By Lindsay Lopez – June 12, 2013
Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson has cultivated a film-heavy portfolio largely characterized by gritty, comic-book inspired blockbusters (including Director Zack Snyder’s “300” and “Watchmen”), futuristic action features (“Terminator Salvation,” “TRON: Legacy,” and “The Matrix,” on which he served as an Assistant Costume Designer), and epic dramas (spearheading “Babel” and “Rendition,” and assisting on Director Baz Luhrman’s spectacles “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet”). Not bad for someone who was “bitten by the theater bug” as a teenager, then plugged away at a career path in architecture.
Working as a dresser at the Sydney Opera House in his youth, the Aussie was enchanted early on by the world of stage costume. “I didn’t think that there could be a career that combined my passion for art, fashion, history, literature and psychology—when I found out about Costume Design, I had an epiphany,” Wilkinson says. “I loved the idea of telling a story through clothes, subliminally supporting the ideas and themes of a film or play.”
After beginning architecture studies in Sydney, he soon realized he “cared more about crinolines than concrete,” and transitioned to obtain a degree in design for theater at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts. A challenging and intimate program (serving 8 designers per year), the program equipped the Sydney native with a thorough foundation in design mechanics.
“[They taught us] everything from making an Elizabethan ruff to painting a scenic backdrop,” he explains, stressing “I think it’s vital for designers to understand all aspects of our industry, so that we can get an appreciation of everyone’s different perspective.”
Post-grad projects schooled Wilkinson in humility and bemusement, he says, pointing to a production of a George Bernard Shaw play at a “stuffy suburban theater” as the first professional gig to strip him of his rookie blinders. “I thought I would set the world on fire with my ‘ground-breaking’ designs—looking back at them now, they seem so over-wrought and inelegant!” he confesses. “But I’m glad I learned early on the important lesson of not over-thinking or enforcing an agenda onto one’s designs. For me, this is one of the keys to meaningful design.”
In addition to his training and research practices—the designer says he saturates himself in the script and then free associates with images culled from modern art, haute couture, new technologies and historical references—he cites the profound inspiration other designers provide as helpful to his own success.
“When I saw Janet Patterson’s costume designs for “The Piano,” I knew that Costume Design was an art form as complex and challenging as writing a script or painting a portrait. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to spend my life telling stories with clothes,” Wilkinson says. “Janet’s commitment to detail, her imagination and her wit are a constant inspiration to me.”
Additionally, he credits Assistant Costume Designers Christine Bieselin Clark (with whom he’s teamed on the films “TRON: Legacy,” “Watchmen,” “Rendition,” “300,” “Babel,” “Friends with Money” and “Sky High”) and J.R. Hawbaker (with whom he is currently working on Director David O. Russell’s 70s-set film “American Hustle”) for their inspiring workmanship.
“I must have been born under a lucky star, because the first [Assistant] that I met with in LA was the supremely talented Christine. Her poise, energy, wisdom and good humor really helped me get things going in the early days, and for that I will always be grateful,” he says. “And I’ve just worked with J.R., who is also an absolute dream—you watch, these two designers are going to be big stars!”
Rounding out Wilkinson’s diverse body of work are titles including smash hit “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” (Parts 1 and 2), fantasy “Sucker Punch,” Civil War-set “Jonah Hex,” contemporary films “The Nanny Diaries,” “Garden State,” “American Splendor” and “Party Monster.” Wilkinson also designed costumes for the pilot of the HBO mini-series “Luck.” Outside of the feature film and television arena, Wilkinson has produced designs for the Sydney Theater Company, Opera Australia, the Australian Dance Theater, Radio City Hall, the Ensemble Theatre, and special events including the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
Among Wilkinson’s most beloved projects to date are his graphic novel-inspired features. “I loved designing and creating the costumes for “300.” It was great to go back to my roots in the theater and opera, and combine these aesthetics with comic-book pop culture to come up with a new look for the film,” he says of Zack Snyder’s bloody 2006 hit. “The costume makers in Montreal that helped to build the costumes were very talented, and brought a lot to the table. It was a very creative and satisfying time.”
A wholly different aesthetic experience was designing for the superheroes in 2009’s “Watchmen,” a second of several collaborations with Snyder. “It was such a challenge to get them to look 80’s and slightly low-rent, but at the same time appealing and inspirational!” he says.
“Man of Steel”—the highly anticipated, latest installment in the Superman franchise, premiering later this month—marks Wilkinson’s latest collaboration with the director, and a crowning achievement. “Of course, it was humbling and surreal to be able to contribute to the on-screen legacy of Superman,” he says of the film, on which he shares design credits with Costume Designer James Acheson. “Working on the film was a definite career highlight.”
Additional upcoming projects include Director Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” “a wild, post-apocalyptic, Biblical odyssey that defies any categorization,” Wilkinson describes, and “American Hustle,” “a mad-cap, Fellini-esque love letter to the 70s, with the best cast one could ever hope to gather.” (Shots of stars Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in costume have already garnered a great deal of buzz).
Moving forward, the designer’s love for the craft—and meeting fascinating human beings that inspire and challenge him, he says—aids him in coping with the challenges that come with the territory. “[I try] to maintain a balance between work and play,” he says. “With all of the pressures on the job, it’s easy to forget that time away from your work-brain feeds creativity and makes your work better!”
As an advisory to students of design and up-and-comers in the field, Wilkinson says, “Sweat the big stuff, and confront any problems head-on—don’t obsess about the shoe laces of the extra in the back row when your leading lady’s neckline is crooked!”