Filmmaker Nic Fforde discusses how he come to realise the importance of costume design in his projects.
Stories in films are all familiar to us in some way, no matter how remote the setting. The hell that unfolds aboard the Nostromo in Alien, LA’s icy criminal underworld in Heat or Rope’s Ivy League dinner party – a good story well told will whisk you away to its own self–contained world. All the tools of filmmaking are there to help create these worlds. What part does costume play in all this?
My day job is to make films for advertising. We work on low budgets with small documentary crews. Whatever our subjects decide to wear on the day is usually fine and feels natural. Costume is something we don’t need to spend loads of time on. That’s all changed with my latest project – a fictional short film set in the 1970s. I hadn’t considered the impact of costume on character development before I started this project. But now, the question of costume is a very big one. To begin my research, I sorted my DVD collection into films that I thought would be helpful. At first, The Passenger (1975, costume design by Louise Stjernsward) didn’t strike me as a film that could teach me about costume in the same way as Harry Caul’s translucent raincoat or Jack Carter’s bespoke suits.
It stars Jack Nicholson as David Locke, a reporter who is fed up with his job, his marriage and his friends. After a particularly gruelling day in the desert he finds a neighbour at his hotel dead. In that moment, he decides to switch identities with David Robertson and leave his old life behind.
Locke follows the engagements in Robertson’s diary. He discovers that the good–natured and friendly Robertson was an illegal arms dealer, helping rebels fight a dictatorial government and making some very dangerous enemies in the process. Now Locke has been irrevocably identified as Robertson and has brought those realities into his life.
Locke is ill equipped to deal with this scenario. He’s used to working with words and images, not guns and ammo. Just as his responsibilities as a reporter and a husband made him feel trapped in David Locke’s life, he’s now trapped in David Robertson’s. In his old life, Locke reported on the good and the bad in the world. Though he travelled to dangerous places, he’d rarely be in danger. He would visit warzones as an observer, not as a participant. His words could never change anything in the way Robertson’s weapons can.
We are introduced to Locke in the desert. He sweats and toils in clunky cargo trousers and a check shirt knotted at the waist. Robertson by contrast is at ease in linen trousers and a floaty, unbuttoned shirt. Maria Schneider’s flowery dresses and flowing hair also tell us of her relationship with the landscape, where Locke has none. Through Locke’s outfits we see a man who is always at odds with his environment, never part of it.
As his colleague notes, Locke’s ability to detach himself from the world made him a great reporter. His place was always on the side-lines, never in the mix of the action. But even as Robertson he’s still helpless to engage with reality. It may say Robertson on his passport, but Locke will always be David Locke. However hard he tries, he can’t escape himself.
As a cinema audience, we’re lucky to be taken away to the worlds that great stories offer us. For just a few moments, we can be placed in the middle of someone else’s life and totally forget our own. Like David Locke, we can be tourists of other worlds, observing from the side-lines. That we don’t have to engage with their everyday realities is a wonderful luxury.
The immersive quality of the great films we love is down to great storytelling. Every person involved in the production of a film will have to make decisions that ultimately serve this aim. An editor once told me that he felt his best work was done when nobody noticed it. I believe this is true across the whole film production process. If our characters’ clothes aren’t right, we put the hard work of every other department at risk. If the audience pick it up, we have failed as storytellers. And we don’t want that. We want to remain in that little self–contained world, where we can achieve the impossible dream that David Locke strived for.
By Nic Fforde.
Nic’s short film Ralph Styles Ultra is on Kickstarter.
© 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.