December 2, 2016

Anna Wyckoff

Though Costume Designer Joanna Johnston set out to conjure old Hollywood glamour with the Paramount Pictures release, Allied, she also quietly underscores the characters of the protagonists, who use their clothing as another layer of subterfuge.

Many elements convened to Johnston’s benefit. There was the healthy prep time of just under four months, her seasoned crew, and her well-established rapport with director Robert Zemeckis. The WWII spy thriller is set in Casablanca and London in 1942-43, but the majority of filming took place in the studio. This offered the luxury of a controlled environment and an ease of working conditions, as inclement weather and geographic difficulties were nearly eliminated. The challenge became “selling” the many different locales represented in the film, many of which were entirely recreated.

Research was abundant. “It’s a beautiful period and there is a lot material available to wrap your eyes into,” she explains. Then there was the casting. The genetically bewitching leads—Brad Pitt as Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard as Marianne Beauséjour—might be any Costume Designer’s dream team. “Good looking actors always make the clothes look good,” Johnston chuckles. Because the film is about a love story between spies, the costumes serve to evoke the person each character is trying to project. The clothing creates another facet in the mirrored layers of illusion and reality.

Inspired by several iconic Orry-Kelly designed films, Johnston wanted to stretch beyond just telling the story. “Casablanca was one of the first films I looked at for a few reasons: it is set in the same city, the same period, and it was all studio shot so it didn’t go on location. The simplicity of Ingrid Bergman’s clothes are such an inspiration.” Now Voyager also had an impact on her thinking. “We are all meant to be creating accurate costumes, which are not really supposed to be drawing attention to themselves,” says Johnston. “But, when you can inject a style, and give a film its own look, I think you can call that a considered application of design.” Specifically, she looked to infuse garments with the finesse of classic Hollywood cinema. She explains, “I think sometimes it is so difficult in film when you have to do things so quickly, when you have to cut corners and you lose. If you can hold on to that refinement and still deliver within your prep time, that is the trick.”

Summoning the past may sound like a natural and easy choice, but in actuality, given the structure of modern film production, it is almost impossible to recreate its advantages. Unlike designers of yesteryear who had a vast infrastructure in place to support their work and the focused manpower to build exquisitely constructed pieces, modern designers are challenged by constraints of time, money, and logistics. “Now we have to scramble to put a department together in a couple of weeks and you are really on to the next phase before you finish the first phase. In the past, it wasn’t all about the money, it was about giving the film the look. Giving the audience these amazing pieces,” says Johnston, “I suppose that is what I want—the polish.” With Allied, Johnston has accomplished her purpose, as the sheer gorgeousness of the design unfolds in every scene.

Allied is in theatres now.

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