Career Achievement Award Recipient Jeffrey Kurland
By Valli Herman
For nearly 40 years, Jeffrey Kurland has had one of the steadiest, most respected Costume Design careers in American film. On two coasts and with plenty of locations between, he has amassed 42 credits as a movie Costume Designer, one for a television series, and six in assistant roles, beginning with the 1980s feature Stardust Memories.
Kurland, who at the age of 29 began a 16-film run as Woody Allen’s go-to Costume Designer, won a BAFTA for Radio Days in 1988 and an Oscar nomination for Bullets Over Broadway in 1994. He has since worked in virtually every genre of film.
His extra-curricular duties are in service to his family and his profession. He and his wife Helene, a chef and writer, transplanted their family to Los Angeles after establishing their careers in New York. They raised Zoe, 21, and Zachary, 18. Kurland is presently serving as First Vice President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the only Costume Designer to attain the title—and for many years, the lone Costume Designer on the AMPAS Board of Governors, in the art directors branch. He successfully lobbied to create the Costume Designers branch with three governors in 2013. For the past seven years has created and produced the Academy’s Governors Ball, and has signed up for an eighth.
For these and numerous other reasons, Kurland is the 2017 recipient of the Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award, presented at the 19th Costume Designers Guild Awards, the same body that gave him the win for Excellence in Contemporary Film for Erin Brockovich in 2000 and nominations for the 2010 Inception and the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven.
Though he could have been pigeonholed as a specialist in wry comedy after his long career with Allen, Kurland has defied easy categorization. He has partnered with Sacha Baron Cohen for broad satire in The Dictator, given director Christopher Nolan complex realism in the sci-fi adventure Inception, and even witchy romance for Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures. Though his tenure with Allen is solid career gold, he has also interpreted the visions of Steven Soderbergh, Milos Forman, Paul Feig, and Brad Bird.
The list of stars he has dressed could fill a galaxy: the “beautiful creatures” Emma Thompson and Viola Davis; Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich; Holly Hunter and Queen Latifah in Living Out Loud; Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon; George Clooney, Elliott Gould and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven; and Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones in the Ghostbusters remake. So far this year, he’s been prepping Mission Impossible 6 in London after finishing the World War II drama Dunkirk with director Christopher Nolan.
Nolan called Inception “a very challenging film logistically,” which reassured him that Kurland was the right fit for the complex Dunkirk. “I knew that I could throw a tremendous challenge at him and he would rise to it,” Nolan said. “He’s a very valuable member of any team. He says what he thinks, but he is always respectful and polite. He has a great sense of humor and a great sense of humor about himself. I feel like his years and years of experience have taught him to have a great sense of proportion. He doesn’t get caught up in the details. He doesn’t panic. He’s confident.”
Kurland has had the benefit from the beginning of his career to work with or befriending highly regarded mentors, directors, and creative minds, starting with Costume Designers Ann Roth and Jane Greenwood, with whom he shared a New York loft.
“I’ve worked for a lot of good people,” Kurland said. In his last year as a theater major at Northwestern University, he returned to his native New York seeking jobs in theater. Set and Costume Designer Tony Walton agreed to a meeting, and passed along his name to Tony Award-winning Costume Designer Patricia Zipprodt. She quickly hired him for a second-assistant job on Chicago.
“That was my first job. I didn’t get paid for it, but I got more than compensated in experience,” Kurland said. He stayed in theater, with Zipprodt as a mentor and inspiration. “Through her, I met Santo Loquasto, who hired me as his costume assistant.” Kurland worked under Loquasto on two musicals and several ballets. In 1978, Loquasto was offered his first movie, designing costumes for Simon, directed by Marshall Brickman, who was also one of Woody Allen’s writing partners. Brickman recommended Loquasto to Allen.
Kurland came along and began assisting Loquasto on Stardust Memories. They remained a team on the 1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and 1983’s Zelig. When Broadway Danny Rose came around the following year, Loquasto was committed elsewhere, but suggested Kurland for the job.
Two days after the suggestion, Kurland began his long run as Allen’s Costume Designer, ending with Everyone Says I Love You in 1996. Loquasto soon returned as Allen’s go-to production designer. Kurland in costume and Loquasto in production design were again a team for 12 films.
“You work for Woody Allen in New York—it doesn’t get any better,” Kurland said. That steady gig was made more special by the working relationships he developed with Allen’s teams of regular actors and crew. “You always knew you were coming back. It was a very family kind of feeling,” he added. It also made him an aficionado of jazz, which he often plays during fittings. “You can’t work for Woody Allen and not know jazz.”
“We’re still very close—Santo, Woody and I,” he said. With Allen, Kurland found a director who communicated his vision clearly—and with a lot of shoe leather.
“We lived not too far apart. We did a lot of ‘walk and talks.’ I spent a lot of time walking up Madison Avenue talking about scripts,” said Kurland. “He loved the city and walking in the city. He’s very entertaining. There’s nothing he can’t find humor in,” Kurland said.
The director can even make a joke about those conversations. “If we were out walking, most probably we were either talking about the film or trashing people,” Allen wrote in an email. On a more serious note, Allen found in Kurland a dependable and creative collaborator. “What makes a Costume Designer successful for me is, of course, to carry out my vision, but also to override me, as Jeffrey did when his ideas were better than my original thoughts,” Allen said.
Allen fondly recalled Kurland’s personal style—a look that often combines long hair, a jangle of turquoise bracelets and rings and, since 1999, a leather motorcycle jacket that was made the year he was born. “The crew looked forward to what ludicrous costume he chose for himself as the day’s apparel. It was always good for mind-boggling astonishment and much laughter,” Allen wrote.
Kurland, like Allen, gathers regular collaborators for jobs with a long tenure. For what will be eight consecutive years for the 2017 ceremony, he has worked with event producer Cheryl Cecchetto’s Sequoia Productions to mount the Academy’s Governors Ball. “His attention to detail is like no other, down to every button,” said Cecchetto. She reeled off tales of how Kurland applied his trained eye to everything from food to décor. He participates in every element of the event, down to the event staff’s attire, understanding the three dimensional theatricality required.” For the 2016 event, Kurland recruited Costume Designers Guild illustrators to create caricatures inspired by those in the industry-favorite restaurants, Sardi’s and the Brown Derby. She watched as Kurland masterminded the Governors Ball events that celebrated the entire film industry.
Spend time with Kurland and you won’t hear him gush about his friendships with film and theater icons, but he may emphasize his work on behalf of his Costume Design colleagues, particularly at the Academy. “I was for many years, the only voice for Costume Designers on the board,” he said. “Now Costume Designers have a voice at the meetings and a vote. I’m very proud of it. A Costume Designer has never gotten to the executive level. It’s a very great honor.” His presence and advocacy have helped bring new appreciation for the profession.
Costume Designers “should be respected not just for the clothes, but for the ideas they bring to the table,” he said. “That’s why you have a Costume Designer. Not everybody can tell a story from foot to head out of thin air.” Nor do it as well as Kurland.