Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
When one watches a Quentin Tarantino film, not only do strong writing, direction and performances from the actors play integral roles, but something else takes a hold, helping to gain insight into character’s psyches: The costumes. In THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the auteur up the game, brilliantly showcasing the indelible, pristine designs of costumer Courtney Hoffman. She and her team worked hard to bring new classic costumes into the pop culture zeitgeist.
At the film’s recent press day, we sat down with the bubbly, affable talent to talk about everything from how she sourced her vendors, to finding the fun in the invisible stuff, to which costume is her favorite.
You had mentioned that some of Quentin’s initial ideas for the character’s costumes had scared you. How so? This wardrobe is crazy on point.
Thank you. I think the things that were scary about it is he’s so bold. As a designer, I’m never trying to detract from anything. But Quentin knows the way those things are going to look in the grand scheme of things in a way that none of us know. He just has this picture in his head that’s so clear to him and because of that, he makes such bold choices. That’s across the board with all his work. That’s something he’s not recognized enough. His aesthetic is as strong as a Tim Burton aesthetic. It’s a Quentin Tarantino aesthetic. Whether that means you’re making choices that are anachronistic or whether that means you’re making choices from a spaghetti western, he really crafts those worlds. When I say something scares me, I think, ‘Oh. I’m going to put my lead character in bright canary yellow and bright red and navy jacket and black suit.’ And you’re hearing all of this going, ‘Is he going to look like The Hamburglar?!’ He gives you the permission to – you have to know your periods, you have to know what you’re doing. If he’s going to make an anachronistic choice, he wants to know it’s anachronistic and you’re going to talk about it.
For me, it was like, ‘Look. He fought a war in the coat. Is there blood? Is there dirt?’ He’s like, ‘No. I don’t want him to be dirty. I want him to be beautiful.’ In the end, when it comes together it’s like, ‘Oh my God! His costume is the Lincoln Letter! His costume is the disarming… He’s the one bringing the class – bringing the Lee Van Cleef, bringing the elegance. In reality, his coat would have holes. He’s been in the woods, he’s been in the snow on a journey without a stain on his collar. In spaghetti westerns, the clothes are never aged. The cool things is we were able to start with a spaghetti western palette. I like the image that all these characters came from different westerns, in a way.
Did he give you reference points?
Yeah. It wasn’t anything intentional. Bob the Mexican is not really in the same world as Major Warren. But when you put them together and you see them square off, all of a sudden it’s like, this is their world. I like the idea that it’s like the Avengers version of a Quentin Tarantino western universe – where it’s like the best of. You start there and by the time you end, you’re in a Peckinpah movie where they’re bloody and gritty and you see the sweat and the pain and you see the wrinkles. That arc, even though they are in the same costume the whole time, feel so gratifying was that you saw them transform and in the way you saw the aesthetic of the movie transform. It happened organically. It wasn’t planned. That we are living in the story is a really rare type of filmmaking.
Everything seems so tactile – like I could reach out and touch it.
Yes, but everyone is in a different kind of fur.
Texture. Yeah. I love texture. I had sixteen shots to do this. I was not going to waste a moment of this. I was not going to waste an inch of that frame on something that wasn’t aged, textured or gritty. I wanted everything to be tactile. I wanted everything to be as visceral as the snow. Some of it is very clear; You look at Oswaldo and even though it’s all gray, you feel all the layers and textures and patterns. Somebody like Chris Mannix, something about the film stock, it just looks like he’s wearing a lot of black, but that had equal texture. It had the fur, grit and wear and tear. I had an amazing aging department. Anything that looks knit was knit. I had people all over the country that specialized in their craft. Whether it was in Wyoming – Merlin’s hideout – the buffalo supplier of the United States made the buffalo coats. They were not film people – they were crafts people. I really think I got to raise the bar by working with people like that. You look at their Facebook pages and their emails, they take so much pride in their contribution to this film and it shows. I found a grandma who was at the farmer’s market with all this knit stuff. I was like, ‘Why are you selling knit stuff in LA? How is this going?’ She’s like, ‘I just can’t stop knitting.’ I said, ‘How would you love to knit over Christmas for me, a lot of stuff?’ It changed her life! She moved out of where she was living. I can pimp her out to anyone now. I made them soldiers in this film army. I think because of that, it was a different type of recruitment.
There’s a lot of love in everything. I think the actors felt that and that’s why their responses to my work have been so generous. To be able to be part of [Daisy Domergue’s] performance is such an honor.
It’s freezing on set so there’s literally and figuratively a lot of layers you have to do. These also had to function like a normal coat.
