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Murder on the Orient Express: Interview with Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne

Clothes on Film were fortunate enough to be invited to a display of costumes from the latest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express (2017), plus interview its costume designer Alexandra Byrne. An Oscar winner for Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2008), and well known for her period design work, since 2011 Byrne has become connected to the world of Marvel, her most recent project being Doctor Strange in 2016. Here she chats candidly about recreating the (mainly) glamorous side of the early 1930s and the challenges that faced her and her team.

Alexandra Byrne on shooting in 70 mm:

“Director Ken (Branagh) and I did Hamlet (1996) together which was shot in 70 mm. It just means you learn the hard way – the camera sees EVERYTHING. Every stitch, every pile, every detail. Another challenge was that in the story the characters are stuck in an avalanche which meant shooting against a white background so that changed how all the colours and the silhouettes read. We watched the rushes every day though so soon my eyes tuned into the 70 mm. It’s mostly something that came subconsciously in the end.”

Michelle Pfeiffer in costume as Mrs. Hubbard and her actual dress and accessories.

On detail:

“It’s worth pushing for that extra bit of perfection because I knew the audience were going to see it. Men’s shirt collars were a nightmare. You might start off with a perfect look in a fitting but by day 22 the shirt has been washed x number of times and it doesn’t quite sit the right way anymore. I think it was it was under particular scrutiny with Ken playing Poirot because one of his obsessions about the character was symmetry. His shirt collars and ties became a real challenge.”

On set:

“I was on set when we were establishing a new costume, or a new look, or if there was a big crowd, but once we have done the first setup on a scene I had the luxury of walking away and leaving it with my amazing on set crew. They bring a different skill and there is a different eye looking at what I’ve designed and the storytelling – they approach it from a very practical point of view.”

On ‘cheating’:

“There is always that judgement on whether you cheat something for a close-up and how far you can cheat it. I might have set something that just doesn’t work in this way because of how it’s cropped and just want to tweak it. The audience should never notice this but it will look better on the screen. I will put my hand up and say we cheated completely on the shoes. We had a budget; we had to decide where to spend our money and we could have spent a fortune having replicas of period shoes made and in 80% of the shots we would not have seen them. It’s not the best way to spend your money. Through the internet we found small Italian and Spanish shoe manufacturers which, give or take, we could get away with it. They would cost maybe 195 euro as apposed to 2,000 euro to have the shoes made.”

Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff and close up sleeve detail of her costume.

On research:

“I use the internet. Most of the pictures on my mood boards come from the internet. At the moment I am doing an Elizabethan film and I immediately pulled out my boards I’d done on The Golden Age. All of that research was done pre-internet and I know how hard it was to find these images. Now I’m doing the same period with the internet I am just inundated with images. I still use books because the internet is very much the ‘destination’. With books I can flick through and there is the surprise at finding something amazing. I don’t think you can ever have too many images. I am distilling my take on a character for the boards in how I chose to present them to other people. Why I like mood boards is that I can then share them with the director, production designer, hair and make-up and it becomes very much an ongoing process. I go far and wide with my research. I always cut off the label, the caption, because I just want it to be a collage to do with that character.”

On original garments:

“I start to put together a rail of clothes for the actors. Whether it is the right size, the right colour, but we made the majority of the clothing. What we didn’t want was a jolt between new and faded, older pieces. Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman wears an original period waistcoat at one stage. When I find something in a fabric that I just can’t replicate I’m always keen to use it.”

On favourites:

“The character that blossomed the most was the Linda Arden (aka Mrs Hubbard, played by Michelle Pfeiffer). Just the balance of this who Agatha Christie described as “walking too loud”. How you make that character likeable and credible. She’s a Broadway actress masquerading as a tourist. And of course dressing Michelle Pfeiffer was a joy.”

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot’s dinner suit as seen in the film and the costume on display in close up.

