Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The family tree of life

Last month, after causing a sensation and being booed at Cannes, Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life took home the festival’s Palme d’Or. Costume designer Jacqueline West—twice nominated for an Oscar for her work—was tasked with creating a panoramic palate for the multi-generational saga some are calling the new 2001. And, as with her iconic work on The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, West’s wardrobe for stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn is drawing rave reviews. We phoned the woman whom Pitt called a “method costumer” to geek out about Malick, making movies, and M2M Armani suits.

Congratulations on the Palme d’Or and all the wonderful buzz.
Well, Terry deserves that. But thank you. Three years of editing have made us all look so good.

Wow, three years. Does it seem like a lifetime ago you made the decision to go with this shirt or that jacket?
With Terry it’s often not decided until the last minute what we’re going to shoot, let alone what the actor is going to wear. Each actor had a house in Smithville, Texas, and I created closets for them and would go to their houses and pick clothes based on what Terry decided to shoot that morning, afternoon, or evening. It would often be a discussion between myself, [production designer Jack Fisk], and Chivo [ aka cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] based on feeling, based on what Terry had written the night before, based on light. Working with Terry is such a rich and lively experience, so it all feels very recent.

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

In clothes, in character: Pitt with Jessica Chastain.

After working with you on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which you were both nominated, Brad Pitt called you a “method costume designer.” Is that sort of deep, character-informed outfitting your ideal way of working?
By “method costume designer,” Brad means I do an in-depth study of the character and dress them inside out. I tend to let actors know their looks and changes ahead of time so they can start imagining themselves in the clothes; when Brad puts on something I’ve given him to wear, he starts acting differently and behaving like the character in the clothes. If his jaw changes and his stance and his body language, he knows I’ve got it. It’s a way I love to work—that’s why I work with Terry a lot—but I’m flexible. I work with other directors where it is very exact and plotted out ahead of time. It’s the style of directing that’s going to dictate how I’m going to work.

I imagine working with David Fincher and doing 96 takes of what is essentially a painting is at the opposite end of the scale.
David knows exactly what everyone is going to wear ahead of time. He’s very cerebral and Terry’s from his gut—he’s the D.H. Lawrence of filmmaking. He’ll talk to me and say, “Jacqui, the light is kind of chalky right now. Maybe it’s the blue dress.” It’s a feeling. Once, when he was going to shoot something that wasn’t in the script, the call sheet said: “To be shot as the magic presents itself.” I thought that was the most beautiful call sheet ever. It’s a way I don’t think would work for all directors, but it works for Terry. I’ve done half of Terry’s films and I guess I’ve gotten used to it.

His movies are all period pieces, tinged with this lovely nostalgia. I guess you’ve just explained how it is he achieves that. How does that affect your choice of fabrics and garments?
That nostalgia you’re feeling is universal. Terry’s movies are like great Russian novels, like Dostoevsky or Chekhov. Working in all natural light with Chivo, Terry likes the faces of the characters to stand out. He doesn’t like any clothes that are so designed—either in fabric or shape—that they detract from the face, including prints. White is the enemy of the movie. Dark frames the face. When I’m picking clothes I keep those rules in mind.

For the ’50s portion of Tree of Life—the Brad Pitt section—is he wearing vintage pieces or are those all fabricated with new materials?
Because of Brad’s height and build, I had trouble finding good-enough clothes for an engineer (as his character is in the movie) in his size. And you really want the clothes to fit well, even if it is a period fit. I made most of his suits, shirts, that kind of thing. But Brad likes wearing “genuines” because they’re more worn in, just because they’ve been dry-cleaned over the years. So I bought a lot, too, and I used those for his home clothes he wore with the kids. That’s how my father used to do—after his suits got a shine on them, they got retired into being his weekend clothes.

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Penn in All Armani Everything

And then the Sean Penn segment, which is present-day…
Those clothes are all picked by me and custom designed and made by Armani. The shoes, ties, belts—they totally dressed Sean Penn. It was a great contrast between his wardrobe and nature: the structured, architectural Armani he wears in Houston with all the beautiful architecture there, and then those same clothes in contrast with the organic shapes in Death Valley.

You really captured a time and place with Social Network, and you’ve done brilliant period work with Quills and New World—you’ve even done fantasy, with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So I’m curious to hear where you go from here. I know you’re sworn to secrecy, but can you tell me anything about the clothes you’ve designed for the upcoming as-yet-untitled Malick film that stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem?
I’ve been asked not to talk about it. I’ve been working with Terry for years and years, and he told me once that the film you’re shooting is not the film that will come out of that—each frame Terry shoots is a brush stroke, and he’ll paint the painting much after you leave. He likes that leeway to create his movie in post-production. But
I can tell you that it’s modern day, set in Oklahoma, and Terry was adamant that the actors look very natural. Whenever we could put them in their own clothes we would do that, because people feel really natural in their own stuff. It’s hard, though, because people would show up with clothes that are more fashionable that what Tulsans might wear, so I ended up having to tweak their wardrobe. It was a challenge on that level because I like to dress characters, not actors. Now I’m working with Ben Affleck on a film he’s directing called Argo.

The Tree of Life opens to a wider release today. Click through the slideshow below to see some of Miss West’s work on the film.


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  1. Marco says:

    In the movie Brad was going home and walk trough his home garden with a beautiful leather bag!! How is the name of that fantastic goods?

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