It’s not always clear what prompts the call that eventually leads to a film assignment. For Jacqueline West, costume designer of The New World, she believes her recreation of 18th century France in Quills may have caught the attention of Terrence Malick.“It’s just a hunch,” she says. “I can’t remember why specifically I even came to that conclusion but it was some stray comment in conversation.”What the producers and writer-director couldn’t possibly have known was West’s fascination with native-American culture. A long-time resident of San Francisco, she moved to South Dakota several years ago and her interest in plains Indians spawned further research on American aboriginals that inspired a trip down the Amazon.She also senses that her immediate excitement about the project translated in a phone conversation with production designer Jack Fisk as well as Malick. West immediately dived into research about the era and began to do copious drawings of the Indians as well as the English explorers.“You can never quite tell what it is that’s going to connect with the people you work with,” she says. “But you can see people’s eyes light up when they see something that gets them thinking. What was in the back of my mind was Smith as a sea dog in the Errol Flynn mode and the Indians having a dark and mysterious quality.”She describes the experience of making the saga of John Smith and Pocahontas as “intense, highly collaborative and enormously satisfying.” Following meticulous and detailed discussion of her renderings with Malick, her primary work was with Fisk and cinematograher Emmanel Lubezki, ASC. She laughs at the memory of the director’s marching order that the film have no white and says that their focal visual influences included Vermeer and Caravaggio. It was an earthy, monochromatic look with a strong light source.West also took great pleasure in working entirely with natural materials. It was an aspect that informed every part of the picture’s design and heightened the sense of being in the environment physically and wearing the clothing of the time. A developed sense of trust was crucial not only from the artistic collaborators but also from the Indians in the region who served as consultants. She knew it was finally achieved when a local chief came forward to offer her wild turkey feathers—whose use is protected by law and controlled by native peoples—when she was creating the headdress of the Powhatan leader.
Written by Jack Egan