Any Wes Anderson film requires a great number of different looks, especially as he continues to expand his casts to include more and more talented actors. His latest production, Asteroid City, is set in multiple places and environments, with one shot in black-and-white and another in very distinct period color.
Below the Line spoke with makeup and hair designer Julie Dartnell about the particular challenges and opportunities of bringing Anderson’s vision to life. She highlighted the need for colors and wigs to pop in the right way based on how they were being shot, and the unpredictability of preparing wigs ahead of getting to actually meet the actors.
Dartnell, an Oscar winner for her work on Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, discussed working with Anderson on his previous acclaimed film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and transitioning from a movie with only two main characters – Good Luck to You, Leo Grande – to his highly populated ensemble piece.
Below the Line: This is not your first time working with Wes Anderson.
Julie Dartnell: No. I worked with him on The Grand Budapest Hotel.
BTL: What can you say about the experience of working with him as a filmmaker and how that changed between these two projects?
Dartnell: Well, they’re both similar. He always works in a similar way. He always has an amazing visual vocabulary, which is shared very early on when you start your prep. It was the same on The Grand Budapest Hotel. There wasn’t much difference really, to be honest.
BTL: With a cast so big, where do you start? Where do you put most of your effort in, and how is it structured, especially with the play-within-a-play setup?
Dartnell: Yeah, well, it was quite complicated. A lot of the cast had two looks, one for the black-and-white backstage, and one for the technicolor Asteroid City. It was really quite challenging, because we couldn’t actually see any of the actors before they arrived in Spain.
All the wigs that were made beforehand, facial, everything got going without actually visually seeing the actors. It was very challenging to see them a couple of days before you’re due to shoot with wigs that have been made. What’s the saying? Flying by the seat of your pants.
BTL: Is there anyone where you needed to make a major pivot and change based on seeing them versus planning ahead?
Dartnell: With a couple of our actors, because of availability, there was a couple of the female cast that actually had to swap around. The wigs that we did have made for their head measurements, I used Peter Owen, and, luckily, Peter Owen Wigs had some measurements that they had done before for all our actors. We had a head start, so we knew it would fit the heads to a point.
The only problem was three of our main female cast ended up changing, or swapping, so we had wigs that we thought, ugh, are they going to fit their head? A couple of days before they would come in, I had a wig maker with me that would have to do alterations there and then literally through the night if need be. The wig maker sent extra hair, extra wig lace, to be able to make alterations. It was challenging but fun.
BTL: Wes likes to have a lot of mustaches in his films. Are those generally something that you have actors grow or does it mostly involve prosthetics?
Dartnell: Basically, a lot of our actors were able to grow, so it was pretty much okay. Grow whatever facial you can, and when you turn up, we will look at the reference, we will look at ideas that I had, ideas that Wes had. That was quite organic, actually, the facial. There were a couple that were set in stone. For instance, Tom Hanks, there was a very visual look for his mustache and his hairpiece, particularly the color of his hairpiece, and that took quite a few different trips back to the wig maker, just to get more silver put in. Luckily, Tom grew a mustache for us that we trimmed to shape when he arrived, but I did get one made.
I got one made in the shape and the colors that we knew to the reference just in case whatever Tom grew didn’t work, because of course, we only saw him a couple of days before. You couldn’t take any chances. You needed backups. And then a lot of our other actors came with facial hair that we literally trimmed down. Steve Carell, he came with a full short beard and mustache, and I trimmed it down to almost an Errol Flynn-type mustache. It’s just, come with what you can grow and then we will cut and trim when you arrive.
BTL: Is that your typical approach, or is that Wes’ influence?
Dartnell: Usually, you have more time, and you actually see the actor before, way before, so you can discuss where you’re heading. But it was more organic than that with our male actors. The only difference was probably Jason Schwartzman, who we always had very strong ideas, and Wes did as well, that his hair and beard was going to be based on a Stanley Kubrick look. That was always a very strong image, and Jason knew that, so he just grew everything. And again, his hair was cut, we trimmed his beard and moustache down to suit the image that that we had.
BTL: Were there other frames of reference that you used in terms of pictures from the era as inspiration for some of the character looks?
Dartnell: Yeah, we had a few film references as well. Wes likes you to get quite absorbed into the era, so there were quite a few references to different films to watch. One in particular was Scarlett Johansson’s character, when she was in the black-and-white backstage when she’s Mercedes Ford, which was based on Kim Novak in Vertigo. The other strong reference was Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell, she was based on Jane Russell in Foxfire. There were a few things to really get your head into, the colors and the shapes and everything.
With Scarlett, the reference for the black-and-white, there was no time to test those on camera. Getting the right shades of blonde for that wig was quite difficult, no camera test or anything, so that the blondes really did work in black-and-white. If they were too white, then it would just look like a flat white wig. You have to really blend all the colors just to get that right image.
In fact, all the wigs for our female cast, it was a very precise process of color mixes. I spent a lot of time at Peter Owen’s going through all the different colors and sending samples and working out from there so we could get the right colors. There was no time to change that, with a couple of days before we shot. It was quite important to get the colors really right to begin with.
BTL: Were there are other challenges with makeup for the black-and-white segments?
Dartnell: Yeah, the same for that as well, actually, because sometimes what you think works to the eye, when you transfer it into black-and-white, it doesn’t. It loses a lot of pigment, or the pigment can be too dark, so you’ve got a very dark red on, and then in black-and-white, it would just look really dark. You have to get your shades right.
Also, with Margot Robbie, when she had the Elizabeth wig on, that was shot in black-and-white. To really show the color that we’re supposed to see, the white makeup, the red cheeks, that looked quite gaudy, to the face when we’re in color. But then when it went into black-and-white, a lot of that was lost, but you needed the strength of the cheeks and the lips to be able to read in that black-and-white tone. So yeah, there was a difference.
BTL: What was your collaboration like with the costume design department? I imagine the outfits really have to match the way the faces and the hair look.
Dartnell: Yeah, absolutely. Milena Canonero and I really did work closely. Every fitting that I did, I’d then collaborate with Milena. We’d be doing our finishing touches to the certain styles, or it could be a hair ornament. Definitely a collaboration there between myself, Milena, and Wes.
BTL: You recently worked on a film which didn’t have quite as many main cast members, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.
Dartnell: No, it was a very small cast. That was a complete opposite.
BTL: What is it like going from one to the other? Do you have a preference between the two?
Dartnell: Oh, I just love doing all the big casts and the collaboration and the wigs and the makeup. I just love all of that. I think, coming from a theater background many, many years ago – I shouldn’t say that really, I should say, many years ago – it’s just that feeling that you get when you’re with a big cast. They’re both good in their own ways. But I really do enjoy bringing characters to life.
BTL: You’ve also done a lot of action and musicals. Do you find that the genre greatly affects what kind of work you’re doing?
Dartnell: No, I think your job is still the same. You’re still creating a character. Whether it’s modern day, period, musical, you still start with a character and bring them to life. You make them believable. So I think the job is the same. What you’re creating is the same. It’s just you’re using different mediums. You could be doing a period like Asteroid City where you’re going to be doing wigs, but, on the other hand, you could be doing a modern-day piece that also uses wigs. It’s really about getting the characters right.
Asteroid City is now available on home video.