Award-winning Australian costume designer Tess Schofield talks the pressures of recreating ANZAC history in The Water Diviner and just how much Russell Crowe loves a good uniform.
Last week, Tess Schofield won the country’s highest film costume design honours for The Water Diviner. Compared to the other Australian films nominated in the same Best Costume Design AACTA category – such as stylish time traveller Predestination, 70s desert safari Tracks and Nicole Kidman’s The Railway Man – Russell Crowe’s World War I drama probably seemed like the least obvious choice to audiences. Superb acting, yes. A powerful story, undoubtedly. But brilliant costume design?
Sit back and watch the film for a second time, and you’ll get it; Schofield’s achievements are simply extraordinary. Rusty’s directorial debut took audiences from outback Australia, to downtown Istanbul, to the Gallipoli battlefield and to the Turkish countryside. All in the year 1919, shortly after the war has ended. All of which required Schofield to painstakingly recreate not only Australian army kit, but Ottoman uniforms, stylish post-World War I Turkish fashions and village ensembles.
“I did have to do a lot of research and I do think that sometimes research in the Ottoman Army was one of the more tricky things that I had to do!” laughs Schofield. “Because it’s really a job for a military consultant… I took it really seriously. With a story (such as this) that displays the Turkish perspective… I think there is a big responsibility there for Australians to try and get that right, (to) not be patronizing or lazy about that.”
Here, the lovely Tess Schofield talks working on much-loved Aussie films like Bootmen and The Sapphires, scouring Australian soldiers’ written accounts of World War I for glimpses of costume clues, and working with the big man himself, Russell Crowe.
Congratulations on your AACTA award win for Best Costume Design last week! I think that’s number five.
I know, what a surprise! I thought it was four but my agent assures me it’s five.
That must feel amazing, to have such a collection at home.
I know, they’re funny, the first three are AFI awards and now the AACTA award has changed, the award itself, it’s gone from being this sort of perspex (figure) to a golden guy. I shove them on the bookshelf.
Do you remember how you felt when you won your first one?
I was very nervous when I won my first one, because it was Spotswood (also known as The Efficiency Expert, which starred Anthony Hopkins and a young Russell Crowe) an Australian feature film in 1990, and I’d never worked on a film before. Not a short film or a big film. So I was pretty green, I think I was 24 years old, and it was very exciting but very scary. The costume award was the first cab off the rank and it was at the Sydney Opera House so you know, needless to say I was s***ing myself.
Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe in Spotswood
What a promising start, to be recognized like that so early on.
As a costume designer I’d been working in opera and theatre. I worked on a very big musical called Chess in early 1990, and then I really felt like I could take on a feature after that. So I told my agent that’s what I was going to start chasing and I did.
You put your early stamp on some classic Australian ones, like Cosi, Radiance, Dirty Deeds, but the one that will always resonate for me is Bootmen.
I still remember when that came out. Just the images from that – the flannel shirts, the boots, the jackets, the beanies…
The workwear, the fabulous workwear of the (Newcastle) workers. I’m pretty committed to Australian product, I’m pretty into the Aussie feature industry.
I love that.
Politically it suits me more than working on an American film, not that that’s ever been an option for me, and not that I wouldn’t work with American people, artists or practitioners. I just feel quite committed to the Australian storytelling.
Adam Garcia and Sam Worthington in Bootmen
I think that costume design in Australian storytelling is kind of an underappreciated art.
I don’t think it’s underappreciated in a conscious way, I just think it is sort of misunderstood. Designers often work in isolation… and there have been great movements in the last few years with the Australian Production Design Guild (APDG) headed up by George Liddle, and also Julie Lynch. It feels like the Guild atmosphere of designers in Australia is starting to emerge, and that’s just absolutely delightful.
There’s always this ongoing conversation about costume, because people get dressed in the morning, they know how to put their own clothes on, there’s kind of always been this idea that actors just dress themselves or that there’s a group of women stuck behind them, in a room somewhere, working out some frocks. But it’s actually quite a complicated and technical process, as well as a very conceptual process, resolving costumes on a major feature film. It’s a huge job. There are big teams we deal with… and all of our casual labour we need, all of the costumiers, cutters, tailors, milliners, cobblers, art finishers… All these people have to be brought in strategically around the build, (around) the production time when the costumes are actually being constructed.
