I had the chance to chat briefly with May Routh, costume designer for Being There. She gave me some great insight as to the making of this classic film! Thanks, May!! And PS: the Blu-Ray version of Being There is out on February 3, this Tuesday!!
1) What were the discussions that you had with director Hal Ashby in prep? How did you approach the characters?
My interview for costume designer with Hal Ashby was at his beach house in Malibu. I can’t remember who else was there but it was all very laid back. I discovered that Ann Roth had suggested me for the film as she was working at the time and couldn’t do it.
It was my lucky break. Once I had the job confirmed I went to meet Peter Sellers at his house in Beverly Hills with Hal Ashby; it was very informal and I think that Peter Sellers was flying to Europe to have a pacemaker replacement and be away for six weeks and Peter and Hal talked about if the operation would affect him, size, etc…
Shirley Maclaine was performing in Las Vegas and I was sent to meet her. The interior of her house was all pink, from marble fireplace to walls, rugs and sofa. This was my first and only time in Las Vegas. I was a bit thrown by some of her ideas on how Eve should look. Hal Ashby assured me she was just feeling her way into character. Originally she had wanted to be more of an eccentric character whose clothes were unfashionable, but then after talking to Hal she asked me to come and see her wardrobe to see what suited her. I picked from her closet two items, the fur coat and hat she wears the first time you see her in the film (cream and brown fur – I think vicuna?) and an evening dress that was a cape top and long skirt, which I copied for the film. All of Eve’s clothes were made by Lilly Fonda at Western Costume Company. Van Cleef and Arpels loaned me her jewelry. I also rented one black full-length mink coat from Edward Lowell Co. (more about that later).
2) Did the subject of Rene Magritte ever come up? I couldn’t help but make the connection, visually, to his work – it felt like it may have been influential.
Rene Magritte: I think that this came after shooting of the film and can be seen in the advertising and posters, but I never heard it discussed.
3) Did the actors have much input in their fittings? If so, what elements did they add?
Ruben Rubacalva was the head tailor at Western Costume and I had worked well with him before, and trusted him to make Peter Sellers’ clothes. Chance’s clothes all came from 1928 era when the old man had first become ill. They were to look just slightly odd, a bit too short, if you were looking. Peter seemed very happy with Ruben and the fittings. The first day of shooting we shot the scene in the TV studio, and when Peter put on his overcoat it turned out that Ruben had let it out rather than take in 2 inches, but Peter was in a good mood and instead of wearing the coat he carried it over his arm. We were told that Peter could be VERY tricky and that he was very superstitious. He would NOT go on the set if he could see the color Purple or green. He had been told by Vittorio di Sica that purple meant a death and green in the theatre is bad luck. He had an English costumer who was his dresser and I would run items by him to see if Peter would allow them on the set. It was a routine to make sure he kept happy. All his shoes were hand made by Di Fabrizio ‘s shop on Third St.
4) Chance’s suits: custom-made, or off-the-rack? And if custom-made, who made them, and what influenced your design?
I did drawings for all of Chance’s costumes so that I could show the designs to Hal Ashby and Peter Sellers. The sketches had the fabric swatched so that when approved there was no delay in construction. Peter loved the look and was very helpful in fittings. Shirley Maclaine took longer to get in to the character right I did end up making changes to her clothes on location. I still have some of the costume designs.
5) President of the United States: any influence from any former or then-sitting President? I was wondering if it wasn’t some kind of nod toward Ford…
I didn’t use an actual President for reference. It was what made Jack Warden look right as the President. I think that often people attribute ideas after the event.
6) “Magic Suitcase” gag – what discussions did you have about what Chance takes with him in his suitcase when he leaves the old man’s home? Was it the idea that Chance only wears what is in the suitcase when he leaves? Or do we suspend our disbelief into him wearing more clothes?
The suitcase, well the easy way out it was a prop and I had nothing to do with it. I tried to make Chance’s wardrobe simple, and not too big, The tuxedo is borrowed, so that it was not in the suitcase. He had his suit, overcoat and hat on as he left the house.
7) Eve’s costumes: custom-made? Or purchased? She looks amazing in this film.
When we arrived in Washington to start shooting, Shirley Maclaine put me through the ringer as she felt that the mink coat was not good enough for Eve, however she would borrow it the coat to check. Sitting in my room watching TV I see Shirley going into the White House wearing the mink coat. She brought it back the next day and nothing was said. She wore it in the film.
8) The scene where Eve tries to seduce Chance in his bedroom in the Rand house. It looks like Eve wears a yellow peignoir set, and Chance wears his yellow pajamas. Any commentary there about the nature of their relationship (vis-a-vis the similar colors)? It seems as though, in the scene, they are on different planets, and yet they wear the same color – any insight?
Chance has the same yellow silk pyjamas all through the film. Eve’s peignoir was peach chiffon; it was my choice.
I was very lucky, a friend, Hilary MacKendrick warned me to be very careful with my dealing with Peter Sellers, as he could change mood very fast and he turn against people and get them fired. I took this warning very seriously and ran most discussions through his dresser and survived the film.
Thank you, May Routh, for your insight!! These are some fascinating details!