[Interview] ‘DUNE’ Costume Designer Robert Morgan Molds Form With Function

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

From his early days as a costumer on SPEED, standing on the under-construction 105 freeway with myriad versions of Keanu Reeves’ tattered tee shirt, to the monumental undertaking of crafting thousands of spectacular costumes on DUNE, costume designer Robert Morgan (who goes by Bob) has taken it all in stride. He’s learned over the years that every career opportunity leads to something great.

His work as costume supervisor on LIVE BY NIGHT with costume designer Jacqueline West led to the dynamic duo collaborating on director Denis Villeneuve’s vision for DUNE. What they and their entire team have done, fashioning characters and their worlds through fabric, color and textiles, is nothing short of miraculous. 

What was the collaborative process like between you, Jacqueline and Denis – and also you and Jacqueline, as a team, broke down these costumes?

“It’s one of my favorite things to talk about. It was such an incredible experience. It is a huge film and a huge undertaking. Both Jacqueline and I had worked together in the past. When Jacqueline asked me to do this with her, I said, ‘Absolutely!’ [laughs] It was so exciting. It’s one of my favorite books. I love fantasy and big films and adventure and this is a film that encompassed so many of those things.

Denis is not only one of the kindest, but he’s also one of the most collaborative people I’ve met. He had a very clear vision of what it was, but also what it wasn’t. He sat down when we started and gave us this gigantic framework which allowed for a huge amount of creativity between those points. The book is the guiding source along with Denis’ vision. We started in November of 2018 and cut it into parts. The three big parts was these three worlds: Arrakis, Caladan and Giedi Prime. That triangle is the three big components of the film. On Caladan, it was incredibly important to establish who the Atreides were and what they would be and how it would differ from Arrakis and Giedi Prime.

When we started, we knew that the Stillsuit was going to be incredibly important and challenging. It had to look believable, functional and look good on many actors and many stuntmen. We made about 200 of them. Every size from Timothée [Chalamet] and Rebecca [Ferguson] all the way up to Jason Momoa and everyone in between. So each one was a bespoke costume – each one was lovingly crafted like a bespoke suit. That was one of the pinnacle costumes of the film. Throughout defining these worlds, and all the people that would be in that world, was the Stillsuit.

We started in Los Angeles where Jacqueline and I agreed to do the film. We worked there for a while with our own costume artist, Keith Christensen, who had done a sketch of that Stillsuit even before we started and Denis loved that. That was a wonderful advantage we had. We started with these three worlds, like the Atreides, and thought about their dress and working uniforms, the legacy of it, the servants, the pilots, the grounds crew, all these people who would augment this world. And the same thing for Arrakis and Giede Prime.

We manufactured a prototype of the Stillsuit in Los Angeles and worked that out. We knew we were going to Budapest and Jordan. We created the fabrics there and the concept of what the Stillsuit was there and I lifted up and took off to Budapest. Jacqueline stayed behind for a while to work with Keith and Ironhead [Studio] and I went to assemble this army – it took a village. We assembled this city of artisans, from everywhere from Spain to Budapest to England to Australia and the US and brought together this incredible group of artisans to fill out what these three worlds would be. We had our own fabric department, our own aging department, our own cutting department all under the tent of one costume department – as well as outside vendors in the UK, Spain and Budapest. There was so much to do.”

There’s a line in the movie, “The desert is unkind to equipment and humans.” How was it on the costumes? 

“It did affect how we created things and how we kept the actors comfortable. It defined how the costume was constructed and taken off, where there were modular aspects where parts can be removed to cool off and then be redressed to go back into set.”

There is a lot you two pulled from to add another layer of character in these clothes. Was it clear from the start what fabric textures, patterns and color ways you would use to define these worlds?

“I’m a painter as well and it’s sort of the way I approach art. I think form always follows function. You look at something like, ‘What is appropriate for desert dwellers? What is appropriate for this regal family that lives in a wealthy, lush established world like Caladan? Or the Arrakians, who’ve survived like the Bedouins in this desert climate and have adapted. What is the function of that clothing?’ And the style follows that function, right? I approached costuming that way. If it’s believable, then it rings true. When you get the function right then the form rings true. It allows you the creativity to define and create color. You’re thinking about how it looks in concert with the other costumes in the scene and set design and set dressing – how it pops. And with the hair and the make-up.

