Kate Hawley is a relative newcomer to the film industry, with just six credits to her name, but she has established herself as the go-to costume designer for unique, imaginative visuals, whether it’s in the futuristic world of Pacific Rim or the Victorian gothic of Guillermo del Toro’s latest film Crimson Peak. Guillermo del Toro is known as being one of the most visionary directors — and being responsible for the physical manifestations of his imagination is no easy task. Inverse talked to Hawley about working with Guillermo del Toro, her approach to putting his boundless imagination onscreen, the challenges of Crimson Peak, Tom Hiddleston’s dancing, and we even got her to drop a hint about Suicide Squad. Sort of.
Inverse: Since Guillermo del Toro is known as a particularly visual storyteller, does that make him exciting to work with?
Kate Hawley: Every project you’re trying to realize the vision of the director, and you learn to fall in love with the world we’re creating. But I come from a theater and opera background and to be able to do something like this is a very rare opportunity. It’s exciting as an artist to be allowed to be creative like that. It’s not a form of movie that you get the opportunity for very much. It started off in the beginning with sort of an infamous note from Guillermo — I still have it — that said “it’s just Victorian.” Having worked with him before, it’s never just anything.
With Guillermo, it’s never just a drizzle of rain, a little pattering of snow, it’s always the full element, the full catastrophe. The streets are swallowed in mud. The art department has done this amazing, huge street scene, and they’ve covered it in mud, and I had these dresses that were hand-pleated — we’d spent weeks making them — and as the mud seeped up the dresses and the pleating started to unravel, there’s a bit of you that goes, “oh my God,” but there’s another bit of you that goes, “oh my God I have an amazing crew,” because they made five more. There’s a lot of practical requirements working with Guillermo. He loves nothing more than trashing something beautiful.
I: You’ve done futuristic films like Pacific Rim and Edge of Tomorrow, but Crimson Peak is your first period piece. How did you begin conceptualizing it?
KH: I started with the script first and responded to that. Part of my process was looking at the period that Guillermo was talking about, looking at paintings of the period and things that were in the script. He’d mention things and I would research them. He’s very clear with the two worlds he wants to create, which is the world of Allerdale and the world of Buffalo. So you familiarize yourself with the script, and certain lines and qualities come out, and that’s when you start to play. With whatever film I do, even if it’s a superhero one that I did recently the main research is, who are these people literally in the world? It’s important to get at Guillermo and his vision for this. It was exciting on so many levels and very rich.
I: You mentioned paintings — any in particular?
KH: Guillermo is very fond of the symbolist painters of the period, as am I, and there was a lot of references to Redon and the imagery there. As we developed and as the language developed, I looked at paintings for inspiration. Little ticks and things and the colors were wonderful for that. One of the very first images I found for Edith was Millais’ The Bridesmaid, which is more the imagery we had for her in the world of Allerdale where she wears her hair down. It’s a very romanticized image compared to the modern woman that we see in the world of Buffalo.
I: Were you familiar with these paintings of the Victorian period, or did it require a lot of research?
KH: Both. I might pursue a whole thing of mourning jewelry and Victorian fascination with death — memento mori. Then out of that research came the fascination with the portraits of women with long hair. So the idea of the braids and the belts, that was taken from a very real piece of research. And then because it’s the world of Guillermo’s telling, which is a high-symbolist world, I pushed these ideas and played with them in scale. It’s a game Guillermo plays with a lot so I also play with those, sort of throwing things upside down a little. I wanted a way to express that and Guillermo’s idea that beauty is a fragile thing. I was looking for qualities that made the design and detail capture the spirit of what Guillermo wanted to have on screen.
I put together mood boards in the beginning. I read the script; I wrote notes from that, and before I read it again, certain images started bubbling to the surface. I call it magpie-ing. I like to magpie. I will look through not just a Victorian period, but anything that feels like it works for the character. I’ll pick and borrow all sorts of things from everywhere I can find and just spill in down into the world that we need to do. These mood boards are a direct response to the script and the beats within it, so it’s almost like doing a quick little collage telling the story visually.
I: How does your interplay with Guillermo work? After you make the board, does he approve it?
KH: Oh absolutely. It’s like, “Here’s my response to your script, this is what comes to mind when I think of all the wonderful things you’re talking about.” And we’ll walk through it together, and Tom was part of this — the wonderful production designer. It’s interesting because even though Guillermo is fantastically visual, three people can look at the same image and see very different things within it. So we would look and he would respond like, “That’s what I needed. This silhouette is great. I love the detail here.” So I would do another set of mood boards, distilling those images down and picking out his favorites. So we’d kind of keep a bible of the world. At the same time, I’ve been scribbling and drawing in response to this. He wanted Lucille and Thomas to echo the architecture of the house. So there are lots of possibilities about their clothes.
