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! **

Frankie & Alice – Designer Ruth E. Carter Tells All

Ever since I saw I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, I have been in love with costume designer Ruth E. Carter‘s work. Carter is an twice-Academy-Award-nominated costume designer (for her outstanding work on both Amistad and Malcolm X), and has a long list of fantastic films and television series to her credit.  I loved what she did with Frankie and Alice, and thought you might like to know more about her process and work on the film!

Tell me a little bit about how you became involved with this project –

Halle Berry contacted me in the fall of 2008 to design the costumes for Frankie and Alice, her very first producing project. I hadn’t worked with her in a very long time and was thrilled and yet curious to hear that she felt I was the perfectly suited to design her film. I had previously done other pictures of the same era, 1973. But, mostly those 70’s films were broad comedies. Once I found out that the subject matter was a true-life story of a woman with multiple personalities, that Halle would be playing the part of 3 people with completely opposite profiles, I realized that knowledge of the period wasn’t the biggest aspect of my work. It possibly had more to do with being able to release myself from fashion and delve more into characters, something rarely done in Hollywood. The challenge was being able to understand character and the difficulty of designing for these three separate people on the same one person and not get in the way of the acting. In other words, bringing Frankie to life, then Alice, then Genius, over and over again. The look would need to transform with the actress and at times without changing at all. I was given a meeting with Halle, and was certainly going to find out if my interpretation of her script was true.

What were your initial meetings like?

I met with Halle at her home in Hollywood. I brought tons of research materials from my own personal library. But it wasn’t long after looking through it for a short while and coming to some obvious agreements about the era of psychedelic prints and platforms shoes that our conversation turned to the psychology of Frankie Murdock. We talked about how people can hate their outward appearance, and about the tragedy of wanting to be someone you are not. Of seeing one’s self in the mirror and not seeing who we are, but rather who we want to be. We talked about why she wanted to portray this character, and about this role that was so challenging to her as an artist. What would Alice sound like? What images come to mind for Frankie? I immediately thought of Jimmy Hendrix with his drugged-out genius of mixed prints, velvety fabrics and saturated color. He was Frankie to me and I knew he would bring Frankie to life. Also, Peter Max for character of “Genius”, with his amazingly intricate and detailed mind combined with a bold, primary and youthful color palette. As for Alice, I focused on the dichotomy of the era. Women were either burning their bras or fitting within the mode of the proper conservative woman. So I thought I’d look through my vintage Ebony and Life magazines at many of their fashion spreads.

The film was made in Canada – what kind of challenge does that pose, in terms of the weather, sourcing, crew?

The challenges of working in Canada, I know all too well. I had previously done I Spy in Vancouver with what seemed like endless rains. I had also traveled there to set up shop for another film and was familiar with the crews. On the film I Spy I worked with a woman Sandi Blackie who set up my crew and workroom complete with costumers cutters and fitters. It was a very productive and creative environment. I knew I would need that kind of support with this film. Sandi also came with her own enormous collection of clothing from the 1970s. I also had a small stock. This saved our meager $60K budget in the long run. Another challenge was how to get my stock out of LA and into Canada. This would save our budget in the long run as we both could draw from our stock. The challenge was – my stock was in Los Angeles. It proved to be everything I could have ever dreamed of having: complete support from a gifted crew and craftspeople as well as an abundance of materials.

Tell me about your first meeting with the director –

My first meeting with the director, Geoffrey Sax, was in Canada. I arrived around the time of Canadian Thanksgiving. We all, including the D.P. sat down for a meal in the hotel. Geoffrey gave me his blessing. He was open to what I had to offer and implored me to support Halle’s performance with the utmost realism. We talked a little about the exteriors being very saturated and the hospital looking stark and washed out. I talked with him about my inspiration with Hendrix and Peter Max. I talked about wanting to paint Alice in pastels and in dreamy desaturated colors – colors that are faint and washed away like memories. We agreed. It was an easy fit. But, I had a huge task ahead of me that I could not take lightly. I had to artistically get it together and fast! Our prep was a short 8 weeks, two of which I had already spent in LA collecting clothing and fitting Halle. I needed to get moving!

