Somehow I haven't gotten around to talking to legendary costume designer Albert Wolsky in my time, but “Birdman” presented the opportunity and here we are. With seven Oscar nominations and two wins, Wolsky is one of the titans, with a legacy on both stage and screen. Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest, then, was a fascinating project for him in that it bridged the gap between those two disciplines.
But as Wolsky says in the lengthy interview below, the work in movies like this is “invisible.” By design, of course, but often that leads to a lack of appreciation for what goes into outfitting a movie like this. Nevertheless, Wolsky has tried his hand at a number of extravagant productions in his day, so of course we carved out plenty of time to talk about some of those. From Bob Fosse's “Lenny” and “All That Jazz” to Sam Mendes' “Road to Perdition” to Julie Taymor's “Across the Universe,” Wolsky has maintained a varied and vibrant career.
However, in case you're wondering, he was not tasked with creating the Birdman costume from the film. That happened to be special effects artist Mike Elizalde, and lucky for you, we have a full interview with him talking about what went into that specific element as well.
“Birdman” is now playing in limited release.
HitFix: Thank you for taking the time to talk. It's a total honor to speak with you. I've been a great fan for a long time
Albert Wolsky: Really? You make me blush.
I've been covering this kind of beat for about 14 years now and somehow I've just never had a chance to talk to you. I think there was a shot back when you did “Revolutionary Road” but I missed my window. But I'm happy to talk to you now.
“Revolutionary Road” was easier to talk about!
Yeah, well this one is a very unique one.
Well, it's invisible.
Yeah. Exactly. I think sometimes with a contemporary movie people may not realize what goes into the costuming of it.
They don't. Maybe they just shouldn't, even.
That's true. It's a very unique opportunity though, given the theater trappings and that you're outfitting both a movie and a play within the movie, a play written by the lead character, Riggan Thompson based on Raymond Carver's short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
Yeah. That was for me the interesting design problems, to try and make it look different enough.
Was there anything that Alejandro talked to you about in terms of expressing who these characters were? As in their movie costumes versus maybes the characters they were playing in the play?
[The Carver story] was written in the 1980s. But [Riggan's] piece is set in the '70s and I felt that since we would have limited viewing of what the play looks like – there's really only three scenes shown – maybe that was too close, so I suggested going back to the '50s so that there would be a bigger distinction between the play and offstage.
Did you investigate the Carver story pretty thoroughly or did you kind of just go by what Alejandro had written with his writers?
No, I did both. I did what was in the script, which is very important because that's what you're going to see, hopefully, and then I studied some of the Carver work, just looking for hints, looking for ideas, like the idea that they were going out to dinner. It's never mentioned in the play. You don't to see that, but at least it gave me a springboard.
How does something like this compare to some of the more opulent productions that you've done, things like “Across the Universe” and “Toys” and things that are really vibrant and big and bold compared to something like this that's more contemporary and controlled?
It's the difference between freedom and holding back. Contemporary pieces are very hard to do, especially today. Anything goes today. So my job is to tell character. Who are these people and what are they doing and in plain, modern clothes, every day, in and out? It's very difficult. You can't even tell Europeans today from Americans. They dress the same. And money today is not such an issue; there used to be a time when you could do class and money [with costumes]. You can't now. So that's why it's much harder to do contemporary. And if it was anybody but Iñárritu, I'm not so sure I would've been happy taking it. But I was so curious and anxious to work with him because I'm a great admirer of his work. So that makes a big difference.
After having worked with him now, what did you take from that experience?
It's his process. See, we were so rushed. I mean we had no time. We actually shot the whole thing in six weeks, so focus for him was the camera. So it was very hard to get to him, not because he wasn't nice or cooperative, it's just that he had priorities, which is to get the camerawork properly. Without that they couldn't continue. But he was very interesting. If I work with him again, and I would like to, certainly, it would be very different. He's described this movie like a labyrinth. Well, his mind is like a labyrinth. So those were all the things that one has to discover.
Is he very hands-on with the costume element of his film?
I don't think he can tell you exactly what he wants. Because, again, I don't know if in general he couldn't, but this particular project he was feeling his way through the whole thing, so that affects the clothes and everything. I mean he's very observant and nothing goes by his eye. It's partly a painter in him, too. He has an artistic bent so he's quite visual.
Did it feel like a homecoming at all for you, given your theater background and your continued to work in stage?
For me that was very welcoming because I felt very, very secure. I feel very secure on that stage. I'm home. But I know what shows well on stage as opposed to film. Now that doesn't mean it's photographed that way; you still have to see what the camera will see. I dress head to toe, but I don't think you ever really saw anything except above the waist.
Well, that all goes to helping the actors feel like they're in the role.
Oh yeah. That's very important, to give them those props, to give them a feeling that they're in every day clothes. It feels like every day.
I just wanted to backtrack a bit here because you began your career working alongside Ann Roth, a fellow legend.
I lost my last Tony – my first and only Tony nomination, she was setting in front of me and I lost it to her! I knew she was going to win because hers was the only play running. We weren't even running. But I was so thrilled to be nominated I didn't care.
What did you learn from her?
Early in my career I assisted her in about 10 projects. She has a wonderful quirkiness about modern clothes. She can do modern clothes, I think, better than anybody else. It's not fashion modern, but to find those things that make today interesting. She's very good at that – and I'm not. She can handle more projects than I can at the same time. I have tunnel vision and I have to keep going in a certain direction, but she's really good at delegating in her mind certain compartments in her head. And she's very generous. I was trying to get to school and never got to school; I kept assisting everybody. I was very fortunate. There was a time on Broadway where all of the best people were working, and just by working with them, you learned. It all builds up.
