Though Joe Wright’s Cyrano did not end up with the amount of Oscar nomination that its fans, Joey among them, were hoping for, the one nomination it did end up with, thankfully, was indisputably well-deserved. The film’s sumptuous costumes, overseen by longtime Wright collaborate Jacqueline Durran and Italian fashion designer Massimo Cantini Parrini, are among the contenders for Best Costume Design next Sunday. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Cantini Parrini to ask him about the challenges of not only creating a unique visual identity for one of the most adapted stories of all time, but having to accomplish this at an insanely compressed and demanding timeframe while still adhering to COVID-19 sanitation protocols.
Cantini Parrini only had one month of preproduction to design and create over seven hundred individual outfits. “It was not easy,” he confirmed, “We wanted to work on the costume design from scratch. Quite a big feat, but when the shooting schedule arrived we were able to make it work because we never stopped sewing and tailoring the costumes.” He explains that he opened up a special shop in Sicily for him and his staff to continue to create during principal photography. Because of the pandemic, they couldn’t have multiple people try on the same pieces, like the military uniforms, during fittings. Cantini Parrini’s team had to disinfect everything anyone tried on. “Plus, for the fabric, because supply was so limited, I bought white fabric and then custom dyed them to get the exact colors we needed.”
That’s right – no preexisting colors on any of the materials they worked with. All of them were dyed, which was, according to Cantini Parrini, “an immediate decision.” He continues, “With Joe [Wright], we immediately focused on the color palette for the visual language of the film. Joe has such a terrific eye for matching hues with the locations and the emotions of the characters. I drew my cultural inspirations from Sicily, and from the watercolor artwork from the 18th century there. Those watercolors were a true inspiration.” There were no strenuous limits on how to apply that inspiration, either in time or location, as both are ambiguous. It generally is set sometime during the baroque period, but is careful not to tip its visual hand towards a particular century, and the location is… I mean, they filmed in Italy, but the locales within Cyrano itself evoke a broader “Europe.”
Where the specificity is focused is in character and class, “Each social class had their own specific colors.” He was very much attuned to using outfits as class commentary, “I went with pastel shades for the nobility, more ‘earthy’ colors for the lower classes, and sandy colors from raw linen for the militiamen. I wanted these colors to not only denote every character’s social status, but also the status of their emotions and feelings.” He went with not coloring any of the clergy costumes, believing ivory lent to a more otherworldly feel to their presence. I confessed to him that the nuns and De Guiche were my favorite costumes in the movie; the latter mainly because of how fun it was to see Ben Mendelsohn, in full mustache-twirling villainy mode, dressed in increasingly florid pastels and gauche hats. Turns out he had as much fun creating his outfits as I did seeing them.
The bold colors were the most noticeable element of the costumes of the film, but one thing that also leapt out at me were what was not there; I saw no printed fabrics, no flowers, no lines, no designs, and no jewelry. This was very intentional, according to Cantini Parrini, “I made a conscious decision to include no accoutrements. The goal was to express something dynamic. One of my ideas I brought forth with the costumes was a desire for lightness, and not just to facilitate more fluid movement in the dancing scenes. Though that was certainly welcome!”
But perhaps the most “objectively” impressive outfits, in terms of dynamism and utility, were the crimson military uniforms, specifically the titular character’s, which did not change until the very last scene. “It was hard to achieve the kind of red we needed for the military uniforms,” he conceded, “I needed to find a shade of red that could respond well to different lighting while being eye-catching vibrant in any setting. It was one of the biggest challenges of the assignment, finding the procedure to color the right kind of fabric.” And since these costumes were being worn by soldiers who were seeing combat, “I needed to ensure they looked like they had seen action; rumpled and worn after months of grit and hardship on the battlefield.”
His method of creating something so visually interesting out of a single outfit is the kind of tailoring that my old employer Uncle Sam could probably learn from if the Armed Forces ever decide to update their dress uniforms: “I placed buttons along the seam lines, not just in Cyrano’s costume but in all of the soldiers’ uniforms. I designed them so I could remove the sleeves from the jackets and instantly transform them into waistcoats. I could button up the tails to restrain the back of the uniform, or I could attach those removed jacket sleeves to the gilets or even just remove the entire back skirt off to shorten the piece. Or, I could leave the tails of the jacket on, which resulted in terrific visual effects during the grand ball. With the tails behind them as the dancers are twirling almost made them look like butterflies.”
He concluded the interview by effusively praising the team that had worked on Cyrano, not only his collaborator and co-nominee Durran, but also the set designers, makeup team, cinematographer, and director Wright: “Despite all the challenges, we were very invested in and proud of what we made together.”
Cyrano is out now!