing him.
LH: Truly, I would have to say that it was almost fully formed when I first met him. When we met in the seventies, doing theater, the process was almost exactly the same. He has single-mindedly maintained it for his entire working life, as far as I can see. It’s such an education in how to do costumes and how to understand what actors do.
SW: That’s a perfect segue. We know about why this is useful for the actors, but how is this useful for you? When do you come in?
LH: Right away. On a Mike Leigh film, we’ve never been high-wage earners, but we’ve always had the luxury of time. Lots of time. You come right at the beginning and are introduced to each other about four months, maybe longer, before you come to make the film. At set points during the rehearsal or preproduction period, you have designated times of work, but mainly what happens is, as the actors work with Mike and they discuss who they are or are not going to play, and what kind of character it is, and what kind of world he or she lives in or works in, you—the costumer—come in to assist the actor to have the right kind of clothes, and sometimes props, that would go with the life or the person they’re choosing to become. You are researching what the actor is researching. You are looking into that world. What does this type of person wear? Where do they go out at night? You immerse yourself so that when you come back, when the actor has started to have a proper character—and all this is happening with different actors simultaneously—you begin to do their costumes as their character 100 percent. You’re starting to decide on clothes for the actual film. But because there’s no script yet, sometimes the setting or the circumstances will change. So you do have the choice, later on, to change what they’re wearing. It’s a real involved process, and it always, always keeps your mind not on the script—because there isn’t a script—but on the life of the character.
SW: Does Mike reveal script pages gradually, as they come to him?
LH: No. No, not at all. Not until very late, when all the rehearsals are done. But it doesn’t really matter, because you all know everything except the circumstances.
SW: Could you take me through an example? Like a character from Topsy-Turvy—
LH: The trouble is, Topsy-Turvy is not a perfect example [Laughs]. In Topsy-Turvy, we know things about those characters. We can read the books, we can go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, we can look at the original costumes, whereas, for instance, if you decide to talk about Life Is Sweet, it’s quite late on in the rehearsal procedure that Timothy Spall’s character, the restaurant owner, met up with the people who became the subject of the film. Improvisations brought them together. Before that, he wouldn’t know they existed and they didn’t know he existed. It takes Mike saying, for example, “You’re taking your wife out to a restaurant tonight,” and the set they would end up in would be the restaurant Tim Spall owned. He—in separate improvisations—would have become that character and with the set designer developed the style of what kind of restaurant he ran, down to the menus and everything. And so they would be introduced—shockingly, really—into that restaurant, as a set. People do open a door, in Mike’s rehearsals, and really don’t know who or what is going to be on the other side.
SW: So then the question is, if you bring historical knowledge to the rehearsals of Topsy-Turvy, what changes?
LH: I could inform the actors of things as well as they could inform me. We were all teaching each other. We were picking over these people’s lives and looking for interesting things they had done. You could see, in photographs, that someone had actually dyed their moustache. Or that someone had inherited a beautiful piece of jewelry. Or you could find out that someone had an obsession with wearing purple. Then you can develop those things into character traits and the actor uses that to invent the internal life of the person. For me, it’s the same. I knew, for instance, that Gilbert’s home was drafty and cold, and that helped me to make decisions about fabrics, which I then brought to Jim Broadbent, who would ask himself, “Would I, as Gilbert, like this thing? Would I wear this thing?” [Laughs] So perhaps you could argue that Topsy-Turvy really is quite like the beginnings to Mike’s other films!
SW: Do the actors have as much authority as Mike in this process?
LH: No. In the end, he will always listen to their character decisions, but because he knows more about the overall picture, he will “suggest” that something ought to be changed. But that is the prerogative of every proper director.
SW: So in the course of discovering these people and their world, would you ever have to split your allegiance between actor and director?
