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War Horse: Exclusive Interview with Kathleen Kennedy

Kathleen Kennedy is one of the most successful movie producers in the world. Her films have earned over $5 billion in gross and the majority are household names: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back to the Future (1985), Jurassic Park (1993), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), the list runs on and on. Chatting exclusively to Clothes on Film, Ms Kennedy explains how her role as producer impacts that of costume designer, specifically in regards her latest project War Horse (directed by Steven Spielberg).

When we meet Kathleen Kennedy she is friendly, enthusiastic and keen to commend the work of War Horse’s costume designer, Joanna Johnston – “You must speak to speak to Joanna!” she exclaims. Considering the flurry of activity among her staff that ensured after this announcement a chat with Joanna Johnston will no doubt emerge soon. For now though, we settle into a brief if animated discussion with Kathleen Kennedy herself, opening with how much she understands about the role of costume designer and why it is so important to her pictures.

Clothes on Film, Chris: In your first role you worked as a production assistant on Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). Did you have much contact with the costume department?

Kathleen Kennedy: Ironically on 1941, the job I ended up having that paved the way for my relationship with Steven (Spielberg), I got very involved in the effects. My access to the costume department didn’t really happen until Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls and Benedict Cumberbatch as Maj. Jamie Stewart in military field dress. According to Kathleen Kennedy, costume designer Joanna Johnston was “really able to shine” with War Horse. It is certainly true that Johnston had a vast and not overly represented World War 1 backdrop to play with.

CoF: Do you consider costume design important in your films?

KK: Oh, incredibly important. And I think what is really interesting about costume design in film; it is much like music, it is either something you want to notice or not notice. It needs to be seamless and timeless. Or it needs to help in the story to identify something. I think that those kinds of choices are really interesting.

CoF: So, do you think that costume can actually tell a story?

KK: I think there is no question that costume can help tell a story. Even as recently as doing The Adventures of Tintin (2011); even though it’s animation, we spent an enormous amount of time looking at the characters, their dress and identifying them. I even got to the point of calling the Tintin Estate and asking whether Tintin had black socks or white socks, because when you look through the albums his socks change, and we had to make a choice between one or the other. I mean as the saying goes: with movies everything is in the details, and I think costume design is very much a part of the storytelling process.

Subliminal subtle details in a person’s wardrobe define character, so you’re willing to spend a significant proportion of the budget on costume. Yes, we always talk about it. Obviously it can get down to undergarments for instance. That’s a funny conversation we sometimes have on movies, yet there is an argument to be made about how a costume will fit, how it will lay and look, and this may have something to do with what is under the costume. This may sound like a ridiculous argument, but the detail in that will show up on screen, so it becomes a very important part of the discussion.

Peter Mullan and Emily Watson as Ted and Rose Narracott. Kathleen Kennedy was generous with the costume side of War Horse’s budget, approving 85% of the movie’s uniforms and civilian ensembles made from scratch.

CoF: Looking specifically at War Horse, how important was authenticity with the costume design?

KK: Authenticity was huge. It was important to us in every single detail, and in fact the wardrobe and props department spent an enormous amount of time doing a great deal of research with the Imperial War Museum and various people who came. In fact, I was talking to someone last night at Buckingham Palace right after the premiere who rides with the cavalry and there were these huge beautiful photographs from the movie hanging on the wall. They were hung in the room where we were having the reception. Later in the evening he walked over and he was looking at all the tack on the horses, even the blanket under the saddle, and he was looking at the jackets that each of the soldiers had on and he was commenting to me about what was absolutely accurate. Things like “that buckle was right but it should be in line with these two buckles” or “that blanket is right but it’s flipped over and it should actually be the other way”. I was astounded but he was so complimentary about the level of detail that had gone into the movie and how accurate it was.

CoF: How did you feel knowing that certain elements were wrong?

KK: You want it to be perfect, but at the same time I think it is very difficult to have things be absolutely perfect. A lot of times too, it is someone’s point of view. In a context of warfare, and it is something that Joanna Johnston and I discussed quite a bit with the uniforms, when everybody at the beginning of the story is kind of buttoned-up obviously things would get lost, they’d get dirty, helmets were exchanged, so there is a kind of randomness that can start to come in to the process, where things do not have to be as specific as at the beginning of the story. We were very aware of that. But even the kind of things that I’d never seen in a movie that Joanna would come up with. The breastplates on the British soldiers; you’ll notices that Robert Emms (David Lyons) has a plate under his jacket and that all came from historical research, and some of the designs on the helmets that I’d never even seen before came from research that Joanna was able to find.

