Q&A with costume designer James Acheson

By Columbus Alive
From the January 17, 2013 edition

James Acheson’s opening line for our Skype interview last week couldn’t have been more perfect considering he’s the man who created the iconic look of the world’s most famous time-traveling doctor.

“Hello, from the future,” he said, his accent atrophied with sleep. He had just woken up and, he was honest enough to admit, was hungover (to his credit, it was 8 a.m. on a Saturday in New Zealand, where he lives).

The Oscar-award winning designer (for “The Last Emperor,” “Restoration,” “Dangerous Liasons”) is visiting the Wexner this Saturday for a brief speaking tour about his life’s work. We got a sneak preview. The overarching theme to his success: Staying curious.

“Every moment is a moment of research,” Acheson said. “The more curious you are about everything the more enriching life is and also the more information you have when you try to come to design something. It might be the way the light falls on this spoon, it might be a reflection, it might be something really subtle and sensitive. But the thing is you have to try and stay open to those things.”

That’s pretty insightful. Especially on a hangover.

Watch any good movies this year?

“Searching for Sugar Man.” A French film called “Polisse.” “The Life of Pi,” I thought it was magical. I thought it was visually stunning. The daring technical way it was created, I was just completely consumed by it. “Life of Pi,” you must see it with 3D. I think it’s wonderful. It’s a crazy book to try and make into a movie. It has to win all the technical awards. I think “Lincoln” will win [best picture].

Do you have a favorite costume designer?

Yeah, my hero is an Italian guy called Piero Tosi. He used to do all Luchino Visconti’s movies in the ’60s and ’70s. ... There’s an American designer that I really like, Colleen Atwood, who has a nomination this year [for “Snow White and the Huntsman”], as she does most years. Colleen Atwood works a lot with Tim Burton. She’s great. 

What strikes you most about their work? 

Piero’s movies, most of them, are period historical movies. You have never seen that kind of, I’m not sure if the word is naturalism or realism, but everything if you look at, you’re looking at a quality of image in the very fabric that’s used, the incredible hairstyles and the brilliance of the cut. You’ve never seen it before, never seen something that is that beautiful. So I guess it’s sort of this re-creation of an era, the ones I’m attracted to. But Colleen is often working with Tim Burton so it’s often extreme or it’s quite theatrical or it’s daring. This year she’s got a nomination not for working with Tim Burton but for working with, not a particularly good movie, but a movie called “Snow White and the Huntsman.” She’s a huge talent. She does everything from “Memoirs of a Geisha” to “Alice in Wonderland.” She has a great range. Interestingly enough, one of the costume nominees this year is dead. Did you know that? Nobody seems to have picked up on this. I guess somebody will tell the academy. I didn’t like the movie but I think she was a very talented lady. Her name was Eiko Ishioka. She did the other Snow White film called “Mirror Mirror.” 

Is there a moment or design or movie in your career that you are most proud of?

The thing I’m most proud of is being a father, but you’re talking about career. I don’t know if there’s a design I’m most proud of but the first time I won an Oscar [for “The Last Emperor”], I hardly knew what an Oscar was. I certainly didn’t know all the ballyhoo around it. I know it sounds crazy, but growing up in England it just wasn’t part of our psyche. And then suddenly you get whisked to Hollywood and you eventually end up standing in front of a billion and a half people. I think what was great about [winning for “The Last Emperor”] was we had nine nominations and we all won. That was a wonderful thing to share it with the whole crew. We all got an Oscar that night. It was a very wonderful evening. 

Had you written an acceptance speech or was that something you knew you should do?

It’s a terrifying circumstance because there is no running order. Every time a star walks onto the stage and introduces a category, you don’t know which it is going to be until they open their mouths. So you sit there for three hours, terrified. I know the second time I went to the Oscars I was in the bathroom when my category was called. I had to say, “Look, this is my category; you have to let me back in.” Do you know about seat fillers? It’s such a long show, they have these guys, as soon as you leave your seat they put an extra in your seat so it looks full. So it’s very nerve racking as you can imagine. Anyway, at the beginning they stand up and say, “There are a billion and a half people watching this telecast. If you are a nominee may I suggest you prepare a few words.” And, you know, it’s always the same few words: “I’d like to thank my goldfish, my parents, my wife and my children.” I mean nobody really cares unless they say something interesting. Or they’re drunk.

What has been the most difficult part of having a career as a costume designer?

Being away. It’s really difficult to do this job and be a parent and a husband. I split with my wife nearly four years ago, so it’s a difficult job to do and have a family life. Being a freelancer you never know when the next job is going to come. Things like holidays, I’d like to take a holiday but I don’t know where the next paycheck is going to come from. Also, the job is utterly consuming. It really is a consuming job once you start. People think we sit in offices drawing pretty pictures. 

What about the long Doctor Who scarf? Was that your creation? How did it come to fruition?

The bloody scarf. It’s amazing how often it comes up. So extraordinary. There are these Doctor Who nutters and it’s the 50th anniversary this year. I’ve even been approached to dig out my old drawings of Doctor Who including, particularly, the drawings of him wearing the scarf. The story is, I thought it would be interesting to give this new Doctor Who a scarf. I don’t know why, it was such a long time ago. I didn’t know anything about knitting but I knew I wanted these colors so I went to this wool shop and bought all this wool in these different colors and I had a friend who had a friend whose mother could knit. Some Doctor Who nut even tracked down this woman, who’s still alive, Begonia Pope. So I went to Begonia and I said, “Look, start knitting. These are the colors, the repeats are here.” I went back a week later and the scarf was 22-feet long. 

So you didn’t ask for it to be that long?

No, she just used all the wool up! The actor who was playing Doctor Who was very tall. He sort of wrapped it around him and was like, “Yeah, this is great, we could use this.” The image we used [to create the character] was based on a Toulouse-Lautrec poster so that was why he had the scarf. Tom Baker, the actor, thought he could use it as a prop. So it stuck. I think we shortened it a little bit though. 

Any other design fans often ask about?

People ask about [Sam Raimi’s] “Spider-Man.” But no, I don’t have any fans. Please. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on what the hell I’m going to say.

Tell me about the costumes in the upcoming Superman movie, “Man of Steel.”

I’m afraid I can’t. I’m not allowed to tell you anything.

Do you enjoy the costuming challenges of superhero movies?

Yes, it’s very different. It’s a very different genre. ... It’s different because the iconography is there. The image of these people is there. So the job is then to make it work three dimensionally. It’s a completely different process from doing a fantasy or a period movie. Technically, it’s complicated. But the big thing is you haven’t just got the director to please. You’ve got a whole posse of producers at a studio. You’re dancing to a whole lot of tunes and that can be very exhausting. The other challenging thing about the process is they involve materials that are not something you could whip up overnight. They take time to alter. It’s a very laborious process, yeah, but it’s a very interesting challenge. You’re using material that is different and technology has changed. It’s fascinating. You have to stay curious. 

Still from “The Last Emperor.”

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Still from “Spider-Man 3.”

Courtesy Sony Pictures