Costume Designer Joanna Johnston Talks Lincoln & Jack | Clothes on Film

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), Death Becomes Her (1992), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Unbreakable (2000), Munich (2005), War Horse (2011) – with credits like these it is amazing to think that British born costume designer has never been nominated, let alone won an Academy Award. Finally, however, director Steven Spielberg’s latest Lincoln has rewarded her talent with a costume nomination in all three of the major award ceremonies (Oscar, BAFTA and CDG).

Johnston has been working with Spielberg on-and-off for 29 years now, and this collaboration looks set to continue. Perhaps it’s an obvious level of trust that allows Lincoln to have such a cohesive look when so many period movies lack focus. Speaking to Clothes on Film, Joanna Johnston expands on the many interviews she has already conducted about Lincoln, including how the lengthy and sometimes difficult project took its toll on her health:

Clothes on Film, Chris: When exactly did you start working on Lincoln?

Joanna Johnston: The first thing I bought for the film was a swansdown muff. I didn’t know anything about Mary Todd, but it’s funny how your gut or instinct can take you to something. It didn’t cost much, about £16, but I found it in a market. You could have sunk into it, it was so beautifully made. In fact it was used; I used it when Mary Todd is with Lincoln on the buggy. She is wearing her optimistic dress. It’s blue, cream and floral. In fact, I told Dreamworks Archives the other day “that muff belongs to me – I paid for it!”

I also bought some bits of fabrics and prints that I was quite interested in. To begin with, I thought I’d do a whole load of prints. I had this grand idea of doing merchandising tag ons to fit with the film, but those things didn’t happen – it couldn’t map out like that. I put all these pieces in my trunk in a store. That was about 2005, I reckon. In the proceeding 5 to 6 years the only thing I did was some budgets.

You never know when a film is going to be green-lit because Steven (Spielberg) may change his mind. At one point, we thought it was going to be before Munich. It didn’t actually get properly green-lit till the end of 2010. I’d just started on Jack the Giant Slayer. I thought “oh my goodness, I’m going to be buffing up against Jack and Lincoln, two polar opposites. “ I didn’t actually start anything until I’d spoken to Daniel (Day-Lewis) in April 2011. I was in the middle of Jack and I decided to develop Daniel as Lincoln in a very small way. I just wanted to get it moving and get my roots down before dealing with everything else. At that stage I was solely concentrating on him.

Making Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) coat dark brown instead of black was an early decision for Johnston and one immediately approved by Steven Spielberg, “He loved the idea” she recalls.

CoF: Were you aware when you started the film that this would be your most scrutinised film as a costume designer?

JJ: I didn’t think about that, but I felt a huge amount of responsibility, like the uniform films I’ve done. The scrutiny was more about the depiction of the people than the body of work – the depiction of this man who has such an iconic state within the American people. I was very worried about that.

CoF: This is not a dressy era as such, especially for men, so it seems that you concentrate more on the little details. Specifically I’m thinking of Lincoln’s dark brown frock coat.

JJ: I was with Steven in Gloucestershire and we were looking at these amazing plants. I had an idea then that I wanted to break up what would be all black coats on all the men. I showed him this amazing aubergine colour in this bizarre plant. I told him “I want to do it in this colour, for instance. What do you think?” He loved the idea.

I wasn’t completely sure where I was going to go with Lincoln, but I was just getting to know the man more, and Daniel, and how Janusz (Kaminski ) might light it. It was risky, but it’s more the silhouette of Lincoln that is known rather than colour as photographs were in black and white. This is the great thing about being the cook; it’s about how much you push. I could have gone a shade more with the walnut brown coat and it could have tipped over. Apart from Lincoln, not all the coats in the film are black. There’s blue-black, grey-black, even red-blacks – we dyed a lot of fabrics a lot of ravishing colours, and the way Janusz lit it…the colours did drop down more, i.e. much darker. I think it turned out about right. It’s not too much, but if you’re looking for it, you can just see it. It shouldn’t look designed; it should have that breath about it… just something of interest.

CoF: You’ve worked with Steven Spielberg several times now. Does he take much interest in costume design?

JJ: No. I did a presentation with him for the 140-odd speaking parts using photographs. We knew these characters. The only one we didn’t have a photograph of was Bilbo (played by James Spader), but we knew he was flamboyant. I took some artistic license; it was kind of nice, really. I said to Steven at this point “This is what the actors will look like – can I just run with it?” We had a tie on the purse strings so I suggested that apart from the women and Bilbo the characters would each have one signature look so they could be easily identified. I like that idea – that they held their look throughout the film. This was easier for us because basically we constructed one outfit.

