The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime Video’s ambitious stab at a Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy franchise, looks absolutely glorious. Every frame of the series, which is based on the novels by Robert Jordan, aspires to be a thing of beauty.
Of course, there are few images more stunning than Rosamund Pike channeling her magic as the powerful, formidable Moiraine Damodred, a member of the all-female mystical order known as Aes Sedai. Pike positively pops on screen, with Moiraine made-up ethereally, dressed stunningly, and occasionally swathed in visual effects as she protects seven young villagers, one of whom is the reincarnation of the Dragon, a prophesized messiah who can save the world from the Dark One.
The responsibility of dressing Pike, and the hundreds of other actors and extras who populate The Wheel of Time, fell to costume designer Isis Mussenden, whose many credits include American Psycho, The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy, Shrek and Shrek 2, The Wolverine, and Velvet Buzzsaw, as well as the TV series Masters of Sex.
Below the Line recently spoke with Mussenden, who discussed how she defines the job of costume designer, the scope and challenges she and her team faced on The Wheel of Time, and what she hopes to work on next.
Below the Line: How do you typically approach your job as a costume designer? Do you prefer when costumes really stand out or when they simply complement the actors?
Isis Mussenden: My job is to forward the narrative and help define the characters. So, working with the actor, I work to help them find and feel a character. Doesn’t matter if it’s contemporary, if it’s a bathrobe, or if it’s a crazy ballgown if it’s a period piece. Whatever it is, my job is to work with the actor to help them find that other person other than themselves in this, which helps their performance. That’s why some of the best performances have the best costumes, whether you notice them or not.
To the second part of that, it should stand out only if the story wants it to, or only if the story demands that it stands out. Otherwise, we’re really slaves to the narrative, to what the director’s vision is, to the entire canvas that we’re setting the costumes into. And that’s everything from fantasy to a sitcom.
BTL: How much of a kid in a candy shop are you on a big-budget series like Wheel of Time where you’re helping to create a world featuring people and creatures, and one that has a proper budget that allows you to do what you need to do?
Mussenden: Off the charts. I’ve worked on several projects, from [the Narnia movies] The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian to The Wolverine, with budgets like this, and with this kind of freedom to create. I never saw myself as a fantasy designer, ever. I ended up in animation, and then from there, I ended up with Andrew Adamson on Lion and the Witch, which I ended up really enjoying because, as much as I love a period piece, or a really gritty contemporary piece or something, fantasy allows you to reach in every direction that you want.
I pull from folkloric, historic, contemporary, couture, paintings, sculpture. I can pull inspiration from anywhere. You can kind of do that on a lot of projects, but with fantasy, it’s extraordinary like that. Plus, I build everything. So, I’m a maker. I like to make clothes. I like to have it drawn up. I like to conceptualize and I like to have the fabric dyed. I like to have the fabric printed. I like buttons made. That’s my candy store. The workshop is my favorite place on Earth. I grew up doing that with my mother. So, it’s this visceral, fabulous place to be.
And I have incredible artisans and makers on this show from South Africa to London to Scotland to Berlin to Italy. Just incredible, incredible people. I had fine leather workers. I had a full armory department. I had a textile design department where we would print fabrics. We printed 380 meters of fabric just for the white clothes. It was extraordinary. And it was a huge machine in this credible space that the producers put together. They took a defunct truck building company they picked up in early 2019, and (producer) David Brown and (line producer) Nina Heyns, and his team, they built a studio.
So, my space was pretty much just a blank, gorgeously sunlit space with lots of air and a lot of things that we needed for our particular job — a clean space, a dirty space, extras offices, fitting rooms. It was crazy. I shopped fabrics in Istanbul, in New Delhi, in Madrid, in London, in Los Angeles, in New York, and in Berlin. I live for this, because I love to make and I love my artisans.
BTL: How many costumes did you and your team ultimately make for this series?
Mussenden: Oh, God, I can’t even… hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. I think just for the Two Rivers, in the first episode, I think we dressed 350 extras and something like 40 day-players, and the hero team of seven. The first season is a journey from one place to another for our seven leads, so there’s not an opportunity to change their clothes a lot. That’s not what the story was. There’s nowhere to get clothes in the middle of the forest. So, those clothes for our seven leads, we needed seven of everything. We needed clothes for the stunt rider, the stunt double, the photo double. So, even just that first episode, it was a massive amount of clothes.
