Dressing George Clooney: Costume Designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb on The American
“The common misperception about style [in filmmaking],” says Suttirat Anne Larlarb, costume designer of Anton Corbijn’s upcoming film, The American, “is that it has to be loud or bold. But I think there’s a boldness in being confident in your decisions, in accepting that simplicity can mean much more than ostentatious, bombastic design.”
Larlarb’s design philosophy made her the perfect fit for Corbijn’s character-based thriller, a film about a man, Jack, who desires nothing more than to lay low, to not call attention to himself, to recede. Of course, truly ordinary, non-distinct men are rarely the stuff of cinema, and, indeed, Jack’s quest for anonymity is both an imperative of his anything-but-ordinary profession as well as the elusive life goal he pursues throughout the film. In The American, Jack is a gunmaker and professional assassin, a man haunted by the moral detritus of his professional calling. He wants to escape, but the tranquility he desires will only come upon his completion of one final mission. As Costume Designer, Larlarb had to find clothing for Clooney as well as the film’s other actors that would fit in this world of subterfuge while also subtly complementing the characters’ moral conflicts and emotional journeys.
Explains Larlarb, “Jack needs to be anonymous, to blend in with his surroundings. He is trying to avoid his past and to be a normal person, so he picks a small Italian town, almost a village, to live in. To have someone like George Clooney playing such a character for me meant stripping away from him anything that was glamorous or fashion forward. It was very necessary to normalize him, especially because we were not in a fashion-forward city like Rome or Milan. He has picked a small town with 75-year-old men sitting on benches drinking their cappuccinos; he has to blend into that. But, at the same time, Jack is played by one of the best-dressed men on the planet, and we didn’t want to strip him of his handsomeness and individuality. It was a balance.”
For Larlarb, it was a “fantastic collaboration” because Corbijn, Clooney and she all shared the same vision of how wardrobe would function in the movie. “George is very smart,” she says. “He was very collaborative, but his input wasn’t ‘I like this brand of jeans,’ or ‘I like this t-shirt.’ He wasn’t about being a movie star and controlling his ‘George Clooney-ness.’ He knew his character had to blend in.’” For his wardrobe, Larlarb says, “We went with timeless classics — nothing branded or slick. The only kind of high design was his final suit at the end of the movie. He has to acquire a suit for a procession, and in all these towns that’s where you wear your Sunday finest.”
“We had a lot of big name designers vying for the opportunity to provide this suit,” she continues. “But the only designer I seriously considered was [Ermenegildo] Zegna. Their suits have an understated quality that doesn’t rely on fashion-forwardness. It’s traditional tailoring but very modern and clean. [Jack’s final suit] is not a ‘look at me’ suit — when you put on that suit, you look at the person. But other than getting the tailoring right, it wasn’t designed for him. And because we needed half a dozen suits [to shoot the scene], we were able to ask [Zegna] to make repeats for us.”
For the two women in the film — a prostitute, Clara (played by Violante Placido), and Jack’s mysterious client, Mathilde (played by Thekla Reuten) — Larlarb went with different approaches. “Clara is from a smaller Italian town, but she has her sights set on a bigger life in a bigger city,” Larlarb explains. “She has a kind of aspirational quality, but she has limited access to [fashion] because of where she lives and works. So, I wanted to strike a balance between a small-town and a big-city style. Because of her relationship with Jack, she can’t be flashy with him in public. I had to straddle that line of making her attractive to Jack and the audience while making it believable that when the two of them are walking down the street, they are not attracting attention. She’s obviously very beautiful, though, and I knew she was going to light up the screen anyway simply by virtue of the mechanics of the film.”
As for Mathilde, the mysterious client, “she was a different type of challenge. She has three distinct looks, almost like she is three separate people. She is strong, self possessed and confident — a female foil to Jack. I looked at the three times she appears in the film. In the first appearance, it’s a very business-like, almost cold meeting. There’s no chink in her armor yet. She appears in a market square café and she does stand out because she’s not an Italian housewife; it’s the one time that she and Jack are equals visually. So here she’s in almost her most androgynous look. She is strong and self possessed with a tailored look and more neutral colors. The second time we see her, she and Jack go on this lakeside picnic, and we meet her as she is descending from a train. She has a travel-ish kind of look, and it’s a little softer. And because it’s a little softer we consider the fact that maybe she is softening a bit [towards him]. [Her wardrobe] is a nod towards making herself attractive to him. It’s a very body-conscious look — a wool dress — that is moving away from the architecture of a suit. The third time is the day of the procession during the most crowded scene in the village. Here her clothing required mobility. I needed to be mindful of the potential action. [This look] is also a foil to the other looks — it’s more casual and comfortable but also stylish.”
