Watching Darren Aronofsky’s ballet drama Black Swan is a breathtaking experience, thanks as much to its stunning visuals as its performances. Here, costume designer Amy Westcott reveals the role that she played in the film’s design, right down to the last leg warmer…
From the moment Black Swan opens with a continuous shot of Natalie Portman dancing a sequence from Swan Lake, lit only by a single spotlight, the audience is instantly enveloped in the world of the ballerina; no mean feat, considering many cinemagoers may never have had any previous contact with ballet. But shedding light on a closeted section of society is something that filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has done before, with the likes of mathematical thriller Pi (1998), and wrestling drama The Wrestler (2008). And his sumptuous worlds are made possible thanks to the creatives that Aronofsky surrounds himself with, who all share his attention to detail and addiction to meticulous research. One person who has immersed herself in Aronofsky’s world is costume designer Amy Westcott, who was responsible for outfitting the entire cast of Black Swan. And, having also worked on The Wrestler, she has developed a strong collaborative relationship with the director. But, as she reveals, it didn’t get off to the best of starts.
“I haven’t told anybody this story,” she laughs, “but years ago I interviewed with him and got the job [as costume designer] on his first movie, Pi. He hired me, and I was petrified. I was sure that I knew nothing! And I was so scared that I would ruin his first movie, I felt so over my head, that I called him and said that I had another job! Years later, I walked in and interviewed for The Wrestler and at the end of the interview I said, ‘By the way, you’ve hired me before’. And he said, ‘Why didn’t you stay on? Nobody did costumes so we ended up piecing them together ourselves!’ I don’t think it was that story that hooked him, but we just got along from there!”
As with every successful cinematic collaboration, it takes a lot of hard work, and Westcott’s involvement on Black Swan started well before production. “There were months of research,” she reveals. “The way Darren works is that you’re walking into a different world. You just feel like you walk in and shut the door. That’s part of the beauty of costume design, you can really research. You can really dive under every rock. Talking to people who are in that world is my favourite part. I spoke to several dancers and the American Ballet, as well as the New York City Ballet. They were very kind and let me sit in on the classes. And I just sat there like a fly on the wall in the corner. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos but I did sketches and took notes.”
And spending all those months in the company of ballerinas enabled Westcott to ensure that all of her costumes, right down to how a dancer wears her leg warmers, are completely accurate. “A lot of dancers are going to see this movie, and they are the harshest critics. And so you really gave to get it right!” she enthuses. But that’s not to say she wasn’t allowed any freedom of expression. “You have to stick to the rigid guidelines, because it has to be realistic, but at the same time we did take some creative license. For instance, dancers today usually wear their tights on the outside of their leotards, because it gives them a smoother line. But the way it used to be, and certainly with young girls, was that they wore them on the inside. It’s something that they call ‘bunhead’, which is [like] the stereotypical pink ballerina on top of the jewellery box. So we took the liberty of doing that with Natalie’s character, because we wanted to make her look like the innocent 12-year-old trying to be the perfect dancer. But they don’t really do that; they would say, ‘You’re a total nerd!’”
Indeed, even though the costumes of Black Swanare dictated by the traditions of ballet, look a little deeper and you’ll find that they perfectly represent the psychologies of the characters who wear them. Central to the film is the tumultuous relationship between Nina (Portman) and her ambitious understudy Lily (Mila Kunis), and Westcott worked hard to ensure their personalities were reflected in their appearance. “It was very important you understood that Nina was rigid and prim. You get that impression through her colours, and the fact that she’s wearing a turtleneck in one scene. She’s not sexy; she’s always a little bit covered up. Lily was always in black, and she’s kind of cat-like, and she’s showing her skin… she’s very comfortable with her body and her sexuality.
“But everybody is important,” Westcott continues of the attention to detail she had to maintain across the board. “Working on Darren’s movies, even a background artist who is on screen for a second is very important, because they can take someone out of the realistic nature of the film. The way we figured it out in the beginning was that each character related to a character in the Swan Lakeballet. For instance Nina’s mother Erica [played by Barbara Hershey] was the Von Rothbart character; she started out a lot darker than she eventually became. Her colours were black and green, and we had some texture, like the way it was in Rothbart’s costume. We correlated it very closely, as we did with Vincent [Cassel, who plays dance teacher Thomas Leroy] and the Prince. We had to make sure that he didn’t look at all dark; he couldn’t look like an evil person because he wasn’t. And his costumes really had to read powerful and charismatic and confident, but not at all unlikeable. Because he’s not; he’s the person that’s trying to pull Nina forward. They were all important because everything has to work together; it’s like a giant puzzle.”
