Free to become someone else

Costume designers Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli on The English Patient

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Ann Roth with Carlo Poggioli and Anne-Katrin Titze on the late great costume designer: “Piero Tosi (Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata) was the god!”
Ann Roth with Carlo Poggioli and Anne-Katrin Titze on the late great costume designer: “Piero Tosi (Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata) was the god!” Photo: Virginia Cademartori

Oscar and BAFTA-winning costume designer Ann Roth (for Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Naveen Andrews) and Carlo Poggioli who shared a BAFTA Best Costume Design nomination with Roth (for Cold Mountain with Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Brendan Gleeson) gave me some insight on their work and personal relationship when I met with them last week. Carlo also assisted Ann on The Talented Mr Ripley (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and The English Patient.

Ann Roth on Ralph Fiennes as Almásy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine in The English Patient: “I don't think Ralph is a man's man, as they say. She on the other hand, women, everybody, loved her.”
Ann Roth on Ralph Fiennes as Almásy and Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine in The English Patient: “I don't think Ralph is a man's man, as they say. She on the other hand, women, everybody, loved her.”

Carlo Poggioli who started out with designers Gabriella Pescucci (Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm, Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence), Piero Tosi (Visconti’s The Leopard, Ludwig, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter) and Maurizio Millenotti (Ruppert Everett’s The Happy Prince, Peter Greenaway’s The Belly Of An Architect) and is the costume designer for Terrence Malick’s upcoming The Last Planet and Paolo Sorrentino’s 2020 The New Pope with John Malkovich and Jude Law, told me that Ann Roth changed his life.

In the first part of my conversation with Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli on The English Patient, they talked about how they met, the importance of going to Arezzo and a big lesson learned from Ann that Carlo will never forget. When I mentioned to Ann Roth what Noah Baumbach told me about her creating a backstory for the characters in While We’re Young, she went into great detail on how she prepares an actor for the role.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your costumes have defined decades. Certain aspects of your work are what we see in front of our mental eyes when we think of a decade, say, the Seventies or the Eighties. Images that come into people's minds might be Working Girl, might be Hair, might be Midnight Cowboy.

Carlo Poggioli: She changed the history of costuming when she did Hair.

Ann Roth: “This is important - we were doing English Patient and he [Kip, played by Naveen Andrews] takes her [Hana, played by Juliette Binoche] to Arezzo.”
Ann Roth: “This is important - we were doing English Patient and he [Kip, played by Naveen Andrews] takes her [Hana, played by Juliette Binoche] to Arezzo.”

Ann Roth: Well, if you did Hair, what would be the difference? It's what it was. Or let's take something like Working Girl. There's nothing defining about Working Girl. I don't know. I don't think I understand what you're saying. I'm not fishing for anything.

AKT: I think your work, your clothes on film, ended up defining the decades. That you had your finger so much on the pulse of what people were wearing at a specific time, that you were so precise.

AR: Oh, that's possible. Precise.

AKT: How did the two of you meet?

AR: We did Talented Mr Ripley. We met on The English Patient.

CP: On English Patient I was an assistant. That was which year, Ann?

AR: At the very end of the production I heard the OJ Simpson murder case, I heard them on the radio in the parking lot at Cinecittà. I heard them declare him not guilty. So that was '95 [October 2].

AKT: The English Patient came out in '96. I remember being so in love with the costumes.

AR: Women were. Men were not particularly.

Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley, costumes by Ann Roth
Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley, costumes by Ann Roth

AKT: Why?

AR: I don't know the answer to that. I think it had to do with Ralph [Fiennes as Almásy]. I don't think Ralph is a man's man, as they say. She [Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine] on the other hand, women, everybody, loved her. Men were very attracted to her.

CP: Anyway, I met Ann so many years ago. After that we did Ripley and then we did Cold Mountain. Let’s say that Ann - she changed my life. Of course I was working with the best designers in Italy, like Gabriella Pescucci, like Piero Tosi, Maurizio Millenotti.

AR: This is important - we were doing English Patient and he [Kip, played by Naveen Andrews] takes her [Hana, played by Juliette Binoche] to Arezzo.

CP: To see the frescoes.

AR: And we didn't go to Arezzo. The exterior we did in Montepulciano. But all the Italians said, you can't not go to Arezzo and photograph this fake thing that we had worked up. It was at that time that I realised that all the Italians were not only proud of the art that is in the country for the past thousand years. I'm not sure what is to know here [in the US], but the truth is, we don't have that huge pile of pride in our work here. We don't have it, is what I'm trying to say. Badly.

