Australian costume designer Michael Wilkinson has already had his fair share of interesting film projects, ranging from Man of Steel to Babel to Garden State to 300. But when he read the script for American Hustle, he knew he was in for something special.
"What I loved was that the costumes played such an important role in the movie," he says. "What we have are characters defining themselves by what they wear, who are constantly reinventing themselves in order to survive, dressing as the people they aspire to be."
American Hustle, directed and co-written by David O Russell, is a tale of scamming, ambition and aspiration, loosely based on the Abscam scandals in which United States politicians were caught up in an FBI sting. Wilkinson, who relocated to the US from Australia more than 10 years ago, found it an inspiration in all kinds of ways.
"It was so much fun for me. I have a real fondness for 70s clothes; it was an era when ideas were big and people lived large, and David O Russell's characters take risks, they don't give a damn, and it was fun to explore that. I feel that today we're a lot more conservative – we hide in our clothes."
Wilkinson – whose work on American Hustle garnered him an Oscar nomination last week – gives eloquent accounts of the way that costume design is linked to character, aesthetics and expression, and to revealing moments in the film.
There are five key figures in the movie – a couple of charismatic con artists, played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams; an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper); a local politician (Jeremy Renner); and Bale's loose-cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence) – and their look is a mixture of the distinctive and the fluid.
"With David, these characters aren't theoretical concepts, they're absolutely detailed, living, breathing people," Wilkinson says. "He feels so passionately about all the details of their lives, from the perfume they wear to the way they dance, the accents they use, the sheets they sleep in – everything is so important to him.
"He encouraged me to go super deep with my approach to their costumes and really get inside their minds. He really stretched my creativity to the max. He got me outside my comfort zone and I'm really proud of how it looks."
For a movie that's "a period film, but only just", Wilkinson wanted to use as many authentic garments as possible. He and his team searched high and low in rental houses, went to vintage dealers and flea markets. When they couldn't find what they wanted, they made it from scratch, sourcing material from vintage fabric vendors in Los Angeles.
Researching the look, Wilkinson says, "it was important to conjure up the whole spectrum of 70s style, to look at advertising layouts, cheesy magazines, Playboy spreads. We looked at aspirational celebrities from the period – Catherine Deneuve, Jerry Hall, Bianca Jagger were great references for Amy Adams' character, and the Travoltas and Robert Redfords for Bradley Cooper's character."
Adams – "she's intuitive, she's fearless, she has no ego" – was wonderful to work with, he says. Her character has about 40 different costumes, "and we see her change from small-town girl who comes to Manhattan, escaping a dubious past, she reinvents herself as a confident, elegant, edgy figure. Exploring that trajectory was amazing, and collaborating with Amy is something I'll treasure."
Wilkinson's CV includes an intriguing range of films, from fantasy adventure to contemporary indie drama. He's tackled the offbeat biopic American Splendor, the hi-tech special effects of TRON: Legacy, he's done two instalments of Twilight, and Nicole Holofcener's wry, searching comedy Friends with Money. And he's made something of a speciality of the superhero, in a range of guises.
In Australia, he worked in opera, ballet and theatre, and his theatrical background has been an important influence on his film work, he says. His Australian credits include Looking for Alibrandi and True Love and Chaos.
He designed costumes for the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, then won a scholarship that he used to travel overseas and explore design.
He decided to try his luck in New York. His first feature was Milwaukee Minnesota, a low-budget ice-fishing film that involved going to Milwaukee in midwinter.
His first encounter with superhero costumes was also his first studio film – Sky High, an entertaining comedy about kids with superpowers that allowed him to invent a superhero aesthetic from scratch.
After Sky High, he moved from New York to Los Angeles, realising, "I could have a garden, and a dog".
Meeting director Zack Snyder was "an amazing day in my life that changed things for ever", he says. Wilkinson worked on Snyder's Spartan action movie 300, and on Watchmen, based on a graphic novel by legendary author Alan Moore. On that film, Wilkinson says, "we were super-reverent towards the source material".
By contrast Snyder's fantasy-adventure Sucker Punch was a chance to let the imagination go. His next feature, Darren Aronofsky's Noah, starring Wellington-born Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, is due for release in March. He tackled the ultimate superhero, Superman, in Man of Steel (work on the suit was begun by costume designer Jim Acheson, before Wilkinson came on board).
Right now, he's committed until August 2014 to Batman vs. Superman, for which he'll now also be designing an outfit for Wonder Woman. He's not sure what comes next, but he knows that he's always going to be looking for variety.
"I joke that when I'm working on a techie, futuristic film I'm always fantasising about doing a Merchant Ivory bonnets and corsetry movie, and when I'm knee-deep in antique lace and satin taffeta, I'm dreaming of building foam latex helmets and hi-tech weaponry."
American Hustle is screening now.
- The Dominion Post
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