Prince of Persia: Interview With Costume Designer Penny Rose

Penny Rose, costume designer on video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time talks us through her intentions for the movie, including 800 year old embroidery patterns and priests dressed in bedspreads.

Penny Rose has been costume designer on nearly forty films. As evidenced by her CV that includes Shadowlands (1993), Evita (1996) and The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy (2003-07), she prefers period/fantasy to contemporary and typically favours bigger budget Hollywood productions.

Her team for Prince of Persia swelled to seventy five incorporating jewellery, armoury and boot makers, three seamstresses, two craft makers, a five strong design team and chief cutter, among others. Listing Zulu (1964) as the one picture she would’ve loved to have created costumes for, Rose evidently revels in a large scale challenge. Here she explains exactly what those on Prince of Persia entailed:

Many of the costumes were made in Morocco, what trials did that create for you?

Penny Rose: We had a factory in Morocco employing 80 people including tailors, seamstresses, dyers, breakers-down, a boot maker, hat maker and jewellery maker. Overall, we created 7,000 costumes and it was a very big operation. The Moroccans are very clever. They make lots of films and have the skills, they just need guidance.

How did you come up with the ideas for the costume designs when the movie is essentially a fantasy?

PR: Prince of Persia is set in year 500, so we have a team of researchers who for six weeks put together mood boards of pictures that give me a flavour of the period. You need something visual and they also put together boards showing every different kind of head-dress. We were filming in 45 degree heat, so people have to have their heads covered. We made a huge cross-section of these. It may be a fantasy but we do thorough research. I think in order to create fantasy you have to have a starting point and then just let the boundaries go a little bit. We are also making a Disney movie and the audience tends to be young. I have to appeal to 15-year-old boys and the costumes must identify with them. The armour particularly, and the big belts, that captures their imaginations. We won’t be selling the costumes, but there will probably be a lot of these ideas seen at Halloween after the film comes out.

Where do you find the vast selection of materials used to make the costumes?

PR: My design team and I, there are four of us, set off shopping across the world. We send somebody to Thailand, someone to India, somebody to Turkey and I do Paris and Italy. I also bought from a lady in Los Angeles whose husband is the Afghan Cultural Attaché. She produces wall hangings that I turned into costumes. In a thrift shop in New York, I found an Indian wedding shawl and it had a matching skirt. Someone then laboriously cuts out pieces of it and this goes to make the decorations on costumes. I might pay 100 dollars for that shawl and skirt but by the time I’ve used various elements of it, and dyed it, it might be on five costumes, you’d never know.

It’s much cheaper than our other method which is laser computer embroidery that scans the original and matches the colour. It then reproduces the pattern on my material ready cut in the shape I need. The reason I do this is when we need multiple outfits, it is faster with the computer machine than by hand.

Do you have an idea in your mind who would look good in what material as you buy it?

PR: I don’t decide a costume and then go to look for the textiles. I buy all the textiles I think will be useful and then when we have the actors in a room, we decide what to put on whom. I find it difficult to design the costume until I know who has been cast.

The inspiration for Fred Molina’s costume came from a book called The Orientalists. It is a real tribe of desert people. In India we bought bed spreads and throws made of four different Saris, and cheese-grated it to give a costume that looks like a Nomads’ one. The effects of each layer came through. It was very difficult to do because Fred needed six of those. It was a complex mathematical process to get six costumes from 20 of the spreads. Each was cut into strips then all the strips were matched because for continuity on film, everything has to be identical.

How did you define Jake’s look as the Prince of Persia?

PR: When it came to Jake’s costume, I found an original piece of Persian embroidery probably seven or eight hundred years old. We used it as inspiration to create his signature coat. It took a week for each one to have the material made. But with all the action, smoke and stunts, it has a great identity to it and you will know it is Dastan in that scene.

What’s the biggest difficulty in creating such a massive selection of costumes, each with different looks?

PR: The Breaking Down department is one of the most important on the whole film. We had 24 people working in it dyeing clothes and breaking them down. Nothing we use is ever as it is made; it has to be absolutely wrecked by hand. Fred Molina’s costume has an element of once glamorous about it so it must be broken down.

Tell us one trick of the trade you used during filming?

PR: I bought a job lot of white bedspreads from India, about 50 of them as they were slightly damaged. They became the Priests clothing in various different tones of mushroom.

How do particular colours influence the costume design?

PR: We decided early on that it would be helpful to the audience if we made the Princess’s home city of Alamut in cream. They are religious people, so through the colour you know who they are. When you have the fight scenes with the Persians, you know who is on which side from what they are wearing.

How did the costume process work differently from the process on Pirates of the Caribbean?

PR: We really manufactured this whole show with a lot less rental costumes than on “Pirates”. With Morocco, we will always be able to manufacture and not rent. We had a couple of thousand more self-made costumes.

Do you have a favourite costume?

PR: Yes, Dastan’s spiral coat. I was like a terrier, so determined it would have a very special identity. It is the plainest and least leathery but it is quite iconic and Jake loves it, so we are both happy. Before I met Jake, I wanted to use it and felt it was a good hero fabric, but if he hadn’t liked it, I’d have gotten rid of it. It is vital to me that the actor likes what they are wearing and feels comfortable in it.

Was there any inspiration drawn from the video games when designing the costumes?

PR: Our clothing is a nod to the games. When I did Evita with Madonna, I made a great point of not seeing the stage play. I wanted to go off on our own little route with no influences. The game in this is obviously what the film is spun from but inspiration is not the word I’d use. But it is a guideline. When you’re working from a video game, the characters are one-dimensional. Although they move within the game, there isn’t any textile flow. So I felt it important to add that to it. With Jake’s leather vest, he wanted it shortened because he felt it would get in his way. I stood my ground on that. When you are moving you need the length and flapping, it looks dramatic. If I’d have shortened it, then he would have been just another guy with long legs on the move.

With thanks to Penny Rose.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton is released on 21st May in UK and 28th May in the U.S.

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.