“Live by Night”

January 6, 2017

Anna Wyckoff

The film Live by Night is based on the Dennis Lehane novel about the son of a police superintendent who becomes a powerful criminal in Prohibition era Florida. Ben Affleck wrote, directed, and stars as title character, Joe Coughlin. It is Costume Designer Jacqueline West’s second collaboration with Affleck directing.

“I love Ben as an actor,” she says, “when I was working on a Terrence Malick movie with him, he asked me if I would do Argo. That was the experience of a lifetime. He makes this incredible transition, which I think no director, other than maybe Clint Eastwood, has ever pulled off. He leaves the role of director behind the monitor when he goes on set, and he becomes the actor. Then, he can walk off set and know when he’s hit the mark he wants for his performance.”

West is known for her exhaustive groundwork. Fortunately, Lehane made many references to clothing in the book, which she pored over, making adjustments in her assessment of the characters after reading Affleck’s script. West chuckles, “Each time the start date pushed, I read more books and saw more films. I watched a lot of film noir, French New Wave, whodunits, 50s noir films with Alain Delon, Melville’s films, 1930s Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson.” West was looking to steep herself in the period in order to create a modern noir. She relied on the visual cues of the genre in her design, but shifted the silhouette forward, like tilting a landscape on its axis to show a recognizable, yet fresh view.

The film is set in 1928 and 1929, just as the Depression hits. “Historically, fashion usually changes mid-decade,” West explains, “But because of the Depression and Prohibition, clothes had a whole different cut. Dresses became long, the flapper era ended, the Nazis were gaining a foothold in Europe, and cartoonists invented superheroes as a kind of symbolic reaction to that. The cut of menswear changed to the broad shoulders and the very tight, narrow waist, which you notice in Ben’s 1930s suits.

West built all of Affleck’s garments and used them to create an arc that demonstrates his character’s evolution. His early looks reflect the dark period of his life, and his transition into power is embodied in each ensuing change. Inspired by photographs of Al Capone traveling to Miami and Palm Beach, West devised light, exquisitely tailored pieces, which show how far he has come. She also kept John Paul Chase in mind—a notorious and handsome outlaw of the time who shared many physical characteristics with Affleck. Additionally, over a thousand articles of background suiting were created to achieve her desired silhouette and accommodate the multitude of stunts and blood squibs the film required.

In contrast to Joe Coughlin are his three paramours, Graciella Suarez (Zoe Saldana), Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), and Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning). For Graciella, West took her cue from Renée Perle, who 1930s French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue photographed extensively. She says, “I dressed her in white because I felt she reflected the light part of his life. You know, she might light up his world and he’d start living more in the day, less at night. Emma embodied the rebelliousness of the 20s, the smoking, wearing pants and jackets, like Louise Brooks.” Loretta was based on 1930s religious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who knocked off couture wedding gowns from Vogue Magazine and had them copied with crosses on them. “It’s like she was married to God,” West explains, “so that became a symbol of her character.”

In the end, West and her team compiled about 2,000 pieces of research. Rooms of inspiration boards were generated. When key costumers would dress background actors, they picked a face from a board which resembled the subject and matched the look. The details rose to the forefront: runs in stockings, ill-fitting jackets, choices that imbue each person with humanity.

Those surprising nuances are a characteristic of any film West designs. She removes the typical polish and distance the camera’s eye can create. Through careful consideration, observation, and execution, she gives everyone onscreen a sense of possibility and real life.

During the production of Live by Night, West happened to shoot black and white photographs of one scene, which she showed immediately to Affleck. “I love Walker Evans,” he said, citing the famed Depression era photojournalist. West replied, “Those are the people on set right now.”

The Warner Bros. Pictures film Live by Night is in theatres now.

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