In one of the best films of last year, The Lost Daughter (2021), Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, explores the complexities of motherhood. The film is an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel by the same name and has as center character a terrific Olivia Colman as Leda, a middle-aged university professor in Cambridge, Boston, who specialises in Yeats and Italian literature. While on a work holiday in Greece, Leda meets the big and noisy family of Nina (Dakota Johnson), the young mother of Elena, and she starts ruminating on her own choices as a mother of two daughters. In flashbacks, we get to know the character’s younger self (played by an equally terrific Jessie Buckley), a young mother of two, in a frail marriage, trying to get a start of her career. Bold and sincere, the film impresses with the emotional rawness it unearths and the incredible depth with which it plunges into womanhood and motherhood.
From the very first musical sound, the film gets a hold of you. Leda is driving her car upon the arrival on the island, close-up on her face, classic sunglasses on, repeatedly taking her eyes off the road to take in the view through the open window. From the soundtrack by Dickon Hinchliffe, a theme that will carry all the memories acquired in this scene again and again throughout the film, the immediate feeling is that you are meeting this interesting and timeless character for the first time and you want to get to know her better. This is the woman who, a little later on, is asked by Nina’s family to move sun loungers on the beach so that they have more room for a birthday party. Leda bluntly refuses. Just like that. It’s a watershed moment for the viewer and an incredibly honest moment for the character, preparing us for Leda’s confrontation with her unsettling past and eminently human flaws as a mother. And with it, the feeling of wanting to get to know this character – who almost never relaxes the tension between her assurance and her self-consciousness – only deepens.
And as with all good films and their many moving parts that harmoniously come together, the costumes are part of the gateway to the character, a fundamental yet subtle and gentle piece to put the story on. I am honoured to have costume designer Edward K. Gibbon as my guest today, talking about the film and his work.
Edward, first of all congratulations on your work on The Lost Daughter, which is truly such a great film and one of the best of last year. How did you come to work on the film?
I’m so happy that you enjoyed The Lost Daughter, it is such a unique and special film. I had already worked with Maggie in the UK a few years back on another brilliant production for the BBC called The Honourable Woman. That had been such a rewarding job for me creatively and personally and we had stayed in touch. When I heard that Maggie was writing a screenplay for The Lost Daughter, I was really excited, as it was actually Maggie who had introduced me to the work of Elena Ferrante. So when it seemed like the movie was really going to happen, and, even more excitingly, Maggie was going to direct (at Elena Ferrante’s request!), I wrote to her straight away and just asked if maybe she would consider me. Maggie wrote straight back and we started talking. Then the world shut down with the pandemic, but we carried on talking and then suddenly we were in Greece!
And it’s in Greece when we are introduced to Leda, the main character, played by Olivia Colman, as she drives her car on the background of the beautiful score by Dickon Hinchliffe and the feeling is that she is this classic character that you cannot really place in a particular time and place. We find out she is a college professor and her costumes are of a subtle sophistication, in a limited colour palette, they have a timeless appeal. What was the inspiration behind her wardrobe? Did you follow the script, did you seek for inspiration in Elena Ferrante’s book, too?
It’s interesting because there are some scenes that we shot that didn’t make it to the edit. These took place in the US and we saw Leda going about her everyday life, teaching, etc., where we had a chance to kind of establish Leda more directly and then to see her on vacation. I’m glad you picked up on the timeless nature of Leda’s wardrobe, because that was definitely something we hoped to achieve. Maggie and I talked and traded images back and forth as the world went into lockdown. We were looking at images from all over, from Italian films of the 60s, 70s by Fellini and Antonioni etc., the films of Bergman, and classic holiday styling from iconic fashion shoots. We were keen to keep Leda understated but also to give her an iconic silhouette and texture. To present a woman who is in control and who knows her style, and in a way has limited her choices by restricting her colour palette. Ferrante’s writing is always very visual without being specific and the characters have a very definite tone, which was also very clear in Maggie’s brilliant adaptation.
It’s exactly the films of Antonioni, especially L’Avventura, and Bergman, especially Persona, that I thought of when I watched the film and the character of Leda on the island. It’s interesting that the scenes you shot in the US establishing the character more directly didn’t make the cut, but I think that benefits the film and the mystery of the character. Are the directors usually a big part of the costume process or is it more a conversation about characters and their evolution?
It’s always great to work with a director who has a very clear vision of what they are trying to achieve with their movie and for them, then to invite you in to help them create their vision. Maggie is definitely this special kind of director, some directors maybe have less interest in the clothes. Maggie is really generous and appreciative, so the process is really collaborative. And I suppose always when you talk about clothes and how a character looks, you are talking about much more than that. So it is always really interesting to look for references from as far and wide as possible. On my boards, there are always paintings and architecture as well as film stills and fashion shoots.