LH: Yes. Sometimes you argue on the part of the actor, sometimes you argue on the part of yourself, and then other times, because you know Mike knows more, then you feel it’s your job to trust. It gets tricky because no one really knows at first; they’re guessing. It really is a team effort.
SW: How adamant was Mike that your designs be down-to-the-thread authentic to the period?
LH: Not adamant at all! It was up to my interpretation. If I wanted to design an example I could find reference for, I could do it, but I didn’t have to. He is expecting you to be a designer, even if I had to work within the parameters, but that’s what a design is anyway—a designer is always working within parameters.
SW: I would imagine with clothing as restrictive as the Victorians wore, you might want to start the actors getting comfortable early.
LH: Yes, that’s it. We did that. With corsets, we wanted the actors wearing them from day one, because that would inform how you move and how you breathe and who you are. I mean, how do you sing with a corset? The shoes as well. If someone wears high heels, there’s no point in them rehearsing in a pair of trainers. On Naked, the corset I gave to Katrin Cartlidge actually became the action. How to get it off involved a whole scene. So yeah, it’s—[laughs] when I talk about it, it makes me feel tired!
SW: One element gives way to another, which gives way to another—
LH: The truth of the matter is, when you work with any proper director, that is the situation.
SW: One of the pleasures of Topsy-Turvy is watching the Victorians discover their world. Their new technology, their new ethics, their new theater. Mike Leigh doesn’t always put these novelties in close-up, but that’s part of what makes his evocation of the past so credible. Background is backgrounded. Was this a part of how you approached costuming? Were you thinking in those terms?
LH: Yes. We did loads of research into that. Like with The Mikado. We wanted it to be a perceived version of what the Japanese looked like. We wanted it to be Victorian Japanese. The wooden Japanese clogs were most amazing to the Victorians. They thought them wonderful and funny in turn. We were looking into the technology of fabrics, of where they were produced, what dyes they would have used, how things would have been printed or hand-painted, you know? We had to know how the day-to-day fabrics worked as well as the theatrical costumes, and how they were made.
SW: I imagine Wilhelm, the real-life costume and scenic designer of the era, played a part in this for you.
LH: Yes, and you know, we have him in the film [played by Jonathan Aris], so we could actually have him looking at his own work. He spent time in the costume department, so he could feel like he was running us, if you like.
SW: It’s a tribute to your work that someone like me, who is so ignorant when it comes to costume design, can actually see, on the screen, evidence of everything you’re talking about.
LH: I’m really happy that that’s true. But truly, as a designer, I always like things to look a bit of a mess, a bit of a jumble. I don’t want to criticize American films, but it has been the thing that they tended to make everything so perfect, and when everything’s perfect, it doesn’t read as characterful, it reads as clothes. In Topsy-Turvy, we purposefully went to a costume maker called Christine Edzard who makes clothes by hand. I have to say, they’re often quite badly made, but they don’t look like they were made in a modern way, with all those stiff, sharp lines. They look like they were made by hand! Even the richest person in that era would not have had a factory-made suit. Christine Edzard did a lot of the tailoring for Sullivan, for instance, and if you look at his clothing, you’ll see there are softer edges to things, more of a sort of lumpy, almost ill-fitting fit to things, which is how it was. If you really examine the Victorians in photographs of them in their Sunday best, you’ll see they’re really awfully made. It’s become more fashionable to do costume like that now, and people are much more aware of that. I’m not saying I changed that, but I was certainly part of the changing.
SW: And the camera sees that?
LH: Absolutely the camera sees it! You can hardly go far enough, because the camera makes everything seem too nice, too clean, and too perfect. That’s what cameras do. My job, in almost everything I do, is to kind of wreck things a little bit, to make things look more human.
SW: What are you working on now?
Sam Wasson is the author of Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m.: Audrey Hepburn, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and the Dawn of the Modern Woman and A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards. His next book, Paul on Mazursky, will be released in fall 2011. He’s currently working on a biography of Bob Fosse. www.samwasson.com