So many layers! We also didn’t know if they were going to take their coats off at any point and Quentin couldn’t really answer that so we had to be prepared either way. We had to be making ten of something that never even gets seen. It was cool because you designed like how they were when they woke up. Jennifer [Jason Leigh] insisted on wearing all of the appropriate undergarments even on days where I’m like, ‘You’re getting thrown out of a stagecoach, somersaulting, getting punched and soup’s gonna be thrown in your face. Let’s just loosen the corset.’ She’s like, ‘No. I wanna wear it.’ She was so committed to that. Same thing with the women in the flashback chapter. It was fun exploring that stuff you don’t see. Some of their clothes, we put fiber-optic, wind-repellent fabrics between their layers for when they are actually outside. But to a degree, Quentin wanted them to be cold.
Right. Because it affects their performance and their urgency.
When Chris Mannix is calling out for that stagecoach, waist deep in snow, he does not have a jacket on. When he was hammering the stakes, that man was freezing. We had to put him in electric undergarments because if not, he would have gotten hypothermia. It’s another level [of cold] than you can anticipate.
Even inside Minnie’s Haberdashery, it felt cold.
Oh my God. It was worse in there!
Michael Madsen wasn’t wearing a coat, right?
I love how Madsen was all, [does gruff but spot on impression] ‘I don’t need a coat.’ Weirdly, he actually didn’t. He never complained about being cold. He’s just so much testosterone. I loved the idea that he just looks like a cowboy action figure that was just taken out of the box and put in the movie. We didn’t even strive for him to look that real. We just wanted him to look like a toy. Here’s your Joe Gage doll! It kind of made sense he wasn’t wearing a coat. He’s so manly but it has that flamboyance that 50’s westerns have.
Was some of the set dressing – like the blankets on the wall – your work too?
When Chris Mannix acquires the blanket, it was because I was like, ‘We need to get Bruce Dern a blanket.’ He was like, ‘I’m doing okay. I don’t have much circulation in my legs right now.’ I was like, ‘Can we not kill Bruce Dern on this movie?’ It was fun working with Rosemary [Brandenburg], the set decorator, in that way. There were lots of jokes about the beaver pelts. Even though it’s one set of costumes, there was never a boring day on set. We were always on our feet.
Daisy kept getting pelted with everything.
I know. Her costumer is a saint. That was miserable. At the end when she’s covered in blood, their blowing fake snow at the windows. But the fake snow blows into the set, so all of a sudden, she’s covered in wet sticky blood. We had to make this clear plastic tee-pee for her. She’s also chained to Kurt. I wish he got more of his WEEKEND AT BERNIES moment he was dreaming of, because he was so good. There’s never been more of a real man than Kurt Russell. He’s a dream!
His coat. His mustache – everything about him in this movie is just…
The funny thing Quentin said to me about him was, ‘Look. We got a really great group of actors but I’m going to warn you, Kurt Russell has been in more westerns than anyone. I love the buffalo coat but it’s up to Kurt.’ And he never does that. It’s usually his way or the highway. I was so nervous showing up at Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s house and he’s just like, ‘I love this.’ It was such an affirmative moment that we really cracked John Ruth. I wanted him to be imposing and look like a bully. That’s why I wanted those sleeves to be bigger than that coat. I wanted him to look like the football quarterback where you’re like [mimics nerdy wimp voice], ‘Leave me alone! Don’t put me in my locker!’ The costumes are going to be in a permanent exhibit at the Autry starting on December 22. It’s also cool to have Sam Jackson’s costume because that museum is about amazing white cowboys so it’s amazingly cool to have a black man represented from the star of a film that will be there for a long time for people to see.
Do you have a favorite character?
I do! I love Bob the Mexican. He’s my favorite costume because before my interview with Quentin, I was in New Mexico and I drove to Chimayo, New Mexico where they weave the textiles where his vest was from and I met with the weavers. I was like, ‘I’m up for this movie and I know these are one of a kind but can you make ten of them?’ I wanted that type of craftsmanship in the movie. I bought a vest out of pocket. Pretty much, from start to finish, his costume was the most from my head to the screen. The way Demian [Bichir] wore that costume and put that hood up and bundles himself, it’s like an ewok. Also that costume, compared to all them, looks so totally different in different lights that I think Bob Richardson made it look like ten different costumes. It was also hand patched with eleven types of fur. It was faux fur as the base and patched with every mangy fur I could get my hands on. I would call furriers and say, ‘Send me stuff you can’t sell. We’ll pay for that stuff.’ My crew wanted to kill me. ‘Did you really pick out four different types of rabbit for the cuffs?’ But when he plays that piano, it pays off.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT opens on December 25 in limited release and wide on December 31.