Characterization, the art of defining each character individually and specifically, is the most important part of the costume design process for Jacqueline Durran, whose impeccable work can now be seen in Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh‘s film about the eccentric painter J.M.W. Turner. Durran won an Academy Award for her achievement in Anna Karenina (2012). She has also been nominated for her work two previous times, for Atonement (2007) and Pride and Prejudice (2005).
Durran is a longtime collaborator with Leigh and jumped right on board when he suggested they work together on Mr. Turner. The director is known for working without a script and this has always been an attractive process to the costume designer. “I find the method he used to create the film very interesting,” Durran said. “I like the way his films evolve and the way the characters are created in the rehearsals with the actors.” Once the characters were formed, she interviewed the actors to get to know the characters and understand them better. From there she began planning the costumes.
Early photography rounded out the research for Durran. “Photography is always interesting because you get to see the actual representations of clothing,” explained Durran. “It was good to see those in contrast to the paintings” — where it is oftentimes an idealized representation — “and get an idea of how things were actually worn.” Etiquette books about the way people wore their clothes were also a source of inspiration. “This was so we could inform the actors. The thing was to try to make everything as real as we could make it.”
It was a challenge to work within a strict budget and have to rent the costumes when Durran had such a precise idea of how the costumes should look. “It was a lot of searching for the ideal item,” Durran said. “So on a bigger budget film, you could just make the thing that was required for the costume and on this we had to hunt and hunt until we could find the closest approximation.” The spontaneity inherent in working without a script also made the work interesting for the costume designer. She wasn’t able to plan everything far in advance and know exactly what costumes were required for each scene since there were always changes in the scenes and who would be in them. “The whole process means that new things come up while filming so you’re always busy.”
Recreating a soirée scene early in the film is a favorite memory of Durran’s. “It was really fun to recreate that scene,” she said. “It was one of the larger scenes in the film and one where you had more people to dress.” Her favorite to dress was the titular character. “I’m quite pleased with how the silhouette of Mr. Turner turned out. When you see him walking in the landscapes, the shape that his costumes make is pretty accurate to the pictures we had of him.”