Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The Reader – Interview with Associate Costume Designer DONNA MALONEY

You know, it does look charcoal grey here.  Thanks, Donna!!

You know, it does look charcoal grey here. Thanks, Donna!!

First of all, I loved this movie.  I wanted to know more about it, so I turned to Donna Maloney for some answers.  And man, did I get some good answers!!

Describe your working relationship with Ann Roth:

In 1986 Ann took me under her wing while she was doing The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  She mentored me, teaching me how to breakdown a script, about character, and among many other things, undergarments.  I have been her costume supervisor ever since then, but working with Ann is not like working with other designers.  She is so secure in her position, that she invites opinion.  She has given me great creative freedom over the past 23 years.  She collaborates and encourages input.  I often pull all the stock on our projects and fit the background.  The Reader was extraordinary because Ann gave me the opportunity to be completely responsible for a period film.  I hope to work with her for another 20 years.

What were you doing when you got the news that you would be doing The Reader, and how did your gears shift at that point?

I was working on the New Haven, Connecticut portion of the Indiana Jones movie.  Ann had definitely turned The Reader down because of conflicts with Mamma Mia, so it was a huge surprise when Scott Rudin insisted she do it.  I had already lined up another film, so I had to call and decline on that and then I had to figure out what to do with my child who was a senior in high school.

Describe the research process for The Reader – what did you look at, where did you find it, did you interview people?

I immediately went to the picture collection at the New York Public Library and researched trams, German prisons, German street life, school kids, out door markets, swimming lakes, Berlin in the late 70’s – anything that I could get my hands on.  I also went to the Strand bookstore, but research or even picture books were really scarce.  Where it really came together was when I got to Berlin and our crew tracked down old German catalogues from the late 50’s, 60’s, the 70’s and the 80’s.  We did huge research boards of photos and posted them around our costume department.  As the eras changed, the research boards would go in and out of the fitting rooms for reference.  The Production Designer, Brigitte Broch, had done an enormous amount of research and she was so generous in offering it to us.

One interesting thing of note: the jail attire had a lot to do with the reform of the prisons, which happened in the early 70’s in Germany.  Initially, all the prisoners wore blue heavy chambray dresses and a light blue sweater. The uniform dresses you see in the film are original. Our Costume Supervisor, Heike Hutt, tracked them down through the prison system.  After the reform, the prisoners were allowed to wear street clothes.  In order not to confuse the audience, even after the reform we kept a mixture of uniform and street clothes.  Hanna (K.W.) almost always wore the prison issued sweater.

Describe the conversations you had with the director about the tone of the film – what were some of the things he wanted to convey?

Stephen wanted Young Michael ‘s hometown to look very post-war, very poor and struggling.  This changed our concept from proper 50’s gloves and hats to more of a rural tilt of aprons, boots and headscarves.

Early design development – How many of the costumes were M/O and how many were pulled or purchased?  The sweaters on Young Michael – did you have those made, or were they pulled/purchased?  (I loved all of the knits – they were fabulous!)

Because of script action necessitating doubles, we had to make many of Young Michael’s trousers and shorts.  Some we were able to buy at J. Press – also the khaki jacket he wears a lot came from there.  Some of his clothes were pulled from TK (Theatrekunst), the costume rental house in Berlin, but most of his shirts were purchased so we could have doubles.  We found his brown chunky knit turtleneck sweater at KaDeWe, a large department store in Berlin, but since there was a big rain scene, we needed three.  It took Michelle Matland, the Assistant Costume Designer, two days to track two more down in Italy and have them flown in.  We also made-to-order a green corduroy zip front jacket, very common for the period, but during shooting, the actor broke his arm and when we shot the beginning scenes with him on the tram and being sick, we needed to hide his cast and stabilize his arm.  The MTO jacket didn’t work, so we used a big wool coat that weighed about 80 lbs when it got wet.  It did the trick, though, and hid his injury.

