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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Screen Saver, Part III

Next in my series of chats with big-screen costume designers is the charming, quiet and sun-kissed Michael Kaplan, who shot out of the gate with his first film, the camp classic Can't Stop the Music, in 1980. Just a couple years later he irrevocably changed the fashion vernacular with Flashdance and Blade Runner. But as he tells me, his next film and dream job, Burlesque (with Cher!), just might be his greatest moment yet. By Cesar Padilla

Let's start with your first film.
Yes, Can't Stop the Music, the Village People movie. There were four of us working on the film and I was assigned the Village People.

How was the experience?
It was the epitome of what was going on at the time. One thing I do remember, which was a first, is [producer] Allan Carr asking me to accentuate the Village People's crotches.

So you were responsible for that?
Yes. (Smiles.)

Was there anyone who didn't need a little something extra?
No, they all needed stuffing.

Were people getting laid on set?
It was a big job and I had my mind on work, although...well, I can't go into detail out of respect for the dead.

Were you getting laid on set?
No, I never combine work and play.

Let's talk Valerie Perrine.
Valerie was supposed to play a high fashion model and, well, it was a little bit of a stretch so I suggested having a make-up artist from the fashion industry do her make-up. Everyone thought it was great idea except Valerie. She was furious and felt challenged. When the day arrived to start filming she said okay, but on one condition. She allowed the make-up artist to do only half her face and she would do the other half because she felt she knew what worked best for her.

How did the split face turn out?
She did two screen tests with each half and she was right. She knew how she looked best. We have the same eye doctor and just the other day I saw her for the first time in a long time. I wondered if she remembered any of that.

You also worked with Michael Jackson. What was that like?
I did two Pepsi commercials with Michael. It was strange because all his comments had to do with food. We'd be deciding on a shirt color and mention the color peach and he'd say, "oh, peaches and cream." Or I'd mention salmon and he would say, "smoked salmon on a bagel." For the color cherry he said, "I love cherries, do you like cherries?" He asked everyone in the room. He was very childlike and sweet.

Did you always want to be a costume designer?
I majored in sculpture, painting and illustration, but as I was graduating I realized I wasn't meant to be a fine artist. After some soul-searching I realized costume design was something that really fascinated me. Not so much fashion design but creating characters with clothing, creating a world. Being a costume designer is such a great job, I may be unemployed at the end of every film but every time I start one it's a whole new cast of characters and a new world to create. So much better than working in a bank.

What's your earliest fashion memory?
There was this movie I was very interested in as a child called The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing, with Joan Collins. She played the original Gibson Girl, Evelyn Nesbit.

Why do you think it resonated with you?
I only saw it once, but it kicked off something.

What was the first piece of clothing you ever made?
It wasn't really a piece of clothing. I painted someone's body for a ball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first piece of actual clothing I made was for a party I was invited to at the West Hollywood Women's League. It was their first annual spring formal and all the men had to come dressed as women and all the women as men. I designed a cream-colored silk floor-length ball gown for myself.

Sexy or demure?
Demure, please! It was backless and on the bias. I looked ravishing. My date, Daphne Parker, wore a cream silk tailcoat and top hat. I didn't make her outfit.

Do you still sew?
I can, but very badly. I would be fired if I had to sew the costumes.

What's your process for a film?
I do lots of sketches. Early on I did all my own sketches. Now I do rough sketches and give them to an artist.

Have you saved all your sketches?
I've been better about it as of late. I do have most of the sketches from Blade Runner.

What are the films you are most proud of?
Probably Blade Runner, Flashdance and Fight Club.

Blade Runner came very early in your career, followed immediately by Flashdance. How did your participation in those epic cinematic moments come about?
For Blade Runner, Ridley Scott was interviewing people and most of the costume designers in the union were talking to him about silver mylar as a means to convey the future, but he wanted to meet someone young and fresh with new ideas. At the time I was the newest member of the union. Someone said he should meet the newest member, so we met. After that Ridley recommended me to Adrian Lyne and that's how Flashdance came about. I have to say, I love working with Brits.

With Flashdance, not only did your fashion choices influence a generation, but you influenced fashion for the rest of time! How does it feel to have achieved such a global impact?
I love it.

American Apparel wouldn't exist without Flashdance.
I've had directors say they're doing a movie and they want me to start a trend like Flashdance. But you have to have a good script to start with.

How did you come up with the Flashdance look?
I read the script and thought a lot about the characters and what they would wear. Jennifer Beals was a construction worker without a lot of money, shown reading fashion magazines. The idea of a sweatshirt covered all the areas of her life. As a dancer she would personalize her clothes and Jennifer has very beautiful shoulders. If she didn't have beautiful shoulders I would have covered them.

Do you still have the sweatshirt?
Yes, I kept one of the three we used.

What's your dream film?
I think I may be about to make it. I'm in the process of finishing The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but the film I am about to start is Burlesque.

Burlesque, the new Cher film?
Yes. I have worked with many beautiful people, but this is a musical with so many beautiful women. There are eighteen numbers in the entire film. It's about a young girl, played by Christina Aguilera, whose parent dies and she decides to go for it and get the fuck out of town. She heads west and winds up at a burlesque club run by Cher!

Have you worked with Cher before?
I worked as a sketch artist, fabric shopper and assistant costume designer on the Sonny and Cher Show, after the Cher show. It was my first job. I doubt she remembers me. We had little contact.

What can we look forward to, clothing-wise, in Burlesque?
I don't know yet. I need to go on my vacation next week and separate myself from this last film before I start on this one.

How was working on the most recent Star Trek?
It was terrible for me. I got sick in the middle of production and I wasn't able to enjoy the project as much as I would have liked. It was interesting because I never watched Star Trek and I told the director that I probably wasn't the most qualified for the job. He answered that he wanted a fresh take on Star Trek and that qualified me even more. I was so afraid I was going to wake up one morning to a legion of trekkies outside my door.

On the other end of the spectrum, Fight Club is a very sexy movie. Was that something you were conscious of while making the film?
[Director] David Fincher and I spoke before I started creating the look for the film. I said to him I know you don't like color and flamboyance, so how far can I go with Tyler Durden. He said not far.

It's a very homoerotic film. It caused a lot of boners.
In the audience maybe. I just followed the road map of the screenplay.

Speaking of boners, what was the air like on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith?
You could cut it with a knife. I love working with them. I've worked with Brad a few times now. It was my first time working with Angelina. Once we got to know each other everything went great.

What's been your biggest fashion faux pas?
I don't regret any of my work.

What's your guilty pleasure?
You sound like Barbara Walters.

But she can't smile like I can, Michael.
My guilty pleasure is bacon, french fries, calamari—anything that combines fat and salt.

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