If you've watched an award ceremony – any movie-related award ceremony will suffice – the odds are you'll recognise Colleen Atwood. The costume designer and regular Tim Burton collaborator has won four Academy Awards to date (for Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Alice in Wonderland, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and been nominated for eight more. She has, additionally, won three Baftas and an Emmy for her work on a 2006 Tony Bennett special.
She’s remains rather modest about her many gongs. “Well, it’s always a thrill to be nominated because it’s a nomination from your peers, but I think for costume designers – because we’re on the technical side – it’s not something you think too much about,” says Atwood. “The Oscars show is very exciting and winning is such a deer in the headlights moment that you can’t even take it in. It’s like a fantasy. But then the next day, you know, you get up and you go to work. For some, for actors, it can probably be life changing, but I forget about it– until somebody you meet finds out you have an Oscar and gets really excited and it makes you excited all over.”
As we speak, Atwood is between live action Disney reboots. Perhaps. Having just completed duties on Tim Burton's Dumbo, in which the titular pachyderm befriends Colin Farrell, she is currently attached to Disney's reconfiguration of The Little Mermaid.
"For the moment, The Little Mermaid is a twinkle in someone's eye," she says. "It's so far out from starting production that I don't really know what will happen. It would be a special challenge. The Little Mermaid, the Hans Christian Andersen version, is quite a story and very different from the cartoon. I don't know where they're going to go with it. But it could be interesting. I actually have dressed a mermaid. I made a fantastic costume for a lovely Scottish actor called Sharon Rooney for Dumbo. But she's more of a circus mermaid."
There are shades of mermaid to be found in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Back in 2015, the veteran costume designer sat down to ponder what a Magizoologist's uniform might look like. The occasion was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spin-off and prequel to the Harry Potter film series centred on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Hogwarts' Hufflepuff house's most famous alumnus. Atwood settled on a colour she calls "dirty peacock blue". The same garment is back for the sequel.
“It definitely has that mermaid tone to it,” says the 70-year-old. “The first time I went to the art department and looked at all the creatures they were creating and I felt like Newt should have a colour-bond to some of the creatures. That colour is present in a lot of wild things, a lot of birds especially, peacocks being the most tame of them. To me, Newt has some of that quality so I teamed that colour with a warm gold waistcoat because – and this is going to sound crazy – but I’ve always loved how robins look!”
Dedication to detail
Atwood is famed for her dedication to details and remains on set with her actors and costumes throughout each shoot. Much of her craft goes unnoticed. Newt’s dirty peacock coat boasts more secret pockets than a Birken bag, compartments that will likely never be displayed on screen.
You learned every store in New York that sold buckets and how to get there quickly
“We had this entire internal structure for the creatures,” explains Atwood. “But sometimes that stuff just doesn’t really fly in a movie. In the actor’s mind and your mind you think it’s going to be really special but then nobody really wants to deal with it on the day. It was still fun contriving all those little pockets especially the little fly-out pocket for Pickett. It looks like a little smile.’’
Growing up in rural Washington State, Atwood had, well, no designs on her future profession. She studied painting at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle in the early 1970s, before moving to New York. She applied for a course in NYU but didn't get in. She worked in fashion retail, including an Yves St Laurent boutique at a department store before landing a job as a production assistant on Miloš Forman's Ragtime.
"Before that I had no idea I'd get involved in the film business," she says. "I grew up on a farm. I loved movies. I was always good at drawing and I was never discouraged. But the practicalities of earning a living was the priority in my family. Shortly after Ragtime I got a job working for what was the Saturday Night Live film division. So I had some excellent on-the-street training from some of the great comedy actors of the early 80s. I did the famous synchronised swimming one with Harry Shearer and Chris Guest and Martin Short. Some of the short films in that era were hilarious. But those guys would come up with stuff on the fly that was so last minute. You learned how to think on your feet and improvise. You learned every store in New York that sold buckets and how to get there quickly."
To this day, the job is still mostly about thinking on your feet, she says: “Nowadays we don’t have the luxury of sitting around dreaming and drawing and then going off to buy books of fabrics. You have to hit the ground running. So basically I’m doing everything at once. I walk around. I look at my old books. I look online. I start sourcing fabrics very early, because like a lot of other things in the world, the variety of fabrics is not as great as what it once was. So I like to create prints on top of prints and do interesting textile things. Often details you don’t even see. But definitely change the quality of the fabric. And it gets my juices flowing.”
Atwood's most iconic creations exist somewhere in the nexus between fairy tales (Into the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) and dark fable (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children). Her drift into the fantastic was, she notes, completely accidental.
"It's interesting because I like all kinds of film," she says. "Growing up, I loved the great Italian cinema of Visconti. I loved Kurosawa. I loved that kind of epic storytelling and I loved political films, especially Costa-Gavras's Z. But I guess fantasy grabs people in design."
Atwood has collaborated several times with directors Rob Marshall and Jonathan Demme and is a regular player in the DCEU having worked on Arrow and The Flash. She is arguably best known for her work with Tim Burton, having designed for all of his live action films since 1990.
I've had so many great experiences on movies
"I met Tim for the movie Edward Scissorhands," she says. "He is one of two directors that actually hired me in the room. That doesn't happen. Usually you hear: 'We'll be in touch'. But we talked and I got the job right then and there. There was just something about him that was so readable and approachable. We have similar tastes in a funny way. There's a shared sensibility. At this point there's a real shorthand. When you work with a director like Tim or with David Yates, the second time always easier. You know what to ask and when to ask. I think I've done 12 movies with Tim at this point. So we're at ease with each other."
Through Burton, Atwood has found another regular collaborator in Johnny Depp, who she has worked with on various Burton and non-Burton projects, including The Tourist and The Rum Diary.
"Obviously the actor I've worked with the most is Johnny Depp," says Atwood. "I've known him since Edward Scissorhands and I love designing for him. He's such an intuitive artist. He's someone who really feels the costumes. I'm working with Charlize (Theron) again, who I've worked with three times. I love collaborating with her; she's so smart. I had a great time with Zoe Kravitz on Fantastic Beasts. And a guy like Eddie Redmayne is so involved with the movement and feel of his costume. He just owns it."
She laughs: “It’s really hard to pick a favourite actor.”
The same is true for movies, she says: "I've had so many great experiences on movies. Being surrounded by dancers on Rob Marshall's Chicago was special. But there have been so many other great moments. I'm working on a book. Very slowly, I might add. It's been fun because I've been going back and looking at my work. And I'm kind of shocked because I'm looking at stuff I had forgotten and I realise, even though I might not have thought it at the time: 'Oh, this looks pretty good!'"
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald opens November 16th