Black Swan: Amy Westcott Interview

Black Swan costume designer, Amy Westcott, BAFTA and CDG nominated for her work on the film, puts the record straight on controversy surrounding herself and Rodarte’s contribution, exactly what her role comprises, and how she feels about that Academy Award snub.

Amy Westcott worked with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky previously on The Wrestler in 2008, plus has been costume designer on over twenty features and seventy episodes of TV series Entourage. Here she talks exclusively to Clothes on Film:

Clothes on Film, Chris: Are you aware of the controversy surrounding yourself and fashion house Rodarte (the Mulleavy sisters) in the press; that they should be credited alongside you as costume designers?

Amy Westcott: Controversy is too complimentary a word for two people using their considerable self-publicising resources to loudly complain about their credit once they realised how good the film is.

CoF: Do you feel as though you are being vilified for something out of your hands?

AW: I was happy for Rodarte’s persistent publicity efforts at first; I’m so proud of the film and anything that brings it to an even wider audience is genuinely welcome. I tried to put aside my ego while being airbrushed from history in all of their interviews, as I’m just not that kind of person anyway. But when articles were planted that attacked me personally as if I had conspired against them I felt nothing but despair and betrayal. I don’t have a publicist working for me, needless to say, and I was asked to stay quiet –“not to engage”, to avoid any bad press towards the film. Unfortunately this seems to have proven detrimental to the perception of my work on Black Swan. I didn’t make the rules that the Guild and the Academy set and I am proud of my professionalism and commitment to my work, so to have my name dragged into such ill-informed gossip is galling and hurtful to say the least.

Interestingly, the overwhelming reaction from other costume designers has been very affirming. Apparently this has happened to a number of people, but this one just got more press.

The pink double breasted coat worn by Nina (Natalie Portman) was an original design by Amy Westcott.

CoF: How do you feel about missing out on an Academy Award nomination?

AW: It’s disappointing, but in some way, expected. I am in great company though – I mean, Chris Nolan? Mila Kunis? Ryan Gosling? The production design, make-up, special effects and writing also missed out and they were stellar!

CoF: Can you talk us through the costume design process on Black Swan?

AM: The process began for me a few months before shooting; Darren (Aronofsky), Thérèse (Thérèse DePrez, production designer), Matty (Matthew Libatique, director of photography) and I discussed research ideas and influences at great length and from this process the palette for the film emerged. Darren asked me to check out Rodarte to see if I’d be interested in collaborating on some of the ballet costumes. I thought their Vulture inspired line was wonderful and a perfect fit for the Swan Lake production at the end of the film. Darren and I shared all of our research/ideas, worked with Rodarte and together approved each aspect of the design for their designated costumes.

CoF: Who did design the stage wear seen at the end of the film, specifically the black feather tutu?

AW: The white and black swan were a collaboration between Rodarte, myself, and Darren, a fact that is completely concealed in the press. In all, there were 7 costumes in the collaboration with Rodarte, not the “40” that keeps coming up in the press. The core ballet was designed by Zack Brown (for American Ballet Theater), and my department and I added some feather detailing to assimilate them with the White Swan.

CoF: Has this situation made you wary of working with fashion designers again?

AW: Absolutely. I was too trusting, and never saw this “controversy” coming. Suffice to say that I will never be put in this position again.

During rehearsal scenes the ballet troupe wear custom garments and separates by professional dancewear brand Yumiko. Nina also dons a Petit Bateau tank.

CoF: Can you explain to us then, in layman’s terms, what a costume designer does?

AM: Yes. As a costume designer, you oversee every stitch that goes before the camera. You are responsible for everything, whether an item is designed by me, purchased, farmed out to a specialised item designer or a combination of all of these. I think that is greatly misunderstood. The job is a 24/7, a 5 or 6 month commitment. You are there, on set, making choices, setting the tone, and making changes – every day. You are there for the actors, to make sure they are happy, or have any questions – every day. You work very closely with the director to express his or her vision. You’re responsible for the look, making sure things are functional, making sure you are on budget, as well as managing your department.

Another very common misconception is that costume design and fashion are directly related. Although one can and often does influence the other, they are not.

CoF: The colour palette in Black Swan is very specific. Presumably it is intended to be noticed by the audience?

AW: Yes it is. Although the audience will happily never know how hard it was to obtain tonally. Everything had to be camera tested because there was so much colour fluctuation to be fine tuned with fabrics. Film stock can really change the look of the colour, so we had to get the tones down, and go from there.

We used the palette to show the evolution of Nina’s character, and the awaking of her sexuality.

Nina’s pashmina was bought on Canal Street, New York. One of the pink scarves seen in the film was actually white and dyed pink, purchased from Atrium on Broadway.

CoF: What research did you conduct into ballet stage and rehearsal wear?

AW: For me that was the best part. It was everything from watching performances to books and movies; not just ballet films, but films that were in the same “tone”, such as The Double Life of Veronique (1991, Krzysztof Kieslowski) or had similarities in the characters’ relationships, such as The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke). But the most beneficial form of research for me was the relationships I formed with actual ballet dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. I watched them in rehearsals and talked to them for hours. It allowed me a view into the ballet world, watching them break in their shoes to taking off layers during class. I would covertly take their pictures while they were coming and going to classes to get the right feel for outerwear and bags. We really wanted it to be realistic as possible.

CoF: So, the intention was to depict a realistic portrayal of the ballet world despite the abstract nature of the story?

AW: Yes, but it was because of, not in spite of, the abstract. It was important to keep the film grounded in reality so the fantasy aspect could be accepted. Keep its feet on the ground, so to speak.

Leg warmers are worn by ballet dancers on particularly tight or pained muscles, which is why Nina is sometimes wearing just one at a time; the idea being that she, like dancers everywhere, have different aches and pains that need to be focused on that day.

CoF: What are you most proud of on the film?

AW: I’m proud of the teamwork and high aesthetic standards on such a tight budget. I’m proud to have been a part of such a unique and original film, and so proud that is has been so well received.

CoF: How was working with Darren Aronofsky again after The Wrestler? Is he specific about costume?

AW: Yes, he is. He is specific about everything, but he also surrounds himself with people that he trusts to do a great job. Darren isn’t the “you are so great!” kind of a director. He kind of eggs you on to be the best you can be by not praising you. For example, Day 1 of shooting The Wrestler, everyone was running around like crazy (Mickey Rourke was convinced that I lost his weight belt, which was retrieved from his apartment), and everything was perfect except for one tiny detail that fell through the cracks. It was so tiny, but Darren was disappointed, and told me so. He was right, and I busted my ass to never let him down again.

All sketches by Amy Westcott.

© 2011 – 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.