It is my distinct pleasure to share with you the conversation I had with costume designer Beth Pasternak about her wonderful work on The Sweet Hereafter, one of my favorite contemporary movies vis-à-vis costume design. She has some great insight and some interesting stories! Read on:
KB: Describe the conversations you had with director Atom Egoyan before you went into production – did you do sketches, tear-sheets?
BP: This was my first film with Atom Egoyan. Our initial meeting focused on how excited Atom was about the potential inherent in our collaboration. He was so inspired in general about making the movie. At that moment the whole thing was coming together. He had a beautiful script, great cast and crew and his financing was in place. Atom is a joy to work with because he has total respect for input and honors the creative process. I am always encouraged to bring my own ideas to the table. Our subsequent meetings occurred after my initial fittings. He really loved the process of reviewing the choices for each character.
KB: Did you read the novel (The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks) in addition to the script? If so, how did it influence you? How was it different from the script?
BP: Atom was hesitant about the crew reading the novel. The script had charted its own course and he wanted his people to focus on it. I suppose he thought there might be confusion if we fell in love with passages that did not exist in the film version. Nevertheless, I wanted to know if there were any specific costume notes made by Russell Banks that would help with character development. It turned out that there were only a few notes about the bus driver, Dolores.
KB: What kinds of conversations did you have with the actors – did they have many character notes for you?
BP: I was a little nervous about fitting Arsinee Khanjian (Wanda Otto) in her vintage textured knits and suede skirts in part because she is such an avid collector of haute couture. As it turned out, she wanted to walk into the character free of preconception. Our relationship was wonderfully open, and our fittings were fun and exciting. I took her to a vintage clothing store in Toronto that unfortunately no longer exists. We had the store to ourselves, and tried on all the pieces that we wanted in a relaxed and unhurried manner. Time was limited with Ian Holm (Stevens). He flew in from London and went straight to his fitting at Harry Rosen where I had his suits and separates pulled aside for him. Ian just walked right into his character. It was the perfect fit. I had him walk around so that Atom and I could watch how the fabric and garments fell on his body. After that initial fitting we were all on such a high. Ian especially was confident that he was in good hands. He knew he would be well cared for. Alberta Watson’s (Risa) fitting really stands out as well. I will forever be grateful to her for agreeing to wear the high-waisted old lady underwear in her seduction scene with Bruce Greenwood at the motel. It felt true to the milieu not to go for overtly sexy bikini underwear.
KB: The costumes in this film are so heartbreakingly real – what kind of research did you do to get the “look” for the film?
BP: Part of the ‘realness’ in the film comes from incorporating articles of clothing that were worn by real people living in the harsh and unrelenting environment of rural Canada. I would track down local people that the location manager had met while he was scouting out in the hinterland. They would agree to sell or exchange clothing that I wanted. I went mad for a well-worn leather 2-piece snow mobile suit that some guy up in the middle of nowhere was wearing. I bought it off his back. Bruce Greenwood (Billy) wears the bottoms of the suit at the end of the film when the school bus is being air lifted out of the lake. He also wore an old teamster’s ball cap that I tracked down. His character was transformed into something very real. Alberta Watson’s Hudson’s Bay coat was in evidence when her character walks her son to the bus in the morning. I love the fact that she is still wearing her slippers even though the ground is covered in snow. She is comfortable in her world and has no self- consciousness. The pastel poly knit sweaters for Sarah Polley were bought at a Value Village thrift store by the shopping cartload. I had a number of photo essay books that I borrowed ideas from. I am indebted to Marc F. Wise’s photographs in Truck Stop and Andrea Modica’s photographs in Treadwell. A style magazine from the UK called Sleazenation was used as inspiration for the Zoe Stevens character. She was a character apart and interestingly, Atom cast Russell Bank’s real life daughter to play Zoe.
KB: What were your conversations like with hair/makeup, art department, and camera department in creating the “look” of the movie? It seems like you worked really well together, harmoniously – had you worked together before?
BP: During pre-production, I create a collage wall in my office, which includes all the reference photos for each character along with fitting photos and location photos. Especially at the production meeting, when all the heads of department are together in one place, the collage wall helps create a preview of what the pallet and artistic essence of the film will be. I feel it inspires the crew to see how the look of the film is falling into place and it helps the hair and make-up artists to find their starting points. Keeping with the spirit of collaboration, I have never been fond of dictating the total look of a character. It is vital that hair and make-up find and unlock the remaining keys. For this film, Atom was working with a new production designer. Phillip Barker was a talented experimental filmmaker who hadn’t worked on a feature length film before. I had to keep an eye on where he was going with the color palette, and I would always keep him in the loop as to the direction my fittings were going. It was important that he knew which colors were working for the actors instead of the other way around. We ended up having an inspired time of it.
