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Interview: The Discipline and Humanity of "Bridge of Spies" Costume Design

Mark Rylance and Spielberg on the set of "Bridge of Spies"Costume Designers are among the great unsung heroes of the cinema, regularly helping actors to define their characters and directors to create those images audiences get lost in. The latter achievement comes in tandem with the other creatives most connected to the mise-en-scène, the cinematographers and the production designers. It's perhaps not surprising that when you sit down with the behind-the-scenes professional they are often disarmingly modest, used to serving and enhancing the vision of the director. General moviegoers might not know their names but cinephiles, critics, and industry professionals are wise to learn and love them for the unique contributions they make to fine movies. 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the Polish designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who designed two high profile projects this year: Scott Cooper's gangster drama Black Mass and Steven Spielberg's cold war drama Bridge of Spies. The latter was her first collaboration with Spielberg but the designer is no stranger to auteurs. She's worked with Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) and Mira Nair (Amelia) and is best known for her work with Oscar fixture Bennett Miller having costumed all three of his narrative features (Capote, Moneyball, Foxcatcher).

It's perhaps unsurprising, given the temperament of Miller's filmography, to find her disarmingly modest and low key and not all that excited about the more glamorous aspects of costume design. At one point she even gave your host, a self-confessed costume nut, a coronary with a casually dropped "I don't care about the costumes" though she quickly revived me with an interesting explanation of what she really meant.

See for yourself in our interview after the jump...

Kasicka Walicka-Maimone. Photo © Maciej Zienkiewicz

NATHANIEL: I know you began in theater but when do you think your career really began to take shape?

KASIA WALICKA-MAIMONE: Jesus’s Son (1999) and then I worked for Bennett Miller, and then I did operas with Philip Glass. The word built out from that.

NATHANIEL: Oh I love Jesus’s Son - Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton were just brilliant in that.

KASIA: It’s still one that I hold dear, it’s a really great film.

Many of your films have been contemporary indies. Was it hard to move into more pronounced period work as in Bridge of Spies or Capote

Well, Jesus’s Son was period. So that was a first introduction. I always say that I don’t choose subjects by the period, I choose them if they are good story. If it’s a good story, I’m in. If we are all telling a great story, everybody is doing a good job. At the end, that’s my motivation. I don’t really care if it’s the 1800s or 2010. If it’s a great character-driven thought process, it’s engaging. And then my job becomes earlier, to portray the worlds.

So do you think of yourself as a storyteller with the clothes?

I think that’s how it works, I think so.

This is your first job with Spielberg. How did you get Bridge of Spies? I was thinking it had to be the hats. Because, The Adjustment Bureau -- so stylish with the suits and hats there!

I don’t know if that was it. I think it was more that Mr. Spielberg responded to my resume. He loves movie making and he loves movies. My impression is that he watches a lot of films, and he just responded well to this accumulated resume of interesting projects that I had. I think that’s how I ended up doing that film.

two hat rich movies on the resume

NATHANIEL: Is it harder to tell a story with men’s fashion? I ask this because menswear has a much smaller range of expression.

KASIA: I think it’s interesting that you say that, because I think men are actually very particular about what they wear. Very particular. In the end, this film has such a huge scope that on the one end, yes it’s a male driven film, but when you run through the images of this film: New York street subway, which is humanity; then it’s the lawyer’s office, where you see the world of women and you see the lawyer’s vocabulary; you see Donovan’s home life, so there’s that world; then you move on to the kid’s classroom, that’s a different world.

I hadn't really thought of it that way.

It’s just image after image. Then you move to the Berlin Hilton, and then you go to the check point where you see the East Berliners and West Berliners, then you have the building of the wall, with the workers and the armies and the people who are fleeing, and the disarray of humanity where the wall is being built. And you have the Russian court and this giant Russian slice of life and the Russian soldiers and the interpreters. And then you have the world of prison. So, yes, on the one hand it’s men’s film, but on the other hand, the film presented so many different worlds that needed to be portrayed that it was extraordinarily intriguing and fascinating. It was such a passionate project for a lot us.

I assume your major characters like Abel (Mark Rylance) and Donavan (Tom Hanks) get a lot more intricate attention, scene-by-scene exactly what they’re wearing. How do you chart that? Do you have a lot of discussions with the actor? How does that work exactly?

You know, we had such great visual photographic research for both of the characters, and there was so much material that we all read and studied, that before the first fitting, before we meet, the actors and me and my team are so well informed about the characters -- we all bring our tools to the first fitting. We’re all so well prepared that the actors walk out as the characters. They embody that skin.

I feel like in this case there is so little speculation of what those characters are, because we are driven by reality, that we just structure to the needs of the script and the story told. If you question it too much, then you kind of screw it up.

Do you ever get obsessive about a particular scene or garment? I couldn’t think of a particular scene from this movie, but, for example, your last one, A Most Violent Year, you had that great camel hair coat that Oscar Isaac's character always wore. Was there anything like that in this movie that you really latched onto as a visual statement, like 'this is that character'?

You know it’s interesting, actually the movie that I did right before Bridge of Spies was Black Mass, and that was just such a fun switch from one world to another, as they slightly overlap at each end. I actually don’t end up with favorites that much, because I feel I must see every extra -- and we had about 3000 extras in this film. Yes, the lead actors get the most attention, but at the same time, I almost feel like I don’t get stuck on one thing because there’s not physically time for it. There’s so many other things to fairly address that it’s such – I always feel like our process is so military and so disciplined and we have to look over so many images that getting stuck on one would not be fair to all the other parties.

