Deep Fried Interview: Predestination costume designer Wendy Cork

If one were to imagine a “degree of difficulty” scale for costume designers, on one end of the scale you might find something like a two-character chamber piece set over the course of a single evening. Then all the way at the other end of that scale, you’d find The Spierig Brothers’ twisting time travel sci-fi Predestination (2014).

Bounding from the 1940s to the 1990s and stopping at every decade in between, Predestination taxed costume designer Wendy Cork with creating period looks for a half-dozen distinct epochs, each slightly skewed through the prism of science fiction and featuring an androgynous lead who switches genders halfway through the proceedings.

Cork spoke to Deep Fried Movies about grappling with Predestination’s preternatural degree of difficulty, looking to David Bowie and Keith Richards for inspiration and the impact of digital cinematographer on her work. 

The Plot: Based on the 1960 Robert Heinlein short story “All You Zombies” (which you can read in its entirety here), Predestination stars Ethan Hawke as a time-traveling crime fighter whose latest assignment finds him in a 1970s New York dive bar being regaled with the unbelievable life story of a strangely androgynous customer.

Was cinema or design your first love growing up? 

My first love was actually stage costumes for opera and musicals. As a child I was taken to the theatre more than films and I guess it grew from there. What I really loved was being part of the process of storytelling and being part of the entertainment industry. As a child I loved sewing and fabrics and the whole adventure of creating new worlds.

With so many eras to recreate for Predestination, the research portion of pre-production must have been daunting for you. What were some of the inspirations that ended up in your “look book” for the film?

Rather than a look book, I made a pictorial wall chart of the entire film in chronological order. It was a great reference that followed fashion’s silhouette over the entire period. I spent about two months prior to actual pre-production researching eras and talking via Skype with (Predestination directors) the Spierig Bros about how to approach the costumes. I knew a lot about America in the 1940’s from an earlier project (L.A. Noire) and the 60’s and 70’s really were a lot of fun to research.

I was actually reading (Patti Smith’s memoir) Just Kids at the time I got the job so New York and the Bowery were right on my mind. So Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe led my research into the androgyny of that period. The more I looked, boys were looking like girls and girls like boys. It suited our story really well. Michael and Peter (Spierig) had one image of (David) Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth that they loved and as Ethan (Hawke) is a big Bowie fan, Bowie became a major inspiration.

Other inspirations included Keith Richards, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, bums on the streets of New York, Jim Morrison, Jean Shrimpton, the Sears Catalogue and of course Pierre Cardin for the Space Corps uniforms.

The 80’s and 90’s (and the) Sub-Rockies (time bureau base) was driven by the colour palette of cement and mid-greys that were decided in early pre-production.

Which era in the film was the most fun for you to work on?

Definitely the 60’s Space Corp was the most fun to design. It was such a wacky period and we could design anything we wanted for the costumes here. What I loved most was trying to think like I was someone in the fifties, imagining what the future might be like but still appealing to a modern audience.

Talk about your collaboration with Predestination cinematographer Ben Nott. How does a DP’s lighting and color scheme effect your own choices?

I love working with Ben Nott. He is genuinely interested in costume and genuinely collaborative. We would often chat about what costumes would be in each scene and how he intended to light them. Whatever concerns I had, I could go directly to him and we could do a camera test to make sure we weren’t going to get any nasty surprises on the day. It was an incredibly collaborative design process all over really and this was lead by the Spierig Bros.

We had a color palette for each different era so Ben always knew what I was going to deliver and this enabled him to design his lighting accordingly. I love his use of colour, especially in the ventilation room. Those fabulous yellows create such mood and add such amazing production value! If I know a coloured light affect is going to be used then of course I design around that. What I need to do is give the cinematographer the right coloured surface for his lighting affect to work or a shiny leather or vinyl to really bounce the light off. I was a fabric dyer for many years so I know about colour mixing – a yellow light with a blue costume is going to turn it green for example. We all have to think about what we want the end result to be and work toward that together.

People always ask DPs now about film vs. digital, but I’m wondering how it has affected your craft?

The cameras, the lenses, the lighting all make a difference to the materials, colours and methods I use in my design work. Costume designers actually need to know a lot of technical stuff about lighting and lenses. I love film, I really do, but I also love the Alexa. It’s such a wonderful camera. There are still some fabrics or patterns it can’t handle or at least I wouldn’t risk without a camera test, but it has this beautiful ability to shoot detail and in low light. You can’t get away with substandard construction work any more, but the advantage is the detail it can capture. Remember when we worried about what film handled green better than the other brand? Technology is always changing.

