Interview with Costume Designer Penny Rose

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British-born Penny Rose is one of Hollywood’s most sought after costume designers and has credits ranging from Evita to Shadowlands and Mission: Impossible. Her costumes for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl won her particular praise from critics – and sparked a craze for all things pirate on the fashion runways – and, like cast members Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, as well as many other crew members, Rose is back for the sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Picking up where the last film left off, the curse of the Black Pearl has been lifted, but now an even more terrifying threat looms over its captain and his crew: it turns out that Captain Jack owes a blood debt to the legendary Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), Ruler of the Ocean Depths, who captains the ghostly Flying Dutchman. With Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) postponing their wedding to come along for the ride, the scene is set for another action-packed adventure involving cannibals, a mysterious soothsayer and the unexpected appearance of Will’s long-lost father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). Rose talked to us from England about why she bans zips from the set and why a cheese grater can sometimes be a costume designer’s best friend.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was a huge success. Did you anticipate that?
Well, just being up close on set and seeing what Johnny Depp was doing with the character of Captain Jack, being privy to all the adlibs and the asides, the crew thought it was hilarious. So we knew it was something special.

What’s different about Dead Man’s Chest?
Well, if you thought the CGI in The Curse of the Black Pearl was impressive, wait until you see the second film. I think this film’s more complex as well. In the first film we introduced Captain Jack and Will and Elizabeth and now all the characters have matured and gone off in rather impressive new directions. Will is no longer a blacksmith; he’s a bit of a hotshot. And Elizabeth is far more involved in the piracy side of things.

Does Captain Jack have a new look?
No, we all thought about it decided that Captain Jack is an icon so Johnny’s wearing exactly the same thing as last time. To begin with I was gung ho about giving him some variation but everyone else, including Johnny, was adamant. Does Mickey Mouse change his clothes? I don’t think so.

And what about Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom?
We don’t bother with cleavage any more. But Keira’s got several different pirate get-ups. Basically she’s wearing boys’ clothes but she’s still dead glamorous. As for Orlando, he’s got a very distinctive new look. He’s taking on the mantle of a pirate and he has a real swashbuckling flavor to him.

And the new characters?
There’s a soothsayer type of character and lots of cannibals. They were fun. And Bill Nighy plays Davy Jones, who’s sort of king of the ocean, and Stellan Skarsgard plays Bootstrap Bill, Will’s long lost father. Bootstrap Bill was to have been semi-CGI, but he ended up so impressive that he’s real all the way through the film. Davy Jones is a CGI character, though I did make a costume for Bill Nighy – not that he wore it, but just so he knew what he was supposed to look like.

Does working on a sequel make your job any easier?
You’ve set the template with the first film, so that’s helpful, but what’s great is that you all become like some sort of giant repertory company for the second film. I called Orlando on the set of Elizabethtown and told him my ideas for the new film, he said Yes, that sounds great Pen, and he came in for a fitting a month or two later, gave me a hearty kiss on the cheek and off he went. Couldn’t be easier. And I don’t even bother to fit Jonathan Pryce [Governor Swann] any more. I tell him what I’ve done and he’ll say, Ok. I hope it fits, and it always does.

You’re costumes are completely true to the period aren’t they?
When [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer gave me the job he asked me how I would do it and I said, I can only do it one way and that’s real and if you want an operatic feel, a comic feel, something with the flavor of a different period added in, you need someone else. I think that if you’re going to do a satirical piece or have fun with the period you’ve chosen, you’re still better off to start with an authentic setting, authentic costumes and so on, and let the performances have the chance to bounce off that. Also, although I suspect that 75% of the audience has no idea of what 1720 looks like, I think it would be insulting to just assume they don’t know and that you can get away with anything.

So how much do we know about how pirates really dressed?
There’s a lot of research, but you do have to differentiate Spanish pirates from American pirates and Caribbean pirates and so on. Still it boils down to a basic shape, which is a square cut frock coat, with a high pocket and a low pocket and with a lapel or no lapel, and with a big cuff or a small cuff. So the variations are pretty small. Where you get some leeway as a designer is with the choice of trim, buttons, and fabric. By the way, I spend more time on wrecking the clothes, making them look old and worn, than on actually making them in the first place. I have a cheese grater to hand at all times.

