Photo credit: David Bornfriend.

The Color Purple costume sketch by illustrator Haleen Holt.

Ewok costumes. Credit: Joseph McDonald. From "Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy" by Brandon Alinger (Chronicle Books).

(Above and below) Princess Leia's bounty hunter disguise. Credit: Joseph McDonald. From "Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy" by Brandon Alinger (Chronicle Books).

Credit: Joseph McDonald.

Spotlight On: Aggie Guerard Rodgers

2015 Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award Honoree

February 2015

By Valli Herman

Aggie Guerard Rodgers is an expert noticer, which may be part of the secret to her long and successful career as a Bay Area-based Costume Designer.

She’s the person, scanning the room, looking for clues to a personality, a lifestyle, a look. She’s the award-winning costume designer whose research includes forays into environments that can provide a 360-degree view of a character.

“I’ve always loved Goodwill, and the Goodwill can train any good costume designer,” said Rodgers. “You can find the period of a character there. I go to estate sales all the time, too. I like to see what clothing went with what house — and how the culture impacts them.”

Using well-developed powers of observation, strict management and a get-it-done approach has helped earn the designer the 2015 Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award, which will be presented on February 17 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

She’s also able to leave her expert knowledge at the theater door, allowing herself to be carried away by the moment.

By illustration, she tells this story: “I went to see ‘Gravity’ with my youngest son. I had to get up and go outside, I was so afraid. I went to see ‘Interstellar’ and I had to leave the whole theater because I was so afraid. The whole situation, frightened me.

“I’m a total believer, she said. “The lights go out and I’m there.”

That Rodgers is able to be completely captivated by a film after working behind the scenes for 40 years is a testament to her commitment to the art of storytelling.

Rodgers has a master’s degree in theatre costume design from Cal State Long Beach and has been part of cinema history through some of its most influential years. She was born and raised in Fresno, and earned a theatre arts bachelor’s at Fresno State. That background helped land her first job as a movie costume designer. Director George Lucas interviewed her for his era-defining film, “American Graffiti,” and discovered that he and Rodgers graduated high school in the same year from towns about 20 miles apart.

“I got that job on ‘Graffiti’ because I knew that period. And I knew about dragging on Main. How many jobs are there like that?” Rodgers said.

She’s since applied her skills to create a distinguished body of work, which includes Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” in 1974, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” in 1984, and through 1988, a string of memorable movies such as “Cocoon,” “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Fatal Beauty,” “Beetlejuice” and “My Stepmother is an Alien.” She received an Academy Award for Best Costume Design nomination for 1985’s “The Color Purple.”

She’s worked with a constellation of stars and directors, including actor Jack Nicholson, Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Harrison Ford, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Cher, and directors Ron Howard, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Norman Jewison and Lawrence Kasdan.

Lucas hired Rodgers again when he brought production of “Star Wars: Episode VI–Return of the Jedi” back to the Bay Area and teamed her up with storyboard artist Nilo Rodis-Jamero, who continued the work of “Star Wars” Costume Designer John Mollo. The story of her immersion into the world of “Star Wars” and her complex collaboration across departments and countries is retold in the new book, “Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy.” Author Brandon Alinger met with Rodgers, who shared costume design credit with Rodis-Jamero, and came to understand how she became a valuable addition to film productions.

Her Fresno experience with drag racers came in handy once more. According to Alinger, Rodgers was designing a costume for the Emperor’s Royal Guard and selected a very specific red for the helmet and robe.

“It was a throwback to the bright red cars of the 1950s. She said, This is George Lucas. And I know he loves hot rods. This has to be candy apple red,” Alinger recalled.

Not only did Alinger learn that Rodgers is an expert people watcher, but he also came to understand that she is a strong leader, one he described as “charming but forceful.”

“She also very good with people, and actors in particular. That made her an ideal choice for ‘Jedi’ because it was a lot to manage. They were manufacturing costumes in the U.S. for a shoot to begin in the U.K., and coordinating a separate department in the U.K. that was making the outfits,” Alinger said.

Given that the look of the “Star Wars” world was already established, and that the design of the fantasy film came largely from the art department, Rodgers was able to apply her vision nevertheless.

“I am the Costume Designer on every show I’m on. Whether I’m going to Maxfield Bleu, or having it made in a shop, it’s still my design,” Rodgers said. “I feel very strongly that even if I shop the entire show, what I’m doing is using–let’s say 10 other designers’ work–I’m using their art for my art.”

Though she describes herself as bossy, Rodgers knows her place, on the set and off. Recalling her dealings with Lucas, she knew not to question his authority.

“It was his movie. It was his money. Beyond, that, I just shut up,” Rodgers said. “I want to make sure people are happy with the clothes.”

Living in the Bay Area for her entire career also has helped Rodgers avoid typical Hollywood status anxiety, and instead embrace her candor and down-to-earth attitude.

“I don’t have a retinue with me. I don’t use costume design assistants. I don’t work like a lot of people,” she said.

Though she has worked with legendary directors, Rodgers has been connecting with new talent, such as Noah Pritzker of “Quitters” and writer- director Ryan Coogler of “Fruitvale Station.”

“I don’t mind doing films for first-time directors at all — I think it’s exciting. They have something to teach us. We have something we can teach them,” she said.

Rodger’s Bay Area connections brought Coogler to her. The 2013 film portrayed the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old who was fatally shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in 2009.

Coogler was impressed: “She was spot-on, a great personality and a strong work ethic. She would look at pictures and just pick things up that my eye never would have seen. She could zero-in on certain things that showed me she was an absolute true artist.

As a young filmmaker, Coogler learned from the veteran. “She talked about how filmmaking has changed and how many different ways she’s seen it–and there is no one way to do things,” Coogler said. “But she would always say, Be sure you stay real throughout it.”

Coogler said Rodgers was generous with her wisdom and passionate about the film’s topic. Rodgers remains true to her word that she’s a believer–in storytelling and in film, despite the hurdles she sees in today’s film industry.

“I’m sorry for the young people who are starting out. They’ll never have the opportunities that I had,” she said. “I had so much fun. I really got to do my art.”

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