“Razzle-dazzle ’em,” sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn sings in the musical Chicago. Much of the razzle-dazzle in the new film version will come from the work of award-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood.
The musical tells the tale of Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), an entertainer who finds more fame as a criminal defendant than she ever did as a performer. While her trial unfolds in Prohibition-era Chicago, a glittering fantasy version of events plays itself out in song and dance within Roxie’s mind. Atwood helped director Rob Marshall realize his goal of two distinct looks for the film.
“Rob definitely had a vision of the film, but as far as specifics about the costumes, he was very open to what I thought,” Atwood says. “We tried to keep a contrast between the real world Roxie lived in and the imagined world of the stage. It‘s like parallel universes.”
The roaring ’20s provided a starting point. “The designs were based on quite a lot of research of the period, with a nod toward what a movie musical is, somewhat filtered through the eyes of today,” Atwood explains. “We wanted it accessible to the audience of today. If we’d gone strictly with the ’20s, the movement would have been impaired. The costumes had to serve the choreography.”
Chicago started life as a 1926 stage play, which led to a silent movie, a Ginger Rogers film, a 1975 Broadway musical choreographed by Bob Fosse and a highly successful revival of the 1975 version in the ’90s.
“The first Chicago was definitely a product of its time, and Chicago the musical is definitely a contemporary look at another time,” Atwood says. “I’d seen the current stage production and the 1975 production. They weren‘t as filmic as what I needed for this. I definitely looked at them, and I liked them both very much, but I didn‘t use them necessarily as an inspiration.”'
Atwood likens Chicago to the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow, for which she received an Oscar nomination and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award.
“Sleepy Hollow had a lot of action in it, even though it was a fairy-tale movie,” Atwood says. “Chicago is partly a fairy tale because it’s inside one person’s head, so that part of it’s made up and the rest of it is reality. Doing a musical’s like doing a beautiful action movie. Everything moves; everything goes through a lot of tough stuff. As a designer, you have to solve a lot of the same problems. In that way, those two movies are very similar because even though people are wearing clothes that are supposed to look beautiful, they’ll have to do all kinds of things.”
Other films presented their own challenges. “Sometimes a contemporary film like Silence of the Lambs is difficult. To make it look real but interesting is always a challenge. You try to avoid the pitfalls of using every big-name
designer in the world and try to serve the story by creating characters. Hannibal Lecter’s costumes were tailored to fit him in a minutely kind of tight way to help show he was a totally controlling person even though he was in the confines of a prison.”
Color also contributes to characterization and mood. “If you want someone to feel warm, you dress them in a warm color and put a warm light on them and you get the picture. Sometimes, all that needs pushing a little bit to help tell the story and to make it more beautiful. It’s a huge collaboration between lighting and design. Gattaca was shot with minimal color to create a world that was minimal, and it really was effective. The lighting and the production design
were beautiful. All of us worked together closely to create that world.’
Whether working on period pieces, contemporary dramas or futuristic stories, Atwood relishes the opportunities to help create new worlds. “I feel like I’ve been lucky in the things I’ve got to work on because I’ve really been able to keep it fresh, always getting to do different kinds of things.”