Jason Clarke in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." Photo credit: David James.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

July 18, 2014

When Costume Designer Melissa Bruning describes how she landed on an iconic Clint Eastwood role to inform the costume for a key character in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” you know she’s a dedicated student of moviemaking.

She needed a standout costume for actor Jason Clarke, who plays Malcolm, a former architect. She found it in a movie nearly 50 years old.

In discussions with “Apes” director Matt Reeves, Bruning explored parallels between American history and the movie’s plot, which pits simians living peacefully in a forest outside a dystopian San Francisco, ravaged by a deadly lab-made flu virus.

“We had the idea that the apes are sort of like the American Indians and the settlers in San Francisco are Gold Rush miners,” Bruning said. The apes lived off the land, while the miners and cowboys of the Old West had a desperate need for supplies, a conflict that drives both history and the movie.

To evoke an iconic cowboy, she embraced the unforgettable serape and wide, flat-brim hat Eastwood wears in his classic 1966 Western, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Reeves gave a thumbs up, but encouraged Bruning to expand on the concept.

“Then I started researching what you need to survive outdoors for weeks at a time,” she said. She fused Eastwood’s poncho/serape with two other poncho styles, one fashionable and one utilitarian. In further discussions, Reeves and Bruning agreed that the character also would have overtones of Indiana Jones–and perhaps his trademark fedora.

The poncho and hat materials would have to show the passing of time and reflect a sense of place.

“I found a waxed cotton that looked like it could belong to an old seaman’s poncho, something a fisherman might have used on a boat in San Francisco,” she said. “I wanted something durable but not see-through. And then with sound concerns, I didn’t want anything too plasticky.”

She liked the heavy cotton used by Filson, the historic Seattle-based outdoor outfitter. When her crack team of assistants found the source of Filson’s vintage-looking cotton, she ordered 40 yards–after all, each poncho required eight yards of fabric to fit the 6-foot Clarke.

Filson also sold a classic cloth hat with high sides that fit Bruning’s requirements for the character.
Bruning purchased the hat off the rack, but had ager/dyer Rob Phillips texture, sand and paint it to give it a decade of wear; the poncho got the same artfully grimy treatment.

Though Clarke and his fellow city dwellers have been scavenging for a decade, he and his fellow cast members maintain some civility in their attire.

“They aren’t dirty homeless people. They have a sense of pride,” Bruning said. And since this is Hollywood, she also made sure that the poncho had a sense of elegance. She cut it on the bias to give it a body-skimming fit.

“All the folds lay really nicely,” she said. “It’s the most designer thing, and yet it looks like some old rag.”

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is now in theaters.

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