'Dumbo' Costume Designer Colleen Atwood on Letting Michael Keaton Not Wear a Tie
There are a number of notable collaborators that exist within Tim Burton’s orbit, coming back time and time again to collaborate with the famous animator-turned-filmmaker, folks like composer Danny Elfman, production designer Rick Heinrichs, and screenwriter John August. But one of Burton’s key collaborators, who isn’t talked about as frequently, is genius costume designer Colleen Atwood, who has worked with Burton, on-and-off, since “Edward Scissorhands.” (She even designed the infamous, iridescent Superman costume for his failed Man of Steel movie.)
Her latest collaboration with Burton is “Dumbo,” which opened this spring and is now available on digital HD and Blu-ray. A live-action retelling of the beloved animated Disney classic (the film that allegedly made Harry Truman cry), it allowed for Burton and Atwood to create dozens of costumes, from post-World War I circus performers to a menagerie of guests attending a kind of proto-Disneyland amusement park. We recently chatted with Atwood about her lengthy collaboration with Burton, how she manages to keep things fresh, and how much input the actors have on their own costumes.
Moviefone: I wanted to go back and talk about your first collaboration with Tim for “Edward Scissorhands” and what that experience was like. Did you get any kind of sense from that collaboration that you would still be making movies with him today?
Colleen Atwood: No, not at all. It kind of came out of the blue, getting that job in the first place. It was a good collaboration and great movie to work on back in the day. And a great thing for me to be able to work with someone like Tim when I was starting out. But who knew? You never know how long the ride can be. I think we've done alright. I think it's 10 or 11 movies ... I don't even know how many movies together. It's, a comfortable place for both of us and a place for creativity for the both of us. It’s a real gift.
How do you keep that relationship fresh and how do you keep the ideas coming especially with someone who has such a branded visual style as Tim?
Well, Tim is a real artist, first of all. The world has made him a brand. But the fact is that I think in a way when you work with someone like that, that closely, you challenge yourself even more to keep it fresh. Taking it, honoring it, but renewing it every time. So to me it's always, I don't want to go to the comfortable place. You want to go to a new place that you have any explored before.
I remember on a set of “Dumbo” you were saying that you were trying to do something new with stripes and swirls in this one.
There's a certain sensibility that you know is part of Tim but change it up and have it be new every time. If you start over-analyzing it, you’re lost. You sit there and like, “I did stripes last time, what am I going to do this time?” Instead of going, “Wow, this is special.” Especially depending on the movie. Like “Big Eyes” or “Miss Peregrine” was much less likely to have a stripe in it than “Dumbo,” which is a circus movie.
You've done a number of adaptations of animated features. So do you look to those for inspiration?
Most definitely. Always because, especially with Tim, it's a subtle thing. It's not so much literally costumes, but what matters. Early on with Tim I realized the point of view from where Dumbo stood in the room was a very important point-of-view for the camera. And when you see that with the director, whether it's Tim or Rob Marshall or whoever you're working with, made me realize what matters in the frame, you're going see. And sometimes it's things you don't normally focus on, like in the case of “Dumbo,” footwear and socks and things like that that little Dumbo saw that we might prepare for but it might not be normally as featured as it is in this particular case.
At the junket Michael Keaton was saying that he kind of, he didn't want to wear a tie, which is where his ascot comes from. How much input do the actors usually have on something like that?
Well when you work with a great actor like Michael Keaton and he has an idea about his character, then you honor it. They aren’t demanding anything. He just said,” I'd like to not wear a tie.” And I'm like, “There's no rule.” I mean, if he was playing a different character I might've pushed back a little bit. But because of who he was playing, it was absolutely appropriate. I find that with actors, generally they're not going to insist on something that isn't somehow appropriate to their character. They may be skewing that a certain way for many reasons. But it's comfort, then that’s a valid reason. I think you have to have validity in that too, in the sense that if something matters that much and they're wearing it 12 hours a day, you have to make sure it works for them too.
“Dumbo” is on digital HD and Blu-ray now.