Where did you source all of that period costumage?

The clothing, as I mentioned before, came from various sources. A California look is not achieved by primarily obtaining clothing from Canada. The look was quite different there back then. One collection in particular that I used in Los Angeles was CATWALK. There I worked with the two owners, and found original designer pieces from the period. Frankie’s green leather jacket was one of them. It was hand painted, by a company called “East West”, based in London. They made one-of-a-kind pieces in the 1970s. She wears it in the scene where she is running to her car late for her mother’s birthday dinner. Her red velvet pants in the same scene were from my collection. The other premiere collection I borrowed from was Los Angeles’ own Palace Costume Co. Since there was so much sorting to do and we were shooting a Los Angeles story in the middle of winter in Vancouver, I was challenged to convey the Los Angeles climate with the look of the clothing. Thankfully, I have a good relationship with Melody, the owner of Palace. She allowed me into the collection on Saturdays, when they are normally closed. This was beneficial because I could quietly work. I flew in from Canada on a Saturday when we were not shooting to gather more costume pieces. The next day, Palace packed and shipped everything to me. Many of the costumes from Palace are featured in the film, namely the first costume Halle wears in the opening dance. It’s made with gold glass beads that we retooled to fit Halle.

You must have a great relationship with those vendors –

The girls at CatWalk will call me immediately when they unearth something I may need in their amazing stock. And Palace Costume understands the urgency of getting the costumes fast and wastes no time boxing and shipping everything needed.

How did the fittings go?

Halle’s first fitting was at my home, but it wasn’t planned that way. On the day of her fitting (and it was the only day she was available) there was a blackout on all of Doheny Drive where we originally intended to have the fitting. I was packed up in my car and had my assistant picking up some last minute items. We were to meet at the original location. When her manager, Vincent, called to let me know that there was a problem, I quickly switched the fitting to my home and we all turned around and unpacked. Halle arrived with a full-blown custom-made Afro! It was awesome and very Pam Grier! After her fitting, most of her clothing came from the Catwalk’s stock and was “original” from the 70’s. The one costume that we needed many multiples of was re-made from an original to use in the stunt scene. It was purple suede two-piece hot pants set with attached rings on the sides.

Brrr – skimpy costume for such a cold place!!

I remember returning from Canada right after the shoot and seeing on one of those Hollywood insider shows that said that Halle Berry had had a wardrobe malfunction in that very costume on the set of her “new film shooting in Canada”. It actually was SUPPOSED to come apart! We rigged the side. The scene was the first time we see her change into another person, Alice. It was designed to shock the audience. It was written to be vulnerable and exposed in a sad, pathetic way. The scene ends with Halle fleeing from an attack with a man and she then runs into the street amongst oncoming cars. Halle did the scene without a stunt double. It was filmed on the last day of shooting in January in Vancouver, so the temperature was below zero degrees. With the help of an extraordinary set costumer, we kept her comfortable and she did it. We were all so proud of her. She never complained about anything (except maybe “It’s cold as hell out here”). The takes were done more than once, as she lay on the cold concrete in the middle of the street.

Ugh! Freezing! What a trooper she is. Can you tell me about Dr. Oz’ suits and his narrow lapels and skinny ties?

Stellan Starsgård. You couldn’t find a more charming actor for this part. As we created the kooky doctor, we laughed a lot in his fitting. Stellan is around 6’1” and a consummate pro, to say the least. What we wanted to show in his costume was a person who had immersed himself in his work so much so that after his wife left him, we could see those aspects of what “was”, what used to be. We thought that he would not be someone who readily updated his look to the latest in fashion, and he wouldn’t bother spending money on “perfectly good clothes” even if they were well out of style. After all, his character nearly forgets to close his car door, never mind press his shirt! And that’s how the concept came about. We had to buy new items because of his size. So, I went to Paul Smith for his pants and shirts. However, his ties and sport coats were authentic to the period. There was one request from Stellan. He remembered his dad in the ‘seventies having a pair of oddly shaped shoes. They were the kind that were ergonomically shaped to the foot. I found a shoe we liked by a Japanese company that was perfect!