BTL: Actors have to take your magic and weave it into their magic, if you will. Rosamund Pike is front-and-center of every shot she’s in as Moiraine, and she looks glorious. What can you tell me about working with her?
Mussenden: First of all, I was given the most beautiful person to work with in Rosamund Pike. She has style. She knows herself. She’s also a fantastic, fantastic collaborator. I first had to prove myself to her so that she gained confidence in me as the costume designer. We worked really, really closely together. She had great ideas, and some ideas were not so great. I’d say, “Hmmmm.” And she’d say, “That doesn’t look good.” And I’d say, “No.” But I always wanted every idea she had. At the end of the day, the two of us really worked hard to get where we are.
You see, I never give an actor something and then they go off and have to make it work. It has to work in the fitting room before they even walk out the door so that they feel like that character when they get in that costume. And then they get their hair and makeup. Kristin [Chalmers], who did makeup and hair, she and I worked really closely together in creating those lips. Because we were in this one building, I’d get them dressed and they’d go to her. Then they’d come back to me and we’d take pictures. Then they’d go back and get a different hairdo. That’s really what it takes. We had the Amazon money, the time, and David Brown behind us. He had worked on these big shows and knew and understood the value of really getting time with our actors early enough. We had this give and take, and therefore we could really fine-tune it until we got out there.
But, Rosamund is really, really smart. As far as her craft goes, she knows what she’s doing, and she takes her time. She’s never rushed. It was fantastic working with her. I mean, look at her. She looks beautiful. She’s also got an incredible figure, and she knows her figure very well. She knows what works and what doesn’t. And… she believed in our concept, which was the most important thing for me. After that, it’s just [about] making it work.
BTL: Let’s talk about your team…
Mussenden: I could not have done my job without Gypsy Taylor, my right-hand assistant. Really, it takes a village. This is a huge job. I don’t want to leave people out. I started with my L.A. team, which was Gypsy Taylor, who is actually from Australia, and Lex Wood, plus Oksana Nedavniaya, my brilliant, brilliant concept artist and painter and illustrator. We’ve worked together on six shows, and we really have a great sense of communication. She knows how to get stuff out of my head and onto the paper. I draw really poorly and then she makes it incredibly beautiful. We have a shorthand. We have an ability to get so close to what I want that I can not only sell it to the directors, the actors, and the producers, because it’s beautiful, but also to my makers, and they make it, and it is 95% exactly what that picture looks like. That’s how much work I do in the illustration portion.
BTL: You are not returning for Season 2 of Wheel of Time, so what’s next for you?
Mussenden: I don’t know yet. I’m hoping I get to go back to Europe, which I’m really looking forward to. I’m in the mood for a feature. I spent the first 30 years of my career doing features, and I’ve been watching all the fantastic movies that just came out and it kind of made me want to go back there for a tight little two-hour story. We’ll see what the new year brings.
BTL: How hard is it to say goodbye to a costume when a show wraps?
Mussenden: It’s not so sad for me to see them physically be put beautifully away in a box and preserved. All of that is kind of nice. But when pictures come up on my computer, or on my phone, I do get a twinge of, ‘Oh, look what we did.’ A costume will look so beautiful when it’s on a character in the forest and the actors have all their hair and makeup on.
BTL: You’ve done such big projects, and Wheel of Time was two years and two weeks of your life. Do you ever just want to do something like My Dinner with Andre, and have two people sitting at a table just talking, but looking really stylish in your costumes?
Mussenden: No, I’d be really bored. I want more than that. But… it’s a combination now. I’ve had a varied career. I’ve done comedy, contemporary, period, fantasy. I’ve never done futuristic and I’ve never done period, deep into the 1800s. I just always want the challenge of something new. That’s why we’re freelancers in this business. We don’t like to do the same [thing]. I don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. So, I like to have a little variety.
All pictures are courtesy of Amazon Prime Video, where The Wheel of Time is now streaming.