And was it Broadway that you met Bob Fosse?
No, I was already doing movies, which were a total accident. I never thought I was going to do movies. But it became more and more so as the time went on. And I worked with him first on “Lenny,” which was to me perhaps the most important job of my career.
Why is that?
Because I had been going in at a certain level. I felt kind of a straight-level learning, you know, doing. But then with “Lenny,” I felt I'd gone up a notch. I'd gone up a level. And if I hadn't done “Lenny,” I couldn't have done “All That Jazz,” because it primed me for the next step. And he was extraordinary. I don't think there was ever anything quite like him. And I must say, on a costume level, he was not that hands-on. He gave you certain guidelines and off you went. I remember one time on “Lenny,” I had worked out the whole striptease number because I had taken Valerie [Perrine] to a place where they make striptease costumes and I realized there's certain things she could do, certain thing she couldn't. When they started rehearsing, Bob needed – because he's a choreographer – he needs his beats. He understands if you're wearing a costume and take something off, you need to know what it is because that's a musical beat. So he rehearsed the whole thing in a mock-up, a version of this, a version of that. Then I told him, “Listen, Bob, now we're going to do all the elements that you needed, but we're going to do them properly for the movie.” He says, “You're not going to touch it are you?” He got so scared! [Laughs.] I said, “No, you will not have any problems. I promise you. It's the same thing we've just done, just with better stuff.” But that to me was a very interesting way of working.
And you won the Oscar for “All That Jazz.” What did that mean to you at that point in your career?
It was pretty nice. [Laughs.] It's pretty nice and it just frees you bit later. You get, “Oh my God, what am I going to do next?” But that passes and then finally you just move on. I was very pleased and part of me didn't quite believe it. I guess it confirmed great faith in myself so I kept working. Experience is the best thing, actually. Even though every job I start I feel, “What am I going to do? Will it come out of me? Can I do it?” That never leaves you. It never leaves actors, either.
And someone you've worked with that I can only imagine is very hands-on with costumes, just given her track record, is Julie Taymor. What was that experience like?
The interview was very interesting because she said, “Why do you want to do this? You've done everything.” But I had done that. So I thought I would have trouble with all the big stuff, the fantasy stuff, the “Julie Taymor” stuff. But I didn't at all. The ones where sometimes we wouldn't agree would be everyday clothes, the character clothes, because a lot of it was coming from our own background.
You're one of these guys I feel like I can talk to you about every movie. Like, I want to talk about “Grease.” It's such a piece of iconography and again it has roots in the theater.
“Grease” was interesting and I have to give a lot of credit to Allan Carr. Allan Carr was the producer, who has since passed away. I started that one being much more realistic. The piece, to me, I almost felt would be like urban, and “no,” he said. “It should be color. It should be bright.” I ended up using colors I never used before or since in the movie. And he was absolutely right, because it was a fantasy, in a way. High school people were hiding their grey streaks in their hair, they were so old. You better not be too realistic. So he was the push there. Once I got on that track it was great fun. It was great, great fun because I just let it go. I haven't done it since, actually.
And you just finished working with Warren Beatty again on this Howard Hughes movie. He's wanted to do that movie for a long time.
Tell me. Forever and ever. I knew it even when I did the “Bugsy” with him, he was already thinking about it. He was probably thinking of a different movie then; he was much younger. But then on this one I didn't read it because he didn't let you read anything. I had talked to him about it three years ago. And then finally I just moved on. I didn't think it would ever happen and then it did. For me it was quite wonderful because it was very moving for me to work with both Warren and Annette Bening again. I haven't worked with them since “Bugsy” and I've seen Warren socially at Academy functions and Annette, but I haven't worked with them.
I'm looking forward to that because, again. I know he's been wanting to do that for a long time.
So am I. But you're going to have to wait. That's probably the end of next year.
Well, like I said, I could probably talk your ear off all day but I'll cut it at that. I just wanted to kind of skip a stone across some key moments here.
[Laughs.] I don't mind. “Birdman” is invisible [work] so it's good to talk about something else!
What do you have coming up next?
Just taking some time off?
Yeah. I'm at the point in my tender age where unless it really interests me I don't want to do it.
Do you think you'll work with Sam Mendes again?
Yes, if he ever stops doing Bond movies!
Bond's not something you're interested in?
No, it isn't that, it's in England so forget about me. He's not going to fight for me to come to England. Dennis [Gassner] works with him, the production designer. And I loved working with Sam. He was very open. He's willing to learn and to listen. The three movies I've done with him were a great joy.
And another theater connection, given his history with the stage.
Yes, you're right. But I think we've lost him to Bond forever.
Well, it's paying well right now so I can understand!
My God, and he does it very well. To me, on my level, it's not an interesting job.
It was a nice opportunity for Roger Deakins to show off, though.
Roger's very good. He's so intense. He operates himself. He's really very, very good. It's very important for me because when I started with Sam, it was Conrad Hall, who then died after “Road to Perdition.” Conrad was brilliant. He was a painter. He was a total painter. It was my only movie with him and I was so impressed with him.
That movie in particular is just jaw-dropping on every level, I think, design-wise.
Oh, it's one of my favorite, favorite, favorite movies. To be honest with you, it's nice to be nominated [for an Academy Award] or not, it's nice to win or not, but the only time I had regret that I didn't get a nomination was for “Road to Perdition,” because I am so proud of it. It was a great experience. Everything was in sync and everybody was together and it was just a joy.
Awesome. Well like I said it's a pleasure to finally speak with you after all these years. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.
With great pleasure.
Congratulations on “Birdman” and good luck.
Thank you so much.