I imagine The Water Diviner must have been one of the most complicated films to costume because I think, on the outside, it looks deceptively simple – like, oh, they are in uniform for a lot of it. But there are Australian soldiers, British soldiers…
Italian soldiers, Ottoman soldiers…
Greek insurgents, village people, town people… where did you start on this?
You always start with the script. I get quite analytical in the beginning, and work on great big tables and charts and stuff, to try and get a sense of where the big chunks of storytelling are taking place. I guess also, at the same time of dealing with the big crowd scenes, there has to be a commitment to focusing on the principal cast because that’s where the cameras are often going to end up – on Russell or on Olga or Yilmaz, the camera’s going to be where the story is. Everything happens simultaneously.
A lot of those historical items such as the uniforms, were they easy to come by or you had to recreate them from photos? What was the process there?
It was really complicated because I found it quite difficult to get to the heart of the Ottoman soldier’s uniform. According to my research, I found two pieces of actual uniform in existence today. In the world. They seem to be a mishmash of clothing, mixed in with uniform pieces. The Ottomans, the soliders who fought for Turkey, were drawn from all over the Ottoman empire, so there’s a lot of regional dress mixed in with improvised bits and pieces. The kit was provided by the Germans, so their ammunition and their webbing (the strong woven fabric used for military belts, packs and pouches) was quite contemporary for the time, and sophisticated, but the actual clothes were a rag bag of what people could get their hands on.
And at one point in 1915, I think they were losing so many soldiers and needed so many new bits and pieces to identify them, that all of the fabric across the Empire was kind of drawn into Constantinople to make uniforms. So all the fabrics were different. Australian soldiers tell written accounts of what the Ottomans looked like moving towards them, and there seemed to be colour and civilian clothes and a lot of them seemed to have incorrect footwear – they didn’t have proper boots, they had slippers which were regional and came from different places across the Ottoman empire and they were tied on with rags.
The burkas were equally complex in a way, the type of burkas that were being worn (then) are different to the burkas that are being worn now… There’s a lot of complexities around analyzing that cultural context, so I did go to Turkey for a reccie and did a lot of shopping at Grand Bazaar and set up communications with my Turkish supervisor, to organize getting things sent back – textiles, accessories, footwear – all sorts of things that we would either use as stock clothing, or as principal clothing, or as models to construct other things from, or samples.
It was absolutely fascinating, the whole understanding of the history and the geography of the area, as well as the cultural and social context of the time. Very stimulating.
I think Megan Gale is in one of those burkas at one point?
Oh, she’s in a yashmak (a veiled scarf) and dress. The burkas are more public when you’re out in the street.
Russell (pictured top of page on set) seems to be very hands on as a director. How was he in the beginning with you, did he say ‘hey, I’ve got these ideas’ or he was happy to be guided by you?
Russell loves uniforms (laughs). I mean, it’s a real collaboration. He can’t design the film and he can’t sort of do everything, that’s why everyone else is there as well… but he likes to get really involved. Because he’s an actor and he is used to being in costume and he is used to the transformative capability of costume and he understands how that can support a character’s journey, of course, he knows that better than some directors, so he asks all the right questions. He’s hot for a pernickety argument about something, he’s good for conflict when there’s ideas going on!
When it boils down to it, your last film, The Sapphires is really another kind of war film.
You might see it as a war film, I see it as a chicks flick! A film about sisterhood and family. The war is in the background, it is there.
Deborah Mailman (left) and Jessica Mauboy (second from right) in The Sapphires
So what were your main influences? Did you feel you had to be as historically accurate on a film like The Sapphires as you did here?
My influences were the Australian entertainers in Vietnam, their music. Rural Australia. Indigenous issues, which haven’t gone away.
(But) a period film is always a period film. There’s a kind of expectation that a costume designer is able to render the period. Of course there are times when stories are more abstract and it’s not such a design driver.
Finding the individuality of characters within a period context is always a really important thing. Like trying to place Ayshe in that Hotel Troya, that’s kind of a complicated thing, because she’s not like an ordinary Turkish woman – she’s been educated in Europe, she’s got a European sensibility about her, she’s kind of bourgeois.
Costume is much more complicated than people know, I think. There’s a lot of intuition, a lot of nuts and bolts research, there’s technical stuff to deal with… practical things to deal with. But ultimately, hopefully the individual characters who are telling the story are rendered well enough through costume that you do get a strong sense of who they are and where they come from.
The Water Diviner is in cinemas across Australia now.