I have to mention Olivia’s sunglasses, too, as they are a part of the character’s iconic look and actually part of the film’s look. Where did you find them?
They’re great, aren’t they? They’re vintage Phoebe Philo era Celine. We found them at a great vintage store in Athens called Bohbo.
Then we slowly get to know Leda when she was young, played by Jessie Buckley, and what I particularly liked about the depiction of the character in these two stages of her life is that it’s like there are two completely different characters. Which makes perfect sense in fact. And the clothes reflect this. Because you kind of look for similarities and you hardly find any. Was this something you particularly aimed for?
Yes, it was definitely something we aimed for. It’s almost as though in the flashbacks we get to see very subtly the woman that Leda is going to become. We wanted the clothes to give an indication of young Leda’s life at the time and all the demands it was placing on her. The feeling that she has no time for herself reflects in the mismatched and slightly random wardrobe. But then we get glimpses of the real Leda that is yearning to emerge. When we see them at dinner in the country with the hitchhikers, Leda’s sensuality and deep emotional intelligence is awoken and her exposed back speaks of adventures to come. Then when Leda does begin an affair with Hardy, who responds to and feeds her brain as much as her body, we see her start to become the woman she can be. Her wardrobe takes on a slightly more polished, put-together look, neat shirts and knitwear and a blazer. I wanted this to just be a gentle link with the Leda that we see later on, sophisticated and in control.
The blazer and neat shirts look is so beautifully employed to mark that point Leda is in her life, as a young mother anxious to get her professional life going, and you kind of have this feeling of relief when you get to see the woman she can be. Were Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley already cast when you started working on the costumes? Did you create their looks with Olivia and Jessie in mind?
I think Olivia was definitely on board and then Jessie came very quickly after. I had worked with both of them before (Jessie in War and Peace and Olivia in London Road and Skins) so I was already familiar with their physicality and the way they wore clothes which was really helpful.
Has it ever happened that an actor felt that he/she fully got into their character only when they tried on their costume?
Costume fittings are a really important part of the process for actors and it’s always a real joy to help them find aspects of their character this way. Often it happens that we are really the first people they meet on a production, after being cast. Sometimes we have even seen more of the script than they have so we know a little more about where their character is heading. And I think always once an actor puts clothes on that are not their own and it works, something clicks and it becomes real – rather than just talking or internalising everything.
When Leda happens upon the party on the island, it’s the first time we see her in a bright coloured dress. And it takes us by surprise, but not in the sense that you start looking for its hidden significance, but in a more subconscious way, which is in fact what good film costume does. Who chose the dress and what was the idea behind it?
That dress, which is actually a strong magenta, was kind of a wild card. I spotted it very early on in our marathon shopping adventure in Athens and then went back on our last day in the city and grabbed it. Amongst all the other elements of Leda’s tasteful capsule holiday packing, it felt like a kind of “fuck it, you never know” last addition to the suitcase. Then, as we were working through Leda’s plots, it suddenly felt perfect for the dance sequence – to me, at least. I kind of expected everyone else to tell me it was too much! But nobody did, and when Olivia wore it so beautifully and effortlessly, walking the dark streets eating souvlaki, it felt very magical and hopeful, and then later on it also managed to almost seem sad.
Were you on the set every day? How does it usually work, is it different on every project?
Yes, I was on set every day for this movie, and I try to be as much as possible always. Sometimes it’s harder, as I need to be elsewhere preparing for new characters and scenes, etc. But because we were all on an island, it made it slightly easier. For me, it’s really important to be there as much as possible as often that’s when I have my best ideas! And to see how the clothes work in the settings and light to help me as we move forward.
A costume designer’s job is to reinforce the story and help the actor form an identity of his/her character. But what exactly goes into the work of a costume designer today? How much ready-made shopping, how much vintage and how much making did the costumes in The Lost Daughter involve?
I always try to have a good mixture of ready-made, vintage and bespoke making within my costume design. The very aim of costume design – especially in contemporary movies – is to create a wardrobe that looks real and doesn’t look like a costume, but at the same time needs to be a little bit “more”. So by pulling from all over it somehow feels more akin to how real people actually get dressed. For Leda’s wardrobe, we shopped in Athens, where there still are some great individual “boutiques” which have very particular edits plus a great department store with international designers. We also searched out lesser-known designers to help us – in particular Palmer/Harding and Winser London, plus some great Greek labels – Parthenis and Ancient Greek sandals. So there was already a very international/timeless feel to the selection. We then made several of Leda’s beach dresses and blouses and skirts. Young Leda was again a mixture of high street/vintage and a beautifully made crepe tea dress for the London scenes based on an Ossie Clark original (that we found in a Greek costume rental!) built by our wonderful Greek seamstress. With Nina, I wanted her to feel “extra real” in a way, so most of her clothes were high street with a few vintage pieces (including a great pale yellow leather skirt by Alexander McQueen) and second hand. We were keen that she didn’t look too “try hard”, so we mixed in pieces from her husband’s closet and well-lived-in streetwear. We also made dresses for the children and beat their clothes up to give them a well-lived look!
