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Milena Canonero on costume design

interview by Douglas Eby 

 "..to create a look that does not quite exist."

 Born in Turin, Italy, Milena Canonero studied art, design history and costume design before moving to England and working in small theatre and film productions. 

Director Stanley Kubrick provided her first job as a costume designer for his film A Clockwork Orange, and she went on to design the elegant period costumes for Barry Lyndon, for which she won an Academy Award. Other films of hers include Godfather III, Out of Africa, Tucker, Dick Tracy, and, more recently, Titus, and The Affair of the Necklace.

Director Julie Taymor has commented that her film Titus is based on a Shakespeare play that is "not neat or safe, where goodness triumphs over evil, but one in which, through relentless horror, the undeniable poetry of human tragedy emerges in full force, demanding that we examine the very root of violence and judge its various acts." 

A key element in realizing Taymor's vision for the film was the costuming. This was the first time Canonero had collaborated with the director, and she says, "I loved working with Taymor on this movie. She's very available, and extremely kind, and gives you a lot of freedom to express yourself. She has a great visual palette, but she still allows her collaborators to bring in your own ideas. She's not a control freak at all. She's wonderful. I think great artists are always like that." 

Speaking before it had been completed, Canonero said she thinks the film will be "very compelling" and appreciated the way Taymor used the material "both visually and dramatically in an extremely witty way, with an extreme style of fantasy. For me certainly, and also I think for the director of photography and the production designer, she was very inspiring."

This was one of the first plays Shakespeare wrote, Canonero points out, written when he was very young. "It is work that is still maturing," she says, and certain elements were fine-tuned and used later on in various plays. 

"The violence is very stylized in this movie," Canonero thinks. "It is not so repellent as it could have been. I think Julie Taymor has approached it in a way which is understood by modern audiences, and she has used her visual talents to make the violence very symbolic. 

"You know, violence and hatred, when you think of Yugoslavia and all that, are very modern themes. But she hasn't portrayed it in a gory, realistic way at all. It's not demonic. It's very fantasy oriented, but with incredible human elements. I think she has created a very interesting balance, which the play in itself does not actually have."

Canonero says her design work to help portray these themes and people for the film was totally new, and not based at all on her earlier work. 

"I don't like to do that," she explains. "I like to experience it in a fresh way. Depending on the project and the director's vision, you change the 'tune,' you change your own vision." She notes that Titus does not have a specific time period: "It's a reinvented vision of various periods. There are references to the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, but not historically or academically used. 

"The film is a period in itself. Of course, I've been inspired by Roman and Etruscan historical references, but Julie wanted to create a world of its own, not one that ever existed. This film is not the Shakespeare play set in a specific time; it's a non-specific period, not even the future."

Canonero had a team of about twenty metal workers and costumers to create whatever they needed "from scratch," she says. "We didn't want to go to costume houses, and we didn't rent anything. 

"We had a big workshop at Cinecitta Studios, and made everything from the armor and weapons to shoes, to create a look that does not quite exist. It was fun."

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related book: Costume Design : Techniques of Modern Masters
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related page: design

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