Wendy walks us through a few specific designs from Predestination.

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The 1970s-set scene at the New York dive bar Pop’s Place plays such a central role to the film. It’s where the character of The Unmarried Mother tells her strange tale to Hawke’s time traveler posing as a bartender

Throughout the journey of (Sarah Snook’s character, The Unmarried Mother), you’ll notice a green motif. But it wasn’t used in this scene as we wanted this scene to remain, for all intents and purposes, two men telling their stories in a bar. Ethan wanted to steer away from any sort of bartender uniform and we wanted to portray the sleazy, under-belly New York Bowery scene of the 70’s. As an actor he wanted to create a look he hadn’t portrayed before and prior to this job he was playing a junkie with short dyed white hair!

I found this image of Keith Richards with Anita Pallenberg that both Ethan and I loved and used this as a jumping off point. I had access to a collection of original 60’s and 70’s shirt fabrics so both Sarah and Ethan’s shirtings in this scene are period fabrics. The suede waistcoat added the period loud and clear and the jewelry was a last minute idea. I basically made that out of feathers and beads I had collected. There’s an early picture of Mapplethorpe with these skull beads and I found some of those, some feather, a bit of a hippy scarf. All the elements just came together.

Here Sarah is playing a man; the idea for the actual look came from a photo of Jim Morrison. We wanted a dirty down-and-out sort of street look and where better to look than rock stars! In my collection I keep loads of men’s jackets to give me ideas and the actor a way to find the feel of the character. We found a style that we liked and then cut one for Sarah in a dirty camel-coloured suede. The jacket is cut just a bit longer than normal to sit over Sarah’s hips and the shoulder shape tweaked to give her a more masculine shape. She is also wearing a neck-to-thigh power-net undergarment to hold in her feminine shape. Sarah is one of the most gracious actors I’ve ever worked with. She never complained once about how hot she must have been or uncomfortable under the prosthetics and “mansuit.” Ethan is also a delight to work with and thoroughly engaged in his character’s costume and costume journey. Once he trusts you, he just allows you to do your work. It was a great privilege to work with him.

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The Space Corp scenes must have been fun for you, to get to play with so many looks.

Again this shot is why I love Ben Nott. Sure, I dressed Sarah to stand out from a crowd, and I think that dress really accentuates her fabulously womanly figure, but what also helped is that Ben and I placed every extra in that scene to exactly the spot we wanted them. This is not a random moment. Each extra I gave a little character and backstory to when I was putting their looks together. At this point we still want to acknowledge her as an individual before she becomes one of the group in the Space Corp uniform.

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There’s something almost reminiscent of a nun’s habit in this costume. Where did this look come from, particularly the design of the hats?

In the sixties MAN went to the moon, this had a huge influence on design. Pierre Cardin’s 1968 space look fashions held a huge fascination for me and of course Diana Rigg in the original Avengers. And designing this outfit is about as much fun as you can have and still get paid for it. I drew up about 17 different looks, we narrowed it down to our favorite five and then we settled on this look.

It has some sneaky practical advantages of hiding different figure shapes and is a style that suits a multitude of shapes. I found an old felt white 20’s cloche, of course I put that on my head and the Space Corps hat just grew from there. The set location was very monochrome so I needed to add the colour through the costumes. I didn’t intend it to be reminiscent of a nun’s habit but it does work to strip away the women’s individuality in preference for a more dehumanized group identity.

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This is a very brief moment in the film, but such a beautifully constructed and lit moment. Sarah’s character, now transitioned into manhood, and her green has turned to brown.

I found this suit one weekend in Melbourne trawling through retro clothing stores. It fit Sarah perfectly as a man. The shirt we had made – again inspired by a very early Bowie (picture). It changed my whole opinion of button down collars! The green is still there in the desk and lighting. It’s subtle, but it’s still there.

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Hawke in the archetypal, Bogart-as-Sam-Spade uniform of the film noir.

Ethan’s character needs to travel through the film’s (various time periods) seamlessly. We mapped every move on a chronological chart that hung in my room. I needed to find an outfit (in which) he could be classic in, in any era. I think this look is timelessly stylish, unquestionable in any of our era’s for sure. No wonder Prada got Ethan to do a shoot last year. Such timeless style!

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