Brian Ó Tiomáin chats to the renowned Irish costume designer Consolata Boyle. Consolata trained as a set and costume designer at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin before moving into film. Her credits include Philomena (2013), The Iron Lady (2011) and The Queen (2006), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA and won the IFTA for Best Costume Design.
What was your path into the business?
I came to costume design via a very circuitous route. I did many things before it which influenced my career. But there were two actual practical courses I did which were the bedrock of what I do. The first was at the Abbey Theatre, which at that time had an apprenticeship course which was absolutely brilliant – you trained in both set and costume. I did that and then I stayed on as an assistant designer and went on to be a full designer in set and costume. My particular interest in costume evolved during that process. I then moved on and studied Reproduction of Historical Textiles in England. Both the Abbey and that course were absolutely vital to everything I did afterwards. It was very much an evolution.
What was your first break into the industry?
My first break in the film industry came when I was asked to work on the series The Irish R.M., an RTÉ /Ch4 televised co–production of the Somerville and Ross‘ book. That was an extraordinary learning experience. I was thrown in as a full designer. In film I’ve never been an assistant, I was always a full designer. It was an absolutely terrifying experience but completely wonderful. There were 6 or 7 episodes that we worked on over a long period of time and I worked on quite a few of those. It was an extraordinary learning experience.
It must have been quite daunting. Did you enjoy it?
Very much so. It was an absolute survival course! If I hadn’t survived that I don’t think I could have progressed in the industry – it was a baptism of fire. Also, if I hadn’t enjoyed it so much I couldn’t have seen propelling myself forward.
Why do you think they took a risk taking on someone with no previous experience?
Before that I was very lucky that the group of people I worked with had moved with me from UCD through to the experimental theatres in Dublin. The likes of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan were becaming involved in film and I was with them – it evolved in that way. The industry was more open then and things like that could happen. The environment encouraged that.
What was the biggest lesson you have learned in the industry?
Every project that you approach – even though you bring all your experience to it, everything you know, all the tools of your trade, your imagination, your knowledge – is like starting from zero. You have to prove yourself all over again. So you’re always on that edge of danger. Film is such a risky pursuit – there’s so much money at stake, egos at stake, dreams at stake and so many personalities within the whole matrix of it. That means that everything you know up to that point is both vital and irrelevant. In that way I’ve learned to look at everything with as clear a vision as I can. Every project is starting from the beginning. Everyone is in that same state, even though each person may have a vast amount of knowledge and experience behind them – and that’s what makes it so incredibly exciting.
You still feel that pressure even when you’re established?
Once you feel that pressure going it’s time to question yourself.
And you still enjoy the process…
Absolutely. You couldn’t do it unless you absolutely loved it. It takes every fibre of your being and if you have any doubts or questions about what you’re doing then I think everything kind of unravels.
What drew you to costume design?
This I feel really strongly about. From my personal point of view, being a costume designer was an evolution – it started very slowly. It started through love of film – and I think it has to be that way or else you become a cropper. You’re always watching film. I don’t just mean watching costume in film. I mean just watching film and loving film… and then you see how costume comes into the context of film and you see how absolutely vital it is. And then, if you have strong visual leanings and strong love of costume texture, it becomes more and more clear that costume is not a decoration; costume can enhance and make a performance or it can totally annihilate and destroy a performance.
Film has to be the starting point. I believe anything in film, not only costume design,from lighting to directing to producing, has to come from the starting point of absolute obsession with film .
For me it was a slow evolution. But all through it I was always looking at film. When I was in the Abbey, I knew that film was something that drew me more and more. I think the precision of it I liked. I think that appeals to my character. That detail, that precision and the work of the imagination – it does both. Also I believe in the power of cinema to change people’s lives. It evolved slowly through people I met, people around me loving film. That’s what drew me. It was a step-by-step process based around a love of film. It was never just about loving clothes – if that’s the case you can become a fashion designer. It’s about the power of clothes to tell a story.
Can we talk about your early memories of being attracted to costume?
I was very lucky in that I had a childhood where my imagination was allowed to roam free. I had a very strong dream world, an imaginative world. I was always fascinated by colour and fabric – and shoes, the sound of shoes… I remember being absolutely fascinated by the sound of my shoes on the pavement, looking at the heels on shoes, looking at embroidery on a dress. I have very strong memories of that and that has always stayed with me.
I was very lucky to be brought up in that environment and that has influenced me ever since. Where all that time to imagine was encouraged. That time to imagine, time to dream and time to draw. It is a very precious time and I was very lucky. That’s where it started for me. I was attracted to the idea of clothes… not just clothes on their own but what their meaning was, the secret language of clothes.
Going back to the Abbey – did you ever think you might remain in theatre?
Well I knew by the end of it that costume was my area and I knew that I would need more knowledge and all the time film was drawing me towards it and it appealed to me so much whereas with theatre I find a distance of the audience from everything – I think it’s just a personality thing. I love the power of the camera, the danger of it. I found the theatre gentler. I found myself drawn to where there seemed to be more at stake. And the people that I knew, the people that I admired were moving in that area – so all of this happened quite organically. It seemed inevitable.
Do you enjoy the research involved working on film recreating styles and fashions of other eras.
Contemporary stories sometimes involve even more research than period stuff. Sometimes people think contemporary costume is just a matter of going out shopping. It’s absolutely not. Contemporary costume is much more difficult to get completely right and much easier to have major cock-ups. I love research and sometimes I can get lost in it and you have to call a halt and pare back! But I do love research. Contemporary and period are equally as interesting and challenging and demand the same focus.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see you at work and I was struck by your attention to detail. Not every head of costume goes and looks at extras for example.
I’ve always worked that way and I don’t understand any other way of doing it. Filmmaking is like a symphony and every thing is chiming together and if there is something wrong, no matter how inconsequential – like a flat note – it’s horrendous. It screams out in the overall melody we’re hoping to create. I always think of it like that. I can’t quite fathom how anyone couldn’t check that every little thing is perfect. I’m presuming that the director would expect nothing less. Otherwise it can be a catastrophe. It can be that the tiniest weak link brings everything down. Film is collaborative. It’s not just your work that suffers if it’s not done correctly it’s everyone’s. If one person falls down the whole thing goes up in smoke.
Finally Consolata, would you have any advice for those hoping to get into the business?
Love the medium and the importance of it and that will keep you in it. It’s a tough industry and people get knocked sideways every day. So it’s really important to know why you’re there and be very articulate about why you’re there – if your roots are deep and not just decorative that gives you a strong basis. Also training is getting better and better and there’s some fantastic courses connected to the industry. Most importantly it’s about knowing what you want and finding the best places to do it.