Despite being twice Oscar nominated, for Ray in 2004 and then Dreamgirls and 2006, costume designer Sharen Davis has yet to win the big one. She ticks a lot of the Academy’s boxes too: period clothes, stage wear, real life people. However, Ms. Davis is not just about history and glamour, her work is thoughtful, detailed and appropriate to tone.
Django Unchained is the first time Sharen Davis has worked with Quentin Tarantino, as generally he favours using different costume designers depending on the project. Yet on this evidence the director is likely to employ her services again. The date may be 1859, the location America’s deep south, but this is costume not re-enactment. As such the film has a flavour of the Old West (or rather South) with clever character notes and delicate use of colour.
Chatting exclusively to Clothes on Film just before Christmas, Ms. Davis explains her ideas for Django Unchained, use of colour, and exactly why she put Jamie Foxx in that baby blue suit and knickers:
Clothes on Film, Chris: How did you come to work with Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained?
Sharen Davis: It was literally a phone call out of the blue. The studio was keen to push Jamie Foxx (in the title role) as the star and they knew I’d worked with Jamie on Ray (2004). Quentin does not like biopics, but he saw Ray and loved it. He even went to see Looper at the theatre.
Dr. King Schultz’s heavy looking Inverness cape coat (seen early in the film) is actually made from cotton. His chinchilla coat is faux fur and worn in honour of Sheriff Franciscus (Telly Savalas) in Far West Story (aka Sonny and Jed, 1972).
CoF: Did Quentin have his own ideas about costume?
SD: Oh yes, he did. It’s kind of great but really hard at the same time. When we started on Django he would actually show me footage from Bonanza. He said “I need Django to look like Little Joe (played by Michael Landon) on Bonanza. I need him in that green corduroy jacket, those white pants and that hat” and I’d say “okaaaay!” But to get to make it look cool on Jamie I think I made 15 different versions of that jacket. It was really a hard look to sell for two thirds of the film and I had so many variations of it. Different greens, fabrics, leather, suede; it was so hard. The pattern cut was pretty much basic. It’s not as high as the one Michael wore but it looks close. I tried the whale, but it’s a different corduroy to make it look more rugged.
The sunglasses he wears are replicas of Charles Bronson’s in The White Buffalo. Quentin didn’t actually know about them; the guy who made them told me he made them for Charles Bronson. I told Quentin and he was like “oh my God, that is so cool”. The Bonanza look started before I even arrived. Quentin would call me every week to make sure I never forgot that. So I knew if I showed him any other different idea it would make him upset.
The company who made the original Little Joe hat made our hat. It’s dark brown instead of black, that’s the only difference I had. Django is in cotton velvet pants, which is not what Little Joe wore. He wore moleskin, but I wanted Jamie to have a bit more rock ‘n’ roll. And you can’t really tell in the film, but he wears deep red boots. They would never have had boots like this back then, trust me. Cowboy boots were not cut like that during this period. Thank goodness you didn’t see the top. But that’s ok. You can’t really critique this movie staying entirely in the period. Because it’s Quentin’s film, it was never going to stay in the period, and it’s a spaghetti western and they never stay in the period.
CoF: So period accuracy wasn’t of paramount importance to you?
SD: No, but I did try to keep correct silhouettes. You know, we just wanted it more spaghetti western – more colour involved. Quentin and I thought that if you look at the westerns of Sergio Leone he has rock-star clothes. All the guys have to look kinda cool, even out of the period. It was 1859 like 1880. Quentin needed a coolness for Leonardo DiCaprio (playing Calvin Candie), he needed a coolness for Don Johnson (Big Daddy). For Don Johnson we rip off Miami Vice a bit.
CoF: He looks like Colonel Sanders. You know, Kentucky Fried Chicken?
SD: (laughs) It’s Colonel Sanders meets Miami Vice.
Christoph Waltz’s hat is an original design. Specifically without high crown, it was made entirely from scratch by hat-makers. Sharen Davis describes it as “badass”.
CoF: We’ve got to talk about the blue suit…
SD: (laughs) It’s quite accurate for a valet outfit. Not colour, per se, but valets did wear that. It’s not an exact copy of the ‘Blue Boy’ Fauntleroy suit (painting by Gainsborough), but it just pops off the screen. At first Quentin thought it wasn’t bright enough and I thought “are you kidding? He is a moving target!” What’s so great is when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) takes him to buy it. Jamie’s thought was “my character’s been in rags. If I saw something like that, I’d think it was for a king.” It’s vintage faille from the 1970s; it’s beautiful. But those grooves in the faille – thank goodness they didn’t reflect. It looked really rich. The best thing was that Jamie loved it.
CoF: I always see the green outfit as more Django’s look.
