ANNA KARENINA, a tragic tale of love set in late 19th Century Imperial Russia, marks the third cinematic collaboration between costume designer extraordinaire Jacqueline Durran with director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley. While we’ve seen them create magic before with their previous efforts PRIDE & PREJUDICE and ATONEMENT, the trifecta has really outdone themselves with their latest visual masterpiece.
We were lucky enough to speak to the Oscar nominated Ms. Durran via conference call a couple weeks ago where we discussed the title character’s aura, collaborating with Chanel fine jewelry, and the ingenuity all have displayed in adapting Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel into a layered work of art.
VeryAware: Thanks so much for speaking with me today. It’s an absolute pleasure to speak to you! I was just wondering if you get the same reaction to your breathtaking costumes as audiences do or are you too focused on the minutia of say the stitching or flaws that you know are there?
Jacqueline Durran: (laughs) Yes. I always do. I look at them and I think, “Oh God. That’s not quite right.” But I do. I will tell you something about this particular ANNA KARENINA movie is that because it was such a strained movie – we were only ten weeks out of shooting it suddenly changed into being in a theater. It was very difficult to imagine how the costumes were going to look in this new environment. We did Keira’s first fitting in the first dress in the proper fabric rather than the tulle fittings that you do earlier. We too her onto the stage in her unfinished costume – but largely like pretty much ready – and the milliner was there with her hat and we dressed her up and we were all very pleased with how it was going. We took her out and rolled her onto the stage of the theater which was adjacent and all the workmen were in there working – the director was there and the cinematographer was there. It was really a kind of magical moment because it really was exciting in a way where – sometimes you can be blasé and sometimes you can be a bit fed up with the detail of how it’s going – but it was a really extraordinary moment to see her in this unfinished theater dressed in this kind of 1870’s-ish style. I did feel excited. I remember initially like, “Wow! This could be quite good!”
VeryAware: Absolutely! Just like that iconic green dress in ATONEMENT, the dark dress that Anna wears also informs the narrative. She stands out in this sea of pastels in that chorus in her bold color. Was that a dress where the color was in the novel or was that something you collaborated specifically with Joe Wright?
That’s a great question. We didn’t follow the book – he was particularly doing a stylized version. Tolstoy does describe the costumes but we didn’t concern ourselves with it too much because we weren’t doing an accurate version of the 1870’s so it wasn’t really a concern. One thing that Joe was concerned about was whether we should follow the book for the ball because the ball dress is so significant in the story of Anna Karenina. In the book she wears black. We debated with ourselves whether to follow it and do black and we decided to, but obviously what the difference is is that we frame her by making those dancers in 25 shades of pastels. So all the dancers around her are in identical dresses – I don’t know if you noticed they are all the same. Obviously the black as her dress stands out against that background. That’s a really good question. We did plan that very specifically. In fact all of the kinds of society are around her, we re-use those same dresses intentionally that we hope people notice because they are the color of society and Anna is always in contrast to that – standing out from it.
VeryAware: Totally. I thought that was absolutely brilliant. It just brings her story to the foreground.
I’m really pleased that that resonated. Sometimes you wonder whether anyone will see what you’re trying to do. That is exactly what we were trying to do so I’m pleased.
VeryAware: We touched on it briefly but as there are these giant set pieces swirling around, was there any costume you had to make to accommodate specific sequences?
We didn’t really. Everything was more or less as it would be. The only thing we did change to accommodate the action was the black dress for dancing because it really was physically very strenuous for the actors to do. They had to rehearse for weeks and then they had to do that dance all day for several days in a row which is really exhausting. We had to make Anna’s dress as light as possible so that Keira wouldn’t have an extra thing to exhaust her, but even so, I think it was really exhausting.
Q: What do you think makes Keira such a great actress to collaborate with on period pieces such as ANNA KARENINA and PRIDE & PREJUDICE?
I think it’s because she’s a good actress. Joe Wright has such a strong idea of the visual style of the movie he’s about to make so he always gives us a fundamental brief. In PRIDE & PREJUDICE, he told us to think about the daily provincial life. When it was ANNA KARENINA, he had us concentrate on silhouettes – think about conceptual and how those two things might look together. Before we start talking, I always have these baselines from Joe. And then what I do is, Keira and I work in collaboration in a sense that I always want to know how she thinks the character would be like and what will help her in her interpretation of the character. It’s much more interesting to make costumes for an actor where you’re having a dialogue with so you get feedback. I think that maybe, if the costumes are successful on her, it’s because we talk about it in relation to the character and how she feels about it and in terms of Joe’s overall stylization. I try to bring all the elements together so the puzzle fits. The thing is about Joe is his baseline is really interesting. It’s quite accessible to a modern sensibility. The other thing of course is that Keira is really stylish, she makes things work where other people can’t make work. That isn’t to be underestimated. There’s moments in ANNA KARENINA where she’s unbelievably a star! When she sits down on the bed and she’s going to meet Vronksy and she lifts the veil, it’s a kind of … she’s so astoundingly beautiful.
VeryAware: I know you worked with Chanel jewelers on ATONEMENT, but how did your collaboration go with ANNA KARENINA?
In early discussions with Joe and Keira, we decided that what would make costumes for the actor and for the director in terms of character – one of the things we said early on was if Anna was always wearing real jewelry it would be a thing that would augment the idea of Anna – having a lot of fine jewelry in the movie. Joe and Keira have a strong relationship with Chanel and also I had already worked with them on ATONEMENT. When it came during shooting to arrange having them there, Chanel were extremely happy to help. I went to Paris and went to the fine jewelry store and I chose items that I thought had a kind of timeless elegance. I didn’t choose anything that was too modern. I chose things that were a combination of filigree diamonds and pearls. The most modern piece I chose was that huge camellia necklace that she wears to the ball and the opera. The value of that necklace in terms of the aura and opulence is worth it in every way – you don’t worry about it being modern. It was just astounding. It was part of the process to getting dressed to be Anna. In the morning, we’d bring in the jewelry in a big tray and Keira would go through it and decide what Anna was going to wear that day in a way that perhaps a real Anna Karenina like person would do.
VeryAware: Which is every girls dream, right?!
Of course! The other thing too is having that many of that kind of jewelry gives a certain energy. I don’t know why. It’s one of those things about jewelry.
VeryAware: No offense to Tom Stoppard [screenwriter] and Joe but there were moments where I don’t know what was being said, but I can remember what jewelry Anna was wearing. A total magpie!
Yeah, exactly! I think when you’re looking at it though, while it’s astounding and eye catching that’s part of the aura of ANNA KARENINA.
ANNA KARENINA is now playing in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, Boston. The film opens on November 21 in Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Portland, San Diego, St. Louis, and Houston. The film opens wider on November 30th.