When I called Judianna Makovsky for a chat, Gary Ross happened to be on the other line — no big deal. Nominated for three Oscars, the costume designer has had a long run in the movie business without ever limiting herself to any one specific genre. Sure, she's worked with Ross several times (from 1988's Big to 2003's Seabiscuit to their most recent Peter Pan project), but that's because her decision to work on a film is hugely influenced by the people backing it. You may not know it, but you've been watching her costume work on the big screen for years now — A Little Princess, Lolita, Pleasantville, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, X-Men: The Last Stand, and of course, The Hunger Games.
How did she get where she is today? Well, when Judianna was a kid she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and Children's Chorus in New York and got in. Though she enjoyed performing for a crowd, what she really loved was everything that happened back stage. "I liked the sets, I liked the clothes; I was much more interested in all of that from the age five. My mother said I always wanted to do this; from the minute I was in that world, that’s what I wanted to do. So, I guess I was born with it," she laughs.
Though her start was with opera and ballet, her passion was always rooted in film. At a young age she was enthralled with Piero Tosi's work on The Leopard and later discovered Milena Canonera's work on Barry Lyndon. "I was just mesmerized and said, 'That's what I want to do. That's the kind of design I want to do,'" she recalls. "I liked the little details on clothes and you can get that in close-ups in film, whereas on stage it's more broad. I think getting into the movies was just luck."
Pure luck definitely plays a big role in breaking into the film industry, but so does talent, passion and calculated dedication. For her undergraduate studies Judianna went to the Art Institute of Chicago, which owned the Goodman Theater School of Drama at the time, meaning that she could do everything at one school. Afterwards, she went to the Yale School of Drama for her graduate work and was taught by famed costume designer Jane Greenwood — who is best known for her theater and ballet work.
Once she finished her schooling, she went to work for Greenwood and eventually met Milena Canonero (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Grand Budapest Hotel, among many others). Through Canonero, Judianna snagged her very first big movie as an assistant costume designer, The Cotton Club in 1984. "I got lucky, let's put it that way," she laughed. "Met the right people in the right place at the right time. [I] was lucky enough to get that step. Otherwise, I'd still be doing opera."
In the span of her exciting career, Judianna has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers, including one she would love to work with again, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, Gravity). Though incredibly well known now, back in 1995 Cuarón was making his very first American film, A Little Princess, and hired Judianna as the costume designer.
"He wanted a specific look that was so different from most movies. When I interviewed for the job, he said, 'Well, I want the whole movie to be all green.' Apparently I was the only designer he interviewed who said, 'Green? Wow, I love green. That could be really interesting.' Everybody else said, 'Oh green doesn't look good on camera,'" she laughs.
Not only did the project have a color restriction and a very small budget (which is incredibly difficult for costume designers, because more often than not, money isn't thrown their direction), it also had to be rooted in reality. Despite the magical storytelling, Judianna wanted the clothing to provide a touchstone for the audience to relate to so they could identify with the young main character. "I think when things are too fantastical, you don’t have an emotional connection with them, it's more just a visual thing," she explains. "I think there's a fine line between pulling it back from the fantasy and making it based in reality."
She never sticks to a certain genre, though a lot of designers do. Instead, Judianna prefers jumping around to all different types of films, seeking out something new and challenging with each one. Of course, everyone has their favorites and hers include fantasy and period films. In the end though, regardless of genre, the movies that interest Judianna the most are those that are character-based and have a great crew backing them. "It's mostly about the people. If I like the whole design team, the production designer, the director of photography, and the director, that’s really what makes the experience good."
Out of everything she's done so far, she finds science fiction and comic book films to be the most difficult — though that certainly hasn't stopped her. Not only that, but she's pretty used to working on projects that have a massive fan following, including The Hunger Games, X-Men, Harry Potter, and Captain America. In these worlds, you have to really know your stuff if you don't want to disappoint legions of fans. So where does one even start?
"You always start with the director; it's the director's vision that you're trying to get across," she says. "Sometimes I read the book and sometimes I don't, it depends on what the director wants to do. Harry Potter was definitely based on the book. I was going to do what was in that book, there were too many fans and I didn't want to ruin their experience, you know? I tried to read it the way a fan reads it."
When the movie has such a big history already, like one based off a Marvel comic, the world you're designing for is essentially already created. "It's sort of interesting to go in where its already created and make it the new directors own world. It's hard to do that because you want to stay with that world and the concept, but make it something new." Not to mention the time and team it takes to even make something like the Captain America suit. "It takes 30 people who do different things to make these kind of clothes, the molding and sculpting, it's really fascinating and then you have to have movement. I think they're the hardest things to do," explains Judianna. "I think people should really look at them. Like Batman suits, they're so complicated and they're works of art in their own respect."
Speaking of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they came up with several different designs for the seemingly single suit you will see in the final film. They had around 16 different suits for each design, all of them catering to specific stunt needs — like movement and wirework. "It looks like it's all one fabric. If you really get in there and look at it, there's really four or five different fabrics in there that are all dyed to look exactly alike, but all have different stretch or different movement in different areas. The people who actually make them are absolutely genius."
Though The Hunger Games was highly anticipated by fans of the book back when it was being filmed, they didn't actually have that big of a budget or preparation time, which made Judianna's job really tough — one usually needs a good three or four months of research alone. "I had to take what I could out of the book, and then also go with Gary's vision and sort of pick and choose the moments I could afford to do, frankly," she laughs. Luckily, she had worked with Gary before and was called into the fray early in production, which allowed her to get some looks prepared ahead of time.
Of all of the costumes she's designed and all of the people she's worked with, one of her favorites to dress has been Sharon Stone for the western, The Quick and the Dead. Judianna loved making the semi-period clothes to create Stone's character. "I did a lot of movies way back with Sharon and really liked working with her. She was very involved, and very collaborative and fun. It was always girls playing dress up," she laughs. Typically, the clothes she's really liked the most either never even make it into the final movie or are barely given screen time. "Every costume designer will tell you, 'Oh my god, I did these beautiful things and you don't even see them!'"
Before our chat ended I just had to ask about the upcoming Peter Pan project she's working on with Gary Ross and Disney. An origin story about how Pan became the poster boy for eternal youth that's based on Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Judianna has been doing research and development on the film for the last three months with Ross. "We just don't know where we're shooting at the moment, so they're working out the budget and all of that," she says. "We did a big studio presentation with our ideas and some sketches. It will be a great project; Gary's script is very good."
No one will be surprised to know that this is just one of three upcoming Peter Pan projects in the works, because that's how Hollywood operates — if something is popular, they're going to inundate the media with several incarnations. One is being helmed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Hanna), which he's apparently doing instead of the darker The Little Mermaid he was signed up for previously, and the third one is being developed with Channing Tatum and Joe Roth producing. However, Judianna is hopeful that because they started first, they'll be able to start production before the other two, which would be a huge benefit. No one wants to be last.
For Judianna, being a great costume designer isn't as much about the clothes as it is telling a story. Much like one approaches a puzzle, she has to interpret a script and build a character in real time. Most casual movie viewers won't realize just how much of a character is created through the wardrobe, but that's because Judianna knows exactly what she's doing. Instead of allowing the costuming to take center stage, she manages to straddle that line which allows the character to be brought up without being swallowed. Her work has become the subtle stage from which some of our very favorite film characters have come to life and for that, you should be keeping track of Judianna's every career move.