Costume Designers Give New Spin on Old Favorites With Movie Remakes
By Valli Herman
Great stories deserve to be retold, which may be why some of cinema’s best movies are frequently remade for a new generation of viewers. For costume designers, remakes can be an opportunity to reinterpret an iconic character, pay homage to the originals or update them to fit with modern expectations.
Yet remakes, like sequels, come weighted by the history of what’s come before—a list that can include not just the original film, but also a book, television show or stage play that can add layers of expectation and meaning to the characters and their look. Those original productions are like cinematic uranium—their hold on the popular imagination can have a long half-life that demands handling with care.
Given the wide range of material open for remakes—classics, family fare and musicals alike—it’s no wonder why costume designers say there’s no predictable approach to crafting costumes for a new interpretation. Not all even agree that watching the previous versions is mandatory. Yet, finding a way to manage those all-important expectations becomes key to the costume designer’s art.
By the time Costume Designer Rita Ryack was called to work on the 2007 musical version of “Hairspray,” the original 1988 John Waters movie had become a pop culture classic and a Tony-winning 2002 Broadway musical.
“What (director) Adam Shankman felt was that we didn’t want it to look anything like the stage production. He wanted it based in the reality of the ‘60s,” said Ryack, who had never seen the Broadway version, but had something perhaps more valuable—firsthand experience with the era, reams of research and a genuine appreciation for Waters’ original film. To a contemporary audience, the nuances of that era may have been lost, so Ryack filled in the blanks.
“I had so much source material. I brought in thousands of magazines—Ebony and 1960s Vogue—cartons of research,” she said.
The veracity provided an important baseline as Ryack navigated the established notions of the director, the audience and even the actors. In the newer “Hairspray,” John Travolta famously played housewife Edna Turnblad, a part that transvestite performer Divine played in the original film.
“He didn’t want to be seen as a man playing a woman,” Ryack said of Travolta. “He didn’t want to look like a drag queen; no prints, boas, none of those accoutrements. He wanted to be a dignified Edna. His version certainly worked. I don’t think the clothes were real enough.”
Yet authenticity helped Costume Designer Melissa Bruning successfully lobby director Matt Reeves to design the 2010 American remake of the 2008 Swedish film “Let the Right One In.”
Reeves’ version, “Let Me In,” was set in 1984 Los Alamos, N.M. Bruning had recently shot a number of films in the state, had seen the original in the theater and read the book on which it was based.
“I also grew up in Nebraska and I was also very close to the age of the characters in the film. I brought in my junior high yearbook to show (Reeves). I put together a book of not just clothes, but colors, feeling and pictures that gave a sense of isolation…the tone I wanted to set with the clothes,” she said.
Not every designer, including Ryack, studies the original film or uses it as a template. Bruning, however, is a champion of absorbing that source material.
“I feel like it informs you. If the fans are looking at this, then I feel like you are denying yourself something,” Bruning said. “If there is something that makes sense, that someone did something right, why not use it?”
Though she was immersed in details from the original book and film, Bruning and Reeves sought differentiation, so she embraced certain American looks key to the time period. For example, she gave a minor teen character an American goth look with fingerless gloves, eyeliner and asymmetrical hair.
Remakes also can be just that—opportunities to re-envision stories for a new time and audience. Genevieve Tyrrell designed the 2003 “Freaky Friday” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan without consulting the 1976 original that featured Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster. It’s not likely, she said, that the audience for a children’s movie is full of cinephiles that will catch the sly references to the earlier movies.
“We’ll do an homage for those who will get it,” Tyrrell said. “Anytime you can add something that’s a wink or a nod to an earlier movie is a great thing to add for the audience.”
That’s partly why when she designed the 2005 movie “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Tyrrell watched “tons of episodes” of the original ‘80s television show. She knew one costume piece was mandatory: the tight, high-waisted denim short shorts that became known as Daisy Dukes, after Catharine Bach’s character, Daisy Duke.
“You have to have a sensitivity to what is iconic or character defining,” she said. “There is an audience expectation about what a character looks like that has been established in prior films. You need to be able to reference it in order to contemporize it.”
Tyrrell also stepped in as costume designer on the movie version of the popular TV series “Veronica Mars,” which was designed by Guild President Salvador Perez. To give the show’s ardent fans the treat of a familiar reference, she outfitted star Kristen Bell with the same signature, studded black leather handbag that Perez bought for the TV show.
Those kinds of insider references are also the raw material of costume history, the stuff that keeps a cinephile and costume aficionado happily immersed in the art of movie making.
When Ryack designed the 1991 remake of “Cape Fear” starring Robert De Niro as convicted rapist Max Cady, she added subtle, meaning-laden costumes as an homage to the 1962 original. Key actors such as Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck and Martin Balsam returned in new roles, which gave Ryack the opportunity to link them to their original characters or to other iconic roles through costume. Peck, for example, returned as a judge in the new film, but Ryack referenced the white suits the actor wore in his famous turn as lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She also gave De Niro a Hawaiian shirt in homage to the one Mitchum wore in the original “Cape Fear,” a look that was successful in part because she correctly judged DeNiro’s intensity.
“I don’t think there was any other actor who could have worn those clothes and been menacing like that,” she said.
Whether a remake is set in its original or a contemporary time period, costume designers say they still have to update the clothes.
“It is important to filter it through a modern eye,” said Tyrrell. “You have to work in a familiar visual lexicon.” To an audience in 2015, the subtle details of an era decades past may not look or feel relevant. When designing costumes for “Hair” at the Hollywood Bowl, Ryack said she anticipated that younger audience members will miss many of the era’s cultural references, but will expect to see lots of hippie artifacts—things like fringe, bell bottoms and beads.
Remakes may offer the shortcut of an existing template, but they also challenge costume designers to find that perfect balance between faithful authenticity and entertaining storytelling, while also fighting a tide of expectation and memory.
In the end, the job of creating costumes for a remake is the same as for any other project: start with the characters, and let them tell their story, one white suit, handbag and Hawaiian shirt at a time.