On outfit changes in the 1930s:

“How many times a person changed depended on the class and where they were from. In my research I found that American and European clothing etiquette is all completely different. Someone like Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) would change several times in a day. She is a woman that has worn corsets all her life – she would dress for breakfast and then lunch and perhaps loosen her corset for a tea gown in the afternoon. This is why she has a maid with her all the time. There was not leisurewear back then either, no tracksuits. An English man for example would do his gardening in his worn out suit – that would be his leisurewear. Actually we used 23 hire houses on this film! Normally I’d use maybe 4 or 5.”

On historical accuracy:

“Well, people have modern bodies but we are trying to give them the look and feel of the 1930s. I always stay in the essence of the period. This is going to be a 20th century audience watching the film; I think they will look at this knowing exactly when it was made.”

On fabric:

“For suits, in English tailoring, it was usually an 18oz cloth which today feels very spongy and thick, whereas the weaving in the thirties was a very dry, flat weave. For the Poirot character we had the cloth specially woven by a factory in Scotland. The drape and behaviour of that cloth does underline the character. There are some actors who I have worked with that really suffer with the heat and struggle to get comfortable and can’t function. With one particular actor we even built in ‘Cilo (ice) packs’.”

Assorted costumes featured in the film.

On the superhero and period genres:

“It’s just the same. They both have pluses and minuses. People are very derogatory about the clothes in the superhero genre but the clothes in some of those films are absolutely beautiful. Doctor Strange was the kind of coming together of my worlds; it meshed both the superhero and period genres.”

On contemporary:

“I do love contemporary; it is very underrated and difficult to do well. People forget that there is a lot of contemporary in the superhero movies, too. It can get difficult when actors bring their own inhibitions. Just take jeans for example – everybody has found the type of jeans that they like wearing so if a costume designer feels that a particular character would wear a different type of jean then that takes quite a lot of working into for an actor. Plus it is not just a pair of jeans; they have to have the right amount of wear on them for what we want.”

On author Agatha Christie:

“I read the book (for the first time) in one sitting. She gives a lot away about the clothes. We tried to adhere to that; what she was saying and what she wanted and whether this would be relevant to the costumes and the story we were telling. Ken wanted me to do a ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ backstory for each persona because these people are not who they say they are.”

Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham’s check skirt was very much a collaboration between Alexandra Byrne and the actress, figuring out exactly how long her ‘stride’ should be, the length, etc.

On process:

“I do love the research and creating the boards, but I also love the moments in fittings when something unexpected happens. Also moments like finding something in a market that is a great source for your character. It’s just an amazing journey with so many phases. And I do like seeing the film at the end!”

On truth:

“Some of the characters are masquerades. I did not drop any costume hints but I tried to stay true to who that character actually was. How this person might have got those clothes together, what their information would have been, where they accessed this, the budget and resources they had. Rather than lay out clues, for anyone watching who is going to be forensic about it they can go backwards and put the character’s process together and it’s credible. I started with the character’s backstory so I knew who they were and then in my mind I tried to attack how an audience would ‘read’ them – their first impressions.”

Alexandra Byrne drew discussed the difficulties of shooting against a bright white background – that certain colours (without correction) can read very differently on screen.

On actors:

“Any time I was making anything it was collaboration. I work closely with them. With Daisy Ridley’s skirt we need to work out the size of the stride, how she could move in it, because ultimately she’s the one who has to wear it on screen. This is another example of how I might cheat something. For an action sequence I might have a second skirt that is easier to move in. Sometimes there will be stunt pads that need to be incorporated and we change the tailoring to suit that. And because of the way it is cut, I am relying on a actor moving not to show this.”

On becoming a costume designer:

“I’m old enough to say the progression has completely changed. The most important thing, if you want to create your work, is to keep designing. You need to pay your rent, but do something that is connected with what you want to do. It is possible to get ‘ground down’ on your way through to where you want to be that this individual talent can be lost. Keep designing.”

With thanks to Alexandra Byrne.

Murder on the Orient Express is released on 3rd November.

© 2017, Lord Christopher Laverty.