Costume designer Reneé April, who has worked with some of the greatest stars and directors in Hollywood, recently teamed up with David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones (who directed 2009’s marvelous Moon) and Jake Gyllenhaal to make the claustrophobic sci-fi thriller Source Code, out today. We sat down with Miss April to talk petticoats, chambray, and how to make Jake look “very nerdy.”
So how did you get started? I know you worked a while back with David Cronenberg.
Oh my god, that was such a long long time ago. Well, I went to theater school, and there was a program where you learn costume design and set design, and actually at the beginning I wanted to go into set design. But one night I was by myself in the theater at 4 a.m. painting the backdrop and I said, eh, I’m not so sure anymore.
It’s really impressive, looking at your body of work in total, as you’ve touched on so many time periods, places, and situations—from dressing ex-pats in 1920s Paris in The Moderns, to real epic fantasy with Percy Jackson, the apocalyptic in The Day After Tomorrow and Blindness, pre-historic with 10,000 BC, and zany with Night at the Museum. You seem to enjoy taking a real adventure with your projects. What is it about these trips outside the box that really fires your imagination?
You know, I’m not sure. It’s a tough process. You always go back to your instinct no matter what you do. Of course you study. When I do a period I’m always excited when it’s a new period. I think, oh, the eleventh century, I’ve never touched the eleventh century. We always find, in any period, the things that we like. If we look very, very hard we find a miniskirt in the fifteenth century. But it’s true, you always look for what you like and then the artistic mind takes over.
Have you had a favorite time period to design for?
I like the 1930s. It’s very difficult, not forgiving at all. It’s hard to work with the fabric—everything is on the bias and it drives you insane. And the 1830s, I liked them very much, too. I like petticoats and corsets.
Don’t we all?
So, Source Code. You’ve done characters who are slipping between realities (in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) and different epochs (in The Fountain)—
I did. I like that!
But it seems different for Source Code where you have this hero outfit that you keep coming back to. Did that provide difficulties, having one main outfit? Was that terrifying, to keep coming back to the one? How did you decide on the look?
People think, you don’t change, it’s easy—but no. It is like a recipe when you only have two ingredients, like pasta limone—you have to get it right with those two ingredients. It was difficult because Duncan [Jones] and I wanted [Jake Gyllenhaal] very nerdy. It would be very out of character for him. And then, we thought, maybe it is too nerdy to carry through the whole film. But, we didn’t want to go to the cool guy. That’s why we had that not-really-nice jacket.
Oh, I was just gonna say how much I like that jacket. Who makes it?
No, it’s a cheap jacket. I don’t even know. I’m not going to tell you what they paid for it. It’s like nothing.
And the button-down, is that chambray or oxford cloth?
Yeah, it’s a chambray. A nice one as well. It takes the light and has texture. I really love that shirt, I must say.
And a knit tie.
I tried doing, you know, the ’80s, back when the men wore those ties.
In our office we wear those all the time…
Ah, really? You see, it’s still on. We didn’t want to do it “today.” So that’s why, even here, you know, the fashion is a stretch—it’s not really fashionable. It’s no time.
It’s funny though that it will often become fashionable when a film makes a big impact. And, I must say, I really love the idea of dressing Jake Gyllenhaal (who is an incredibly stylish guy off-set) out of character. It’s very Cary Grant.
I had to talk to him. When he arrived first he freaked out and said, oh my god. He was just off that big action movie and he was still in action mode. And then he really embraced it and said, oh, that’s where we are going, and he really liked the idea. He went with it.
Now, you’ve also done the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Apes, with director Rupert Wyatt and star James Franco.
Oh yeah, Rupert is such a lovely man. And Franco is funny.
You’ve made the most stylish conquistadors in modern memory in The Fountain and built the sexiest, pulpiest, noirest palette in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind—
Thank you. Then again, I really enjoyed working with the director. It always come back to that. You know, George Clooney is brilliant. And he’s fun. He really trusted me, and he let me go and do it. I had so much fun. The actors were all game; Julia was so fun. It’s a fun period piece. And, The Fountain. Aronofsky… he’s so brilliant. I’ve been blessed to do nice projects like that.
Uh, I have a feeling you will continue to do so. You’ve worked with some of the most stylish men of our time—from Mark Ruffalo to Clooney, Jake, and on and on. Have you learned some essential lessons about what works best for us guys?
Well, most of the time those guys have incredible bodies. It makes my life much easier. When you have Hugh Jackman, who has the body of an athlete that is just so beautiful, it’s hard to miss. The truth is, we always work with character, and if you help them build their character, it becomes fun. If you don’t find the character it goes, phew, it always disintegrates.
How do you know when something is off? Is that instinct?
Sometimes, you are working on a movie and you have a hundred actors and by the 75th actor you are on autopilot. Oh, I do the brogue shoe and the scarf and the tweed, and then…an actor says, that’s not exactly how I saw it, and so you start again. And most of the time that’s when I do my best work, when you look deeper for a character. But, mostly with the main actors you want them in dark colors. You want to frame their face—then again, a white T-shirt and a good pair of jeans: you can’t go wrong with that. It was good on James Dean and it’s still good.
Click through the slideshow below to see more of Source Code‘s style.