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Inception Revisited with Costume Designer Jeffrey Kurland

Just over ten years ago, Inception arrived in cinemas (remember those?) like a well-dressed jigsaw puzzle and caused us all brain ache. As twisty, knotty, turny now as it ever was, director Christopher Nolan’s dazzling sci-fi adventure also remains one of the chicest attired movies of all time. In honour of Inception being a decade old, we caught up with its costume designer, Academy Award nominee, BAFTA and Costume Designer’s Guild winner, Jeffrey Kurland. Not so much an interview, more a reminiscing chat as Mr. Kurland recounts his approach to the film, costume clues and unmissable sock moments. Plus we even cover that apparent ‘shirt malfunction’ from one of his more recent movies, Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018). He won’t be drawn on his next film for Christopher Nolan though, Tenet. Well, not much…

Let’s do some memory lane.

Clothes on Film: Inception was, and still is, considered very stylish in fashion circles:

Jeffrey Kurland: That’s not something that Chris (Nolan) would ever think about. He couldn’t care less if it starts a trend. As long as it enhances the movie and helps tell the story, that’s all the clothes are there for. That’s my mindset, too. Everything was custom made, by the way, everything. There were over 86 suits, for stunt doubles too, and countless leather jackets and raincoats. There was never any kind of ‘tie-in’ fashion collection planned either, or if there was they never came to me!

CoF: These costume / fashion tie-ins are more commonplace now. The Kingsman series for example:

JK: The Kingsman range was in place from the very beginning. Obviously I did not costume that movie, Arianne Phillips did, so I don’t know for sure, but I believe it was part of the deal to secure financing.

CoF: What really strikes me about the costumes for Inception is that none of them have dated poorly:

JK: One of the reasons I like to make everything is that I can dictate the style for each character. Then when you have these guys on screen, they do not look too far from each other but do not blend in together either. In the marketplace, shops, you’re generally kind of stuck. You have grey suits, blue suits, black suits. You’ve got a peak lapel, a notch lapel, you might have a shawl lapel, but that’s it. There isn’t much choice.

The super-slick Inception crew looking like Condé Nast version of Happy Days.

CoF: I think one of the reasons the individual costumes work so well in the film is that they are so specific to each character. Cillian Murphy’s almost exclusively double-breasted suits look for example:

JK: Cillian’s double-breasted look suited him the best, as a human being and for his character. Same for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the three-piece suits; they suited his character, more buttoned up, but also his body type. Ken Watanabe on the other hand looks amazing in anything so his style varied with a mix of single and double breasted. Leonardo DiCaprio’s look was more structured in terms of style but not in terms of the clothes themselves. More separates. Tom Hardy, like Dileep Rao’s role in fact, is very much a ‘character’. I saw Tom’s Eames as an expat so took him down that road in a Graham Green type of way, which really worked for Chris in regards to the story. Michael Caine had a little more texture, shades of colour and the Mandarin collar. He’s an architect – different from the rest of the group but can still stand as part of it.

CoF: You also have to take into account exactly whose dream we are in, too:

JK: The architecture of that dream would be important. Arthur (Levitt) was the architect of the Japanese castle dream seen at the beginning of the film, not Saito (Watanabe). Then when he comes to we move into Nash’s (Lukas Haas) dream which is a slimy hotel room. Each person represented their own style – clothing and architecture – if they were creating the dream. This can really be seen with Ariadne (Ellen Page); her wardrobe changes distinctly for each dream she is in. Whoever is the dreamer essentially designs what those sharing the dream are wearing.

CoF: It does get rather complicated. Did you ever have to approach Christopher Nolan and ask, to quote Ariadne in the movie, “whose subconscious are we going into now?!”:

JK: I asked those questions all the time! I did have the benefit of seeing the original script and all the changes it went through. Chris was open to ANY question whatsoever because it is a complicated thing. I had to read the script three or four times before I sat down and talked to him about it. There was nothing I could ignore in script either or just put in for its own sake – like ‘let’s just stick this guy in a turtleneck’. NO! The snow suits too, at the end, for the good guys and bad guys were cohesive enough to feel part of the same dream but different enough that you could tell them apart, and if you couldn’t there would be a reason for that.

