How to create an iconic cinema moment
The iconic work of Deborah L. Scott
"I'm king of the world"... The scene that launched a thousand spoof photos. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.
If you were in the upper echelons of secondary school in 1997, think back to your school formal that year, or the year after. How many girls wore black net dresses scattered with red and onyx beads? How many mail-ordered heart-shaped “blue diamond” necklaces? Was there a rush on LiveColour Hot Chili that year?
Call it “the Titanic effect”. The costumes worn by Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater (Dawson) in James Cameron’s epic romance swiftly became so iconic that they were henceforth referred to by costume afficionados by snappy codenames: “jump”, “dinner”, “flying”.
Naturally, when the opportunity arose to speak to Titanic costume designer Deborah L. Scott ahead of today’s BluRay release of the film, I had to tell her about the Rose-alikes at my school formal. Like many people who worked long (160 days of filming, not counting pre-production) and hard on the film, she had no idea it would turn out to be such a phenomenon. “Not at all,” she says. “One always hopes that a ﬁlm you have worked so long and hard on will get noticed, but I had no idea how much people would love the ﬁlm and the costumes. It is very gratifying.”
As a couture-crazy 15-year-old at the time of Titanic’s original release, my mind was blown by Scott’s intricate costumes (not to mention the ten-hankie love story and impressive special effects). As a vaguely cynical 29 year old, on the other hand, I didn’t hold much hope for the stereoscopic conversion and re-release of the film earlier in the year, so I was surprised to find all those teenaged feelings flooding back as soon as Winslet looked up from beneath that big cartwheel hat, this time in glorious 3D. (In fact, I burst into a flood of rather unglamorous tears.)
I wondered, had Cameron - with his infamous attention to detail and narrative - dictated the sartorial terms of Rose’s introduction to Scott? It turns out it was a symbiotic moment of movie magic. “I knew that Jim wanted a ‘moment’, after all it was our introduction to our heroine,” Scott recalls. “But I had no idea that he was going to start at her feet and slowly reveal everything! What a nice moment for a costume designer!”
Titanic would go on to score 11 statuettes from its 14 Academy Award nominations, and Scott took home one of them for Best Costume Design. Apart from these occasional moments in the spotlight, costume designers can tend to toil in relative anonymity (unless they decide to wear a Gold Amex dress to the Oscars). As cinephiles, we have our favourite directors and beloved stars, sometimes a favourite editor or cinematographer; few people, other than those concerned with costuming themselves, follow costume designers’ work as intently.
As such, it’s often a surprise to see what an eclectic range of projects a costume designer’s filmography contains. Some highlights from Scott’s career include E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back To The Future (1985), Heat (1995), Minority Report (2002), and Avatar (2009).
In other words, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, “iconic” seems to be par for the course for Scott; GQ Magazine recently included Marty McFly’s orange vest in a how-to-dress-like feature celebrating action movie heroes. “It is the greatest form of ﬂattery!” Scott says of her costumes’ newfound status as real-world style inspiration. “Audiences are suppose to notice and remember a character. When they remember what that character was wearing, that truly is a complement.”
Then again, the average moviegoer probably thinks of “costume design” as involving outlandish or period ensembles. Contemporary films, however, require a similar level of commitment from the designer, if not more. In other words, Michael Mann didn’t simply go on a Heat shopping spree with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for all those snappy suits. “Designing for a contemporary ﬁlm can be very challenging,” Scott says. “Whether you build, borrow or buy, the process is the same. You are helping to create a particular character, that lives in a particular time and place. Ideally, the best relationship [between director and costume designer] is one where the director trusts you to carry out his vision for the ﬁlm, even if he doesn't fully understand clothing.”
Having personally seen Avatar six times at the cinema upon its release, I became intimately familiar with its costumes; one has to, after all, when one plans to dress up as a Na’vi (you’re right, I have no shame). It was quite an effort to piece together an “authentic” Na’vi ensemble, given Avatar was not only set a century in the future, but created almost entirely inside computers.
Given that, not to mention the concern about CGI eventually putting traditional Hollywood artisans out of work, I was intrigued as to how Scott approached the project. “The process can be quite different from one type of ﬁlm to the next,” says Scott, “but as I said before, your main goal is still the same. Creating a real person who lives in a very unique moment in time.”
With such a varied body of work, and more surely to come (of potential future projects, she says, “Of course all designers love period pieces, and I would love to do a movie about a circus!”), in closing I asked Scott if she had a sentimental favourite - and was surprised to find it wasn’t a beaded gown or futuristic space suit, but instead a gaggle of hoodies, jeans, and one very glamorous Halloween outfit. “I think it has to be E.T,” she says. “It was one of my ﬁrst projects and holds a special place in my heart.”