Presumably pirates would steal clothes from their victims?
Say they were a toff and had taken to the drink and become a pirate, they might have some tragic old garment that was once good, but, yes, mainly it’s swag, which is a fantastic thing for a costume designer because that being so, the clothes don’t have to fit perfectly.

How about the bits of the costumes that we don’t see, the linings, the fasteners? Are they true to the period or do you use a zip now and then?
What a thing to say [laughs]! All the clothes are made exactly as they would have been made in the 18th century with all the details absolutely correct. I think it’s essential, I think it helps the actors. No zips!

And that applies to every costume? Even for the extras?
I suppose I could go off to a fancy dress wholesaler and buy lots of silly hats, but I don’t. I see every single costume and make changes until I think it’s just right. Someone may be an extra, but they may also end up standing next to Johnny Depp and so I want it 100% perfect.

What’s the worst cliché in pirate clothing do you think?
The eye patch and the big billowy shirts a la Errol Flynn. The shirts are full but they’re not really that full because they have to get under those fitted coats.

Are the clothes comfortable?
What’s funny is that the governor and all the rich and aristocratic people on any of the Caribbean islands would have worn silk and rich fabrics and stockings and wigs no matter how hot it might be. And that can be hard on the actors. Linens and Hessians and hemp were for the lower orders and they are so much cooler.

What’s the highlight of your job?
I don’t think anyone really has the first idea, or even cares, what costume designers really do, apart from the actors. The key moment for a costume designer is about the actor in front of the mirror and both of you being hell-bent on the same thing: helping them find a character. It can be the colour, the shape, something as simple as giving an actor a pair of shoes which is one size too large, which is what I did with Stellan on Dead Man’s Chest. I said, You can’t wear those, you’ll get blisters, but he used it as a way to work out how his character was going to walk. Stellan is very inventive by the way. I gave him an ankle length coat, just to see if the shape was good, and he ran off and came back with two lemons in the shoulders of the jacket. Bootstrap Bill has lived under the sea for ten years and it helped get this hunched look he has.

Do you prefer doing period pieces or films set in the present day?
On modern films it can be a nightmare because all the boys want to wear a black leather jacket and all the girls want to wear Dolce and Gabbana [laughs]. And it’s very hard to say, With those legs, I don’t think you should be wearing a mini.

How about crowd scenes? Are they hard work?
On Pirates? Honestly? A piece of cake. We had 200 or 300 hundred extras for a scene with the pirates and the cannibals, but when I did King Arthur I had 750 people virtually every day. On Evita more than 3000 some days. That said, you need great organizational skills and fortunately I have the most phenomenal costume supervisor who is in the film business by mistake — he should have been a regimental sergeant major. He can get 300 people ready in a hour. Yet every costume has seven or eight elements and everywhere you go you have a new set of extras who have never been in a film before and they have no idea how to do up their britches or button up their waistcoats.

By the time the third Pirates of the Caribbean film is out you will have been working on the films for nearly five years. How will you look back on the experience?
Well, [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer is kind, incredibly approachable and very interested in the visual side of things. [Director] Gore Verbinski has more energy than anyone on earth and he always knows what he wants. I’ll show him a drawing and he’ll say, She should look like she’s got maggots in her hair and all her teeth have fallen out. I love that decisiveness. And the cast is just great. Like I said, we’ve become like this little repertory company.

And shooting in the Caribbean?
Shooting in the Caribbean was just heavenly bliss. I love the islands, especially St. Vincent, and all the local people. In fact, I used loads of local help, wonderful seamstresses in St Vincent, Dominica and the Bahamas. They were completely inexperienced in the field but very talented and enthusiastic. Most of them had only ever made wedding dresses before, but they took to making pirate clothes in no time.