As the costume designer for The Hunger Games, Judianna Makovsky was charged with the very difficult task of taking characters from a book and bringing those personalties to life up on the screen. The crazy couture Capitol getups and practical hunting outfits weren’t the first time this versatile designer has been tasked with bringing fictionalized fantasy to film. Judianna has worked on a variety of high-profile movies from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to X-Men: The Last Stand. She’s been nominated for several Oscars and was just presented with an Honorary Career Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards. Judianna may design some pretty spectacular costumes, but she’s actually admittedly most comfortable in her favorite pair of boy-cut Current/Elliott jeans. We recently chatted with the film veteran about her current Captain America project, the research behind The Hunger Games and the surprising personal piece of clothing that made its way into an Oscar-nominated film.
The Fashion Spot: Did you always know you wanted to be a costume designer?
Judianna Makovsky: According to my mother, yes. I was lucky enough to grow up at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Children’s Chorus and I always liked what went on behind the scenes way more than performing. I just wanted to be a designer. I wasn’t necessarily limited to costume, but eventually it just came down to costume.
tFS: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
JM: I have a lot of favorite movies. The Leopard is one of my favorite movies.
tFS: How did you manage to transition from wardrobe assistant to being the lead designer on Big?
JM: I went to university and graduate school and did the Yale Drama School thing and all of that. I worked for an English designer who lives in New York who was my teacher at Yale and from there I was lucky enough to be introduced to Milena Canonero, a costume designer for films, and I was her assistant designer on The Cotton Club. I never did wardrobe, I was always an assistant designer, but lucky enough to get thrown into it really early. I did Big and Gardens of Stone pretty much right after The Cotton Club, but I still went back and worked with Milena on several projects. On Dick Tracy I was actually her associate designer because she had to leave early, but working for Milena she was very generous. I sort of worked my way up from being assistant designer to associate designer to co-designer and then I was the designer and she was the consultant. So, she sort of led me along. I was lucky enough to right out of school work for a really good designer. It was a little bit of being in the right place at the right time.
Image: Murray Close
tFS: What’s your process like? Do you picture the designs after reading the script or are ideas cultivated after meeting with the film’s director? How long does it take to outfit an entire film?
JM: If it’s a project where it’s based on a book and the director wants me to read the book, a lot of time they don’t want you to, they just want you to concentrate on the script, but if they do, I will get some sort of sense of the world as I’m reading it but more about character. But I’ll usually wait until I have a lot of meetings with the director because it’s really more about character storytelling. The clothes come later after you figure out the world that these people live in and then talking with the production designer and talking about palettes. I do the clothes usually after we’ve created the world first. I’m there from beginning to end. You know, it depends on what kind of film it is, what kind of prep you’ll have. Seabiscuit, I was lucky enough to have a really long prep because it was a huge movie and we had to make a lot of things. A film like National Treasure will be shorter because you’re not making as much, but even on a modern dress film I make a lot of clothes. It depends on what the budget of the film is also. For Harry Potter, I had a very short prep because I only had three months.
tFS: You’ve collaborated with Gary Ross on several films, including The Hunger Games. What’s he like to work with?
JM: Well, I’ve known Gary since Big. He was the co-writer on Big, so I’ve known him for a really long time. When he decided to direct his first movie, which was Pleasantville, I was honored that he called me. I like working with Gary, we have very similar tastes. He trusts me to do my job after our initial conversations, he’s not in there looking at every button. He certainly has a lot of opinions, but it’s basically about character and telling the story through this person and we have a lot of fun.
tFS: Is there one film you wished you had the opportunity to work on? Is there a director you’re still longing to work with?
JM: Every movie and every director. I always want to do every movie, except maybe a couple horror films and foreign films. But every movie I see I say, "I wish I had done that."
tFS: You’ve crafted creations for both period films and futuristic settings. Which is harder to bring to life?
JM: I would have to say the hardest movies are the sort of different era, not even futuristic just sort of sci-fi, but superhero movies are the hardest of all to do. It’s very hard to make them special, to keep them rooted in a comic but still have it real and make the fans happy. I find they’re the hardest of anything for me. I would say most designers would say that. The work that goes in that people don’t notice is really overwhelming. But when you see a Batman or you see an X-Men, they are the hardest movies of all to do.
tFS: How do you incorporate the actors’ personalities into the costumes? Do the actors ever get a say in what they are wearing?
JM: It depends what movie you’re doing. They do because they actually have to act in it and move in it, so it’s about movement. If you’re creating a Marvel universe, it’s the Marvel universe. You adapt it to that actor but you still try and stay true to what X-Men wants or the DC Comics if you’re doing Batman. Each vision will change from director to director what type of film you’re doing. It’s really the director’s vision you’re trying to give him and realize, so that’s the hard part.
tFS: What were the challenges in outfitting the students at Hogwarts?
JM: It was based on a book that had no images. That can be good and bad. We created this world that was believable, but also fantasy and rooting it in the English school system. Originally J.K. Rowling didn’t want any uniforms because in England, public schools wear uniforms and they thought it was more interesting to not have uniforms. So we sort of created the Harry Potter cover from the book, but I said that we need to find a look, so we went ahead and made uniforms even though they didn’t think they wanted them. We tested Harry in modern clothes and then we tested Harry in the uniform and everyone went "oh." It was just trying to interpret the book, to read it the way the kids read it and I had one meeting with J.K. Rowling just asking her who she thought these characters were, like the flying teacher. I said that she kind of seems like a gym teacher and she said, "Yes, that’s who she is." So we kind of based it on an English gym uniform. There were little things, just trying to read it as the kids were reading it was important.
tFS: For The Hunger Games, how difficult was it to translate the characters’ style from book to screen?
