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Collaboration: Ngila Dickson

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By Jack Egan
When Oscars and other movie awards roll around early next year, New Zealand costume designer Ngila Dickson may well find she’s competing with herself.
That’s because Dickson (whose first name is pronounced “Nyla”) has costumed two of this year’s most elaborate and eagerly awaited epics, which both happen to be December releases: The Return of the King, the third and final installment of New Line Cinema’s Lord of the Rings fantasy saga, and The Last Samurai, from Warner Bros., starring Tom Cruise. (Dickson was nominated for an Oscar for best costume design in 2002 for her work on LOTR’s first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, but didn’t win. She did, however, win a BAFTA award in the U.K. earlier this year for her costumes for the second episode, The Two Towers.)
“If ever the gods smiled on a costume designer, it was to do Last Samurai after Lord of the Rings, though at first many people thought I was insane to take on another job equally large,” declares Dickson, 47, whose background includes being the editor of a fashion magazine and doing costumes for two television shows produced in New Zealand, Xena and Hercules. “But it turned out lots of what I had learned on Lord of the Rings I could apply to The Last Samurai.”
The latter takes place in 19th century Japan toward the end of the samurai era and the beginning of Westernization. Cruise plays a Civil War soldier who gets involved in the battles of this period. Dickson had to design clothes for a half dozen armies—the old Japanese Imperial Army, the new Japanese Imperial Army, the samurai clans, Civil War soldiers—North and South–in battle, and also American Indian warriors.
Dickson worked with designer teams from Japan, the U.S., and New Zealand. It was too costly to make the costumes in Japan, so her workshops were in Los Angeles and New Zealand. “We worked with a group of actors who had spent their whole lives doing Samurai movies and here we were bringing Samurai armor to them from New Zealand,” she marvels. “I’d say put this on, and they loved it.”
The eagerly awaited Return of the King finale to LOTR features several huge set pieces, which required Dickson to pull out all the stops along with wardrobe mistress Ellen Lee and a factory of over 80 seamstresses, jewelry fabricators, and shoemakers. There’s a stupendous final battle, the establishment of Gondor as a city, and the crowning of the king bringing all the episodic elements together, “with the most extreme aging of all the characters’ costumes,” notes Dickson.
Although the three parts of LOTR were shot together in one two-year stretch, that cost-saving marathon didn’t make her job any easier. “It was a jigsaw puzzle, and it was a nightmare,” she declares. Actually, her work on LOTR spanned nearly five years, and didn’t end until last summer when the final reshoots for Return of the King took place, following the conclusion of her work on The Last Samurai.
For LOTR, there was no overlap in wardrobe from film to film. “For us it was all new costumes all the time,” declares Dickson, who was responsible for designing all the clothing for the three films, as well as items like necklaces and belts. One challenge was to make what the characters wore look worn and old. Dickson, known for her attention to detail, used a variety of fabrics and materials that were treated and distressed. “I’m a maniac, and I love aging things and making costumes as real as you can make them,” she says. “We just destroyed things, sometimes taking four days to age a costume, and the more we went into it the better it got, in terms of being lifelike for the cameras.”
The normal chain of command on a movie, where the costume designer reports directly to the production designer, was bypassed for LOTR. Dickson had limited contacts with production designer Grant Major. “Most of the time when we saw each other it was on a plane flying home for the weekend and we’d have a drink together,” she recalls. She knew Major quite well, “so I wasn’t doing my job from an unknown perspective.”
The interaction was fluid. Sometimes Dickson conferred directly with director Peter Jackson. “But Peter’s time was really limited so we were all constantly in each other’s offices to see what everybody else was up to,” she says. “You found everything out through osmosis by these visits and a strange kind of telepathy. We all knew we were in trouble together, so in order to get it done, you couldn’t be too possessive.”
As a change of pace from the epics she has worked on for nearly five years, Dickson is presently on a contemporary comedy, Without a Paddle. Steven Brill, known for his Adam Sandler comedies, is directing for Paramount. “If nothing else, I get to laugh my way through the day,” she remarks. But Dickson has made a “personal choice” to spend time outside of New Zealand and therefore turned down the job of costume designer for Peter Jackson’s next opus, a remake of King Kong, which will be shot there. First stop will be Los Angeles for the first few months of 2004 for some needed R&R—just when the foreshortened Oscar season gets into gear.

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