Rome Was Built in Five Months
16th CDGA Career Achievement Award
By Anna Wyckoff
April Ferry is fearless, petite, and powerful. She turned up for our cover shoot with her trademark crop in a scarlet Mohawk. After four decades in Costume Design, her career shows no signs of abating, and neither has her enthusiasm.
Ferry began her love affair with Costume Design as a dancer on Broadway. “I always gravitated to the costume department,” she chuckles. Eventually, she spent 17 years in the trenches as a costume supervisor. “That’s my only training
except live television,” Ferry explains, “I started with Ret Turner and Bob Mackie, and all those wonderful guys who taught me everything, and how to do it quickly. I worked on Sonny & Cher, I dressed actors on Laugh-In, all of those comedies and musical shows with multiple dance numbers—I learned so much.”
She joined Bob Fletcher, also a Career Achievement Award winner, on The Dean Martin Show. Ferry considers him her mentor. “I was his supervisor, they called it wardrobe mistress then,” she notes. “He’s a wildly talented man, and he’s still making beautiful sketches for me at 90. I thank goodness for the time that Fletcher and I spent together. It was amazing training.” Her confidence flourished, and finally, with Fletcher’s encouragement, Ferry joined the Costume Designers Guild. Her first film was The Big Chill. After its completion, she went to Europe on holiday and was shocked and delighted when her agent called with the news that it was a huge hit.
The movie triggered an avalanche of work and a storied filmography of more than 40 features and television shows to date. Ferry has worked with several directors multiple times, including John Maybury (The Edge of Love and Rome), Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and U-571), John Hughes (Planes, Trains and Automobiles and She’s Having a Baby), and Richard Kelly (Southland Tales and Donnie Darko). Ferry enjoys the continuity and the visual shorthand this network of collaborators brings. “I have built relationships,” she says simply.
Rome was Ferry’s first television series. She has often referred to it as “the job of a lifetime.” Ferry had designed several films in Rome and was living in the city with her family for a year, when she found herself drawn to study ancient history. Though she considered returning to school, her agent was intent on securing the job for her, and finally succeeded in getting her an interview. “I did study ancient history,” quips Ferry, “but this was in a much faster time frame.”
Steeped in the past she was trying to re-create, Ferry was enraptured by her surroundings and reveled in Roman culture. With an ancient scholar on hand as a technical advisor, she set out to marry both of her passions. Entrusted with recreating a civilization, she was given five months to prep. Ferry designed and had 5,000 complete costumes constructed during the first season, with nothing rented or purchased. HBO sent her to India to buy fabric, where she selected mostly whites and light fabrics for dyeing. There were 14 in the dyeing department alone. Ferry’s daughter, Katy, began aging fabrics with a stone, and embarked on a career as a full-fledged ager/dyer on the show.
There were armies of drapers and stitchers to clothe the epic scenes. The armorer, Agusto, was from the Grassi family. His father made the armor for Ben-Hur. They created the prototypes, and the legions of chainmail and brass helmets were forged in India. One of Ferry’s favorite costumes was a gown for Cleopatra. “I knew I had to do something amazing for her, and she was this tiny, gorgeous woman. I found a fabric in Prato, north of Florence. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.” The gilded leather fringed like peacock feathers became an unforgettable piece. Ferry credits the actors for being wonderful conspirators. “James Purefoy, who played Mark Antony, would wear anything I put on him—any little skirt, any little dress. He kept saying, ‘Oh, what are you going to do next?’ It was lovely. I found one of his fabrics in India, it was the curtain hanging in the store. I bought it and made a cape.”
When she finally wrapped Rome, director John Maybury invited her to design The Edge of Love in London. The feature grappled with the complicated relationships surrounding the poet Dylan Thomas, and starred Matthew Rhys, Keira Knightley, and Sienna Miller. The 1940s period costumes are among her favorite designs. “He got me out of my funk [that Rome had ended],” Ferry confides.
She has been going full force ever since. In 2013, she designed two films—first, Elysium, with director Neill Blomkamp. “I have worked with Jodie Foster three or four times, when she was 16, at 30, and now at 50,” Ferry notes. “It was really nice to see her at different stages in her life and have that sense of continuity. She’s such a lovely woman.”
Next came RoboCop. “It’s very interesting, because most directors want a futuristic look, but they don’t want it to be distracting. It’s a fine and uneasy line. We shot in Toronto. I had a marvelous time making Sam Jackson’s clothes, we built five suits for him. Abbie Cornish was really a cop’s wife, but she wanted to have a little edge and we worked hard to create that. Michael Keaton was very enthusiastic.” It was the Brazillian director José Padilha’s first American feature, and Ferry was charmed when he instructed her to “do what you think is right.” “It was a joy!” she exclaims.
Notably, Ferry has dodged being pigeonholed into one style or genre. This might be attributed to the fact that she believes something can be learned from every job, an attitude she adopted from her mentor Robert Fletcher. She finds imagining the future as exhilarating as re-creating the past. Presently, Ferry is designing Extant for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and CBS. The television series stars Halle Berry as an astronaut who has returned home following a yearlong space mission. Ferry can’t discuss details because the project is still in its infancy, but with a smile, she did give the tantalizing clue that she is finding inspiration in Hajime Sorayama, the Japanese illustrator of sexy robot pinups.
Having worked in the field for 40 years, Ferry has gained a unique vantage point from which to consider the art of Costume Design. “I think we are finally getting more recognition, and the public is finally realizing that costumes are an integral part of filmmaking and television. But I also think every year you’re expected to do more with less time.
“I think it’s different, I loved it then and I love it now, and I’m really grateful for every day that I can continue to be productive.”