That makes sense. How big of a costume team would you have to have for some of those scenes? Some of those scenes have like dozens upon dozens of actors in them.

Hundreds [of actors]! It’s all structured on a positive relationship with the technical director or the wardrobe supervisor. I have this genius guy, David Davenport, whose done movies of that scope before, and he knew so well how to structure those teams. As we were filming in New York, the structure of a team formed in Germany to start preparing for the German portion of filming. As we were in Germany, the Polish team in Poland started working for the scenes in Poland. He pre-scouted all the stocks, and we strategized a plan of what’s physically existing in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin. As we were filming in Germany and Poland, the team in Los Angeles started to prepare the airport base scenes for the American pilots. So it was quite an elaborate operation, and the costume team varied between 10 to 35-45 people, depending on different times, depending on how many people were being dressed. On the day of the Russian court and the day of the building of the Berlin wall, there were hundreds of people with those fittings starting weeks before. It's a very disciplined, military sort of operation. 

Do you enjoy that sort of scale or do you prefer something more intimate, like Foxcatcher or a Most Violent Year, things you’ve done that are a little more hemmed in in terms of number of characters.

It’s really fun to make the big films. It's really fun also to do more intimate projects. I think a healthy balance is to do a variation of projects. Each time feels like a new experience. The best part of this job is that we have the privilege, so intimately, to get to know such different worlds and to work with new combinations of people.

You've done a lot of male stories lately. Are you dying to do like a big glamorous female costume drama?

If the story’s good, I would say so.

So it is really all about the story for you. You don’t think, 'I want to do gowns!'

It’s really about the story. The gowns, like, I could not care less if it’s gowns or whatever it is. If there is a good story and I can relate to the story, that’s when I’m going to do a really good job. When I read a script and I don’t connect with the story, then there’s no point in me showing up because I cannot give my best to the project. Because if you connect, it somehow creates this interpretation of the world.

 I don’t know, it kind of makes sense to me in the thought process.

What was the hardest thing – other than the scale -- about designing Bridge of Spies?

It was such a great journey and  privilege that it’s hard to think of anything -- it felt like such a treat. There was such an incredible spirit of filmmaking. I enjoyed every moment of it. Mr. Spielberg dictates such an infectious enthusiasm of storytelling. And the way things are structured, it’s such a well-oiled machine, that it’s movie-making at its best.

If someone were to do a Kasia Walicka-Mimone retrospective, what movies are you most proud of? What do you think of as, like, 'This is mine!'

Oh, god. I don’t know. I’m part of all of them. They’re not mine, they’re collaborations. I love some stories more and some less, but I feel like if I’m there I’m going to  -- it’s the general spirit, we all give it our best shot. It began with Jesus’s Son, I felt like that movie was just so amazing. We ran out of time to film physically what was in the script, and it hurt, because we knew that if we had enough time to film it, the movie would have been that much better.

You know, people in films are very passionate. They all want to tell the most incredible story in the most incredible way. I haven’t encountered slackers in my journey. I feel like I can’t name the favorites.

From the outside looking in, the movies that are the flashiest, so to speak, will always come to mind. Like obviously, Moonrise Kingdom is something people can always connect to you, because the costumes are so memorable, the color schemes -- it inspired Halloween costumes. 

KASIA WALICKE MAIMONE: Yeah, you know for me... This is bad self-advertisement, but I don’t really care that much about costumes. I could not care less about whether it’s green or blue. Because in the end, if it’s a great story driven by great characters, then my job is I handle the humanity in the film. The humanity has to be part of the world that we create.

If I try to think of it as 'costumes,' then it becomes about the surface of things, other than portrayal of the world that we need to create. It’s not about whether I want to make it red or blue, if I’m driven by just the color choice, then there’s a huge chance that it’ll be off!

If I’m just driven by aesthetics I may as well stay in the fashion world, because it’s not about being driven by the surface of things. If you create characters, you better study well and understand all the pieces that create that persona and the world that this person belongs to -- that’s what creates a good story.

That was actually a really interesting answer. I totally see where you're coming from [Pause]  At first I was like, 'WHAT?!?'

[Laughs] What is she talking about? I know!

Anyway, I quite liked the film. In fact, your last few films have been exciting projects. What’s next for you? Do you have anything lined up?

Well, it’s in the making, so I’m hesitant to say!


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Reader Comments (4)

Oh, I love this! I really liked the costumes in Bridge of Spies so when the name of Kasicka appeared on screen I thought to myself: "Never heard of her". I felt so ashamed afterwards when I looked her IMBD résumé because I love her work in Capote, Foxcatcher, Moonrise and the long coats in A Most Violent Year. She's not flashy, but she's so effective! I think she deserves more credit. Thank you!

December 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The Martian had really good costumes. I sat for hours with different spacesuits on. Glad to see that the cat is quickly running out of the Joy trainwreck bag. Happy holidays from my small heart.

December 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Chastain

This reminds me of the underrated fabulousness of Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year.

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

@Jessica Chastain - LOL! love it.

@Nathaniel - great interview. i love how holistic her approach is. thank you for sharing!

December 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

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