Designer Julian Day’s creativity shines in the flamboyant costumes he designed for Paramount’s “Rocketman,” a musical fantasy biopic of rock icon Elton John, himself a rather flamboyant wearer of creative costumes.
Day had roughly half the budget of his previous film (the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”) and designed well over 80 costumes for the John character (Taron Egerton) alone, among a big cast.
Far from a diva control freak, John took a more relaxed approach, he says: “What’s great about him, he’s a perfectionist about his music and what he does,” Day says, “but I think he realized early on you just have to let people get on and do their jobs. David [Furnish, John’s husband and a film co-producer] viewed footage, and I’m sure if [Elton] wasn’t happy, he would have said so. I think we were very lucky in that respect, his letting us get on with it and trusting us. I had a lot of license to create with.”
On my second “Rocketman” viewing I noticed how the film’s color palette significantly alters between John’s British vs. American life. The British colors of teal, gold, cranberry are softer, more subdued vs. the brighter red, orange, yellow primary colors in the U.S. Why?
I’m glad you noticed that. It’s a three-prong attack in terms of color choice. First, I look at the year or period and take colors from those eras. With Elton, as his wealth increases, the colors became more obvious and primary. Also, as you say, it’s Britain vs. America, and there’s simply more light and color in America. If you contrast Britain in the ’50s and ’60s with Los Angeles in the late ’70s and ’80s, this is what you’d see.
You had to please the audience, the studio and the director on this film, but also John himself. For you, was he the most important person in that equation?
Yes, ultimately, the most important person to make happy was Elton. There’s no point in doing something if he watched the film and went, “Well, I never looked like that” or “I don’t like this.” To me, what’s the point of doing it?
(Elton) came to the studio and I did a show-and-tell, but he pretty much didn’t get involved. He actually sent me a handwritten letter and said how much he enjoyed the costumes and thought they were incredible and wished me luck in any possible potential awards. So, that was very nice.
In terms of costume on this film I assume it’s not just “more is good but more plus more is best”?
Yes. This was one of those films where I broke my own rule that the costumes should not ever overtake the actual story. I was allowed to break my rule, which was fun. Sometimes the costumes were larger than they might have been, but this was cast as a musical fantasy. I think the louder the costume, the more they wanted it in the film.
I understand you did research at John’s personal archive in London. What was that experience like?
It’s basically a massive warehouse in West London, with two big rooms that hold all his stagewear. A lot has been auctioned off for charity, but let’s just say there’s still a lot there. The guy loves shopping. I saw a lot of iconic pieces: the Donald Duck outfit, the Dodger suit. It’s all catalogued and photographed, with shoes and hats. The glasses are kept somewhere else.
John’s Dodger Stadium outfit — the one originally designed by Bob Mackie — why did you choose to alter the piece when you reproduced it?
As far as reproducing, it’s more fun designing it yourself. So I wanted to change it up a bit: I thought, how can I amp it up? I wanted to make a crystal suit, and so used 250K [Swarovski crystals]. It was really complicated putting it together, and we only completed it a day or two before shooting, with Taron quite physical in those scenes. That was a bit nerve-racking on those days.
Was the hot-orange devil suit with the feathers and horned cap your own fantasy?
Yes, absolutely. That outfit was pure fantasy; it came completely out of my head. I had a dream and then created it, and it was the first actual outfit I designed for the whole film. The devil suit was such an important costume since it had to be in the film so much and at such key moments. It turns out Elton had worn (a devil’s outfit), but it was so different I honestly didn’t realize it until David Furnish pointed it out to me three-fourths of the way through filming. It worked out quite well.
The “Yellow Brick Road” costume was delightful …
[Director] Dexter [Fletcher] told me Elton’s going to sing “Yellow Brick Road,” so I pulled the outfit together with something from every (“Wizard of Oz”) character: He’s got the faux-fur lion’s coat, the straw hat, the Tin Man shirt. The blue fabric was Dorothy’s blue. The color of red crystal on the shoes and the jacket lapel are the same color used for the original ruby slippers.
His patched denim jacket was quite cool, especially for anyone from that era.
The denim jacket was really good fun. I’d found an old ’70s denim jacket and had it remade and got all the patches and had them put on — though they’re different from the ones Elton had. It’s funny, so many people like that jacket. Someone tagged me on Instagram having re-created it with all the original patches; someone else designed it for a pet cat (laughs). I think the original jacket was sewn by a band member’s girlfriend.
Originally, the one thing that Taron really wanted from the film was the denim jacket. I made sure that Paramount sent it to him. I think he wore it to the world premiere.
John seems to use costume as character in a different way than other similar-era music icons such as Elvis and David Bowie. Would you agree?
I heard once he said he’d put on his costume 20 to 30 minutes before a show and then he’d become Elton John, the performer. The other musicians you mentioned seemed to express their real inner selves more. If you look at some of the stuff he wore, it was almost that he hid behind it. This character, I think he’s shy but also very extroverted. It’s quite fascinating. But at the end of the day I think Elton just likes dressing up, to be honest with you.