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Interview with 47 Ronin Costume Designer Penny Rose

Where to start with Penny Rose? Pirates of the Caribbean? Evita? King Arthur? Most recently of course 47 Ronin (directed by Carl Rinsch). You do not hire Penny Rose for something small. This is not to say she won’t work on independent and low budget projects, just that her CV is becoming increasingly packed with huge scale period and/or fantasy studio movies – basically the kind of pictures that would make most costume designers weep. Multiples, armour, uniforms, plus Ms. Rose practically always builds from scratch. Not a fan of ‘shopping’ or even slightly interested in fashion, Penny Rose is old-school hands on, no-nonsense and no fear.

Nonetheless, there is a certain sense of irony in Ms. Rose’s position on contemporary fashion, being as she started her sartorial career working for Elio Fiorucci in Italy, although by her own admission this is mainly because she spoke fluent Italian. On returning to native England she began working in commercials, really with no costume experience whatsoever, and then onto movies. Currently she is go-to costume designer for Jerry Bruckheimer’s epic scale period pieces. Up next: One Thousand White Women, a western set in 1850. Again it won’t be modest.

We recently caught up with Penny Rose, mainly to chat about the DVD release of feudal Japan set fantasy adventure 47 Ronin, but she took us in several far more interesting directions:

Rinko Kituchi as ‘Witch’ in 47 Ronin. The Witch’s costume was essentially a backless kimono to reveal her tattoo. Not historically on point but necessary to interpret the script.
Rinko Kituchi as ‘Witch’ in 47 Ronin. The Witch’s costume was essentially a backless kimono to reveal her tattoo. Obviously not historically on point but necessary to interpret the script.

Clothes on Film, Christopher: You tend to work on large-scale movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger. Do you intentionally seek out these types of films?

Penny Rose: That’s a good question. Basically, you know how people in all walks of life, probably yours’ as well, get a bit pigeon-holed? Because of the amount of expensive epics I’ve done, what tends to happen now is that they look for me. Now, I’m just as happy doing a small-budget as a big budget movie, but as you can imagine, I’ve kind of got the hang of it now. I do like a project that has manufacturing involved. I like it when we can design and create the garments ourselves, in-house. But I don’t actively seek these blockbusters; they seek me.

CoF: You don’t do that much contemporary work these days…

PR: Well, that’s what I call shopping jobs. There’s a lot less room to get involved with a project; it’s more about shopping, for example “how many of these pairs of jeans are available?” Frankly I don’t really care. I’ve done contemporary projects before; I did Entrapment and worked with Armani a lot. The problem is, Chris, it’s simple. The big fashion designers in Rome and Paris – they really want to do it but the truth is that they’ve got four collections a year to get out, and what they actually want you to do is select something off the peg. Now, I’ve nearly always got six stuntmen and a couple of photo doubles. So then we have to go and find something we can get in multiple collections from next season’s collections because half of this season’s has already sold out. I do think it is a very non-compatible environment.

CoF: I notice your costumes always look very lived in…

PR: That is very, very much my intention, so far as we want the costumes to appear real, and I don’t think it works if the costumes are wearing the actor. The actors have to look as if the clothes belong to them. I always have a massive aging and dying department – sometimes eight to ten people. Getting a pair of pants to look like someone has had them on for four years is quite a complicated process – the lights, the shades, the degrees and depths of colour. To distress leathers, I put them all in a cement mixer with pebbles. We really do try very hard to make sure everything looks worn to death.

CoF: It’s interesting you say pants and not trousers.

PR: I’ve been too long in America!

Keanu Reeves as Kai. Costume designer Penny Rose goes in for heavy distressing, often with the help of cement mixers and bags of pebbles.
Keanu Reeves as Kai. Costume designer Penny Rose goes in for heavy distressing, often with the help of cement mixers and bags of pebbles.

CoF: 47 Ronin did look astonishing, especially the kimonos and armour. Surely it must be one of the biggest projects you’ve ever done?

PR: The answer to that is always the same. The biggest project I’ve ever done is Evita. That was three to five thousand people, dressed by us, every day. However, Ronin, simply in design terms – not one garment that anyone wears in the film was not manufactured by us. There was just nothing we could rent. The English people didn’t have anything – I tried Angels, I tried Cosprop. I sent a couple of girls to Tokyo to the costume shops there, thinking that we might get five or six hundred pieces that might be usable. However, what arrived was all polyester, so it was sent smartly back again. So we just bit the bullet and got on with it.