No portraits exist of James Spader’s character W.N. Bilbo so Johnston took some dramatic licence with his eccentric look. That said he was generally described as, in Johnston’s words, a “natty dresser”.

CoF: Again, referring to little details, I was fascinated by the folds in Lincoln’s shirt sleeves.

JJ: I can’t say I know exactly about Lincoln’s shirts – I just made a judgement call, but I felt that he would have the dropped shoulder and gathering on the sleeves which was quite typical for a man at that time. I wanted quite textured linen so it would have that nice creased look when he took his coat off. The men’s shirts were long; they used to just sleep in them. Maybe not by this time, but by the time we get to the 1870’s, even some 60’s, there would have been a separate collar. What I loved about 1865 is the transition between the more flamboyant man to the more mature, reserved man. The Victorian era is a more conservative look; three piece suits became more commonplace. I liked the wit that we had in ’65, like the ties and the waistcoats. Another 5 or 6 years on and it mellowed down completely.

CoF: So you saw Bilbo as your opportunity to give the men some colour?

JJ: Bilbo was a natty dresser. I read a little about him, James Spader read a lot. I got my shorthand from him. I found this incredible hood with a beautiful pile on it and we made that into his hat. I like that his checks and patterns are all muddled up; he is a flamboyant mishmash. There were no real-life portraits of him at all.

CoF: Mary Todd (Sally Field) had a particular colour palette, didn’t she?

JJ: Yeah, fuchsia, lavender, purples, violets, pink… she was a woman of a very particular style and taste. I did copy a dress that she used to potter around The White House in, kind of a house dress. I adored this dress, but it never made it to the film. The scene it was going to be used in went out the window. I really hope this dress is going to go on display, besides the original, at the Chicago History Museum. It is such a beautiful piece. This particular dress informed me of everything about her. Her circumference, nape to waist… I loved it.

CoF: I noticed her gloves were rather tight…

JJ: She wore them very, very tight. It was a bit tricky to do on Sally (Field) because Mary Todd was more podgy. Mary Todd’s gloves were so tight, everything was squished. I always likened her to a stuffed cushion; everything was really filled to the max. She was really interesting. Abraham Lincoln made a comment that her décolletage was too revealing; she was kind of racy in her own way. There were so few women in this film that they kind of stand out like beautiful birds. Obviously I would have liked more women in the film, but I’m very happy with what I got!

Johnston’s next film is Jack the Giant Slayer due out in March. It is her first collaboration with director Bryan Singer and first excursion into the costume world of ‘fantasy/medieval’. “I got totally into sculptured shapes and boiled wool”.

CoF: There were so many extras in this film. How did you go about costuming them?

JJ: We made a pool of stock here at Sands Films in a huge range of sizes, all men’s, in all the cuts of fabric that I wanted. That pool became stock for secondary principals and key background looks, like in The House of Representatives. On top of that, we pulled stock from wherever we could – a bit from LA, a lot from London, the majority from Cosprop, then Angels and Sands. I also made some stock dresses in house.

CoF: Was this just the most exhausting film ever to work on?

JJ: The worst of it was I was so tired when I started. I’d just done War Horse, then it was straight onto Jack the Giant Slayer which overlapped with Lincoln. I felt I had to overdrive my energy to get through Lincoln because I knew it was so massive, but I did have brilliant, brilliant people alongside me. Dave Crossman is my supervisor and he did all those 3 films with me. Steve Gell – my dyer, printer, everything. I also had two amazing cutters. What can I say? I couldn’t have done it without those guys. We were simpatico with each other. When one of us became tired and grumpy, the other one would be sympathetic, and vice versa.

Lincoln was an amazing script, and it was Daniel and Steven, but I remember thinking at one point “should I say no? Can I actually do this?” I knew I couldn’t let it go – I’d been part of it for so long. I was so pleased when Steven asked me to do it all those years ago. I felt like I’d won the bingo! I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t say yes, but I was very concerned about my health. I wasn’t very well afterwards.

CoF: Finally, what can you tell us about your upcoming work on Jack the Giant Slayer?

JJ: I think I always said “no” when I got offered films about fantasy and medieval. I just wasn’t interested, but I really loved working with Bryan Singer, the director. He’s really different to work with; I get him now. When I was asked to do the film I thought “ok, Bryan Singer, fantasy medieval”, and they did have to twist my arm a bit. But I really got into it, because you have to create this whole world. I did lots of trends that were then and now and now and then. We made everything. I got totally into sculptured shapes and boiled wool… I haven’t even seen it yet! I hope it will be fun.

With thanks to Joanna Johnston.

You can watch Sally Field in Forrest Gump at LOVEFiLM.com.

© 2013 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.