London born costume designer Jenny Beavan has played a vital role in onscreen storytelling throughout her career. With a large variety of work ranging from the extravagant BBC series Cranford to classics such as A Room With a View, her eye for detail and unique aesthetic has captivated many an audience and a filmmaker. Beavan has also been recognised by Queen Elizabeth II and was awarded an OBE in 2016. She is the creative mastermind behind the costumes in Sherlock Holmes, Gosford Park, The King’s Speech, last week’s release A Cure for Wellness, and of course, everyone’s favourite post-apocalyptic actioner, Mad Max: Fury Road. The sight of Jenny Beavan walking up to accept her Oscar for Mad Max will forever be etched in our consciousness, dressed casually in contrast to the glammed-up celebs on show.
She now sets her sights to outer space for the new science fiction horror film, Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson.
Have you ever done a sci-fi before?
“No, no. Here I am, all my friends have retired, well, all my friends who worked at things like this, retiring, and I’m getting to do all sorts of work, it’s marvelous.”
How do you attribute that?
“I think a small golden statue might have helped. I had worked with [Director] Daniel [Espinosa, Child 44], and we were going to do something completely different, and then he got this, so I was terribly pleased to come on. But it’s just great doing completely different things all the time. What a great job!”
As Life is set in the future, what sort of look did you want to give to it?
“It’s only just in the future, and I did quite a lot of research – NASA is amazing. There’s so much on YouTube and online, and I discovered that, in fact, like in The Martian, they are trying to develop a much tighter, more compression suit, type of space-wear. For the big spacewalks, they haven’t really got the hang of it yet, and apparently it’s unbelievably difficult to put on. And obviously the whole thing has to create the life support system within it, so we opted for the more iconic looks, even with our boiler suits, which they often wear, and they’re often three and three, three light blue, three dark blue… So we kind of adopted that as our look, which is just a look, we’re not really anywhere in time. I think we’re more iconic.”
What do you mean by iconic space suits, how would you define that?
“Well, it’s what people think, isn’t it? It’s like, what comes to your mind on a space station? And I remembered this brown suit, it actually comes from the 70s, one of the early Skylab ones. And it just stuck in my mind, and the white suit, the one that I think of, is the Apollo moon walk. So we just slightly went with that, it felt right.”
What are the specific challenges of doing an astronaut’s suit?
“The real challenge is that, in real life they’re in zero gravity, and here we’re simulating it. They’re on harnesses and wires and flying, whereas in real life, like [astronaut] Tim Peake, they can float around easily. But we’re trying to make them look like they’re doing that, so… actually, I thought it was all going to be really simple. Six characters on a space station, restricted clothing, how easy is that going to be?”
So you took this because it was going to be an easy job?
“What planet was I on? No, I took it because I love Daniel Espinosa. It’s fascinating to do something completely different, but in a way, I just thought, ‘ooh, that sounds fun.’ So in fact, the real challenge is, and why the boiler suit idea worked so well, is that you can hide the harness. Sometimes they wear a polo shirt and a pair of chinos, or a pair of shorts – the boiler suit is actually better, because you’re not going to get any splitting as they roam around. And we’ve got so many pockets and zips – and Velcro was invented for NASA, so it’s all terribly legitimate – but we could hide the harnesses, which really helps.”
What kind of fabrics do you use for the suits?
“We were very lucky, we wanted robust fabrics and they mustn’t flap, because obviously we’re trying to do everything we can to make it look real, and I found this brown fabric at a marvelous trade shop out in Essex, it was one pound 99 pence per metre. And I think it was actually made of fake barber jackets. But it has a wonderful robustness, we washed it and it started cracking. It’s obviously a wax cotton. It’s a beautiful colour with the greys of the interior of the space station, which is one consideration, and it really, really holds its shape, so you totally believe it. I’ve looked at so many NASA videos, of what they wear and how fabrics react, I knew we had to be incredibly careful that nothing would flap.”
What most surprised you about your task?
“The thing that I hadn’t thought about, is Tim Peake is the only one whose head was right when they’d come back, and the fact that your head is really heavy because for six months, your neck muscles haven’t had to work… which you wouldn’t even think about. And that he felt like he had the most crashing hangover, because gravity, again, is pressing down, and the day to day life up there, and the fact that actually when they come down, it’s pretty horrendous, and when they hit the earth it’s like hitting a wall at 180mph, it sounds ghastly. And these idiots do it four or five times! I just think the whole idea of being up there is totally fascinating. Not that I want to do it, but all of this, I knew nothing about it.”
What can you do to imbue each costume with character?
“We absolutely haven’t done that. Daniel wanted the costumes all identical, so the actors would bring the characters out. The only thing they have is specific badges to how many missions they’ve done, where they come from, and that’s it. Actually they each have a different t-shirt underneath it, but to be honest, we’ve completely kept it identical. Pretending to be in zero gravity was the greatest challenge. All the things you’d never even think about, like even the zip things, we’ve sewn them down, because they probably would fly around. And actually, it was sweet, one of the actors asked if could he wear something around his neck, and I said, I wouldn’t if I were you, you’ll have a puppeteer.”
Life is in cinemas March 23, 2017