What was the biggest challenge you faced on this show?

My biggest challenge happened one day on the set. Well, the finale (of the challenge) happened on the set. However, its “lead up” happened for weeks. First, I must say that we are all artists in this film medium as well as flawed humans. And sometimes it’s really hard to let go of a direction we think is right. The lavender gown that Alice wears in the wedding scene and also in the mental hospital came about in a way that I must thank the wardrobe gods for bestowing their magic. As the gown scene was drawing near, I presented a pencil sketch to the director. He said “OK” (probably had a number of things on his mind that day). I showed the sketch to Halle. She smiled. (Probably was in character as Genius or somebody). Then, I traipsed off to have the workroom begin to construct the design. This gown was to be worn by the “Alice” character to the high society wedding. It was complete with puffy sleeves, a high neck and a large 12” ruffled hem. I was apprehensive about showing the garment until it was complete. Apprehensive might be too nice a word as I was not completely satisfied that I had designed the perfect garment.

The day before the scene, I was in Holt Renfrew (the local high-end department store) and I happened to see a white strapless gown made of silk organza. I picked it up. The day of the scene Halle walks into her dressing room to change into the gown. I laid it out like I wanted her to be excited about it at first glance. But, the look on her face was not what I had hoped. She said, “Do you have anything else?” I said, “Uh, yes!” So without further ado, we swept that dress away and I went to the trunk of my car and presented the other gown. Halle’s reaction was “. But…its white” and I said “But…. I can make it any color you want!” So she asked for lavender. “Can you really make this dress lavender in time before we shoot?” I swallowed and said “yes.” She then left for the rehearsal. While they rehearsed, my crew had about thirty minutes to complete the dye process and I called upon every dye lesson I had ever had in my life. Luckily the dress was made of silk organza so we knew that it would take the dye perfectly. However to achieve an evenly dyed garment was a process undoubtedly we were all trained in but wary about achieving inside the wardrobe truck and such a short amount of time. Minutes before it was to be worn, the dress was dyed perfectly and was blow-dried instead of being put it into the dryer because we were afraid that it might shrink.

This was so last minute, we set up a changing room right on the set for Halle and also because it was raining outside and we afraid of getting it wet. I went to set following the costumers with the dress. My anxiety was above and beyond. Even though I loved the way it turned out, I knew that this was it, period, and there were no more choices.

I found myself a seat somewhere close by the dressing room and waited. I asked my crew to let me know when she was heading over to change. I sat. And I prayed. Shortly thereafter, I noticed Halle marching towards me in the gown. I am looking straight at her and I can’t figure out her expression. I think she looks great in it, but I’m unsure by the look on her face. She marches right up to me and shouts “Ruth!” in an angry tone! I am stunned. My mind races for an option. I begin to rise out of my chair and spit instructions left and right to my crew. Then, she laughs big and out loud and says, “It’s perfect.”

Holy smokes!! I would have passed out. What advice would you give an aspiring designer?

We had fun on Frankie and Alice. We made no excuses for the challenges. We met them head on. The best advice I can give to someone starting out in the costume design field would be to stay in some kind artist or costume training. You never know what you will have to use, from what is hopefully your wealth of knowledge. I have enlisted everything I know in one way or another and am still open to learn new things. I am sometimes a diva. And other times a dyer. I am sometimes the queen of wardrobe. And other times sewer of the shank button. You will need to have confidence in your ability to adapt to all sorts of adverse situations and come out looking good. So, dig deep. Follow your passion. Learn art history, color theory, sewing, dyeing, anything at all. Your path is your own. Therefore, develop one that is unique to you!

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Thank you so much, Ruth Carter, for your insight and your stories! Congrats on your beautiful work in Frankie and Alice… and especially for surviving the nail biting lavender dress experience!!!  Thank you for sharing your work with us here at Frocktalk.com!

– KMB

Thank you to Hazel Yuan for the sketches!

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