JM: Gary had a definite vision in his head that he wanted it rooted in reality and he didn’t want to do your sort of generic sci-fi with people with stretchy and asymmetrical clothes. He really felt the characters were so important and Katniss’ journey is so important and that’s why it’s such a successful book because teenagers can relate to this character. We had to create a world that was not alien, that was absolutely a recognizable world rooted in reality and that was our starting point.
tFS: You turned to images of clothing from coal mining districts from the early to mid-part of the century for inspiration for District 12, while the Capitol citizens wore looks blended from the 1930s and an 18th century aesthetic for The Hunger Games. How much research really goes into your designs?
JM: A lot. We put together all different kinds of research and then you sort of take a look at that after you’ve done it and you look at your very tiny budget and see what you can really do. And you start pairing it all down to a couple ideas. You start with what you would do with endless amounts of money and you have to pair it down to what you can really do with the time and the money. It’s funny because when I put boards together for makeup and hair, because I’m usually on way before makeup and hair so I have all that worked out, and everything we liked had no eyebrows. It was what we immediately went to and it was very high fashion couture. Because sometimes when you do a lot with eyebrows it will take you into a specific era and that sort of kept that out. It’s a very high fashion thing, it gave it just enough of an otherworldly feeling.
Image: Murray Close
tFS: There was an interview where you compared yourself to the Cinna character from The Hunger Games. Can you elaborate on this a bit more by describing your personal style?
JM: When I read it, I read him as being almost the most normal person that Katniss could relate to. That he was so elegant and simple and tasteful compared to all these crazy people in the Capitol. So, we kind of looked at pictures of Halston and Tom Ford who are very elegant men, not outrageous, even though they design outrageous clothes. She relates to him more than anybody else, so we had to really pull him back and keep him very simple. I wear very simple clothes, I’m usually in jeans. My personal aesthetic is very simple, tasteful. I don’t wear outrageous clothes, I like timeless clothes that I can wear more than one season and mix and match. I personally don’t dress with the winds of fashion. I mostly wear jeans and a lot of black. Movies are different than the fashion world, we’re on the set 17 hours a day in dirt and freezing cold and we work in very unglamorous work spaces. It’s not what people think it is. I’ll get out there myself and put dust and dirt all over people, even though I’ve been known to get out there in my Prada boots, it’s not the most practical.
tFS: We know Elsa Schiaparelli was a big source of inspiration for you as a costume designer, but are there more current designers you look to for ideas?
JM: Well on The Hunger Games, of course we looked at Alexander McQueen, we looked at every sort of out-there designer because they’re geniuses. We looked at everything, I mean literally everything except, well I can’t say there was anything we left off those boards. There were little bits from every designer that we kind of stuck all over our board. It was mostly going for silhouette because when you have limited resources and you’re doing big crowds, it’s about silhouette and color. We had a very limited palette even though everyone looks very colorful, we stuck to black and three colors and tried to keep a really tight palette in the Capitol. So, i just think you have to kind of make those decisions when you create the world.
tFS: How hard is it to create the superhero costumes like the ones in X-Men and Captain America?
JM: The people who make these clothes are geniuses. It takes it beyond making a regular garment. There are so many people involved; people who sculpt, who mold, who do speciality webbing, you’re having fabric printed on stretch fabric that you would normally not do. It takes a village to make one of these costumes.
tFS: We know you’re currently working on the sequel to Captain America. Can you give us any hint about some of the costumes this go-round?
JM: I’m absolutely sworn to secrecy by Marvel. You even sign forms of nondisclosure. It’s completely different and these films are really the hardest to do. To create this whole world where superheroes can actually function and still not look silly is very difficult. I have to say the last Batman, Lindy Hemming handled it really well. Marvel’s very secretive so we will wait until they want to release the picture. All these Marvel films, they all intertwine with The Avengers so these characters come in and out so we do look back.
tFS: Most challenging costume you’ve ever designed? Favorite costume you’ve designed?
JM: I loved when I worked with Sharon Stone on The Quick and the Dead. I just loved her costume and I loved doing it and she was great to work with because it was our own vision of Western wear. All of them are challenging, though. Anything that involves stunts is probably the most challenging. The movie I’m working on now is the most challenging. If you had asked me during The Hunger Games, I would have said it was the most challenging. I think that’s why I jump around from genre to genre, I learn so much each time.
tFS: If you could wear any of the costumes from your films, which would you pick?
JM: It would probably be Elizabeth Banks’ clothes in Seabiscuit for sure. She was actually wearing my jodhpurs that I used to wear out, so I really like American period sportswear. I used to wear those jodhpurs a lot, but I don’t do it anymore because I live in Los Angeles and it’s just too hot.
tFS: What’s the best style advice you've ever received?
JM: Don’t go with the winds of fashion. Find what fits yourself, just like in movies, find what fits the character. Even if it’s right or wrong for the period, sometimes you just have to go with your instincts.
tFS: Finish this sentence. You'll never find me without my…
JM: Black cashmere sweater. Actually, you’ll also never find me without my Zagat’s Guide. When I’m on location, I have to find good food.
tFS: What’s your most cherished clothing or accessory item?
JM: My mother gave me a 40s pearl evening watch that was her engagement watch that I like and tend to wear it to things like the Oscars.