Star Wars: Interview with Michael Kaplan | Clothes on Film

Surely we all know Michael Kaplan by now? Flashdance (1983), Fight Club (1999), Burlesque (2010), Star Trek (2009), and the biggest of the big, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Versatile is not a generous enough word for his talent; he is literally one of the best in the business, as his CDG (Costume Designers Guild) nomination for Star Wars goes some way to proving.

I spoke to Mr Kaplan just after Christmas about his work for The Force Awakens, but due to unforeseen circumstances (basically Clothes on Film HQ flooding), this interview is only being posted now. Still much to enjoy though, and plenty of costume titbits to sift through.

Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux (minus cap) and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (with mask).

You’ve said before you are not necessarily a Star Wars fanboy. How did that affect your approach to The Force Awakens?

Don’t get me wrong; I saw and loved the original trilogy, but I saw each film only once. I initially approached Star Wars as I would any movie. The fact that I didn’t have total recall of the films… isn’t that what Wookiepedia is for? (besides the fact that so many members of my team were Star Wars fanatics!)

Talk us through Kylo Ren’s costume – how much of it existed in the original script?

Not sure what you mean by ‘the original script’. I had a take on Kylo Ren’s dark layered costume and hood, very early on; it was the helmet and ‘face’ that was so challenging. My design team and I worked very closely with JJ (Abrams, director) on this. You have no idea how many designs and concepts we came up with that were shot down. It’s incredibly tough to come up with a mask that doesn’t feel derivative of an existing super hero or to another iconic reference.

I love the contrast between his cloak and cold steel face-mask – incidentally what fabric is the cloak made out of?

Thanks. It’s a woven cotton that’s been lacquered; I wanted it to have a sheen to give it life in all the darkly lit scenes I knew were coming.

Daisy Ridley as Rey (note wrapping and goggles).

Is there anything to infer with the wrapping on Kylo Ren’s arms being somewhat similar to Rey’s?

Not at all.

Rey is, in my opinion, your finest achievement in the film. Her ensemble is convincing in context and pleasingly gender neutral – how did you go about designing for her?

My job is to delineate characters based on information in the script. I took all the clues of her character (she is poor, she works as a scavenger, her work requires agility, climbing, she lives in a hot and bright desert climate, where the nights are probably cool, there are possibly sand storms, she rides a speeder). I took this information and from it I created elements of wardrobe appropriate to her character. It was important to me that everything on her body was there for a reason and not adornment. Her arms are wrapped for protection whilst climbing in wreckages, the long gauze crosspiece she wears can be used for climbing or wrapped around her face during dust storms, her head wrap is actually a jumper with long sleeves wrapped around her head; it keeps the sand out of her hair and is useful on chilly desert nights. The light colours are appropriate for the desert heat. The homemade goggles (made from old, scavenged Stormtrooper ‘eyes’) protect her eyes from dust, sand and sunlight on her speeder rides.

For a comparatively little seen (at present) character such as Captain Phasma, arguably the ‘grandest’ costume in the film, how did you go about making her ‘the next Boba Fett’?

When I was trying to ‘tackle’ Kylo Ren’s character, I thought, what if he were The Lord of the Stormtroopers, in bright shining silver armour? I had this strong image in my head which I conveyed to one of my brilliant concept artists (Dermot Power). He produced a stunning illustration which was immediately shot down by JJ; not right for Kylo Ren! The drawing remained on our design room wall. One afternoon, Kathy Kennedy came in for a meeting, pointed at the illustration and exclaimed: “What is that? It’s fantastic!”

JJ wrote the part of Captain Phasma for the armoured character, and brilliantly cast Gwendoline Christie in the role.

Is there a new costume hierarchy with the stormtroopers?

The shoulder pauldrons indicate rank.

Red: Officer Black Sergeant

White: Squad Leader

John Boyega as Finn (in stormtrooper uniform) and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron.

Finn’s costume is essentially his stormtrooper under-suit and the jacket he ‘borrows’ from Poe Dameron. It is a cool, sleek look, but as a major player in the story did you actually want to ‘dress him up’ more?

No, I liked how he went from a Stormtrooper into a totally new and individual character, so seamlessly, with the help of Stormtrooper ‘underwear’ and Poe’s jacket.

Got to say I did really enjoy General Hux’s hat – felt like a nod to the original film.

Did you notice the infantry hats of the same design, with the brims turned down, are a nod to Darth Vader?

Are you happy with every character you put on screen? None have you got you twitching in your seat?

I can’t remember ever sitting in a theatre seat and viewing my work and not being self critical.

Tell me about bringing Han Solo back – he is keen for us to note he has a new jacket.

Harrison is still fit, and ruggedly handsome and I wanted his wardrobe to showcase that. I think the short jean-jacket cut leather jacket was successful in achieving that.

Publicity still of Harrison Ford as Han Solo showing off his new jacket.

You have spoken before about making a clear distinction between the heroes and villains of the new story, something you struggled to identify occasionally in the previous films.

When I first saw Star Wars, I was, in some scenes, confused about which army I was watching. I never imagined I would ever be in a position to do anything about it, but hey….

I created two definite colour palate and fabric-type divisions which I think clearly clarifies.

The New Order colours are cold; black, shades of grey, teal blue and of course, white. The fabrics are polished wools, nylon and synthetics. The silhouettes are extremely heroic and hard-edged; think 1980s Theirry Mugler.

The Rebel colour palate is earth tones; olive drab, rust, tan, ochre and shades of brown. The fabrics are natural; cotton, boiled wool, linen. The uniforms are rumpled and broken down.

Gwendoline Christie as armour clad Captain Phasma.

Who responded best to his/her finished costume? Gwendoline Christie has already spoken publicly about her glee at the Captain Phasma outfit.

I didn’t get any complaints, however Gwendoline is always quite verbal about her ardour for her armour!

Finally, you are working on Episode VIII at the moment – how do the challenges of the new film compare to those of The Force Awakens?

A whole new set of challenges to keep me on my toes!

With thanks to Michael Kaplan.

Read my analysis The Force Awakens HERE. Mr Kaplan liked the piece a lot so I’m going to show off about it.

© 2016, Lord Christopher Laverty.