Interview with Isis Mussenden

Posted July 30, 2007 11:26 am by fantasia_kitty

ComingSoon.net also interviewed costume designer Isis Mussenden, who talks about her experience designing the costumes for the creatures of Narnia, and her biggest challenge, the Telmarine armor. Listen to the full audio interview here.

Interview with Isis Mussenden

CS: We’ll ask you the same question, following with Narnia, the first one, what was your task to make it bigger or better or darker or grittier?

IM: Well the script has already done the task for me, because it was bigger, darker, and yeah, it was just so much more massive to start with, the script. So we already had our work cut out for us right from the beginning. Now, to make it better is always our goal, you know, from movie to movie whether it’s a sequence of movies that you always, you know like this, a franchise or not, you always try to take those lessons and make them better and better.

CS: How do you and Howard work closely together as he’s designing the creatures?

IM: Yes we do, but normally, Howard and I have a lot more connection than we did on this one. On this one because we decided very early on that the creatures would have no clothing on. And we didn’t really have any clothing on them in the first one, but we did have bits of fabric, like Mr. Tumnus’ scarf and all that, but we really wanted them to feel like they were renegade, they were down to the bare, they were out hiding in the forest. So in taking that, Andrew and I worked on the concept that what would they have on? What kind of armor? And when we started to break down the armor they had from before, so that we kept the motifs and we kept the armor bits and pieces, what we were going to do was erode it and change it and we were going to see what people do when they have nothing else, no other resources, but what you had before. And then transform it so that they had some kind of protection and some kind of armor.
Now with the dwarfs we worked extremely closely because obviously dwarfs are human form. So Nikabrik and Trumpkin, Howard and his team really designed amazing makeup for them, and he was right, we have two actors this time and that makes a huge difference, and they look fantastic. It’s a red dwarf and a black dwarf, but they’re both on the good side this time, so we worked very closely together on the design for the dwarfs.

CS: Is there something, like one of the show pieces that you’re most excited about?

IM: You know it’s very interesting because I’ve been asked this question because on the first one, Tilda was like the big thing, you know with the witch, you know, she was kind of the show piece, and so I don’t really have a show piece this time, but there’s two things I’m really proud of this time and one is the Telmarine army, because I’ve never done an army before. And let me tell you, it’s a task. We manufactured every single thing they wear, from their shoes to the armor. We had four armorists in Prague working the leatherwork. Thousands and thousands actually almost up to a million studs were put onto the brigandines, but it was a real task. We built a 330 strong army and that doesn’t even sound like that much, but I have to tell you that is a lot of pieces, it was over 3000 pieces.

CS: Yeah, that sounds like a lot.

IM: It was massive, and there were days I felt like on this big whirlwind for months and months, just going, just keeping alive, just keeping ahead of it, and then translating all my armorists who spoke Czech only. Not one of them spoke English, so aimless hours of translation and trying to get this across, and just working hard to get it exactly the way we wanted. And then to age it all, age every single piece so they look like they’d been in a hundred battles.

CS: How did you do that?

IM: With a team of about 15 people working four and a half months aging. As the things were made, they would come in and they would age it and they would age it by rusting it and painting in like sun… There’s a cross belt that holds the sword and we did a whole sun, like the sun had been on and so the cross belt was dark, and it was aged out, you know, bleached out on the side and it was just an enormous undertaking. But I love it, I love the way it looks. We have three different types of armor that we had to make. We made metal, very light-weight metal armor. I’m talking about the helmets and the masks and the gauntlets and the grieves and the corselets. And then we had to do stunts’ armor which is flexible, so it had to look the same, but it’s made out of a plasticine. But these armorist and sculptors that helped me work on this stuff in Prague, they have such antiquity there, they’re used to making things look really old because of course the city is 1100 years old or something. So these guys came in and they could patina, just to match just exactly the way the armor looked. You can’t tell the difference between the plastic stuff and the metal, it’s pretty phenomenal. So we’re very proud of that and I think that it’s a unique look. It’s a look that doesn’t exist anywhere in history but it’s all taken from historic bits and pieces that I worked on with the Metropolitan Museum. I worked with that in New York, with the curator from there. We worked with lots of research on the bits and pieces and then we made it our own.

CS: You know, when an audience sees the film like Narnia, do you think they realize how much work and how much effort and energy goes into everything?