SD: We were originally intending to, all of a sudden, like a superhero, have a brand new clean, green outfit back on nearer the end. But during the filming a lot of story plot changed! (laughs). So it just didn’t happen. Quentin called me one night and said “I had an idea” and well, you saw that idea. So we came up with a suit that was a match for Leonardo’s.
CoF: Why does Django wear Candie’s clothes during the finale?
SD: I believe that’s a homage to Dr. King Schultz, because he always looks so dapper, and the fact that Django can take over this man (Candie) and become so powerful.
CoF: I noticed in this film that Christoph Waltz looks surprisingly slight.
Yeah, he is very slight. I guess in Inglourious Basterds they kept the coat very loose on him, but when they tailor him out he’s very trim.
That contraption, that pistol up his arm, I think was a common thing they did. I had to cut several coats, ones with larger sleeves. The cut of the sleeves of the period wasn’t really big enough for the gun contraption. But the hardest thing was the blood splatter. It was all about the blood splatter. You really have no idea how far it’s going to spray. Your heart just races; I’m thinking “I have three sets of clothes for that guy, and now he’s blocked in closer, he’s going to be a mess”. It’s hard to estimate – blood gets everywhere. I really had no idea where anybody was going to be when they got shot.
According to Davis, Calvin Candie is not a villain – he is a product of his time. “He is actually quite civil” she insists “and is only doing what lots of men were doing during this time in the South”. Stephen’s (Samuel L. Jackson) clothes are directly referenced in the script as ‘looking like they belong to a character from Charles Dickens’.
CoF: So was this quite an intense set to work on?
SD: No. I mean, at the end, in that little house, it was kind of hard, obviously due to the fact that our production designer (J. Michael Riva) passed away. It was heartbreaking; I can’t even explain. But generally speaking, at the end of the wrap, Quentin was so excited. He would laugh – he just loves film.
CoF: Looking specifically at Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), I get the feeling that colour was very important to her character.
SD: Yeah. Her main colour was purple. Of course, when she’s in Django’s vision, it’s yellow. Everything has a little story. Broomhilda’s colours are based on how she felt. Like, was she wearing purple in that flashback when she’s whipped? We don’t really know; that’s what Django saw. Looking at the spaghetti westerns purple is a very common colour. Purples, reds, very bright colours… I was hoping to balance this movie out with colour because of the tone – slavery, how heavy it can be, I figured if I used a colour palette that wasn’t so intense it wouldn’t be so real. It’s a little bit more like you’re just telling a tale. Just like the old spaghetti westerns; you’re not trying to relive history, you’re just making up a story, and I really think that was what Quentin was trying to say. I’m simply taking this time period and trying to make a film; it’s just a story.
That’s really why I think, even though I wish we saw more costume, he pivots right out when it’s starting to get intense. He changes the subject matter so fast that you can’t get drawn into the darkness of slavery or the bloodiness of the gunfights. He’s so amazing like that.
CoF: And of course, Quentin uses a lot of humour. I’m thinking of the guys with the hoods.
SD: The prequel to the Klu Klux Klan. Oh my God, that was so fun. In the script it was just hilarious. These ignorant crackers are just cracked up. Of course, you know Quentin is one of them. He’s the one saying “I know, I know you tried really hard to make the hoods.” That was Quentin (laughs).
CoF: Let’s talk about Lara Lee Candie, the typical Southern belle…
SD: I mean really, she’s more like Candie’s mother (laughs). She’s this spinster who thinks she’s like, 25.
CoF: Oh, I thought she was a widow.
SD: Well yeah, she is a widow, but how long has she been a widow? We put her in these delicate little pink dresses that she is way too old to wear. She’s just such a character. The actress who plays her, Laura Cayouette, actually lives in New Orleans and she actually comes from that kind of family background – old Southern money.
A secondary character not seen in this cut of Django Unchained had a costume covered in pages from an actual bible. Quentin Tarantino is intending to release a longer version at a later date, so we may yet get to see him. Incidentally, producer Harvey Weinstein wanted there to be separately released parts 1 and 2, but Tarantino was keen to get the film out to fans as early as possible.
CoF: Honestly, what do you feel your chances are for an Oscar nomination?
SD: We had a huge amount of guys who were outlaws that Jamie and Christoph went through, and they were really cool looking. We don’t see that much of the dressy dresses that Broomhilda wears – there’s a lot out for me. You know, I’m disappointed but laughing my head off at the same time. It’s not about an Oscar.
CoF: What with Looper and now Django Unchained, 2012 was a great year for you. What’s next?
SD: I’m doing Godzilla; I think it’s safe to say that now. I am really looking forward to working with director Gareth Edwards; I just loved Monsters (2010, Edwards’ first feature).
With thanks to Sharen Davis. Original costume illustrations by Felipe Sanchez.
Django Unchained was released in the U.S on 25th December and will be released in the UK on 18th January.
© 2013, Chris Laverty.