Academy Award winning costume designer Janty Yates is a fashion time traveler. In her last 12 films (eight of which were with director Ridley Scott), Yates has designed clothes (and armor, and flight suits, and period piece suits, and…) for characters in ancient Rome (Gladiator, which earned her an Oscar), World War II era Europe (Charlotte Gray), 12th century Jerusalem (Kingdom of Heaven), 1970s New York (American Gangster), 13th century England (Robin Hood), and 2093 outer space (Prometheus).
Her latest film is the crime drama The Counselor, another collaboration with Scott, burnished further by an original screenplay by the legendary novelist Cormac McCarthy. Set in modern day Texas, The Counselor focuses on Michael Fassbender as the titular lawyer, who tries to get a piece of the drug trafficking business only to find himself in way over his head. Yates was given nearly free reign to dress the eclectic characters in clothes that hinted (or sometimes shouted, in the case of Javier Bardem’s gloriously over-the-top style) at the psychological makeup of the men and women beneath the threads. Joining Fassbender and Bardem are Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. Yates had access to the archives of first rate fashion houses, cowboy and western outlets, and her own imagination to dress her incredible cast.
We spoke to the charming British costume designer by phone (she's on location for her latest film with Scott in Spain) about putting Pitt in bolo ties and Stetsons, making the most of sandstorms in Morocco, and how she's able to design costumes for movies no matter the year, century, or millennia.
The characters in The Counselor all have such unique, individual looks. Let's start with Reiner, Javier Bardem's character. What went into picking out his sort of unhinged look?
Ridley was very keen that Javier looks like the party giver, the socialite, the man who lives life like an extreme playboy. And there’s nobody that sums up that wonderful South American/Mediterranean playboy feel than Javier. The role was absolutely made for him. And we all know that Javier is not normally such a character, and doesn’t play such a character.
When you’re searching for the right look for a character, you obviously talk to the director about what he’s looking for, but how do you go about sourcing the clothes?
Well, for example let’s start with Brad Pitt. Basically the one thing that Ridley said to me about his look was “tailored cowboy.” Brad plays a kind of man of mystery, you’re not quite sure who he is. So we put on the first pair of tailored trousers, I had my tailor, Chris Car, make all his suits. So we got them to a fitting stage and we put the first trousers on and we just knew we had to run with it. Between the crocodile boots, the Constantine jewelry, and the fabulous Stetsons we really did create a character that just everybody, not only myself but Brad, and Ridley, loved. It was a great collaboration.
How much description of the wardrobe was in Cormac McCarthy’s script?
Cormac McCarthy was very happy to give the creative sweep to Ridley, because Ridley was seven years at art college, he's painter, he’s a production designer, he’s so inspirational in his vision that Cormac was very happy to let all those decisions to Ridley and me. Cormac was with us every day on set. He’s a man of great stamina.
That’s got to be a delight, to have a living legend on set with you, obviously he’s the screenwriter so it's not that unusual, but he’s also Cormac McCarthy.
Oh my god, well I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy for twenty years and collecting his books. I had a bit of a cry when I met him, it really was like meeting a living legend.
When is somebody going to make Blood Meridian into a movie?
Well…I’m…well I know that Ridley and he and have talked about it. I think it’s a difficult movie to film, isn’t it? Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
What about Fassbender’s look, as the counselor, does that look evolve over the course of the film as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble?
Michael Fassbender was always going to be the sharpest dressed lawyer in the United States. He was dressed by Armani, and he had to have the best cut. He’s a vain man, he’s a greedy man, an arrogant man. Nothing to do with Michael, of course, and this is no reflection on Armani, but basically they were very sharp suits. And even the suits he regresses in as he comes to realize the terrible events that are occurring, he is degenerating in these perfectly cut suits.
Let’s talk about the two female leads, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. The former plays, Laura, the counselor's fiancé, while Diaz plays Malkina, Bardem’s malevolent girlfriend. How did you go about styling them?
Well Penelope’s character is the innocent. So we tailored her to look as if she was a professional coming from her legal office, or maybe she met the counselor in some law court or some form of office work.
With Cameron, it was very important to find a look that we hadn’t seen on her before. Her whole look was completely and utterly radical. I may be talking out of turn here, but I think Cameron loved this look. It was Thomas Wylde, by Paula Thomas, the most fantastic collection, and they opened their archives to us. We were able to completely pillage everything and anything, and we were able to costume Cameron in clothes she had never been seen in before. Cameron is very much a clothes horse, she’s of the fashion world, and she’s a great, passionate fashionista. Fashionista sounds shallow, and she’s nowhere near shallow. She loved Paula Thomas’s designs as much as Ridley and I did. It was so extreme and off the wall, and they fit the character.
You’ve had a great long term relationship with Ridley Scott, and it seems like every film you two do together jumps a dozen, a hundred, a thousand years. What’s your method for being able to dress characters in ancient Rome as well as characters fifty years in 2093 aboard a spacecraft?
It’s frightening (laughs). From the first time I worked with Ridley, we were in a 180 AD on a film called Gladiator. Basically, you just go with it. And I can tell you, I’ve never been very good at history, but now I’ve learned so much about history in this particular line of work I do. It’s been the most amazing opportunity to work with Ridley. You know, when you’re working in outer space [on Prometheus], and the last thing you’ve done in that vein was Space Virgins From the Planet Sex, from a comic strip series, [Laughs] you know you've taken your life in your hands. So far we’ve been fortunate really that’s it all worked. Every single project is a huge challenge. Every single project, for any costume designer, is a huge challenge.
What can you divulge, if anything, about your current project with Ridley, the Biblical film Exodus? How did you prep for it?
This is a Biblical story which is set in 1300 BC. The way I tackle this is research, research and research. That’s your keystone. Going to museums, and now online research has made it a lot easier than it used to be back in the day. For Gladiator I went to Rome, and I learned so much from every single corner you walked down, there was another beautiful marble statue, you just have to drown yourself in research. We're covering two pharaohs in Exodus, Seti and Ramses II, both in their palaces. So we’re doing all the research, and once you know where you should be, you can start tricking it a little bit.
How do you trick the Exodus a little bit? Can you give us a few hints?
No. (Laughs) But I can tell you, in Gladiator, there was never armor like Joaquin Phoenix’s armor, that was made to look like marble. There was never gowns like Connie Nielsen had as Lucilla, but because it just worked, you could twist it. As long you as you don’t twist it to the point of ridiculousness.
As the costume designer, you are there every day, for every shot. What’s that like?
Yes I have to be there every single day. I have to establish costume on every single actor in every single scene with Ridley. And Ridley will go around and say things like, ‘Let’s make those ten people look completely different.’ So you roll with it and think on your feet, and I can’t be responsible for making other people do that. I have to be his point person.
You’ve traveled all over the world doing your films, do you have a favorite location?
Anywhere that I’m creating something new and exciting. Is that a really corny answer? Because it’s true, the adrenalin keeps you going, the adrenalin stimulates you. I was standing in the desert in Morocco and a tornado came through. But it was exciting [Laughs]. We were covered in sand, there’s four sandstorms a day, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s anywhere.
Do you have any other far-reaching project you’re thinking about?
To be honest, I don’t, because we jumped into Exodus in May, we won’t be through until February, and I think my long reaching ambition is a beach in the Maldives. Not for life, I must say, but maybe just for a few weeks.
Featured image: Westray (Brad Pitt) and the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) discuss the grave circumstances. Photo By Kerry Brown, Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.