[Interview] ‘DUNE’ Costume Designer Jacqueline West Creates Otherworldly “Modieval” Fashion

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Costume designer Jacqueline West worked with her fair share of visionary directors prior to outfitting the galaxy of characters in DUNE. Yet she hadn’t taken on a project quite like it before. Since her expertise was rooted in period costume design, she initially rejected the gig until learning director Denis Villeneuve wanted her because he too wasn’t looking for a stereotypical science-fiction aesthetic. Her discerning eye, along with the extraordinary talents of co-costume designer Bob Morgan and their highly skilled team, led to breathtaking, goosebump-inducing fashions showcased beautifully in the feature.

You had worked with Bob before on LIVE BY NIGHT. Is that how you knew you two would have a great creative chemistry on this? 

“Yes. He had supervised for me on LIVE BY NIGHT and again when we started BATMAN with Ben [Affleck], before Ben left. We worked on that for a long time. I realized Bob had incredible knowledge of making specialty costumes, which I have always been period pieces – more grounded in reality. I knew that he knew the best people in the US and London. So I thought it would be a good time for him to make a jump.”

Is it creatively freeing collaborating with auteurs like Malick, Iñárritu, Fincher, now Denis and Martin Scorsese?

“For me, it’s the only way I can work. I love auteur directors that really have a vision. It’s hard to nail a costume when someone doesn’t have a deep, deep feeling for the material, because you don’t have a read on what they imagined. When I come onto a movie, they’ve been living with it for much longer than I have. I immerse myself in research. It’s my favorite thing as an art historian – and before that, I was a fashion designer. Line and suitability to the character means the utmost to me. And when you work with a director with a strong vision, you get there so much more quickly.

With Denis, he has such strong feelings how this should look. When I would put something in front of him that was right, he would respond viscerally to it. His whole body language would change. He had a line: “Jacqueline, I deeply love it!” Then I knew I could move on to the next one. I put so many different ideas in front of him and he was very good at explaining what he didn’t want, but often it’s hard for a director who isn’t familiar with clothing design to describe looks of clothing. You have to show them things to get their reaction. That’s why working with Denis worked so beautifully. We didn’t have much difficulty creating something based in the future, but grounded in the past. That’s how I came up with a line Denis deeply loved: I called it ‘modieval.’”

Did you have this frame of reference for the characters from the start? Like the Bene Genesserit pull from medieval inspirations. Rabban’s armor looks like something out of feudal Japan and Dr. Yueh’s look is modeled after Rasputin.

“Early on, I talked about my ideas to Denis. I met with him a few times before I brought Bob on. I had read the book – I’m from Berkeley and there it’s a handbook. There was a time where every single person in Berkeley had it in their book bag. I used to call it ‘The Berkeley Bible.’ Frank Herbert wrote it on the weekends – he was working at the San Francisco Chronicle – on his houseboat in Sausalito at Campus #6 and that’s where my houseboat was when I was at Berkeley. He wrote parts of it, I found out years later, about 30 feet away from my bow. I had this real feeling and connection with DUNE a long time ago, but resurfaced when I started this movie.

When I started re-reading it before I talked with Denis, I felt a definite beginning of a new world – a world starting over the same way the Brutalist architecture became so prominent after World War II when everything was destroyed and very simple massive buildings took the place of ornate buildings. Denis was very adamant that he didn’t want anything that looked sci-fi or Brutalist. So I looked at Medieval times and then stripped it all down in a Brutalist way, that that would probably be a look he would like and that’s what we did.”

Is there one costume, or look, that changed the most from the original sketches to the final stage?

“There was a time issue where we had to do this rather quickly and we came on rather late. I didn’t start anything until I was able to put it in front of Denis and get that visceral reaction from him. From the final concept drawing that we both settled on to the actual costume, putting it on the actor, it was only slight changes. I had Keith [Christensen] do a lot of sketches of the Spacing Guild – those in the dome helmets. They’re very ecclesiastical. I took all the ancient lines from the Avignon papacy and borrowed from that. The helmet is slightly sand-stripped from dust of the desert and so we modified it. We found out after it was all made in England that they had to walk down a very steep ramp. We had to re-configure the helmets so they wouldn’t fall. There were changes like that that would change if the action changed.

The Stillsuits, we had on several, several fit models and made sure they could articulate and could do all the action they had to do: climbing, sandwalk, jumping, falling. Those totally were functional in that way. It wasn’t real distillery, but it did keep the actors rather cool in the desert because the underbody suit, we did all in wicking fabrics. It had an under-armor, which they loved.

The Harkonnen we modelled off insects. The other was Black Widow. We decided to give them an insect reference with the big ant head helmet. The Atreides were based on the Templar armor of the Middle Ages. The Bene Gesserits – Reverend Mother Mohiam and her bevy – were based on the nuns from Juana and Marseilles Template. Each world had its own reference.”

The Spacing Guild descends the steep ramp of their ship in DUNE. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

The Reverend Mother wears that beautiful beaded veil. Was that a trick to get that weave right where you could still see Charlotte Rampling’s performance underneath?