That’s the beauty of this film is that we were all working in concert with each other and we loved the film and Denis so much. He was so involved. He loved to come over and say, ‘Lemme see. Lemme see,’ and walk around the department and see us printing fabric on massive tables that ran the entire building. He loved to see the process. We created a lot of our own textiles just because we wanted it to be original and wanted it to be just for this film. Nothing you’d see or find anywhere else.

There’s a fine texture and print on the Stillsuit that allows the costume to stretch and gives the fabric depth. It also catches the sand when it blows. You can see that beautiful patina of the sand sticking to the fabric. Things like that, finding details like that, you may not see exactly what the detail is until it’s all put together, but it then creates a richness that you don’t know how it’s happening.”

Jason Momoa battles the invading Sardaukar army in DUNE. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

The armor on House Harkonnen is like feudal Japan and House Atreidies struck me as a bit like Frank Gehry.

“Oh that’s cool. I’ll take it. He’s one of my favorites. I used to live behind a Frank Gehry house when I lived in LA.”

And the Sardaukar army is really exquisite – more spacesuit-like. How did you settle on those aesthetic choices?

“We looked early on at color – at color ways – so at a glance you know it looks good against what we set forth, like that beautiful deep bottle green on the Atreides on their dress uniforms. The Harkonnens were shades of black. The Sardaukar we thought we could make white look evil and menacing. You would really see these characters with the blood down the front of them in white. That was on the shortlist. We had already done dark on the Harkonnen and the steel metal on the Atreides. It would make them distinct when they were battling when you’d see hundreds of people battling. You’d know who was who. These were mercenaries, brought into unfamiliar worlds. We thought they should have some kind of bubble on their face, or some controlled atmosphere. So no matter where they were going to fight, they were protected. They did wind up looking like some version of a flight, or space, suit.

To be honest, with the Harkonnen, I love [H.R.] Giger. I love the bug-like quality of their helmets – beetle and insect heads.. It does kind of relate to samurai, but it was more based on things with exoskeletons, or shells, and really rich colors of black. I love the artist Louise Nevelson. She would take a dimensional piece and paint it all one color of black and it looks like a million shades of black because of the viscosity and luminosity of how the light is reflecting off the different crevices. I love that inspiration.

The Atreides was really more based on the Templar Knights. And we made a dictate to ourselves to put together things in a different way either through rare earth magnets, or other means, but we’re not going to have any visible closures that we understand in our world. We did this to separate all the costumes from not only the armor, but all the soft costumes. You won’t see any snaps, zippers or buttons on any of the costumes. That was a conscious choice we carried through all the costumes.

All of these armors were us asking, ‘Could you do battle? Could you fall down? Could you swing a sword?’ You don’t see a lot of guns here. It’s a lot of hand-to-hand combat.”

Even though it hadn’t been officially greenlit, had you already been thinking ahead to costumes in Part 2?

“Nope. We really weren’t. I’ll let Jacqueline also answer for herself. But I really wasn’t. I think all of us on the film, we were creating that film which was on the page and enough when you have that volume of costumes. We probably made over a thousand costumes. It keeps your mind pretty busy. Obviously, there are things that will go forward in the film. But you approach each film as its own being. To be honest with you, I never thought about it.”

I was looking at your resume on IMDB and saw that your first feature film was SPEED, which is one of my all-time favorites.

[laughs] Oh that’s funny.

Do you ever look back and see how far you’ve come in your career from those days to now, having ascended to the title of costume designer?

“I do! I love speaking to young people going into the movie business and love to share what I may or may not know. I often say, ‘You may not understand what you’re doing at every moment, or think that it’s important, but when you get to my age and you turn around to look backwards, you’ll see it will all make sense.’

I remember being on the side of the freeway before the 105 opened on SPEED. I was the set guy. I was also the ager/ dryer. We didn’t have aging and drying departments in those days. I had 45 tee shirts that Keanu wore and had to track all of the… and then he’s on the bus and then he’s under it. He’s in tee shirts throughout the whole film. And then you have his stuntmen and making sets of 6 of all these stages of aging. That was my first exposure to being a set costumer and really tracking what happens to a costume that makes sense. Again, it’s function dictating form.

I do look back on all these experiences from the superhero films I’ve done to films like CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR that I did out in the desert with Afghan refugees. We had head wrap stations on CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR with people in assembly lines, in various stages, to get their head wrapped and then go out the door.

I also encourage people and say that even though you may not love the job you’re doing now, try to find some joy in it and carry that experience forward with you. It will all add up to something.”

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.