In "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's new 3-D film based on Brian Selznick's bestselling "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," London-based costume designer Sandy Powell helps create the storybook image of an orphan boy (played by Asa Butterfield) living inside a Parisian train station in the early 1930s. Her awards are many (she's won three Oscars in nine nominations — her second was with Scorsese for 2004's "The Aviator"), and she's a favored Scorsese collaborator ("Shutter Island," "The Gangs of New York"). A skilled period film designer, Powell seamlessly blends in today's runway zeitgeist of the 1920s into the "Hugo" scene.
How did Hugo's colorful striped sweater and young boy pants come about?
For him, I started off by pulling various pieces from the rental companies, some vintage things, and I just kept putting ideas on him to see what worked style-wise and proportion-wise; and then I built from scratch, basically. The striped sweater was originally a natty old vintage sweater we found, which I then copied several times, as the sweater is one of the key things you notice on him, and it had to be in perfect shape. One thing I never factored into the mix is growth; you know, from beginning to end, these younger types grow. So we made it over and over again, many times.
What about the uniform for Sacha Baron Cohen's Lieutenant?
This I designed from scratch. It was researched. We looked at the real uniforms that the inspectors and the railway station staff would have worn in a French train station at the time, but if we used that color to be historically accurate it would have been a navy blue, which would have come out looking black in the film. I thought that wasn't going to be dramatic enough. In the book, interestingly, he's described as wearing green, but I didn't want to make it green either, as it would come out much darker as well. We tested various shades of blue-green, green-blue, many bluey-greeny-blue shades, that sort of fun search, until I came out with this one, just because it looked like it's believable for a uniform and it also was a strong, vibrant color.
And I sort of adapted the look of an actual station inspector and made it more military because Sacha's character had a back story of being ex-military and still being very military-minded, hence the brass and the epaulets and the whole military feel. I worked very closely with him on designing it and coming up with the whole thing. The hat's actually more of a gendarme hat, and I just exaggerated the proportions; it was made up.
Were the costumes in the movies within the movie — those early films from Georges Méliès —all based on real images or more fantasy?
Let's say I did it "in the style of Méliès." I had the original films and photographs from the film, and then I tried to re-create them. The images were very blurry, so I did what I thought worked; I made some up based on the originals and did some of my own.… In fact, some of my wardrobe staff made costumes for themselves and ended up being on the set as extras in those ["Kingdom of the Fairies" sequences]. They all loved it.
You did seem to have hordes of extras in the train station milling to and fro …
There were literally over 1,000 costumes, so it took us a long time. We contracted costume rental companies, and we actually did a lot of buying, we sort of scoured markets and secondhand stores both in London where it was filmed and also in Paris; there are great flea markets there. And then we were filming so long, some of the extras were wearing the same clothing for weeks on end, and a lot of the original vintage pieces actually ended up falling apart, disintegrating.
In your own process, when you first read a script, do you quickly start imagining the final vision — or does it grow more organically for you during the preparation process?
It depends on the script. If the script's really good, of course, you start having a vision and imagining things, but then you start doing your research and you have real-time people and things to compare it to, like the Méliès films. But, yes, my mind starts going immediately, I start visualizing immediately. I might not visualize it exact, or very specific costumes, but I might get a feel for characters or an idea for color or texture....
What do you think it is about Paris in the 1930s that holds Hollywood's attention so?
People keep talking about the 1930s, but here in this film we were in 1931 and it's a transitional period, really. What happened in 1931 is that it still looks like the 1920s. I'm a stickler for these kinds of things. And it's not until later in the 1930s that you can go back and see the actual '30s. But having said that, the 1920s obviously had an air of mysticism, there's just something very romantic about Paris in the '20s and always will be. It's after the war and before the next one. It's always going to look good.
Yes, and we have Paris in the eyes of an orphaned child living inside a world of magic.
Exactly. What happened with the set design and the costumes and the way it was shot is that it's a slightly heightened version; it's a storybook version of the '20s and '30s. You have to look and see everything through the eyes of a child and a child's point of view. Even when they look out over Paris and see the Eiffel Tower, it looks almost like a painting rather than the absolute real thing. It's a storybook. A lovely storybook.