Alice in Wonderland Costumer Colleen Atwood: 'It's Going To Be Amazing'

Think of the look of any Johnny Depp character from the Tim Burton universe -- from Edward Scissorhands' bondage buckles to Ed Wood's angora sweaters to the breeches and waistcoasts of Sleepy Hollow's Ichabod Crane -- and Colleen Atwood was the woman who envisioned and executed it. One of the most sought-after and gifted costume designers working in Hollywood today, Atwood has been nominated for an astounding eight Academy Awards, of which she's won two -- for Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha. Just reading about her 2009 slate is enough to render you exhausted: good thing she had Depp's measurements seared into her memory when work began on Michael Mann's Public Enemies (which comes out on Blu-ray and DVD Dec. 8th); then there was the business of putting all those other Oscar winners into revealing outfits for Nine; and let's not forget Mr. Burton, who called upon Colleen to reconceive the look of every character -- some real, some entirely virtual -- for his much-anticipated, 3-D take on Alice in Wonderland. We talked to Colleen about changing the chameleon Depp's colors, what surprises are in store for Alice, and her thoughts on Tim Gunn and his standby dismissal, "Too costumey."

You've worked with Johnny Depp many times now.

I have ... Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow ... Let's see ... Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland ...

It must be a treat to design for an actor who can disappear so seamlessly inside his characters.

He really is a chameleon, and he takes on the character in the clothes. They don't ever look like costumes on him; they look real, and that really helps my job

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Your partnership with Tim Burton -- how did the two of you first come together?

I was recommended to him on Edward Scissorhands by a production designer -- Bo Welch -- who I'd work with prior to that. So I met Tim through him, and we clicked in our own way, and we've managed to have a long run together and still enjoy working together. I just went to Tim's show at MoMA last night, and it was fantastic. Really amazing.

Do you conceive of the costumes together through sketches? I know he frequently begins on paper.

There's something that he captures that is kind of the soul of the character on paper, and there's often costume elements, but we're not married to that at all. I mean, for sure on Edward Scissorhands, because there was so much involved with that, but with the Mad Hatter, with Sweeney, with those costumes, he really doesn't give me a drawing and say, "This is what I want." I think it's because he knows the other people working with him are artists, so he gets very excited and enthusiastic when we show him what we have. He has a wonderful eye himself, and so he'll a little magical touch to something.

How did the new 3-D technology he used in Alice in Wonderland affect your designs?

I did a lot of the computer animated costumes -- I knew what the animated world was going to be, and I knew a bit about 3-D anyway, and so I sort of tried to make stuff that you could play with in 3-D. Stuff that pops in and out. We ended up physically making a lot of the other stuff and it would later end up being animated. It really helped Tim to see things as physical costumes first, and it gave the animators a lot of help as far as depth and texture and things like that. I think what we're going to see now is the mixture of live and animated people and costumes in an animated world. It's going to be a really amazing, fun thing for the audience.

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I know he wanted to depart with the traditional narrative. How tied were you to the original illustrations, and what were you reference points for designing a new Alice in Wonderland?

It was really freeing, because there's Lewis Caroll's own drawings, of which there aren't very many and they're quite simple. As Alice went through various eras, there's classic references for them. Because this is so different from what people are going to expect -- Alice isn't a ten-year-old girl, she's a young woman -- there's a nod to the classical need for that. But once she goes into Wonderland, we took it to another place. The Hatter has a hat and the recognizable elements, but we explored the world of hat makers in London in the period. So we pulled from that for inspiration more than the previous illustrations, and Johnny used that for his character. They called hatters "mad hatters" because they used these toxic glues and dyes all the time, and they were actually quite mad, a lot of them. So it was quite cool to read about that business in that time, and that they were actually quite in demand and made a quite decent living at that period.

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