From Hollywood to Wellywood: Kate Hawley, Crimson Peak and Suicide Squad costume designer comes home
In a world where robots rule, superheroes surprise us and gorgeous frocks rock, costume designer Kate Hawley has found her forever home. Occasionally, she returns to Wellington where she’s surrounded by treasures magpied on her travels.
Words: Lee-Anne Duncan Photos: Paul McCredie
A young woman stands at the photocopier in a temporary film-production office in the Puerto Rican jungle. It’s late at night. She’s working, head down, watching copies slide warm from the machine. She’s blonde, attractive, and alone. Or so she thinks.
Hearing a noise she looks up to see a large man, a local Santería priest. He’s splattered with the blood of the two decapitated chickens he carries. He walks towards her, swinging the chickens, chanting. The woman quickly looks down. “Just keep photocopying,” she hisses to herself.
“Then he walked up to me, whacked me on the rear with the chicken, spat rum in my face, said, ‘you’re blessed’ and walked off,” says Kate Hawley, laughing as she recounts one of the many memorable events on her “first proper job” as a film and theatre costume designer.
“The director was into Santería [a religion where initiation, sacrifice and mediumship is practiced], so he had that man come bless the office. It was all very exciting.”
Some 20 years later, Kate has countless tales of her time on film sets in exotic places, where she helped create fantastical cinematic realms, and got up close and personal with many of the world’s most beautiful people.
As a costume designer of international repute, Kate manages only about three months of the year at her gothic home on Wellington’s Mt Victoria.
However, for the past two years, she’s been officially resident in New Zealand, which is the most time she’s spent here since she left for her post-grad study at London’s Motley Theatre Design Course, helped along by a TVNZ Young Achievers Award.
“I think I got it for my enthusiasm,” she says. “My enthusiasm has taken me a long way.” She sure is enthusiastic; a conversation with Kate has you in stitches and filled with excitement for all she’s seen and done.
Her life of adventure started almost as soon as she was born. Her mother was a nurse, her father an opera singer and when her dad, Timothy Hawley, got a job with the English Touring Opera, six-month-old Kate took her first trip.
“We left Wellington for a flat in London but all I remember is spending a lot of time in this blue-and-white campervan when they went on tour. It didn’t have a bathroom and my parents didn’t have much money, so they would sneak my sister and me into these terrible boarding houses to use the bathroom. Oh, lots of merry times.”
Back in New Zealand, Kate’s father joined New Zealand Opera and, from about 12 years old, she found herself drawn to the arts. “My parents had a huge part in defining the way I’ve gone. My mum is so creative and spent countless hours with us drawing princesses and making peg dolls in costumes.”
With her dad in the opera, when she was bored on a weekend, she’d sit in on rehearsals. “Eventually someone would give me something to do, so I helped with props or the morning tea. Then I started scenic painting.
“I loved being part of it, loved the atmosphere and the music, and I got to appreciate the subtleties of opera by being able to listen many, many times. One day someone said, ‘You know you can do this as a real job?’ That had never occurred to me.”
Soon after, theatre designer Tony Rabbit and director Colin McColl came to Kate’s school, Samuel Marsden Collegiate, to talk about their latest production, Romeo and Juliet. “It just blew me away because it was set in a swimming pool.
It was so modern and so raw. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can understand it’ because finally I could see the guts and animation of Shakespeare. After that I was always at Downstage Theatre going, ‘Can I have work experience?’”
At her parents’ urging to “have a back-up plan”, Kate trained in graphic design at Massey’s School of Design. “I don’t think I was there a lot – or at school a lot, even – but everyone was very tolerant of my involvement with theatre. So I was always at Downstage or the opera company helping during performances and exhausting myself.
I loved it.”
Accepted into the prestigious Motley Theatre Design Course, which takes only nine students a year, Kate left for London aged 22. “We learned to draw, to see the character. The training I got there set me up for everything I do now.”
On graduation Kate’s peripatetic life began. “I’ve become nomadic. In this industry there’s almost a self-imposed exile by nature of the work.” And don’t think she travels light.
Even before daughter Ruby (15) was born, and cairn terrier Brian came into the family, Kate needed her things about her, so daughter and dog “joined the traveling circus”.
“Ruby could always take two boxes of toys and I’d take fridge magnets and photographs to put up, as well as my own bedlinen. I love bedlinen, and when you’re away for so long you like to sleep in your own.
“And I have to have my art books with me. I love real books; there’s a pleasure and stimulation that comes with turning a page or pulling a book from a shelf. I try to limit what I take and it depends on the film, but I average about nine packing boxes of books.
I think my record is traveling with 90 boxes, most of them books, but on some films I try to pare it down. However, if I’m working with Guillermo I’ll have books covering everything from Renaissance to … well… whatever.”
That’s Guillermo del Toro who won this year’s Best Picture Academy Award for The Shape of Water. Kate met him when she came back to New Zealand for a spell in 2009. The film industry being what it is in Wellington, Kate soon wangled an introduction to Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, and began working on The Lovely Bones.