IM: Absolutely not. Absolutely not, you can’t possibly… People come to my work, and I have a 10,000 square foot work space, where we have dyers, agers, screen printers, every pair of pants was screened. We have this laugh because there this certain person we know that always talks statistics and we kind of think it’s hilarious and so that’s why we went and counted everything. And last we my team goes “We’re gonna get you the numbers this time.” And they don’t even understand that for the four kids, just for their four outfits, which everything is hand made, we make seven of each of them.

CS: Each individual outfit?

IM: Each individual outfit, every single piece.

CS: Why seven?

IM: Well we have a stunt rider and a stunt coordinator, and wear and tear, and growth for the two younger ones who are still growing. We just finished two last pieces for Edmund and Lucy because they’ve already grown. Georgie’s grown four inches since we started.

CS: What can you tell us about their pieces, what’s your favorite among those?

IM: I love the girls’ Narnia pieces; the first pieces they wear are really quite beautiful. We’ve built in Susan’s daffodil motif that she’s always had, right into her dress this time just layered on, and it’s based on this beautiful fashion piece that’s out of this exhibition in Tokyo. I love combining that whole medieval look with whatever I want. I mean, I have the best job in the world, I just get to make it up. Nobody can say ‘oh that’s not the right period.’ It’s Narnia, it doesn’t matter. [laughs]

CS: Do you start to a concept for some of the wardrobe when you read the script or when you read the book? Do you start to think about it then or do you wait to work with the director?

IM: No, I definitely start by reading the script or the book. I felt that the Prince Caspian book was quite uninspiring for me so unfortunately, as opposed to the first one which I used as a Bible. On this one it was very uninspiring, so the script was so much better. It’s very interesting, it really moves and it’s a lot of fun. And then from there, I start with pallet, and that was one of the big things for the Telmarine civilian wear, and all the Telmarines I needed to come up with a pallet. We’ve traveled all over Europe researching, I’ve gotten the paintings of El Greco are where I took the pallet for the Telmarines because they were brutal and they were beautiful and they were acidic and they were harsh. And so using those paintings, literally, that’s where I pull all the colors from, for all the clothing for all the Telmarines. And eventually it’ll show. On an individual, will people know that? No. But it will read on a full at the end the day. So I just start with pallet and then I just do endless research from anywhere; from fine art, from magazines, from sculpture, from nature pictures. I was just at the zoo last week collecting things thinking about Dawn Treader and you know, taking pictures of these amazing stripes on these animals or these incredible birds. I mean nature is beyond inspiring because of the colors and the textile design. And I work a lot in textile design, I have a fabulous textile artist, Sarah Shepherd, who’s out of New Zealand, who did the first movie and has done this one with me, and she’s incredibly talented and we’re always working off making… like any… We don’t buy fabrics with patterns; we make the patterns on the fabric. We will design them, we will screen them, and then we will screen the entire piece of fabric and then make the costume. In our Prague experience we’ve had two really great things. One was the armorists, as I said before, but the second thing was we found these incredible embroiderers. And so we have some beautiful embroidery work and motif work on these; in the girls’ costumes definitely, and a lot of the Telmar stuff. Everything was touched and you know, I have a great team.

CS: Will you be working on the third film?

IM: Hopefully. We’re in negotiations; I think we’ll be doing it. It’s just another year of my life. [laughs] It’s so hard, but it’s so fantastic though. We don’t know where we’re going to do it is the problem. And I have a seven year old, and I’ve got to get him in school. But he’s lived an amazing life already; a year in New Zealand and a year in Europe. It’s pretty incredible.

CS: I’ve always wondered, in a movie like this, what happens to all these pieces?

IM: You know what we do? Disney holds them for exhibition. The first one we did a lot of exhibition, they had Disney World, and it was Christmas time and they did the malls, this whole series of malls, and they did this whole Narnia/Santa Claus picture thing. And so they do hold them for exhibition. We didn’t have that much stuff on the first one, there just really wasn’t as much as you’d think. On this one we have a whole army along with all the other stuff, so we’ll hold stuff for exhibitions, plus Dawn Treader takes place not long after. So I would probably use some of the stuff for that, like I said, extras 1000 strong so I can definitely use some of that stuff.

CS: Oh, that’s good.

IM: Yeah, wouldn’t you think? [laughs] Dawn Treader’s a lot smaller than this one. Not in the scope, but at least in the costumes.

CS: Thank you so much!