CoF: Anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with everything that Tom Hardy wears in the film, starting with the bar in Mombasa:

JK: I remember saying to Tom, ‘just lift your leg up slightly so we can see the socks and the shoes’. It’s that tiny little point; that completion. His socks and shoes just make the character. Tom was so great – just exudes everything. We actually shot the Mombasa sequence in Tangier, Morocco, which of course is North Africa and Mombasa is in Kenya, the east, very different, so we could not use anything locally – we had to bring it all in. Most of our costumes were made in Los Angeles but I did have a local crew in Tangier making, too. It was a big operation.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb and Tom Hardy as Eames plotting the plot in Mombasa (actually Tangier). It’s all about the socks.

CoF: When Mal (Marion Cotillard) calls Cobb on him being “chased around the globe by anonymous corporations” it always puts me in mind of Mombasa with those grey suited clones pursuing him.

JK: I wanted them to look like anonymous, shall I say, ‘CIA types’. When you look at Secret Service men and women they all look exactly the same: wire coming out of their ear, dark suit, sunglasses. It isn’t a dream though, this sequence, it’s reality.

CoF: Apart from Cobb’s children, who I’ll get to next, is there a costume method in this film to tell dreams and reality apart?:

JK: No, and I didn’t want there to be. I didn’t want it to be that obvious. As an audience I wanted you to work at it to some extent. You’d have to maybe go and watch the film two or three times.

CoF: So then, Cobb’s children. I remember interviewing you when the film came out and was surprised to learn that they are not wearing the same clothes when Cobb seemingly arrives back home at the end. Very similar, but not the same. This is a big clue isn’t it? Cobb is not reliving a past memory, this is in fact a brand new one?:

JK: This is, most importantly, the first time that the kids face the camera – you never see their faces at any other time. The changing of their clothes and the first time you see their faces is a big tip-off that it’s real.

CoF: But the clothes are SO similar. You were having a bit of fun with us here, weren’t you?

JK: I wanted you to pay attention, I wanted you to guess. I did not want to put them in completely different clothes because everyone would get the reveal immediately. Everyone would be looking at that one thing and I didn’t want that. I wanted people to maybe notice and then have to revisit. ‘Oh yeah, the clothes ARE different’.

CoF: Did having the kids in subtly different clothes come from yourself or Christopher Nolan?:

JK: It was a discussion with Chris, as everything was. When I first read the script I saw this as an opportunity to change them. As the moment drew closer during filming I’d ask Chris, ‘Do you want them to look any different?’ and he was initially adamant they would look the same. It occurred to me, being as they never change and you don’t see their faces up until this point, that now is the moment, the only moment, that you want to change their clothes because they are never actually in a reality until the end and we can show the audience this.

Michael Caine as Professor Miles with Cobb in Paris. Note how the fabric on Miles’ jacket just leaps off the screen.

CoF: This is an excellent example of how costume design can quietly affect narrative:

JK: I was very pleased about my input here. Also, I recall when the film was finished I was having a conversation with (Inception composer) Hans Zimmer and he mentioned that when he was scoring, the clothes helped him so much to differentiate sections of time within the movie. He could follow the plot through the clothes.

CoF: The clothes, the fabrics especially, pop wonderfully throughout. I’m thinking Eames and that beautiful raw silk jacket in Mombasa:

JK: I thank film stock so much for that. There’s a difference between film stock and digital in that from a distance, on digital, you can see EVERYTHING – what type a guy is wearing, the colour, whereas on film everything kind of ‘hazes out’, yet has more depth.