I would draw things, sleeve shapes and silhouettes for Edith, depicting her character arc. So I could always refer back to the script and follow through with these drawings, quick responses with each theme, “Well, here we want it looming and more beautiful because that’s the point when she’s in love.” So we kind of map it that way. And I have little tables for each character and we start collecting. I have an amazing team in Toronto and they’ll bring in little offerings of things that they discovered that might have nothing to do with costumes — like a little canary is something I had for Edith. A canary in the coal mine. Sometimes it’s a little color or texture, flowers. We found a beautiful antique Victorian bouquet of violets, which meant memoriam and death. And as that’s happening, Guillermo is always coming into our department so I can show him these things and we can start building it.
I: Is that why Edith was frequently in gold?
KH: Yes, we chose that color at the beginning because we were talking about how she’s the wealth that will restore [Thomas’s] dreams. So, gold was the color that we chose to symbolize that. The gold is a very industrial color in the beginning. Kind of a more masculine suit that she wears as a modern Victorian woman — the beginning of the suffrage movement. It’s a dark tobacco color. Then as Thomas, this romanticized hero, is introduced into her life, colors start to change and shift.
The golds start to become more delicate and richer. The textures of the fabric become more elaborate; we start to introduce the pleating; the sleeves become bigger, the flowers bloom, and that language becomes more heightened so that when you get to the world of Allerdale, it’s like walking through the magic wardrobe in Narnia. It’s a complete contrast. So we made the gold so artificial at that point. It’s all about opposites. It’s opposite to blue on the color chart. It’s the sun and the moon. It’s night and day. It’s summer and winter. It’s starvation and fertility. It’s a very theatrical language. But it was wonderful when Guillermo started talking about these two opposite worlds, all these ideas started coming out and it made sense in every way.
I: What was the most challenging part of the production?
KH: Making a period dress just after doing robots — my assistants and I sat down in the early days and watched The Age of Innocence, and we sat there three hours later going, “Oh my God, how many gloves did they wear?!” Just the sheer details, if you’re not used to being with a period like that. When Guillermo decided he was going to create a unique house that actually looks familiar in many ways but is nowhere to be found in the real world — that actually informed me and told me we have to build everything from scratch. And that applies to gloves, to hats, to bags, to stockings, to petticoats. Even the flowers and things, everything was built.
I: Do you have a favorite piece you made?
KH: I think it’s Lucille’s nightie. It’s one of those simple ones that sort of wasn’t hard to create, but it felt so right after all the constriction, the way we see her through the whole movie. Just to see Jessica [Chastain] in that, and the movement and things — it was one of my favorite garments.
I: Did anything surprising happen during the production?
KH: What was interesting was the first eight weeks we were sort of trapped in the house and it was stressful. But what was surprising was the way people found a way to cope with it because I know they all got deeply inside their characters, but there were a lot of moments of joy and fun. Tom [Hiddleston] would come into the room and take one of my ladies who was working hard and waltz them through the work room. Or, you know, sit and have a cup of tea. There are little moments that get you through to the next thing. Everyone’s constantly surprised working with Guillermo; there’s always new ideas.
I: And you’ve had a lot of new ideas in your career, moving from things like Pacific Rim and Edge of Tomorrow to this.
KH: Being new to feature films — I’ve only done a few, really, and so there’s an element of you have to prove yourself. You learn something from every project you do. That’s not to say I’d always want to do futuristic, robotic things, but you do learn to love them. And there’s as much skill in what was created with those exoskeletons in Edge of Tomorrow as there were with the period frocks. Funny enough, they were both equally demanding, but you use your head differently every time. And I kind of like moving around. But at the end of the day, I’m sort of a female Guillermo in the sense that I love gothic; I love Grimm fairy tales. I grew up on a diet of opera and fairy tales and gothic films and things like that. It’s something I feel is a language I respond to very quickly and have a passion for. It suits my thinking, a delight of all things horrible and beautiful.
I: Are you allowed to tell me anything about your next project, Suicide Squad? Or will trained assassins come after you?
KH: I can say it was very challenging in a completely different way, so there you go! It’s going to be an amazing film and that’s probably all I’m allowed to say about it.
Crimson Peak hits theaters on October 16th.