by Sarah Schuessler, special correspondent to Frocktalk.com
It is illuminating to hear about any costume designer’s process, but it’s especially exciting when you are a fan of the project too. HBO’s Rome is a favorite of mine, and I had the privilege of chatting with its lovely designer, April Ferry, about her experience.
AF: Rome was not only my favorite project I’ve ever done, it is my favorite work I’ve ever done, actually. I’ve done more than forty movies. And even though I only mostly do features, Rome was just—because I got to do it from the ground up. We did the research; we did everything. We made every single costume.
SS: Did you go into that interview knowing, “Okay, if I get this…”
AF: You know, I had lived, and I had done a couple of movies in Rome. I fell in love with Italy, and the whole—well I was an Italiophile. So my daughter and I and her two children moved to Rome in 2002, I think it was. And then my agent here said, “Oh you know HBO is going to do that thing on Rome, and I’m going to put you up for it.” So that’s how it happened. And it was just—it was made for me.
SS: And the whole thing was shot there?
AF: Oh yeah. Every bit.
SS: How long had you lived there when you started?
AF: I had been there for like a year.
SS: So finding people to build in Italy—what was that process like?
AF: Well, I had done two movies in Rome already, so I knew people. I knew the tailors and I knew the sewing women. I had a whole group I knew, because there were no other Americans on my crew, it was just me. They were all Italian.
SS: Do you speak the language?
AF: I can barely get by. It’s hard to figure out how to speak to people (without the language), but somehow we did it. I’ve been gone for three years now though, and it’s all out of my head.
SS: Before you started building, where did you begin with all your research? Did you start with sculpture since you were surrounded by it?
AF: I was taking research from sculpture, from the most wonderful books, and I had a mentor in the late seventies named Robert Fletcher. He is a costume designer—he’s in the guild—and he taught me so much because he was a Rome person. He loved Ancient Rome. And he took me to Rome with my children in 1973. So from 1973, I fell in love with Rome, I fell in love with the Ancients, and so I made a study of it from then on. (Rome) was just made for me to do.
SS: It was like your thesis!
AF: Yeah, it was! Absolutely.
SS: Did you have a favorite character to design for?
AF: Yes, probably Atia, who is played by Polly Walker. But most of the women, you know, you’d put in the Roman drapery, which was correct, and they’d say, “Ew, it makes me look fat.”
SS: Right—“I look dumpy in this!” How did you deal with that?
AF: We just figured out a way to make it work.
SS: Did it start with traditional drape? (laughing) Because it’s not like you can just take in the drape, can you?
AF: (Laughing) No you can’t take in drapery. But I had these wonderful women who were the seamstresses who really know how to do it. I mean, I knew that I didn’t want it to look like Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, because that looked like the fifties. I wanted it to look like the proper time. And somehow these women who worked with me, the seamstresses, they just—it was magic, it was just magic. I had an entire soundstage filled with my clothes. We did over 5,000 clothes the first year.
SS: How long did you have to prep before you started shooting?
AF: They gave me a long prep; they gave me about four or five months. And they sent me to India to buy fabric and to make chain mail. That was a great experience—to actually go to the factory and watch them put one (link) at a time together.
SS: So you even built all of your chainmail?!
SS: You mentioned Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, but I loved your Cleopatra in season 2. Can you tell me a little about her costumes?
AF: She was a wonderful little actress. I adored her. She was very brave, because she would wear those clothes with nothing under them. And she didn’t care; she just did it.
SS: Were there actors who said, “You’re going to need to make me some kind of underwear for this thing.” How did that work for their undergarments?
AF: You know, mostly the men are that way, not the women. But Lyndsey (Marshal) was just absolutely brave enough to not have anything on underneath, and she had see-through clothes!
SS: What about her wigs? Her wigs were great too.
AF: Well you know, it’s funny, the man who did the wigs and I fought all the time, because he was a friend of mine and I loved him. He’s nominated for an Oscar this year. His name is Aldo Signoretti, and he’s terrific. I mean, I just love him. I did a film in the late eighties (Leviathan), and he was the makeup and hair man. He used to drive me on the back of his motorcycle from Cinecittà into Rome, so we had a big history.
SS: Was it just lucky that you ended up working together again randomly, or did you request him for the project?
AF: Oh no, I wanted him, absolutely. His whole crew was great—because that was a lot of people to put in wigs every day.
SS: It also felt like an Egypt we’ve never seen before on film or television. That was what was so exciting about that whole word you created.
AF: Well that’s what we were trying to do!
SS: How much did you and the director or directors interact—it’s different from film for a series like this, right?
AF: There were like two directors that I really connected with. And then I did a film for one of them in England after we finished Rome. It’s called The Edge of Love with Keira Knightly and Sienna Miller. It was the most marvelous experience. His name is John Maybury and he’s a really smart, wonderful, crazy man.
SS: You have so many good things to say about everyone!
AF: Well, that’s the way I feel. I have a very positive attitude about most things.
SS: Are you working on any other projects right now?
AF: At the moment no, this year has been really slow. I hate it. It’s awful. I mean, I have a long career but I’ve never been out of work this long.
SS: When you’re looking for a project does your agent find it, or do you keep your ear to the ground?
AF: Well, both, but my agents are very good. Wayne Fitterman and Pete Franciosa at UTA—I should put those names out there.
SS: Any advice for aspiring designers?
SS: How did you get started?
AF: I had a friend who was the costume designer on The Dean Martin Show. I needed a job, and he asked me if I wanted to come zip up the people and I did. That’s how I got started.
SS: You knew at that point that you wanted to be a costume designer though?
AF: Oh yeah, I had been a dancer on Broadway, then I had a big family, and then I got a divorce and needed a job. Then it just kind of fell into place. It was meant to be.