Interview: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood of “Into the Woods”

Posted on March 23, 2015 at 3:24 pm

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

Stephen Sondheim’s dark take on fairy tales, Into the Woods, out on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine, but equally important is the contribution from another superstar, three-time Oscar winning costume designer Colleen Atwood. I am a huge fan of her work and loved talking to her, but the most exciting part was when she got off the call for a moment to tell someone to “try the other pair of shoes,” and I got to imagine an actress all decked out in a fabulous costume, as Ms. Atwood presided over the finishing touches.

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

“If you know it’s Sondheim, you know it’s not going to be what anyone expects,” she said, “maybe a sideways look at the fairy tale. You see what’s behind the fairy tale, which is what makes it a unique experience.” She loves working with Meryl Streep, who plays the witch in the film and transforms from a hag to a beauty. “When she is the Dark Witch, her costume is a collapsed version of the big blue witch, which was her ideal of beauty and loveliness. I wanted to do two things with her costume. I wanted to tie her in with the trees, the way the bark is tortured and gnarled. So I used strips of really fine leather applied on chiffon and twisted it the way tree bark grows in twisted formations, and used the same technique on the blue dress even though it’s three times bigger and with different materials, satin ribbons and things, used the same shape but applied it on a different way.”

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

For Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf, she took his suggestion. “I wanted a wolf that wasn’t all fur, and the original idea for the vibe of the costume as a zoot suit came from Johnny’s take on the music.  He wanted a kind of Tex Avery wolf so I took a zoot suit approach to the shape of the costume and then I drew wolf fur on it and had all that embroidered.  Then instead of fur for the collar and tail I used a thread-tying technique that used to be used for wig-making in the 1920’s for flapper wigs.  I’ve always thought it was an amazing thing.  It was sort of a weird combination of 20’s and 30’s coming together.  Johnny has a lot of panache, that’s for sure.”

Atwood is famous for creating and adapting her own textiles, so I asked her if she had done that for this film.  “Absolutely,” she said. “There’s so much craft in this film, probably the most amount of craft I’ve done in a movie.”  Because most characters only had one or two costumes, she had the chance to use hand embroidery and a lot of textile technique and combining of textiles “to get the kind of woodcut effect I wanted.”

She especially enjoyed working with the prince characters. “I thought they should be sexy and romantic, but they should also be bad boys — which is very attractive!  So I took the element of the biker bad boy with Billy Magnuson’s character, the prince who loves Rapunzel, and took the almost-but-not-quite Elvis approach with Chris Pine, who plays the prince who loves Cinderella.  And they were both so funny they both took it to another level. Usually, it’s the girls you’re having all the fun with but it was a hoot to do these prince costumes.”

Copyright Disney Studios 2014
Copyright Disney Studios 2014

 

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