One day Peter brought Guillermo – at that stage attached as director to The Hobbit – into Kate’s costume area. For Kate, a long-time admirer of his work, it was quite the fan-girl moment.
“I sat there going, ‘Oh my God’. I knew he was on the lot and now he was in my room, looking at my drawings. Then he looked at my books and we discovered we had many in common. So we first bonded over books.”
While Kate didn’t design on The Shape of Water, she’s worked with Guillermo on Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015). “He’s an amazingly beautiful, educated man.
When I work with him, we approach the creative process from many different disciplines. We look at things through colour, objects that might be stimulating to the conversation or direction of a character, or the world they are in.”
A vital part of being a costume designer is translating a director’s vision onto screen. “I laugh about wanting a chip that can go in and download a director’s thoughts. Each director is different.
Guillermo goes into a project knowing exactly what he wants, whereas someone like Doug Liman, whom I worked with on Edge of Tomorrow with Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise – who’s lovely and funny, by the way – is more organic. It’s no less great, but Doug likes a feeling of improvisation and sometimes I’m tap-dancing to keep up.”
Between films for the past six months or so, Kate’s been doing a little less tap-dancing. Brian has retired from travel and Ruby is settled at boarding school, where Kate says she’s flourishing. “Ruby would come on set and all the actors were so generous with her.
She’s been so many places and met so many people. I don’t know if she’ll go into the arts, but I do know she can argue the pants off anyone so maybe there’s a career in that.”
Kate’s last project was Chaos Walking with Liman. “It was more like ‘Chaos Running’ the production time was so tight,” she says. That’s yet another science-fiction film credit for a woman who lost her heart to opera and Shakespeare.
“That is quite funny and for a while I went, ‘I don’t want to be doing action films with robots’. But now I appreciate it because you get to play in an insane way. Where else can you get costumes milled in 3D, where there are five cameras on set and things explode? Whatever I’m working on it’s about serving the script and the director’s vision and doing what’s right for that piece. But certainly, I’d love to do something quietly beautiful, like a Shakespeare or Tolstoy.”
For Kate, there’s still much fun to be had, costumes to be sketched (on paper, not computer), directors to be consulted and actors to be counselled. She’s come a long way from the Puerto Rican jungle.
It seems the Santería priest’s blessing made good.
HOW KATE CREATES
No-one’s an island on a film set, least of all the costume designer. Depending when they come onto the production, costume designers may be involved in conceptualizing a film’s look and feel or may have to adapt to one already decided.
Then they work with the production designer, lighting, make up, stunts and practically every other part of the team to ensure costumes are fit for purpose.
“Finally, the actors come in and there’s a good chance they might go, ‘Oh, but I didn’t see my character like that’, or they’ve changed shape, or the measurements you were given are wrong,” says Kate. “Then the stunt guys tell you they need a dozen ‘repeats’, versions of the costume, for the horse-riders, the water guys, or for ‘breakdowns’, where the costumes are distressed. Oh, and ‘we need them in two days’.
“So sometimes it’s total heart attack-ville, and that’s when the chippies come out and we eat our feelings. But we get the job done. It can be
a really wonderful, rewarding thing.”
Crimson Peak – EDITH AND LUCILES’ COSTUMES
This film, a Victorian-inspired fantasy, featured stunning gowns that kept Kate and her team busy crafting and creating.
For Edith: “Edith is all about smiling, blooming fertility, with a gold colour palette.
For her wedding outfit I found these antique mourning flowers, but I wanted them bigger.
So we got antique velvet, dyed it the colour we needed, then laser-cut out hundreds of petal shapes. Then we hand-painted them and sewed them on her dress.”
For Lucille: “In contrast, Lucille is a withered vine where nothing grows. Guillermo wanted to exaggerate Jessica Chastain’s height and slimness, so we had to find a language to make this amazingly beautiful woman look skinny.
I looked at lots of photos of the English moors with sheep skeletons in the snow. We decided to paint into the fabric of her dress to suggest a hint of her bones coming through, did lacing on the back so it became like a spine, and fitted everything tight. Jessica then had the idea to wear nine-inch stripper heels.She could run in those heels. Amazing.”
Suicide Squad – HARLEY QUINN’S COSTUME
Working on any cult film such as Suicide Squad is tricky, Kate says, because the characters have already been created many times
and fans have set ideas of how they should look.
“David Ayer, the director, didn’t want them to look like superheroes, so we based the costumes on street culture. The conversation is changing in Hollywood around women’s costumes, as women get more power, more control, so I worked closely with [actress and film producer] Margot Robbie to create Harley’s outfit.
“I got all the Suicide Squad comics and wrote down everything Harley said about herself and what was said about her. We decided Harley had total choice about how she looked and she didn’t care what others thought. Then Margot and I got out the dress-up boxes and tried everything on until we found a costume we felt Harley would have chosen for herself, rather than one that was imposed on her.”