One of the most striking performances comes from Winona Ryder, who has a small but powerful role as Beth, the retired principal dancer who is jealous of Nina’s success. “The idea behind her was we [are] supposed to get glimpses of who she was and what she’s become,” explains Westcott. “So the idea behind, say, what she wore to the black-tie event [was that] she was wearing silver because she was very used to being the one who everybody looks at. But the binding [detail] of the dress was supposed to look like she was falling apart, yet was all bound together in the confines of the ballet world, of her own doing. We didn’t have a lot of chances to show her arc, really, so you get her at the unravelling stages.
“We had it all figured from the outset, and then little things change,” Westcott continues of the flexibility that’s essential to successful costume. “For example, there is a scene where it’s just Nina and Thomas dancing, and he’s showing her some moves and seducing her. That whole scene was originally done much more innocently, and after rehearsal Darren said, ‘You know what, we need it sexier.’ She needed to appear a little bit more sexual than she was. And so we changed her look to suit where it was going, where the whole arc was going.”
And it’s not just a director who has the power to change the design of a costume; the actors do have some say in what goes on their back. But, as Westcott explains, there has to be “a balance” between the feelings of the actor and the needs of the character. “If it’s something very literally comfort-oriented, like a strap is digging into their shoulder or their leotard is riding up, that we have to change. But sometimes we have to say, ‘Look, I know this isn’t what you would normally do, but this is something we need to do for the character.’ Usually the director stands behind what’s right for the character [but] you have to be flexible. You can’t act if you are preoccupied with how much you hate your costume!”
As well as working closely with the actors and director, the costume designer also has to cultivate a successful working relationship with other members of the team responsible for realising a director’s vision. And on a Darren Aronofsky film, the visuals always take centre stage, so cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer Thérèse DePrez and make-up department head Marjorie Durand worked very closely with Westcott throughout production. “We met once a week during prep, to brainstorm,” explains Westcott. “This film more than any other, we really sat and figured out where it was going. There was nothing left to chance. It was freeform in the beginning; we were all talking and emailing each other pictures and it was an open dialogue for weeks. And we started coming closer to what we wanted it to look like. As sets were being built and as costumes were being made, we just shared everything. So we never got into that weird, ‘Oh my God, why do you have this against this background’ because we all knew what was going on, what colours were going to be used everywhere. That was really useful in making it look like a complete world.
“We were confined to just four colours, essentially, for the costumes, but it wasn’t just the colours, it was the tones,” Westcott continues. “Everything had to be camera-tested to see if it was going to work, colour wise, with everything else. There are the big camera tests in the beginning before we start shooting and the cinematographer, Matty Libatique, was great because he was asking, ‘What do you want to see?’ And I would just hold up things, and then I could see the tone of everything, see what tone it would end up being. And there were definitely things, because of the film stock we were using and lighting, [that were] not going to work, that looked stark. We had to dye up a lot of things!”
As well as collaborating with Aronofsky on The Wrestler and Black Swan, Westcott has designed costumes for films as diverse as The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Smart People (2008) as well as spending four years designing for hit TV show Entourage. “I think that TV is easier, because you’re doing it episode by episode; you’re just pumping it out,” she says. “Whereas in a film, it’s a start-to-finish process; you can nail it all out. There’s something more gratifying to me about that process.” And having worked in TV and film for over a decade, after getting her start as a wardrobe assistant on the 1997 Sylvester Stallone thriller Cop Land, does Westcott feel that costume designers get enough credit for the part that they play in the filmmaking process? “No, I don’t,” she states emphatically. “It’s like an editor; if you’re a great editor, nobody notices your work. If you’re bad, that’s when people notice. So with costumes on a contemporary film—and I’m not talking about Black Swanbecause it was different in that way—you’re trying to do things in a realistic way. And if it is really realistic, and people buy it, then you don’t notice it because you think it’s their own clothes.
“For so many years people would say to me about Entourage, ‘Oh, it’s just jeans and T-shirts!’” Westcott continues. “And I would be like, ‘That’s really offensive’, because I worked so hard to give each guy a character. Working with actors, what people forget is that you’re looking at a frame. You’re not looking at one person in a room; you’re looking at, in the case of Entourage, four people walking down a street. And it had to work great as four people walking down a street. So I think that people drastically underestimate it. When it works, people just think ‘Oh, of course, they just grabbed their own clothes!’” •
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue #20