Michael Wilkinson has over 37 costume design credits to his name. His work on David O’ Russell’s American Hustle earned him an Oscar nomination. His latest work can be seen in A Current War, a film about Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) in a battle for the control of America’s electrical grid.
As a costume designer, Wilkinson went from working on Disney’s Aladdin, a world filled with silk and vibrant colors to a world pre-electricity. Working in little to low light, Wilkinson said he often camera-tested his work. “I quickly discovered that all of the colors and textures had to be exaggerated beyond what one would normally do.” He also looked at old films to help get a better sense of textures. “I studied a lot of early cinematography in black-and-white films because the costume designers back then were restricted in color, so they were masters of the strong silhouette, and they’d have the tiny differentiation in textures; furs, wools, and silks and how they were lit differently.”
I spoke to Wilkinson about creating the costumes behind A Current War. Read our chat below:
Was there a movie that struck you early on that made you say, “I want to do that?”
I think when I saw The Piano, the Jane Campion film, I think I grasped the expressive possibilities of costumes. It was a real eye-opener for me. I don’t know if you remember, the costumes tell you so much about the characters; the colors, the fit of the clothes, and all the tiny unexpected details. I remember being blown away by it all and it was a real awakening for me.
Talk about diverse, you went into ballet and then went into costume design for that. You’re designing for an entire company so how did that prepare you and how did you wind up there?
I did a degree in costume design. The first five years after I graduated, I was working in theater, dance and opera, so it was a really great education in period clothes and how to use clothes to tell the big stories of theater and opera. I learned how to express the themes of these big shows using clothes. I think there’s also the importance of bold gestures because in theater you really have to make the details read from the back row. I remember my lecturer at my design school said, “Fortune favors the bold” so there was this really strong sense instilled into me about not being shy with my ideas, to follow through and take some risks. That was all part of my experience in theater.
For A Current War, how did you approach that because you’re dealing with low lighting and not much color.
Rather than recreate historical events, the film wanted to explore what it’s like to be human; obsession, a different approach to living. It wasn’t really a historical recreation and that’s what appealed to me when I met the director, we wanted to tell a modern story. When you think about the relevance to today, in Silicon Valley you have these 30-year-old geniuses who have so much useful energy in this competitive world of innovation. They’re creating worlds we didn’t even know we needed and that’s kind of what this film is about. We wanted it to feel really modern and my role was to make the clothes relatable, readable, and expressive.
I studied a lot of films and studied Michael Powell, Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, and Jane Campion. I also looked at painters such as Whistler and Sargent. They spoke to me because there’s such a strong narrative in their paintings with bold gestures, and it’s what they leave out that tells a lot. They gave me clues on how to approach the clothes on the film.
There’s a scene where Benedict’s character is bathed in red and there are scenes that are so dimly lit. How do you approach that as a costume designer?
The film is all about light and most of it was pre-electric. It was very dark. I quickly discovered that all of the colors and textures had to be exaggerated beyond what one would normally do. I built the costumes and we camera tested them in a dark environment. I worked with a cinematographer to recreate the proposed lighting for the film, and we learned a lot about what was too much or too little. It was a little bit like learning design again because you’re in a completely different environment. That was really fascinating for me because things you thought you’d really have to push, read quite well, and other things were way too much, I’d have to dial back.
My love is with how things like colors, textures and silhouettes tell you about characters. Having to reassess that in different lighting environments was really fascinating.
I loved the textures and how they stood out. How did you use them to distinguish between the characters? You see the details and differences between the costumes.
I studied a lot of early cinematography in black-and-white films because the costume designers were restricted in color, so they were masters of the strong silhouette and they’d have the tiny differentiation in textures; furs, wools, and silks and how they were lit differently. There would be different patterns used for different accents. So, when we look at the characters in the film, you had contrasting characters. You had the unscrupulous, megalomaniac Thomas Edison. You had the classic introvert in Westinghouse and he was more dignified. The way the script was set up really allowed me to explore the duality. With Edison, he lived in a world of black and white with great proclamations and soundbites. He was one of the pioneers of creating a brand out of himself and selling it to the world. We read about how he liked to play the role of mad professor that the world wanted him to be. It was an appearance of not caring, but it was rather considered and self-conscious. It was a styled thing.
With Westinghouse, it was all about him being selfless and leaving behind something to improve the lives of his fellow humans. His colors had a richness and warmth. The costumes had to show his wealth and his privilege and his sense of refined aesthetics.
The duality and the extreme of these two personalities caused me to go in two different directions.
I did love it when you used color. I loved it when you used it with Tesla in that scene that says, “We’ll never hear that name again.” I was in hysterics.
One of the great lines in the film.
I liked it because you could see the play of color.
Tesla was the third corner of the triangle when you think of the three different men and different archetypes. He was a cerebral type. He was extremely eccentric and idiosyncratic and had that way of dressing. When you read about him, he was painfully refined and sensitive to details. He had a fear of pearls. He had a hatred of asymmetrical and anything that wasn’t straight. He had 47 different colored gloves that would co-ordinate with his 75 different colored neckties. He had 72 different pairs of socks in silks and colors. He was obviously affected by the visual world around him. Working with Nicholas Hoult and developing this character and working on our interpretation of him was a really wonderful experience.
I also loved the use of the women and their costumes and corsets used for time.
I think the women play such an important role in the costume because that’s how we showed the passing of the time. The clothes of Victorian men didn’t change all that much. We go from 1879 to 1895 and at that time you have such a massive shift of silhouette. You had the rise and the fall of the bustle. You had the ballooning of the sleeve. Whenever you see the women in the film, it gave you a sense of the timeline developing. With the two principal women, MArgeurite and Mary, they are from such different worlds and I made their costumes from scratch. I thought it was really important to give a really specific look to the women. With Margerite, you have a very cosmopolitan woman and a woman with a lot of resources. She is well-traveled and has a lot of clothes. The real Marguerite ordered from Paris every season and I had fun exploring extravagant fabrics with her.
With Mary, she was much more down to earth. Her costumes are made of solid cotton and sturdy silks which speak to her no-nonsense character.
Let’s do this as you have such a solid IMDb resumé of great films. I’ll say a film and you tell me what first comes to mind:
I think the term I’ll say for that is, “hands on.” It was all hands on deck. We were making costumes right up until they shouted, “Rolling.” Things were made using hot glue and coat hangers. It was a wonderful Imaginarium of crazy ideas.
“Comfort zone” is an interesting thing to talk about with American Hustle because as a designer, as a collaborator, David is all about getting people out of their comfort zone and really pushing them into new territory of creative exploration. I think he really enjoys that raw vulnerable space when you’re going out there and trying something new and going out on a limb. It applies to his actors, his cinematographers, and designers. It’s all about pushing things and trying things.
I think I’d have to say “color.” I had Derek Jarman’s words in mind with that: “He who lives without color is afraid of the world.” I thought I’d embrace color and have fun. I’d look at a nation renowned for colors and be inspired by the traditional Disney world of vibrancy and that wonderful positivity when you get from watching their classic animations. When you combine that classic sense of color with this love letter to Arabic culture, the color combinations and patterns are explored, it was a sense of joy for me. We sourced fabrics from Morroco, India, and Turkey. It was a wonderful joy of design experience.