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July 25, 2014
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Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method. Image courtesy of E1 Films.

In 1986, budding Canadian director David Cronenberg released a science fiction thriller entitled The Fly. The film was about a scientist who inadvertently becomes a man/fly hybrid after an experiment gone wrong. A remake of the 1958 original, Cronenberg's adaptation received critical praise on all fronts and secured an Academy Award for Best Makeup. Cronenberg had taken a bit of a gamble with costume design, however, and hired a first-timer: his sister, Denise.

"I remember him telling me, 'Okay, but if you fall, I'm not going to pick you up off the ground,'" she tells me. "Luckily, he's never had to."

If you haven't heard the name Denise Cronenberg before, get acquainted. Over the last 25 years, she's shaped an impressively unique career. Her talents have developed and defined a Canadian artistic dynasty; her son Aaron Woodley is now a filmmaker, and her niece Caitlin is a photographer. Though Denise has gone on to work on even bigger budget films, she regularly returns to work with the familiar team of brilliant collaborators that her brother has assembled.

Costumes from A Dangerous Method.
Photo courtesy of E1 Films.

Denise began her career on stage studying ballet before transitioning to fashion design, and finally settling in the world of costumes. This has led her all the way up to her next film Cosmopolis, to be released later this year. The film stars heartthrob Robert Pattinson and is also directed by her brother. The movie is attracting so much attention that the costume designer has even begun to develop a tag on Tumblr. It only took forever.

But first, she's back in her hometown Toronto for the annual Genie Awards ("the Canadian Oscars"). Cronenberg is nominated for the sixth time, this year for her costume work in A Dangerous Method. The captivating period drama is about the relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud (and their protégé) during the birth of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century. Despite her list of nominations, Cronenberg has yet to take home the award.

We talk about working with big actors, the intricacies of period garments and the challenges of contemporary costume design.

Paul Aguirre-Livingston: How do you prepare for a film like A Dangerous Method?

Denise Cronenberg: For that movie, we had 10 weeks. I went to London and did the whole prep with my assistant designer Nigel Egerton, who I've been working with since Eastern Promises (2007).  The two of us did the film on our own since there wasn't a lot of money on the project. We filmed the studio footage in Cologne, and during preparation David and I were never in the same city. I had discussed my vision with him before we left, and he just said he wanted it to look like the period and be accurate. Basically, I had free reign.

PAL: How do you research, produce and select the garments?

DC: We did extensive research on Freud and Jung. For Kiera's character [Sabina Spielrein] and Mrs. Jung [played by rising Canadian starlet Sarah Gadon], there was virtually nothing visual we could find, so that was all out of my head. We used Chantilly lace that was $100/m for a dress and hat in a scene where Mrs. Jung goes to meet Freud, shot in the stairway of the actual Freud apartments.

The research gets so involved, playing off the locales of where we were shooting. I tried to do [Freud and Jung] as I saw them in different photos, but their original suits were better. Garments were made specifically for the film with the help of Cosprop in London, a great resource for period pieces. The shoes were handmade in Italy, these beautiful high boots that you don't really see enough of. I also designed all the hats and had them made.

Costumes from A Dangerous Method.
Photo courtesy of E1 Films.

PAL: Do you ever get outside opinions?

DC: No. It's my vision, and I do my own research. I make the decisions once I read the script and when I got to London, for example, I saw what was available, and shaped it from there. It sparked my imagination.

PAL: What happens once the film is complete? Are the costumes archived?

DC: Because there wasn't a lot of money for [A Dangerous Method], we could have either kept all the costumes and archived them or sent them back into stock. You get a deal - something like a half price discount - when they're made. After the picture comes out, pieces go back into [Cosprop] stock and other people will be able to use them. It's kind of sad for me in a way; they become a part of you.

PAL: What have you learned over the course of your very unique career?

DC: What I know now could fill a whole building, and there are no courses that will prepare you. For one, each actor is different, and you've got to interact with the producers and everyone. Being a costume designer is 90 per cent psychology. You're dealing with actors, and they're dealing with characters - everyone has a certain view. You have to pull it all together to try to get what you want on the screen.

PAL: How has the industry changed since you began working alongside David?

DC: Working with David, it's simple and unique. He knows what he wants, and it's intuitive. [The industry is] a lot nastier now. Again, this is not about David's pictures, and I don't say that just because he's my brother - everyone will say that. Working with him is collaborative, and you discuss things as adults.

Other movies, it's not like that. Bigger movies - million-dollar ones - it's a whole different world. Maybe it's the recession, and it can't be a really easy experience. I've felt like I've been used, and I question whether I'm necessary because there are so many people who have a say these days.

PAL: What is it like working on period pieces compared to contemporary films?

DC: Contemporary [costuming] is worse. Actors like their own clothing, just like people prefer their own jeans. As a designer, you need to have the psychology to explain why you don't want a t-shirt with a big monster face on the front, and why you want subtlety. People are going to be looking at the shirt instead of the face, and it shouldn't be about focusing on one thing, it's an overall subtle feeling.

Costumes from A Dangerous Method.
Photo courtesy of E1 Films.

I shouldn't say that period costuming is easier, but not as far back as this period [in the movie, 1904-1913]. Here, costumes progress as they change through that period, and, at first, everything was padded for the "s-shape." Then it slimmed out and changed, so we were very accurate with that. Most of the actors [Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightley] have done these period pieces and they know what to expect, so they're amazing to work with.

PAL: But then there are unique challenges.

DC: There's a certain limit with what you can do - you can have gorgeous fabric, lace, buttons, but silhouettes had to be a certain way. Also, people ask why there was a lot of white and that's because that was the colour for high Victorian blouses, sometimes it was ecru [off-white]. Then colours started to come in, but black suits for men and white for woman was really the colour. That's also not easy to shoot and light on a film as a director of photography will tell you, but that's what it was.

With contemporary costuming, people can bring their own clothing. Actors often know what they look good in - or what they think they look good in - and it's hard to persuade them that that's not the character. You have to explain the why and how, and be careful in how you present that because you don't want offend. 

PAL: You must get asked a lot about working with a certain teen heartthrob on the upcoming Cosmopolis.

DC: Oh, Rob? Poor guy had to stay in his trailer the whole time. That's not what I call fun. But he's a dream to work with. What a terrific kid.

PAL: Any advice to aspiring costumers?

DC: Run away. Kidding! It's a very difficult, long road now. It was easier years ago, but with unions and this new requirement of experience, people don't give you a chance. Start out with television, do non-union jobs, and get enough experience. I had no idea what costume design really was when I started, and you don't think about all the various interactions [with directors, producers, actors]. There's so much to think about before you get there [to set].


Watch A Dangerous Method when it's released on DVD and digital download on March 27.

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