By Anna Wyckoff, February 9, 2011
Recently, on a rare rainy day in Santa Monica, Costume Designer Julie Weiss reflected on her work in her art studio surrounded by her paintings, sculptures and a few costume pieces. The rooms are like an extension of her imagination, a cocoon where relics of the past become a foundation for the future.
From Proust to Hemingway, history’s most prolific storytellers were great cultivators of memories, culling from the mass subconscious, their milieu and themselves. It becomes apparent that Weiss follows in this tradition, transforming memories not into sentences and books, but into costumes and characters. At the center of her journey is the pursuit of the elusive moment when, like a bird shifting from stillness to flight, a costume becomes clothing, and an actor becomes the character.
Before studying Costume Design at Brandeis University, she researched the works of Eugene O’Neill at U.C. Berkley and still applies this love of literature to reading scripts. It seems to have sharpened her perceptivity. She knows almost immediately when she wants to, in her words, “be a part of.” She felt this way about the film “American Beauty,” and more recently about “Get Low.” In Weiss’s world, many disparate elements merge and disappear to become a costume. She has a keen eye and ear tuned for the distinguishing nuances of words. Working with a wide variety of directors requires understanding his or her language in order to interpret their vision and finish their visual sentences.
Her discernment is evident when she speaks about a detail as slight as the color pink. “I think that there are directors and writers,” Weiss explains, “Someone like Robert Towne, who when he writes ‘woman enters in pink’ you know that ‘pink’ is the heat, an Algerian pink, a body pink, and you are to follow that… but if you work on something like the ‘Freshman’ with director Andrew Bergman, when he says ‘woman enters in pink,’ that means she’s a very lovely woman, a young woman, a pink woman, a fresh woman.”
Associations and memories seep into Weiss’ Costume Design. First on Broadway, and then at the beginning of her film and television career, Weiss found a generation of acclaimed actors like Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda willing to share their life experiences. Likening this dressing room education to a graduate degree, Weiss explains, “When you catch someone who is ready to talk… it becomes yours and belongs to both of you. Memories can become great sod.”
She is equally fascinated with the man on the street. The humble, the lowly, the forgotten—she considers it an honor to use Costume Design as a sieve to catch those who usually slip by, paying homage where another person might walk past or turn away. “We as Costume Designers can sneak those people in and keep them going,” Weiss says conspiratorially. She notes that Terry Gilliam who directed “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Twelve Monkeys” understands the idea of “looking quietly,” and then “recreating without mockery.”
While Weiss longs to construct every costume, existing pieces play a vital and necessary role in her narrative. In her hands, garments yield their secrets—their wear, pocket contents, or in the instance of a particular civil war bodice, birdseed tucked in the breast. Weiss takes note of the detail, and if is not appropriate for the story at hand, she “stores it up.”
But if words and memories are the bedrock, then drawings are her foundation. Weiss views costume sketches as “wearable notes and changeable thoughts” for an actor’s evolving personality. In her illustrations, dynamic lines describe the character. Sewing instructions, references, and swatches fill the margins, imparting the overall effect that the character is already in motion. In addition to silhouette and fabric, psychological and sociological details become the raw materials for yet another way to give a character dimension. She also loves mud, dirt and sweat. It is not unusual to find aging instructions like “all items rain, mule trough aged” on a sketch. These subtleties are an effort to create real people that an audience is compelled to invest in.
The evolution of the character continues until the final transformation occurs and is recorded by the camera. Weiss is always alert for this moment of metamorphosis and notes, “Even if you have the best set of pearls in your pocket… you let that merger [between the character and the actor] go free… the shoes will suddenly fit, someone will sit down but it will be the character, and that is a moment of celebration.”
Throughout her career Weiss has watched this shift happen hundreds of times, but she never tires of it. In “Frida Kahlo,” Selma Hayek’s internal pain festers beneath her magnificent rebozos. In “Hollywoodland,” Ben Affleck plays a mortal who abdicates the role of the hero and betrays his wife, played by an agonized Diane Lane. Weiss also recalls the quieting force of Annette Bening in “Mrs. Harris” and the powerful ensemble casts of the films “Bobby” and “Steel Magnolias.” In remembering Robert Duvall deliver his own eulogy in “Get Low,” Weiss exclaims, “This is the link. This is what I am a part of, and what I want to be remembered as a part of.”