KB: How much money was in your budget for purchases, rentals, made-to-order, cleaning, etc.?
BP: My budget was $20,000 all in. Seems like so little, but there you have it.
(** KB thinks to herself – $20,000 is NOT a lot of money, especially considering that amount was in 1995 Canadian Dollars, the equivalent of $14,500 US dollars! Not a lot at all! **)
KB: What was your schedule like – how much prep time, and how many shooting days?
BP: The prep was 5 weeks. The shoot was only 34 days – 28 days in and north of Toronto, Ontario and 6 days in Merritt, British Columbia. Merritt is very remote and it lent a vastness to the helicopter work, the traveling shots and the exteriors of the Otto’s home, the Motel and the Bus Crash Site.
KB: Shooting in the snow and the cold, what were your biggest challenges? Did you have decent production facilities (trailer, adequate crew, etc)?
BP: I remember very clearly always having cold toes even though I had bought the latest Sorrels while in B.C. It was such an intimate film and I felt that I needed to be on set to establish every new change, which meant staying outside all the time. In Ontario we had the usual mobile facilities but in remote Merritt, I remember we used a low rent motel room as a base.
KB: Attorney Stevens still wears his wedding ring – why?
BP: Ian Holm made the decision to keep his character wedding ring on. His character’s life is, to say the least, in crisis. There is a certain measure of denial. Also, the ring is his distancing device. It keeps these suddenly intimate strangers whose lives he enters at bay. He knows all about them, they know nothing of him.
KB: I love the Ottos: Wanda and Hartley. Where did the inspiration for their costumes come from? Did you make them? It’s such peculiar costuming – we seldom get to see characters like that; I thought it was beautiful and refreshing.
BP: The Otto’s home was an A-frame situated in the wilderness. They are artists who are into an alternative lifestyle. Because they are surrounded by forest, I wanted earthy greens to be reflected in their warm knits. They are isolated but worldly. Earl Pastko, who played Hartley, loves ethnic clothing. I wanted his Balinese patchwork pants to marry Wanda’s palette of greens. Her opposite maroon and wine tones were offset by loud ski gloves and a cobalt blue knit hat. That hat made us giggle. These people are out there. Especially in hindsight I have thought that it was only too fitting that Wanda wear an a-line skirt, since she lived in an A-frame home. I really do love the foreboding scene where Hartley and Wanda walk Bear down to the bus. Their vivid colors are in such stark relief against that snow white covered landscape.
KB: The costume Nicole wears at the deposition is perfect: child-like, manipulative, and innocent all at the same time. Tell me about how that choice was made…?
BP: I looked at the costume that Nicole wears at the deposition. It was a very strange situation for her to be in. Nicole, as a measure of defense and in her denial was given the accoutrements of a kept child. In the deposition, after the tragedy, we wanted her to be out of character and grown up. She is playing to the jury as it were in that scene. Manipulative yet innocent. We labored over that choice.
KB: Tell us about the Genie nomination for your work on this film – how did it feel to be recognized for contemporary work? Did this film change your professional or personal life?
BP: The Genie nomination was a welcome change. The Sweet Hereafter was my tenth film as a Costume Designer. You always wonder if anyone actually notices the work you are doing. Artists can sometimes feel like they are working in a vacuum. I was always trying to make the most with really limited budgets, and not let the monetary confinements restrict the creative possibilities. The success of the film certainly helped open doors to meeting with other directors and producers. Most importantly, it led to all the subsequent collaborations with Atom.
KB: Any other stories or thoughts you’d like to share?
BP: I think that a confident director, who surrounds himself with artists who are creative collaborators, sets up an impenetrable wall of trust that the actors can readily understand. To facilitate the director’s vision, it is essential that the environment be open and healthy. The Sweet Hereafter offered such an unusual cross-section of characters to design. The range was inspiring – from a young urban junkie, to a professional slick attorney, to blue collar occupational rural folk, to the bohemian Ottos. Each character got a distinct look that set them apart from one another. For me as a designer, this made the film an incredibly interesting and rewarding experience.
Thanks so much, Beth, for sharing all of this information with us here at Frocktalk!! Can’t wait to see what you have up your sleeve for your next film. Congrats on the Genie, and keep up the good work!!