So I suppose the work of the Costume Designer is to try to look at things from every angle and not just the obvious one and come up with a solution. It’s to try to make natural what is already a rather unnatural process – the process of buying clothes for an imaginary person and then making judgments! I often find the way I make the best choices is from the corner of my eye, choosing things on the periphery of my vision that weren’t quite what I was expecting to like! But also the job of a Costume Designer is to know when to stop actually designing. To let the beauty of the scripts and the acting tell the story with just a gentle reinforcement from the clothes. This is always the ultimate goal to be a seamless part of a magical collaboration, and hopefully, we achieved that on The Lost Daughter.
You absolutely achieved that. And I am not speaking just about the Leda character, but about the others, too, for example, Nina, whose wardrobe is so different than Leda’s and yet, as you said, it doesn’t look too “try hard”. And I find that very rewarding for the viewer, because the clothes, although they easily could if chosen badly, don’t distract your attention from the character. You keep things true and realistic because that’s what the film calls for. Nina admires Leda. Do you think she has Leda’s courage to emerge as a different kind of woman at some point in the future?
Thank you, I’m so glad you believed in the clothes. That’s always my aim. Interesting question! I think she still has a long way to go to disentangle herself from that family, but Leda has definitely awoken something in her and shown her other possible ways of living.
You mentioned the children’s dresses. When Leda returns to her children, she brings them white dresses. Is there a particular significance to that?
Maggie referenced the dresses being white in the script and I made it into a recurring, poignant, slightly subliminal theme throughout the film. Most obviously, we see Nina’s daughter Elena wearing a white dress in the toy shop scene – this time stained with ice cream. Originally, I had planned to build an identical dress for Nina in a kind of Beyoncé and Blue Ivy twinning way, but we felt it was too much and too try-hard for Dakota’s character. Then we see Leda in white at the beginning of her vacation and also on the beach at the end. It also echoes Leda’s referencing of Yeats’ poem Leda and the Swan.
How did you approach the male characters? Were there other sources apart from the script that you drew from when developing their looks?
It always starts with the script and, always for me, the feelings that I have from reading the script. The characters in The Lost Daughter are so well written and precise that they immediately formed pictures in my head. And also the casting was so great. Ed Harris’s character Lyle has a whole back story of living on another Greek Island, Hydra, in the 1970s (where Leonard Cohen also lived for a while), so immediately there was a whole mine of reference to dig, looking at musicians and artists from that period who had kind of dropped out. With Will, Maggie was keen not to play on the cliche image of the lifeguard on the beach, so we wanted to make Paul Mescal much more understated and lived-in, as though he had come to Greece with just a few t-shirts and a couple of pairs of shorts, so everything was a bit worn and faded in the sun. For Professor Hardy, we looked to French intellectuals like Foucault and Derrida and the rumpled sexy intelligence of Serge Gainsbourg, giving him a little bit of rock and roll swagger. And for Leda’s husband, we wanted to play up his Englishness in a kind of perpetual student-like way of dressing that is popular with a certain breed of English man. Implying almost an unreadiness to grow up and take on the responsibilities that come with being a parent.
And that work that went into writing and creating each character simply shows on the screen, because each of them rings true. Do you think that contemporary costume design may not often be acknowledged as it should be and that the audience can easily overlook the fact that in a good movie, nothing is left to chance, not even a t-shirt or Lyle’s cap?
Yes, I think that that sometimes is definitely true. I suppose in a period costume film, the work of the designer is more obvious and can be critiqued in a slightly more technical way (which I don’t happen to believe is always correct). As I mentioned before, the work is a fine line between being noticed and not too noticed! It’s very easy to go too far and it takes restraint (and again brilliant collaborators) to pull it back and to discard things that weren’t necessary.
I suppose also because everyone gets dressed themselves in the morning they assume that, in contemporary films, it’s just as simple. Whereas in many ways, it’s harder for exactly that reason. Contemporary audiences understand contemporary fashion way more than they do the clothes of bygone eras. And so they have their own immediate responses to what the clothes are saying (whether right or wrong), which they just don’t have with period clothes. Funnily enough, Lyle’s hat (which is a traditional Greek fisherman’s hat, worn all over the islands) nearly didn’t make it. It was the one thing that Maggie and I had different opinions about!
On an end note, could you tell me what you are working on at the moment if you are at liberty to say?
The one thing that I can talk about is something totally different, the costumes for a play in London’s West End. It is a version of The Glass Menagerie starring Amy Adams, directed by Jeremy Herrin. When I was asked, I just couldn’t say no! My next on-screen project will be an Apple TV+ series called Liaison starring Eva Green and Vincent Cassell.
This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me