“It’s an actual medieval piece that women wore. They wore that same netting in their hair. You see it in their snoods to hold the hair. The idea was to use that same configuration, but put it over her face. Nuns often cover a lot of their face where you just see a little square under the wimple. I thought that would be a neat, mysterious thing to do. I was looking at the Marseilles tarots like the Queen of Wands, or the High Priestess. She had netting over her face and so I just made it bigger so she’d be able to act and we could see her eyes through it.”

What was the first and last costume worked on here?

“The first one was the Stillsuit. That was the centerpiece, for the book and for Denis. The final one was the Spacing Guild – that shot was at the end of shooting.”

Do you have a favorite costume? 

“That’s funny. I think my very favorite was Piter de Vries. That long, almost wet looking fabric. There was something slimy and sinister about it, like a human stiletto.”

He looks like Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL, like he just stepped off Bergman’s set. When you saw David Dastmalchian put on his costume, did you see him “come to?”  

“I used THE SEVENTH SEAL, of course. I’m a big Bergman fan. Denis loved that inspiration. I had that image up above my desk in Budapest. He loved his costume. That’s always the test for me. Brad Pitt once called me, ‘A method costumer.’ I always wait for that moment when an actor puts on a costume, or I put a costume on an actor, and their whole body language changes.

Actors like Geoffrey Rush, or Timothée Chalamet are so fluid in their movement. His mother was a ballerina. He has a different body language. He totally changes how he’s standing. When he sees himself in the mirror, he just… his whole posture – where he’s standing, where he puts his hands, how he moves. Often, really good actors will walk up to the mirror and some of them start saying lines, others do gestures. And when they move differently with a whole other stance and whole different way of walking to the mirror, then you feel like you got it. I always call the costume the bridge from the actor to the character.”

I love how you and your team sourced textiles and fabrics, specifically those gorgeous pajamas Paul and Lady Jessica wear when they’re stranded in the desert. Those have a sense of poetic musicality to them because they were woven by a former musician.

“She’s one of my dearest friends, Genni Tommasi. She lives in Lucca, Italy. It’s a medieval walled city and there’s a walkway where they rode their horses in medieval times to guard the city. Years ago, I was walking and kept passing this bell tower with trees on the top – Italian cypresses. And I came out of my apartment one day and my husband spotted this tall woman and her little dog leaving a shop. There were all these tourists waiting to get in and she was leaving with her little dog. The shop was selling weaving and I went in the next day with my husband and we got to know her and got to be a dear friend. She had been a classical musician and harpist in the Rome Symphony. Weaving took to her naturally after playing the harp. She no longer wanted to live in Rome and wanted to raise her son in Lucca and be away from the hubub. She’s a harpist-turned- weaver. Her harp is from medieval times. It’s a total museum piece.”

She started weaving young and she’s one of the most brilliant weavers I’ve ever come across. It’s like she weaves music into her pieces. You walk into her atelier and she weaves at the top of that tower – that tower is her atelier and it’s a landmark. She comes from a very old Luccan family. There was something right about using her weaving. And it’s all natural fabrics: hemp, linen and silk. She weaves stories into them. I have several of her scarves and had one of them on one day and Denis saw it and loved it. ‘Where is that from, Jacqueline?’ And I got the idea for her to weave the fabric for the pajamas. She made the pattern and made the first prototype for both Rebecca and Timothée.”

I’d imagine this was a real dance with other teams – cinematography, production design, art department and hair & makeup – to make sure your work feels cohesive and complementary. Was that something you experienced?

“Yes, very much. Production Design, Patrice [Vermette] is brilliant. We talked a lot about shades and color that they were so far ahead of us where I could pitch to the art department and look at the palette. The main person to co-ordinate it all, all these different looks – the hair, the makeup… Of course we camera tested everyone, so we could see the makeup and hair working with the costume – was Greig Fraser. I’d worked with Greig before – we’d done a movie together and commercials together. So I knew his sensibility and palette. Every cinematographer’s different about certain colors they want you to avoid, or certain contrasts.

 It was really, in the end, Denis to watch over all of us. He was our ruler and saw what every department was doing and knew. He’s a real visionary and has an incredible eye. He knew the way Greig was going to shoot it, if our color palette was gonna work. For the Fremen and the Arrakians, it was the color of the desert. For Caladan, I kept it dark, dark bottle green, almost black, because it was a lush planet they’re having to give up. For the Atreides on Caladan, I used the Romanoff’s and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. I talked about these frames of references with Denis early on and he gave me the freedom to go play. I felt like my art project was being guarded over by Denis and that it would all work together.”

Even though it hadn’t been officially greenlit, were you already thinking ahead to costumes in Part 2? There are characters we haven’t seen yet? Do you have ideas for how they’ll look?

“Having read the book so long ago and being inspired by it, you can’t help but think about Part Two. But we’re not supposed to talk about it.”

What’s been the greatest learning lesson working on this?

“Wow. That I can work out of my comfort zone and that I loved it. When Denis first asked me to do this, I said, ‘No.’ I was talking to my daughter, who lives in the South of France and she’s also an art historian, and she just loved the book. She said, ‘Mom. You’ve got to do this.’ [laughs]. When [producer] Mary Parent called me, I had thought about it and thought about it, and said, ‘Mary, the definitive no is now a definitive maybe. I’m gonna think about this. I don’t do Sci-fi.’ She said, ‘That’s why Denis wants you.’”

DUNE is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBOMax.

About author

Courtney Howard

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.