Brian Dennehy, Saoirse Ronan and Jon Tenney in Michael Mayer’s The Seagull, costumes by Ann Roth
Brian Dennehy, Saoirse Ronan and Jon Tenney in Michael Mayer’s The Seagull, costumes by Ann Roth

AKT: I get it. If you asked people here on the street, for instance, why is this called the Wanamaker Building, they wouldn't know.

AR: Exactly.

AKT: Not to compare the Wanamaker Department Store building to Tuscan frescoes!

AR: The Wanamaker Building is not a work of art. But what is a work of art? There's no great love and pride of it.

CP: So we met and we were friends from then.

AR: Yes we were.

CP: We had a good time, not only for the films. We went on holiday, on vacation together. From my Italian designers, you know, Piero Tosi…

AR: Piero Tosi was the god!

CP: He left us a month ago [a little over - August 10, 2019]. But Ann gave me a completely different vision of the costumes.

AKT: How so?

Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, costumes by Ann Roth
Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver in Mike Nichols’ Working Girl, costumes by Ann Roth

CP: I will never forget when she said "You know Carlo, in one costume there is always something that you have to put wrong." Some accent or accessory that has to be wrong. Because the people then do think about it. So that's a big lesson that I'll never forget. To make them real, don't make them perfect.

AKT: When I spoke with Noah Baumbach about the costumes for While We're Young, he said that you know the entire backstory of all the characters you are dressing better than he does.

AR: Well, I make it up. That's how I know it.

AKT: Is that how you work?

AR: When you read a character, you say to yourself, when that guy goes to sleep at night or this girl, whatever, where are the clothes? Are they hanging on the back of a chair? Are they put away neatly?

AKT: Or are they on the floor? As in an Ozu film.

AR: Or are they on the floor. So you figure that out. And then you think, where did he get that sensational Harris Tweed jacket? Somebody left it there during a poker game. Whatever, somebody got drunk and left it there. You figure out all that stuff according to the literature. And now they fly in some very fancy actor from England.

Annette Bening with Corey Stoll in Michael Mayer’s The Seagull, costumes by Ann Roth
Annette Bening with Corey Stoll in Michael Mayer’s The Seagull, costumes by Ann Roth

And you have these clothes and they are ready to try on this person. And now you are saying to that person "You and I are going to figure out what this character is and where his clothes come from and where are they." But you indeed have already done that. It's a big cheat. You understand?

AKT: I do.

AR: There's nothing new about it. You have to be prepared. So you are. And so you stand in front of a mirror with four pair of shoes, different heights of heel. You have a pile of stuff that you play with. And to that person I say "Do not speak! I don't want to hear any groans or anything. Let me play around. And then I'll invite you to get in on it." And that's the way it happens.

As that person is staring in the mirror and you're shortening it, lengthening it, or you slide a telephone book in the heel of the shoe and his behind gets up in the air, and you say "Do me a favour and stick your thumbs in your back pocket! Cock your head a little bit! Let me just see that." And he'll look at me like "You are embarrassing me. I don't need to do this." "Just do it for me!" And he does that. And about ten minutes into it, I do something like, a petticoat is sticking out, or there's dirt around the neck of the shirt.

Ann Roth did the costumes for Noah Baumbach’s Margot At The Wedding and While We're Young
Ann Roth did the costumes for Noah Baumbach’s Margot At The Wedding and While We're Young Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The tiny detail that is off.

AR: And suddenly he doesn't recognise himself. And the minute he doesn't recognise himself, he's free to become someone else.

AKT: I see.

AR: That's the key. That's as much as I can tell.

AKT: Several people send you greetings.

AR: Name one!

AKT: Michael Mayer.

AR: Oh, divine, yeah. He's having a big success.

AKT: I loved what you did in The Seagull. Michael was telling me that you put crumbs in Brian Dennehy's pockets. That's impressive for authenticity.

AR: He had four guys working on the farm and he said "Now they're running down through the woods. What are they wearing?" I said "They're naked." And I made them naked. I had no choice.

Metrograph in New York has just announced Noah Baumbach In Residence (a full retrospective with hand-picked companion titles by the director) which will include his Margot At The Wedding (starring Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black) and While We're Young (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) screening with Mike Nichols’ Working Girl (Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, Alec Baldwin). There is one person who connects the three films, costume designer Ann Roth.

Noah Baumbach In Residence at Metrograph starts on November 8 at 6:30pm with a Kicking And Screaming post-screening Q&A with the director and an introduction of Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter by producer Amy Robinson and actor Mark Metcalf at 9:30pm.

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