Steven Spielberg on set with Jeremy Irvine playing Albert Narracott. Despite what could be described as a grandiose style of filmmaking, Spielberg wanted the costume look of War Horse to be authentic and “subliminal”.

CoF: It’s interesting that the British officers’ tunics don’t match. Which they wouldn’t have, but this also helps differentiate character.

KK: Exactly. We found out that in World War One, most of the officers had their own uniforms made. They owned their own uniforms. There was a guideline they basically followed. That’s what’s nice when Patrick Kennedy (Lt. Charlier Waverly) is talking about his new hat, things that are shiny and new…I mean, everyone was going into World War One thinking it would last a few months, and when everybody began to realise just how horrific conditions were, then the camouflaged netting started to come in and be put over the shiny helmets because they did not want to be seen in the trenches. They did not want the sun reflecting off anything. Those little details had to be incorporated into the costumes.

CoF: In a film such as this, it must be great to have that budget there to go into this kind of detail…

KK: Well, I think people think this movie cost a whole lot more than it actually did. I think people think that now all big Hollywood movies are in excess of $100 million dollars, but this movie was $68 million dollars. It’s still a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near what people think it was. That’s what’s extraordinary about what Joanna and the wardrobe department did. There is a company called Hero in Poland and they built all of those military uniforms and they did an extraordinary job for a really incredible price. All of these costumes were built from the ground up. Six of the key designers for these uniforms came to the set one day and got their picture taken with Steven. They gave Steven this beautiful plaque, with pictures and examples of the fabrics of the uniforms. They put together this beautiful presentation. I really want to make sure they are credited.**

Interestingly, Kathleen Kennedy credits The Sixth Sense (1999) with teaching her the most about costume on film. Joanna Johnston was costume designer there, too.

CoF: Finally, you do work on a lot of period films. Would you like to do something more contemporary soon?

KK: I don’t really think of it that way. I just get attracted to certain stories. I would love to find a really good contemporary story to do. It’s funny, because I suppose a relatively contemporary story we did a while ago was The Sixth Sense (1999) that Joanna also costumed. I remember we had a very specific discussion about wardrobe in that movie, because not one thing changes with Bruce Willis’ character. He does not change his clothes and we thought “surely someone’s going to notice that” and they didn’t. So there’s an example of everything being about the discussion of costume.

* Hero made the secondary characters’ and extras’ uniforms. The main cast uniforms were made in London.

Kathleen Kennedy was interviewed in London on 9th January. War Horse was released nationwide in the UK on 13th January.

© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.


  • Mark

    I just saw this film last weekend. I enjoyed watching it, great clothes, but the more I thought about it, some things really bothered me. The main character does not wear a hat or a coat, in a time when you would not go out without them. Also all the men have on several layers of wool, but the women wear a few layers of cotton? Somebody is either hot or cold there. I really like the fathers coat, but when you think about it, a tweed morning coat with elbow patches? I have never seen such a thing. That is a lot of tailoring for a work coat. He did put on a corduroy work coat with plane sleeves? again something I have not seen. I have seen sleeved waist coats with different sleeves like in” the piano” but not on a sack coat. Also I like all the bowler hats of the towns people, but I thought by 1910 most people would be wearing flat driving type hats for every day wear and bowlers would be for dress and kept in nice condition. Just my thoughts. I am curious what other people think.


    • Chris Laverty

      I’m talking to costume designer Joanna Johnston soon so will bring these points up. I think what you do have to remember is firstly these are costumes that, while authentic, are primarily in place to help tell a story and reveal insight into character. Secondly, I have read lots of books about historical dress and visited lots of museums, plus seen a lot of genuine vintage clothing close up. I also own a fair amount. What has always struck me is just how inconsistent period styles can be. Regardless of what the books tell us, i.e. this coat was only worn for this occasion, this dress for that, etc, more often than not clothes were adapted and reworked by whoever wore them – especially in the provinces. Actually Kathleen Kennedy makes a good point in this interview when she says “A lot of times, it is someone’s point of view”. This is very true, I think. Historical costume is not easily definable, this far back in particular. Regarding a hat on Albert (Jeremy Irvine), it just would not have worked in context. He would be about the hat – it would become a signature element of his character and when he is seen without it later on, literally and figuratively something would appear to be missing. Costume designers have a balancing act between authenticity and telling a readable story. Oftentimes they must meet in the middle.

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