CoF: Returning to Mr. Hardy, did you think he’d hit this big in the past ten years?:

JK: I knew it! As soon as he opened his mouth I said, ‘there’s a movie star’. I had a great cast to work with. Only two women really, but when those two women are Ellen Page and Marion Cotillard that works out fine. Marion is so charming. She would stand in fittings for hours and never complain. That first outfit, the dress – we had the Japanese castle and the darkness and shadows so I went for gusto in giving her an otherworldly persona, ghost-like, a little ‘Edgar Allen Poe’ish’. The beading of the dress, the sheen, the blue. Also it had a full corset fitted underneath. It was so tight that Marion could not sit down between takes but she was so game.

CoF: Inception was your first film with Christopher Nolan, with Dunkirk (2017) and now Tenet (2020) following:

JK: I have worked with a lot of terrific filmmakers, directors, from Miloš Forman to Michael Mann to Steven Soderbergh. I’ve been very lucky. I wanted to work with Chris because I admired his movies, Momento (2000) especially, which is something I have watched over and over again. I just saw him as so fresh and new. I was in the middle of a shoot and I got a call from my agent saying Chris would like to meet. I flew into L.A. for the whole day. Interestingly when I interviewed with him he’d seen all my work – he had done his homework! There was no Inception script to read at this point, it was not finished. The idea, from what I was made to understand, was that Chris would meet different people, crew, actors, and the rest of script would come from these meetings. It took a long time to hear back and I just assumed the movie had gone to someone else. When I got the call I I’d not read any of the script. I was just, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!”. It was an amazing experience. We travelled everywhere, six different countries.

CoF: That seems to be a bit of a Christopher Nolan trademark  now, all this globetrotting. It’s no secret that Tenet spans a lot of locations:

JK: I’m not talking about Tenet (laughs).

Ken Watanabe as Saito in a Nagajuban with Marion Cotillard as Mal wearing her ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ish’ dress, which while not exactly practical, certainly looked sensational.

CoF: Okay, but it must have been cool returning to this world of stylish menswear and having some fun with that?

JK: I’m lucky that I’ve had a few nice menswear moments on screen. I costumed Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible: Fallout, and of course there was Ocean’s Eleven (2001).

CoF: I love Ocean’s Eleven:

JK: Again, all those clothes, the suits, were bespoke – all made. I mean you can’t just ‘find’ a silk sports jacket for George Clooney!

CoF: You’re referring to the scene when Danny Ocean arrives in Atlantic City, coming up the escalator looking sharp enough to cut glass?

JK: That’s my Cary Grant moment. I mentioned this to Steven (Soderbergh, Ocean’s Eleven director) beforehand and he just shot it beautifully. I said, ‘Wow, Cary Grant has just entered the room’. That’s what I call the ‘trickle down’ theory. Danny is at the top of the pyramid and it all trickles down from him. He sets the tone.

CoF: I’m clearly not going to get anything out of you about Tenet so I’ll briefly return to Mission Impossible: Fallout before we sign off. Can you answer, definitively, during the restroom fight, does Henry Cavill’s shirt have a pocket that magically appears and disappears during a take? Most of the internet thinks so:

JK: There is no way he got his shirt changed out at the last minute, not on a principal character, especially as Henry removes his jacket and performs most of the scene in the shirt. There was no ‘secret’ pocket or anything required. It’s just a trick of the light, maybe affected by all the mirrors in the shot? I honestly don’t know.

Jeffrey Kurland’s latest work for Christopher Nolan, Tenet, seems to follow a similar pattern of sleek silhouettes and fabric raunch to Inception. Or perhaps not? Guess we’ll know soon. Or not.

CoF: I’m going to mention Tenet just once more:

JK: I think you’ll have fun (pause). I made some bold moves.

With thanks to Jeffrey Kurland. Mr. Kurland will return soon(ish) for Tenet.

© 2020, Lord Christopher Laverty.