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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Michael Kaplan 'Conversations With' at AIFF 2011



Costume Designer Michael Kaplan attended an ‘In Conversations With’ panel in Aruba during the Aruba International Film Festival 2011. Journalist Brandon Harris conducted the interviews. The panel went on for over and hour. Below is transcribed part of the Q and A that followed (to the best of what I could transcribe).


Q: How are you able to keep yourself and your soul in the work that you do when it is for someone’s film and they have a specific idea of what they want? And also, what was your favorite film that you have worked on?

MICHAEL: Well, hopefully I’m putting my likes into every movie I do. I mean, sometimes I’ve worked with an actor who is very specific about what they want and I try to make an agreement with them. ‘You know, we are going to collaborate but I want you to be happy but I need to be happy too’. So, that’s the agreement. If I had to pick one movie that was from start to finish the best experience. You know, because sometimes you have a really fun time working on a movie, but then you see the movie and you think, ‘Oh my God. What was I thinking?’ Or ‘What were they thinking?’ or it just doesn’t come together. But FIGHT CLUB for me was a great script and the performances were amazing and the cast was great. I really had fun on it. I loved the time that I worked on it I loved the result, the finished product.

Q: Can you tell us about what it was like to work with Brad Pitt in FIGHT CLUB?

MICHAEL: Brad Pitt, his character had no money at all. He’s living in a house that doesn’t belong to him so his clothes couldn’t be fancy clothes. I decided he would be a person in my mind that got great things in thrift shops. I do that myself. I like to get hand-me-downs. The problem was that he needed so many multiples that I couldn’t just go to a thrift shop and buy a leather jacket because of all the fighting and stunt doubles and photo doubles we needed twelve of that red leather jacket and everything else. So, I made his clothes and found old fabric from the 70’s and made shirts out of it and bought this old hard leather they used to make jackets out of in the 70’s. It’s almost like car upholstery. It’s not like the soft buttery leather they use now. And I had it died and I wanted it to be the color of dried blood. It just seemed right to me for his character and all the fights he was getting into so we died it that color. You know, it was all designed but it looked like it was from a thrift shop. I fashioned it after the way clothes were made then. I broke some of the buttons and tore the lining and put stains on it until that one came out.

Q: You said when you used to work in advertising you used to get a creative block. Do you ever get a creative block in costume design when you just don’t know how to create a costume for the character?

MICHAEL: Yeah, but that wasn’t what it was in advertising. But the same thing happens in movies when I read a script and I need to kind of create some kind of a game or find some other way to find out how to make the character come alive or solve the problem. So, I think that’s just kind of a creative process, how we deal with our blockage. Did I answer you question?

Q: When you get clothes do you have brands or labels that give or loan clothes to you?

MICHAEL: Yes, all the studios have product placement departments and what they try to do is get you to use their brands. And not only will you get their brands for free but there’s also a kick back from the company to the studios for using their things and if you use let’s say Nike sneakers on Brad Pitt, they don’t want them extras they want them front and center. So, if used on Brad Pitt they’ll give you crew jackets for the entire crew or give the filmmakers some kind of a bonus. I hate that because it compromises… I mean, if I’m looking for those kind of shoes for somebody then I would do it. But I would never want to do something just to compromise my vision so that the film company can have more money coming into it.

Q: Following that, for me, starting to Givenchy and going up to Alexander McQueen, etc.… I wonder if there was a time in the history of Hollywood where designers were more affiliated with movies. Is it coming back or has it turned into Brand promotion or product placement purely? Who is driving who with that?

MICHAEL: I think it continues to happen. I mean, there have been situations like on THE UNTOUCHABLES where Armani who did the film, there was still a costume designer on the film but he went to Armani and they didn’t really make clothes. He just took contemporary clothes that looked that they were right for the period and gave Armani some kind of a credit and the film got a lot of free clothes. I don’t think there’s anything quite as good as the old fashion way of having a costume designer hired and doing his job. I don’t know. It’s also disappointing when you have the red carpet for the Academy Awards. And there are costume designers supporting these actors all year long and on that one day of Hollywood in its glory, they’re getting free dresses from Europe. I mean, there are a few actors like Geena Davis and Cher who just had a Hollywood costume designer make their clothes and I think that everyone appreciated that because suddenly now the situation of getting a ball gown from French designers is so much the fact that it’s kind of refreshing when an actor or actress dresses himself or herself or has a designer do something and kind of get back to its own place.

BRANDON: We’re nearly out of time and I have to ask this question since I have you here and I’m such a STAR TREK fan, obsessive fan. With doing that film with J.J. Abrams, you have a look for various scenes from the past series from that time. How do you go about recreating that sort of iconic futuristic constant? Was that a challenge? Were you working against the NEXT GENERATION SERIES, the original series? How did you go about pleasing both the fans for those series and those new fans?

MCHAEL: Well, from what I’ve heard. I did please the fans. But when J.J. asked me to do the movie I told him I didn’t think I was the person to do it. I thought that there was a huge responsibility. I had never seen any of the STAR TREK movies. I had maybe seen three or four episodes from the TV series. I just felt like I was really going to screw things up for this but then he sent me the stuff and he said, ‘no, you can do this’. This was on the phone. So, they flew me to where he was on location and he said, ‘I don’t want the same thing all over again’. He said, ‘I won’t have it. I like your reluctance and the fact that you haven’t been exposed is what I’m looking for’. He said, ‘I want it to be fresh. I want your energy. I think you’re clever enough to incorporate anything that is going to make all the Trek-ies feel convincing’. And so that’s what I did.

Then Brandon showed a clip from STAR TREK with Kaplan’s work and everyone clapped. It was a very enlightening panel and Michael Kaplan, despite admittedly hating to be in front of audiences, opened our eyes to his world which is so crucial in every film and yet too rarely talked about.

Conversations With transcribed by Vanessa McMahon


photos by Vanessa McMahon

Michael Kaplan in Aruba 2011 

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