Costume designer Sarah Edwards has collaborated with some of the most talented actors, directors and craftsmen in the industry. The list of notables she has worked with includes Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack and production designer Kristi Zea. Perhaps more importantly, she has incredible versatility (as evidenced by her resume). Indeed, she’s worked on everything from small independent films to Oscar winners to big budget action flicks. Regardless of the size and scope of the project, her designs are always meticulous as she continually strives for accuracy and authenticity. Not surprisingly, this has earned her much respect and admiration from her peers. Fellow artists know that each piece Edwards creates will inform the character and the story beautifully. In fact, earlier this year, she was honored by New York Women in Film and Television (NYWFT) for her outstanding body of work. Of course, we here at MWS have long known of and admired Edwards talent. That’s because our own Cheryl and Tommy have been friends and colleagues with her for years. Therefore, we were delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with Edwards and discuss her fascinating career. Read on for our exclusive interview!
Costume Designer Sarah Edwards: An Interview
How did you get started in costume design?
Both my parents worked in the theater. They helped me get my first job at The Public Theater Costume Shop when I was still in high school! I went on to Sarah Lawrence College, where I studied fine arts and art history, but when I graduated, I started working at another costume shop in NYC, and one thing led to another. By then, I had found myself more and more drawn into costume design.
Back in 1997, you worked on The Devil’s Advocate, a movie in which the costume design was crucial to the success of the story. How did you and co-designer Judianna Makovsky approach your work in order to emphasize the eerie feel of the movie?
I was the assistant on The Devil’s Advocate, but due to scheduling circumstances, Judianna Makovsky left the job mid-way through filming. I took over as designer, but a lot of the important discussions had already taken place and many of the costumes were already completed. What I can say is that we never wanted it to be campy in any way. We kept it sharp, sleek and fashionable for the time. The colors were very painterly, mostly dark and jewel toned, with bronze accents, quite moody. Finding the right level for Al Pacino to reveal himself as the Devil, at the end, without having it be totally excessive, was challenging. We wanted something that would reflect that he had been around for centuries, so the costume had a period feeling. I’m not sure we realized how strange and over-the-top the movie would turn out to be when we were filming it!
Besides the budget, what are the main differences between working on a studio movie such as Salt (2010) and an indie like Igby Goes Down (2002)? Which one gives you more freedom?
There are definitely differences. I loved working on Igby Goes Down! We had 30K to do all the costumes – I used to joke that was Sharon Stone’s hosiery budget! It was a small crew and everyone was respectful of everyone else’s job challenges, and worked very closely together. There were no VFX, no stunts, no photo doubles, and hence, no multiples of costumes. It was great because I was free to use one-of-a-kind vintage clothes, borrowed clothes and things I brought in from home, including a great deal of my father’s clothes for Bill Pullman!
Salt was all about action! And doubles on everything! There were considerations to be made for visual effects, green screens and lots of different stunt doubles to be costumed to look like Angie. We made a lot of Angelina’s clothes because of this. There was also a great deal of aging and dying involved for the different stages Evelyn Salt goes through in all the chase scenes. It’s a much less spontaneous way to work. You have to be more organized, prepared, and informed early on.
In Michael Clayton (2007), Tilda Swinton’s costumes inform so much about her character. I’d love to hear about how much collaboration there was with the actress on the choice and fit of suits.
I had a lot of collaboration with Tilda. We met early on and looked at all the research I had done for her character, then together we visited several law firms and met with women in similar positions to “Karen” (Tilda’s character). We also spent a day together in the stores, seeing what was out there that spoke to us. Her character was a little arrested in time, there was a lot of repression, mixed with strong ambition. Karen’s clothing was deliberately stiff and a little dated; the skirt hems unfashionably long, the underwear was also deliberately a-sexual – the half slip was a real throwback!
Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) features many distinct worlds within the story. Was it especially challenging to design cohesive and timeless costumes as a result?
Timelessness is a word that is overused, I think, in talking about costumes. Everybody wants it, but it’s very hard to do because, really, clothes are not timeless. Having said that, the idea for the costumes at the Time Life office was that somehow Walter was frozen in a kind of recent past. There was a “black and white” quality to it, which was a great starting off point for the rest of the film. We had somewhere to go both literally and figuratively, over the rainbow, into Technicolor! This helped define the important transition from “old Walter” to “new Walter.”
How do you ensure that your costume designs align with a director’s vision? Additionally, during pre-production, how much do you collaborate with the production design team and the director of photography?
Pre-production is really such a great time for me on any film! It’s when a lot of the real collaboration happens. I will usually talk with the director first about how they see the film and the characters, then I will present research and sketches depending on the type of project. At the same time, I always try to meet with the production designer as soon as I start, so I can understand the world the costumes will be seen in. Working together closely with the whole team, the director of photography included, always achieves the best effect. The actors are also another part of the collaboration. They think about their characters more than anyone, and bring a lot to the table.
You started your career on Broadway, notably working for the 1992 revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jessica Lange as Blanche DuBois. However, after your transition to movies, it appears that you never went back to working in theater. How did that come about?
I did also design a one-man show with Robert Morse, “TRU,” which had a pretty long run on Broadway. But once I started working in film, I enjoyed the process so much more; it was hard for me to go back to the theater.
What has been your most challenging professional experience and how did you overcome it?
Getting the specialty costumes made in 3 weeks for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2! When I went into Legacy Effects with the sketch and told them I needed the Shredder costume in May, they responded: “Of next year?!” No way would they be able to build the whole costume in 3 weeks! Late casting and decision making has become the norm now in filmmaking, so you really have to be resourceful and have friends at many costume shops to help you in a pinch!
Finally, who are the directors with which you would love to collaborate in the future?
Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Gus Van Sant, David O’Russell and German artist/filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt.
Of course, no matter if you’re a seasoned vet like Sarah Edwards or just beginning your career, as a costume designer you rely on top-of-the-line products and tools. Here are a few of our trade faves:
Red Drum Blood – High quality and non-staining, you’re sure to love this stage blood! It’s easy to clean up and won’t leave any redness or ghosting.
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Rowenta X-Cel Steam Handheld Steamer – Remove even the toughest of wrinkles with this handheld steamer! It features 1500 watts of powerful steam and guarantees great distribution.