With Kate, dresses were made-to-order based on existing dresses.  We always returned to the original period dress because I think it helped her inhabit her character more.  Her housedress in an earlier scene was MTO, but from period fabric that Ann found in a vintage shop in Berlin.

How long was your prep, and what was the costume budget?

I just went back to the budget folder on my computer.  The first budget I submitted was on August 24th, 2007 for $200,000.00.  Then there was the extended rental submitted on 21st of Jan 2008 for an additional $103,000.00.  Then because of our even further delays, the extended rentals to the costume houses were further extended on the 22nd of April 2008 for $80,000.  So because of the unusual circumstances and all the hiatuses, the budget ended up costing nearly double what we had initially projected.  Again, it was not because of poor budgeting on our part, but because of scheduling.

At what point in prep did you go to Europe?

We found out we were doing the film the end of June 2007.  I went to Berlin for two weeks in July to hire a crew and check out the rental houses.  Then back to PA by way of London to have a look see with Ralph Fiennes and David Kross, to pull from our stock.  I sent 55 boxes to Berlin (from slips to overcoats).  I was back in Berlin the 1st of August.  Ann and Michelle came for a week from London and we fit Young Michael and as many characters as we could.  Then we began shooting the second week of September.  So ultimately, we had two months prep – not a lot of time.

Age/Tech – how many people did you have doing this on the show?  Were they local hires?

The entire costume crew was a local hire.  Working with the Germans was a wonderful experience.  They all study to be qualified for their craft.  Every single person in the department sewed, most could age.  Not all could fit though, so those costumers I wasn’t crazy about were rooted out early.  We had someone full-time ageing nearly the whole run of the show.

With regard to the nudity, How did you approach it with the actors to make sure they’d feel comfortable and at ease?  This is such a difficult one – having done The Cooler, I have total empathy for full-frontal and lots of skin.  It’s not easy.  But you were working with a teenager – how did you assuage him, and more importantly, his parents?

Kate had her dresser who has been with her for a number of films.  They worked out in advance the nudity covers, taping, gluing, etc.  Kate is also much more comfortable in her body than a young actor.
We actually had to wait until David Kross turned 18 to do the scenes involving nudity.  Because I had been in every fitting and knew David well, he was most comfortable with me.  After a lot of discussion about who would be on set, I spoke to S. Daldry and David and decided I would dress him.

We were extremely cognizant of his fragility, so I would run in with towels after each cut to cover him.  When he could, he wore a dance belt that I had constructed to make him feel he had support and a layer between him and Kate.  I think it was never anything but awkward, but somehow all made it through without scars.
Note of interest:  Germans are much more free about nudity and David’s parents trusted in him and the director explicitly.  They treated David like an adult, which made the process infinitely easier.

How long was the shooting schedule?  Did you move around a lot?  Did you recycle your E-containers?  :-)

When I first went to Germany, we were scheduled to be finished by Christmas.  That was when Nicole Kidman was to be our leading lady.  Then ‘Australia’ happened which made Nicole unavailable until the end of December.  After having two fittings with her in New York in November, I traveled back to Germany and we shot for a week and a half in Dec.  Home for two weeks over Christmas when Nicole announces she is pregnant and won’t do the film because she won’t wear prosthetics.  So between Christmas and New Year, we were all in a state of shock.  Then Kate Winslet agreed to take over the role on the condition we begin shooting in March.  This allowed Ann and I to fit her in New York numerous times, so when we began shooting with her, we were mostly ready.  Then we were to be finished by May, when the Weinstein’s lawyers discovered that we could not shoot nudity with an underage actor.  Another hiatus ensued while we did old age makeup tests with Kate in New York, while we waited for David to turn 18.  All in all, I was in Berlin for exactly one year.
All the E-containers were stored over the year and stock from the states was returned in the boxes it arrived in.

I loved the swimsuits – M/O or pulled/purchased?  Where did you get them?!

