The Below the Line Screening Series recently presented a screening of The Danish Girl at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles. The 120-minute film was followed by a thought-provoking Q&A with costume designer Paco Delgado and set decorator Michael Standish.
The Danish Girl is a delicate tale inspired by the marriage of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili, who starts the film off as Einar is portrayed beautifully by Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything). Gerda is played by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina). The couple must work extremely hard to keep their marriage together as Einar Wegenr begins transitioning and living his life as Lili Elbe, the woman he always knew he was.
The film is filled with highs and lows for the couple. In the beginning Gerda finds Einar’s desire to dress as woman fun and silly, but as the film progresses we learn Einar is not just playing dress up, he has always felt that he was female. Although hard for Gerda to understand at times, not all love is lost in her husband’s desire to be woman. Through Lili, Gerda finds her muse. Her paintings of Lili quickly become the talk of the town, and she finally finds success within the Parisian art world that she’s always craved.
Just as Lili starts feeling all hope is lost, she meets a doctor who is willing to perform gender reassignment surgery. Believing she is trapped in a body that isn’t hers, Lili is desperate to do something about it. With the support of Gerda, Lili breaks all the rules and becomes one of the first known patients to undergo the risky procedure, thus cementing her legacy in history and forever being remembered as a trailblazer in the transgender movement.
The film tells an intriguing story and is brilliantly cast, but it’s hard to imagine the film coming to life without Delgado’s beautiful costumes and the beautiful set decoration of Standish. During the Q&A they discussed their role in creating a tangible world for the actors to express themselves in.
As with most period pieces, Delgado was aware the costumes would play a large role in the film. His goal was for the costumes to add dimension to the scenes, yet not let them overpower the characters. Paco revealed how, through his costumes, he was able to show the contrasting moods in the film. He interpreted the conservative Danish society by using darker colored clothing with sharp tailored lines. By using stiff, hard constructed fabric with no sensuality he was able to show the how oppressed Lili felt trapped in a male body. During the Paris scenes when Lili starts to open up you see her in soft silks and bright floral prints. He felt using bright colors and fabric that flowed would help show the liveliness of Paris and Lili’s liberation.
Delgado shared that during rehearsals he would watch the actors interact and study their movement with one another. Once he got a sense of the actors movement he was able to determine the best fabrics to use. Paco believes it’s not just costumes, but movement within the costume that plays a role in bringing the character to life. He feels fabrics arouse feelings and that dressing is visual and tactile. Through his costumes he wanted the characters to look and feel the role.
Standish filled the audience in on how he worked closely with production designer Eve Stewart to express the story through design. Together they wanted to create a visually appealing workable set that would take the audience back to 1926. Michael shared that in the beginning of the film they chose a minimal color pallet. This was done in order to represent the restraint in Denmark. Different shades of blues and grays can be seen in the couple’s minimalistic home. Similar to Delgado’s costume design, the set team also used darker colors to show how oppressive the country was. It wasn’t until Paris that they were able to offer warmer pallets with lots of props that gave the room more sensuality. You see the set go from dull and square in Denmark to shiny and oval in Paris. They wanted the space to change as Lili changed.
Using original photos, the set team was able to draw inspiration and stick as close to the time period as possible. One of the biggest challenges faced on set was the huge number of paintings needed for each scene. Standish remarked that at one point there was a woman creating all of the artwork, but as time went on they needed more paintings than she could create and were forced to outsource just to keep up with each shot.
Standish shared that one of his proudest scenes is the one with the hanging ballerina skirts. Working with a low budget, Michael was thrilled when he found cheap ballerina skirts. Unfortunately, once they arrived he realized the skirts would not stay open. Standish devised a plan to add pipe wire to them and they came out looking like a million bucks, just one example of what he does. Eve tells him what the pallet is, and he comes up with a solution that will work for the framework.
Both Delgado and Standish said they felt very fortunate to be a part of the film. They say it’s rare that you get to work on a set where there is no ego. Everyone was in it for the sake of telling a beautiful love story.