Director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s Birdman follows the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) who was once famous for playing an ironic superhero as he attempts to reclaim his former glory working on a Broadway play. To dress the actor and the cast of his cohorts was costume designer Albert Wolsky, who comes from a stage background. He is also no stranger to acclaim for his work, having been nominated for five Academy Awards for Revolutionary Road (2008), Across the Universe (2007), Toys (1992), The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) and Sophie’s Choice (1983). He has won two Oscars during the span of his prolific career for Bugsy (1991) and All That Jazz (1979).
Wolsky came onto the scene already attracted to working with the director. “I was a great admirer of his work and I thought he was an extraordinary director with whom I would be honored to work,” said Wolsky. He was equally drawn to the script. “The script I thought was interesting in terms of what Iñárritu would do with it and also the setting of the New York theatre with which I am familiar.”
Having done so much stage work infused Wolsky’s sensibilities when it came to figuring out who the characters were and then figuring out what they would wear as their stage costumes and their normal clothes.
The costume designer was also conscious of the colors he used to build the characters’ costumes. He wanted a color range that worked for the characters and the material. It was important to him to assign a different color range for the characters in their stage costumes and in their normal clothes so there would be a striking difference. “I went brighter in the actual play, especially on the women,” Wolsky explained.
Who Sam (Emma Stone) was was so vivid to him that she became, in many ways, the easiest to dress. “Iñárritu gave me a really good inkling of what he was looking for, which was of a father whose daughter is about to leave the house and he goes, ‘You’re not going to wear that, are you?'” Wolsky explained. “That gave me an image of what this girl would look like.”
There was an adjustment period that came with never having worked with the director. “My job is to serve the director, to pull out of my head the images that match the director’s,” said Wolsky. “This was challenging for me because there wasn’t much time and Iñárritu was focused on the choreography of the camera. So he was very camera oriented and everything was based on movement. I had to learn quickly what he thought, what he responded to.”
There was a learning process involved, but the collaboration turned out to be one that the costume designer looks back upon with great fondness.