We were very lucky to have at our disposal a dear friend called Daniel Hanson, who is a specialist kimono maker. He is actually most famous for making dressing gowns for Elton John – he orders 20 every Christmas! He has a factory in Nottingham that is completely and utterly set up to make kimonos. Daniel is also a lecturer in textiles at Nottingham University – he is obsessed with kimonos. When I commissioned him to make 1000 kimonos for the film in the factory, he came down for five terrifying hours explaining to us centimetre by centimetre detail about the kimonos. In the end I had to say “Daniel, I love you, but shut up and go away and make them.”

CoF: How much did you look at the historical element of feudal Japan, because the film is essentially a fantasy, isn’t it?

PR: Well, as you know, the Japanese have made this film about ten times already. The whole inference was that we have to try to take it out of that Japanese forum and make something really original. Ostensibly, I made it about the textiles. The men, in particular, are wearing a very traditional shape. For the two girls, the princess and the witch (the witch in particular), I took the traditional kimono shape and then really fucked about with it. The garments she is wearing are kind of her own thing. She has a tattoo on her back and the director wanted to see it – well, how could I put her in a backless kimono? Well, we did, and as you can imagine it was quite difficult to construct.

The colour was also very important. When reading the script, I didn’t quite digest how many armies would be in the film, and when it hit me I actually wanted to slit my wrists. There are actually 13 different armies and suits of armour really are very expensive to make. But we came up with a new process, kind of by accident – we made the new prototypes in leather and then we took them to this great guy in Budapest who made them up in this thin, rubber type material, really only about 2mm thick. There was quite a lot of experimental trial and error, but it worked. So we’d worked out how to make all these costumes for the army. The question then was how to give them a variation, and although some of them have unusual helmets and other identifying features, it’s basically a colour thing. Gold, red, purple, brown – the 13 armies are all in different colours. It’s difficult, because once you get them all fighting you lose track of who’s who, and that’s always been a problem I’ve had on the Pirates movies – they’re all filthy, dirty pirates but whose side are they on?

CoF: The colours really are very vibrant in 47 Ronin…

PR: Yes. That was really kind of a brave new move for me; I tend to use muted colours, but I thought I’d have a go. It’s just tragic that nobody’s seen the wretched thing.

Keanu Reeves as Kai in 47 Ronin. Colour is hugely important in the film – with 13 separate armies featured it is the only sure way to tell them apart.
Colour is hugely important in 47 Ronin – with 13 separate armies featured it is the only sure way to tell them apart.

CoF: That must be frustrating for you, then, that the film wasn’t well received?

PR: If you’ve seen The Lone Ranger, you’ll also notice that huge amounts of effort went into making it, and nobody saw the film, which is a shame because I thought it was rather good. It’s incredibly frustrating for all of us. From my point of view the team that spent six months busting a gut, giving it their real best, and it disappears without a trace….you’re just a victim of it if it doesn’t take much money. I do hope the costumes in 47 Ronin get more notice, because it was such a tour de force producing it.

CoF: Ok, another point about frustrations. You created the Jack Sparrow costume for Pirates of the Carribean which is now the iconic pirate costume for fancy dress/Halloween etc. and yet, you rarely get a mention for having created it.

PR: I must say, the first year, The New York Times had me put together an idiot’s guide for all the moms to make a pirate costume. So at least I was credited then. But Jack Sparrow is not my creation alone. Mr Depp has also promoted my costume rather well. He, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer never stop mentioning ten years on that we did create that together. If the general public love it, well…

Here’s one sweet anecdote for you. There’s a chap outside the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles dressed up as Captain Jack. He’s really good, and you’re supposed to pay him five dollars to get your picture taken with him. He approached me and asked me if I wanted to get my photograph taken with him for five dollars. I said to him “I would, but you should pay me five dollars because I created the costume!” He was beside himself but said “What do you think? What do you think? Is it any good?” And I said “It’s absolutely breathtaking”. But he didn’t get the bandana right, so the next day I visited Mr Depp and told him about the guy and asked “Would you mind if I gave him one of your bandanas?” and he said “No, do give it to him with my love” and he added “Ask him how much he makes? Maybe it’s a gig I could get into!”

No, I don’t feel aggrieved. I know it’s mine, you know it’s mine. If Mrs Ellis in North London doesn’t know who created it, it doesn’t matter.

With thanks to Penny Rose.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.