Badgers, horses, bears, hooded monks all served as inspiration for the costuming on Innaritu’s The Revenant. Costume designer Jacqueline West sat down with me to talk about how a trip to Italy inspired some of her unique designs for the film.
AD: The look in The Revenant is perfect. Talk to me about how you captured the look for that.
JW: It was a long process. It started with my very first conversation with Alejandro almost two years ago. I was in Italy and the first two images I sent to [him] he loved and when I got back to Los Angeles they were on his wall already. One was an Arikara hunter-trapper for the Arikaran Nation and it was a Bodmer painting and he had a hood on. There was something quite almost monastical about him and I think that really sang to Alejandro. The other image I sent him was an icon of a monk. Again, hooded and I think for Alejandro the idea of the spirituality and metaphysical idea that Glass was out in the wilderness for a different reason. It wasn’t monetary or mercenary like some of the other trappers, i.e. Fitzgerald. It was much more that he was looking for answers and he was looking for them in nature. His living with the Native Americans who have a whole different idea of animals and nature and he was guiding trappers that were actually trapping what the natives called Brother Beaver because they lived in such harmony with nature as they felt they lived it was the same harmony. You feel Glass feels all that and you feel that sympathy for a life that is crumbling and being eradicated and he has an almost St. Francis Assisi relationship with animals, you feel he’s in harmony and that he and animals are using each other to survive. Surviving together was the poetry of the bearskin on Glass, the thing that almost takes his life to protect it’s children then saves him in the end and that bearskin became like almost a symbol of man and animal both succumbing to the real victor which is nature always.
AD: I love that and actually noticed that.
JW: It’s like it’s almost embracing him and taking care of him. Don’t you kind of feel that in the way it wraps him, like the horse. He doesn’t sacrifice the horse, but in riding over the cliff the horse dies and then saves him. He’s kind of reborn after that moment when he emerges from the horse bloodied like a newborn baby. It’s almost a rebirth for Glass. And the way he touches the horse, he as a real commune with that horse.
AD: Where did you look for the costumes? Were they all made from scratch?
JW: We made everything from scratch because we needed so many. In the whole storyline so much happens to those costumes. With nature being the great ego stripper, they all get decomposed and reconstructed and then layered for the cold and the trappers get more animal-like. Glass’s costume totally disassembles and then it’s kind of reassembled with what he finds. I think he had 20 versions before he gets to the fort — of different levels or reconstruction. You know, the wet ones, the bloody ones, and the ones that have been stitched together and the ones that haven’t been stitched together, the pre-bear attack. There were so many versions and we made everything and everything was hand-stitched. It was an undertaking and it took an army. And then the aging crew was another army just to get all those levels of patina and that grease. I read that in 40 Years a Fur Trapper that when the men got off the kill boats in St. Louis, Missouri after two years out trapping that you couldn’t tell what fabric they were wearing because it was so caked with bear grease.
AD: So how many bearskins did you use by the end of that?
JW: I think, we had the hero that Leo wore and then we had some replicas that weren’t grizzlies just for water work.
AD: What did Alejandro say to you when he was looking at the costumes and you’re working together? What was his vision?
JW: The great thing about Alejandro, whom I love working with, is he’s a true artist and I have a lot of friends who are artists. He reacts very viscerally to things. He will walk up and down in front of a character and study him and study him. For Alejandro, it’s all about the philosophy of the character. There aren’t photographs of these trappers. Bridger, Fitzgerald, and Glass were all real people, but [Alejandro] doesn’t care so much about the actual accuracy because we don’t really know, except for written descriptions, what they wore and what they looked like. He cares about if the costume conveys the emotion and the philosophy of that character that he’s looking for.
It’s all feeling with Alejandro. He gets a real visceral reaction and if I’m not there, I know it because his body language lets you know if it’s not quite there yet. Then he’s very articulate about what’s missing or what he feels. We get a lot of this via pictures and drawings late at night after he’s off set so we’ll go back and forth and discuss each character and all the elements of the costume. I gave each of the trappers backstories and we kind of know the backstories of the different tribes so I tried to make all them look different based on what had happened to them and what the sequence was, how much [the natives] traded with the white men, how much they warred among each other, what they would have and who traded more with the French or the Americans. So what would be incorporated into their wardrobe is historical and the Museum of the Fur Trade was an incredible help.
As far as Alejandro, I would make a backstory for the character and then give him an animal that was almost like a talisman. It would be incorporated into their wardrobe to be almost subliminal for the audience to know who that character was. For Jim Bridger, who became a famous mountain man, I gave him a buffalo to represent the Great Plains so he wears that inside out buffalo coat through most of the movie. For Fitzgerald, I made the badger his talisman because the badger knows how to navigate through the world and survive. He’s got a whole badger on his head with the little whiskers which also made him look a little sinister. A badger isn’t sinister and neither is Fitzgerald really, he’s a great character who’s neither good nor evil, he’s both. He’s very human and just trying to survive and get by and becomes also a victim of his own need to do that.
Of course, for Glass, his fur coat is beaver because he’s out there setting traps with the rest of them. Trappers pretty much decimated the whole beaver population of America to satisfy demand for the beaver top hat that was all the rage on the East Coast, England, and France. In those 21 years we almost wiped out the beaver and then it went out of style and the beaver made a comeback so I thought beaver was good for Glass for his opening hood. Then, I just incorporated any animals he might have found along the way into the seams of his clothes to keep him warm. That’s how all of that kind of evolved. He becomes more monk like as he proceeds to the final cat-and-mouse fight between him and Fitzgerald and I gave him that cape that’s almost Capuchin and symbolic for the church imagery that’s in the film. Then, the trappers all became more animal like as they proceeded to the fort and lived at the fort.
AD: That is fascinating.
JW: There’s a lot of symbolism, which Alejandro loves. I mean, you can see it in all the dream sequences of the movie with the crumbling of the church and tribes and the devastation and he portrays that all so beautifully and it’s a lot of symbolism.
AD: What were some of your favorite pieces?
JW: My favorite piece? I have so many! I think one of the most powerful, powerful scenes of the movie is the scene with the horse. I have a ranch and I have a horse and I was obsessed with that horse because it was one of the most fabulous horses I had ever seen. Just the coloring of the white and brown in the snow and his relationship with that horse, how he touches it when he walks away form it. Just the whole excruciating thing of that fall and the horse dying.
AD: I never saw it that way. How fascinating.
JW: It was really like birth when he crawls out of it. He goes in with devastation and comes out with some strength and power. It was like, at that moment, a phoenix out of the ashes. He rises out of the horse. He’s also like a baby coming out because he’s all bloody and caked with all the innards of the horse. There’s something so spiritual about that to me.
AD: You’ve totally opened my eyes and made me want to see the film again with all these metaphors and symbolism.
JW: I also love the last scene of the natives as they travel past him and he make eye contact with Powaqa. Just the beauty and the sadness of that scene where the whole story of the Native Americans is in that one scene. That last scene with the natives just kind of embodies everything that happened to them and that will happen to them. Knowing that Glass was not their enemy and that’s a resolve, that you know they know he saved the chief’s daughter, but it’s the beginning of the end for his people.
I think with all of Alejandro’s movies you just have to let go and let the movie take you. They’re more of an experience; it’s not like watching a movie, you’re pulled into this metaphysical experience.
AD: You’ve given me it from your perspective and your journey of being involved with the film. It’s beautiful and thank you so much for your time, Jacqueline.
JW: Oh, you’re so welcome!