The swimming lake scenes were the 1st days of shooting.  It was the middle of September, and it was discovered that the water was so cold, the actors and BG could only stay in it for 3 minutes.  The week before we started shooting, the 1st AD asked that all the BG could be double fit in both bathing suits and beach/street wear so they could keep revolving people in and out of the water.  Needless to say, I pulled every period bathing suit in all of Germany!  Luckily, we had a lot in our stock, we spent a lot of time on Ebay and we scoured the vintage shops of Berlin.  Young Michael and Sophie’s suits were MTO, but most other suits were rentals.

Were there ever shooting days when you had to switch gears from 1958 to 1966 to the 1980s in the same day?  I think that is sometimes really difficult; total gear shift.

I remember there being days in Kreuzberg when we were shooting the adult Michael’s (Ralph Fiennes) neighborhood when we would jump form 1976, 1984 and 1995.  Triple fittings on BG, all different undergarments, shoes and outerwear!  The AD’s were wonderful in understanding the huge gear shift for hair and makeup, so we avoided the shift as much as possible.  Often times in a week we would be fitting 3 or 4 periods though, so we kept the research handy.

The courtroom garb – I noticed that most of the defendants/judges/witnesses were wearing some form of black, white or grey (including Hanna).  Just my imagination, or was that an effort to reinforce the central issue of the film, the idea of right, wrong, and somewhere in the middle?

Color had a huge impact on the film.  We were very conscious to keep most of the film in earth tones, except for very specific scenes like the swimming lake, which we chose bright reds and blues.  It was a reference to the American Occupation.  The only other time there was ‘color’ was in the 70’s in Kreuzberg, which was era-appropriate.  The courtroom was very controlled with greens and blacks and sober tones to reflect the tone of the trial and the severity of the charges.

In the end, when she wears the sort of Lilac cardigan with floral-print blouse, I took this to mean that she had undergone a substantial inner change (no longer wearing dark blue in her palette).  Am I nuts to think that this was to cue the audience to the fact that she’d changed?  I just noticed that she had worn dark blue in almost every other scene – even on the bike trip, the pattern of her dress was dark blue – if I am nuts, please let me know!

Hanna’s (K.W.) costumes definitely had an arc.  We mainly see her in her grey tram uniform (which was MTO based on research). The only time her costumes were light and joyful was on the bike trip.  Her character was trapped by her inability to read so it was important to show how controlled she normally was and the opposite of that when she was freed up on her bike trip with Michael, who took care of everything.

The courtroom was grey, dark brown, blacks and drab.  Hannah was just beginning to understand what she had been responsible for.  While in prison, everything was overdyed grey or teched hard to cut all lightness.  Only after she teaches herself to read and begins anticipating letters from Michael is some lightness allowed back in her costumes.  During this period of shooting, Stephen would come to the truck and ask for something we hadn’t seen before, something “hopeful”.

Ultimately, there is no redemption for Hanna and it remains a mystery if she found peace within herself.

—————-

I love this movie even more now.  VIVA the German swimsuits!!  Thank you Donna, for your great and insightful answers.  You guys did such fabulous, subtle work on this film.  Bravo!

-KMB

3 Responses to “The Reader – Interview with Associate Costume Designer DONNA MALONEY”


  • Sounds really amazing. I love vintage and research..it’s such a great find when you locate that perfect image detail for a film.

  • Really interesting interview – I enjoyed reading it and feel like I learned something! :-)

  • Your interview got me quite excited because I have been looking for those knitted vests that young michael wears in the movie. I want to wear them! But can you find them anywhere? No! I tried contacting the producers of the film to put me in contact with Costume. Nothing happened. Donna didn’t mention where they got the vests from. I’ve tried in Berlin ( though not KaDeWe), London, New York, Sydney, Mlbourne, Dublin. Anyone got any ideas? And thanks for the interview.
    Patrick from the Vestless Years

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