The first time someone asked Ngila Dickson whether she wanted them to vote for “The Last Samurai” or “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” for best achievement in costume design, she was horrified. Because Dickson (whose name is pronounced NIE-la) has been nominated for her contributions to both films, she’s competing against three other costume designers and herself. Still, she never considered making a sort of Sophie’s choice between the two epic movies, which have consumed the last five years of her life, in order to strategize a win. “I’ve told everyone who asks that they should vote for the film they think has the best work in it,” she says.
Dickson, 47, knows her double nomination is the sort of exquisite problem many people in Hollywood would like to have, so she’s hardly complaining. (She shares the “Lord of the Rings” nomination with Richard Taylor, who designed the armor and was responsible for special makeup, creatures and miniatures.) She was also nominated for two Costume Designers Guild awards and received the award for excellence in fantasy-period design for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” at the guild’s banquet last weekend.
Her nominations aren’t unprecedented: In 1998, designer Sandy Powell was nominated for “Velvet Goldmine” and “Shakespeare in Love” and won an Oscar for the latter. But Dickson is aware of the dangers of simultaneous nominations. If she doesn’t get a majority of votes because her admirers are split between the two films, she could go home to New Zealand with only a killer goody bag from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a suitcase full of lovely memories of award season festivities.
“It’s a highly likely scenario,” she says, “and if that happens you just have to say, ‘That’s life, get over it and get on with it.’ I relate it back to the moment at 2:30 in the morning New Zealand time when I found out I had the double nomination. It was, for me and all the people who work with me, the most extraordinary validation of five years of heartache and heartbreak. Winning is a lottery. What isn’t a lottery is to get to be one of those five people who are nominated.” Or to get to be two of those people.
Although her philosophical view of the award competition sounds somewhat like the just-to-be-nominated-is-an-honor cliche, Ed Zwick, who directed “The Last Samurai,” says, “Ngila is the least pretentious person I know. New Zealand is a very modest culture, and she is that way.”
Her modesty doesn’t preclude her being tough, passionate, exacting, even zealous in the pursuit of her art. In order to do films of the immense scale of “Rings” and “Samurai,” a costume designer must have the creativity of an artist plus the organizational skills of a field general. On “The Last Samurai,” Dickson commanded a crew of 80 for 14 months, producing 3,000 exhaustively researched period costumes. Because the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was made more like one long movie than three separate films, she estimates 5,000 Middle-earth costumes were designed and created by the time she stopped counting.
‘Work, work, work’
“For the last five years, it’s been Epics Are Us,” Dickson says. “It’s been work, work, work, with some work on the side. I finished work on the first ‘Lord of the Rings,’ then did another small film and probably had two months off, and then I went into pre-production for ‘The Last Samurai.’ But in the middle of that I went back and did pickups for the second ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Then the shoot of ‘The Last Samurai’ began. At the end of that, I went back to complete the third ‘Lord of the Rings.’
“I get so carried away by the process that at the end of a film I often think I’m superhuman and immediately need to do another job. It’s like being high. You get hooked on the level of stimulation. The words ‘impossible,’ ‘won’t happen,’ ‘can’t do’ are not part of the vocabulary. I say to my crew, ‘Don’t tell me about the problem. Tell me the solution.’
“On ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the energy was so high-octane. We just poured everything we had into it, never letting anyone accept second best as an option if there was another hour before a costume went on the set, even if that costume was only asked for 24 hours before, which was often the case. ‘The Last Samurai’ presented the opportunity to take everything we’d learned on ‘Lord of the Rings’ and apply it in a very concrete way.”
The films have more in common than their grand scope. Because they are both essentially war movies, fashioning elaborate uniforms for earthly and fantasy soldiers was an important part of Dickson’s job. “The Lord of the Rings” creative team considered author J.R.R. Tolkien’s world a parallel reality, not an imaginary place. Thus, representing the invented history of Middle-earth authentically wasn’t dissimilar from creating historically accurate costumes for “The Last Samurai.”
Dickson was seated next to an imposing New Zealand high court judge at a wedding after the first film’s release. “You know, Ngila, I have read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ nine times,” he told her, “and I knew you weren’t going to get Gandolf right.”
Just as she was planning a hasty getaway, he added, “But you did.”
“The thing I’m most proud of in both films is how far we went to make the warrior costumes so real,” she says. The extraordinary level of detail can be seen up close at the gallery of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown L.A., where a selection of costumes created by each nominated designer is included in an annual exhibition of the art of motion picture costume design. The costumes will be on view until April 8.
Kevin Jones, fashion historian and curator of the museum’s costume collection, found the complexity of Dickson’s creations unusual. “I’ve never come across costumes with so many layers,” he says. “Some of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ costumes have 25 parts to them, and the actors had to get into them in a very specific way. Many of the amazing details don’t even show on film, but the people who were building her costumes were obviously dedicated to making their movie as astounding as possible. There’s inlaid leather in many of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ warrior costumes that an audience would never see, but I’m sure it helped the actors feel in character. We needed an expert to help us dress our mannequins properly in the Samurai outfits, because they’re so elaborate.”
Dickson got her start as a clothing designer, then started a fashion magazine and did styling for commercials and music videos. Nearly five years designing costumes for the syndicated series “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Hercules” served as her rough-and-ready postgraduate school, New Zealand-style. The shows were shot on alternate 10-day turnarounds, and as many as 100 costumes were required for an episode. A foreigner on location in New Zealand might have been frustrated by the lack of resources. Dickson is used to that and even sees a positive side. “You know you’ll make every single thing from scratch,” she says. “In a sense, that gives you an enormous amount of control.”
When Zwick was looking for a designer to re-create the look of late 19th century Japan, he’d seen the first “Lord of the Rings.” Part of his movie was shot in New Zealand, where Dickson, who’s been designing costumes for 15 years, would be most filmmakers’ first choice. “Until ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ she hadn’t attempted anything on the scale of either of these movies,” he says. “It’s often true that people who are able to do work on the level that Ngila is may have always had the ability, they just needed the opportunity. Because of the work of hers I’d seen, I knew she was talented and responsible. But I couldn’t possibly have known the nature of her spirit or the real joy she takes in the process. She is genuinely an artist.”
The Fashion Institute’s Jones confirms that Dickson has ascended to the top ranks of costume designers internationally. “She’s moved into that star realm, but she’s also helped put New Zealand on the map for filmmakers,” he says.
Nothing pleases her more. “I never would have imagined I would be in this position. It’s fabulous to see the industry in New Zealand recognized on this level. It makes me so happy for my team, because the core of my crew is a great, talented bunch of Kiwis.”