'The Illusionist's' costume magic

There's always a touch of alchemy in the making of a film. But in Neil Burger's The Illusionist," there may be a bit more than usual.

Burger, who just received an Independent Spirit nomination for his screenplay (based on Steven Millhauser's short story), admits he got lucky when Oscar-winning costume designer Ngila Dickson agreed to work on his film.

"Ngila is incredible," says Burger. "She knew that I wanted to be true to turn-of-the-century Vienna, but not be a slave to it. The film is more about an uncanny mystery and a magical experience. She understood that this was not a period film about manners like Merchant Ivory. It's a film about truth and illusion, faith and reason, and ultimately about perception and discovering something incomprehensible."

Audiences may be oh, just slightly familiar with Dickson's award winning work on insignificant little films such as Peter Jackson's entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Ed Zwick's "The Last Samurai" and his latest action epic "Blood Diamond."

The costumer, speaking from Australia, talked about the challenges of "The Illusionist" time period. "The first thing I said to Neil was "Please, can we move it seven years forward or seven years backwards?"

Seems that while a turbulent time of upheaval in the worlds of science, art, politics and culture, 1900 was not a peak fashion moment.

"It was like the early '80s of our own time," says Dickson. "Women's clothing was rigid, simply not flattering. It was all big dresses, fussy bows and flat bun hairdos. But because the story is about a woman who longs to be free, who is confined by this society and then meets the man who can set her free, the clothing worked well in portraying her predicament."

Dickson had her work cut out recreating the royal uniforms of the time for Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and hundreds of extras. Not to mention dressing Oscar-nominee Edward Norton as magician Eisenheim in a completely non-magician style and outfitting Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti who plays Chief Inspector Uhl, a kind of turn-of-the-century Columbo.

But Dickson says it definitely wasn't difficult to dress the lovely Jessica Biel, who plays Sophie von Teschen, the Prince's fiancé, who manages to make even 1900 frocks look hot.

One of Dickson's favorite gowns is the one Biel wears in the ball scene in the castle, which also involves a rather Arthurian sword-trick. "That gown epitomized the era of ugly extravagance."

Another favorite is the dress Jessica's character wears when she first walks on Eisenheim's stage. "We had found bits of antique lace and managed to get it all back together. But it was so delicately done that there could be no breathing."

Designing the diaphanous dress Beal wore during the mesmerist's séance scenes, Dickson created a ghostly aura with a dress that was reminiscent of the one she wore on the day she was murdered but was of a thinner, filmy fabric.

Shooting in Prague in the winter also added mystery to the movie making. Dickson recalls being given access to the Prague Costume Museum, which overlooked the eerily beautiful Jewish cemetery with its jagged stone teeth tombstones all piled on top of each other.

"At late night or early morning, the cobblestone streets – even the one on the Charles Bridge - were totally deserted. It's a city so full of ghosts and getting to shoot there was absolutely magical. But thank God for my Ugg boots!"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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