Larlarb says that the kind of elegant simplicity she strove for in her costume design was a trait embodied by the director himself. “If you look at the way Anton dresses,” she says, “there is nothing ostentatious about him. He has a classic, clean, modern taste. And I could see from watching Control, his previous movie, that he was mindful of quietness. It was a really stylish movie that made sense in its own world. There was nothing heavy-handed about it.”
When beginning a film, Larlarb says she likes to start by closely focusing on the characters. “I always get into a character’s mindset, see what they might have [in their closet] and shop from their POV,” she says. “If I can’t find [the clothing] they’d have, I’ll build them.” And while filmmaking is divided into categories — prep, shooting, and post — Larlarb says that for her, prep and production are almost the same things. “I had six weeks of prep on The American, but all 14 weeks of [the pre-pro and shooting] was, for me, constant prep. I’m on a never-ending quest for perfection, and I try to make things better every day. I don’t like to check things off a to-do list. [Production] is always fluid – there might be strange weather, unforeseen circumstances, or script changes, so [costume requirements] can change. If a scene shifts from day to night, I think of the character, and what they’d wear [at that different time of day].” Collaboration, not just with the director and the actors but also the film’s other department heads, is important too. “The production designer [on The American, Mark Digby], is a great friend of mine, and we made sure our design ideas melded. Both Jack’s clothes and his apartment are expressions of his behavior.”
If you look up Larlarb online, you’ll see that her first credit as costume designer was on Danny Boyle’s 2007 film, Sunshine, making her seemingly a relative newcomer to the film world. But that’s because her artistic trajectory is an unusual one within the context of the more regimented Hollywood system. “I don’t think IMDb knows what to do with me,” she laughs, referring to career split between the art department and costumes. Larlarb was born in North Carolina, raised in Los Angeles, educated at the Yale School of Drama, and then cut her professional teeth working in Europe — in theater. Among her many stage credits, she was an assistant designer, responsible for sets and costumes, to theatrical designer Richard Hudson on several operas, including Kovanschina at the Opera Bastille in Paris, Tamerlano at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, and Ernani, at the Vienna State Opera. Her stage design work was also included in the recent exhibition "Curtain Call: Celebrating A Century of Women Designing for Live Performance" at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.
Photo Credit: Sam Brown
“As someone who grew up in L.A., I went a bit backwards when it came to film [by starting in Europe],” she says. “In the U.K. and European theater, there is a designer responsible for the sets and the costumes. But when I started working in film, I had to pick one department. The difference between production design for theater and film was so marked that I decided to fill my professional gap by working in the art department.”
Larlarb worked as an art director on films like Alfie, Garfield and The Savages before Boyle called her to work on Sunshine. “Danny comes from theater too,” she says, “so he knows that a designer can do both. He knows it’s about the script and the world, not about executing a checklist. And he remembered that I did costumes in theater.”
With Sunshine, Larlarb began her costume design career, creating what she calls “wearable sets” for the characters, and then continued her collaboration with Boyle on the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. For her next film with Boyle, though, Larlarb got to finally recreate in cinema her artistic process in theater. She worked as both production designer and costume designer on the James Franco-starring 127 Hours, scheduled for release this Fall. “It was a fantastic experience,” she says. “But it is an unusual one in Hollywood because of how the system is set up. Baz Luhrman’s wife also does both [jobs]. It involves more of a [different] philosophy towards filmmaking.” Larlarb’s other films as costume designer include include writer/director Daniel Barnz's Beastly, starring Alex Pettyfer and Vanessa Hudgens; Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's The Extra Man; and Michael Lander's Peacock, starring Cillian Murphy and Ellen Page.
Larlarb is currently costume designing Cinema Verite, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s take on Lance Loud’s famous American Family documentary for HBO. She’s not sure what’s next but says she’s “always been lucky. I’ve never had to put myself out there [for a job]. One thing has always led to another.” She also wants to continue taking costume and production design jobs, and sometimes both. “There was a time I thought of myself more as an art director,” she remembers. “And then I started going on interviews as a costume designer. It was hard to explain [to producers and directors] why I was a possibility even though I had twelve years in theater as a costume designer. But I’ve been lucky to work with directors who are open-minded. If you have the right director and the right support, it’s all possible.”