Viggo Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt was one of the hottest films to be screened during TIFF, so it was an absolute pleasure to have a quick chat with the visionary Canadian costume designer Anne Dixon. The creative genius brought the diverse array of characters to life in the exciting feminist Western period piece that’s largely set in the 1860s. With her skilled eye for detail and her thorough research process, Anne expertly transported viewers back to a time when photography was not yet common. In this interview, we delve into how Anne got her start in costume design, exploring the challenges and intricacies behind the brilliant wardrobe choices, her advice for anyone aspiring to follow in her footsteps, and more.
You’ve done costuming from different period pieces to cop dramas to Battle of the Blades (a figure skating reality competition show) and everything in between. I guess starting at the beginning, how did you get into costume design?
Anne Dixon: Probably when I was a kid. Instead of playing with my dolls, I used to make clothes for my dolls. Then after that, I got a real-life doll when my sister was born so then I started making clothes for her. We moved to England when I was 15 and I was just more surrounded by the arts and so forth there. I did art and design at the University of the Arts London. Then I came back to Canada and was like a gypsy in theatre, went from one 6-week show and then went across Canada. I eventually landed at the CBC and did some films, series, and ballets and now I’m freelancing.
Viggo Mortensen’s The Dead Don’t Hurt is what brought you to TIFF this year and that’s a western set in the 1860s. How do you research period costumes?
AD: This one was a bit tricky in the sense that most Westerns are set in the 1880s and onwards and photography wasn’t really around just yet. I went into different artists, painters, sculptors, engravings, and a few of my books. Plus, just diving into the internet and starting to gather pockets of bits and pieces. I always do a pretty extensive lookbook which is kind of the bible of a show. It just gives the feelings and the different types of research from the different jars that we found. And this one was pretty epic because we started in the 1830s with the British troops and settlers. Then you go into San Francisco in the 1860s with the Civil War, the art salons, the theatre, and the high-class people. Then you’ve got the waterfront, which had totally different types of people with seamen, tradesmen, street vendors, and Chinatown. We then move over to Elk Flats which is more of the frontier western part of it, so cowboys, saloons, the Mexicans, miners, and civil war. It was pretty epic as it is. It was like a dream. It was fantastic.
The character Vivienne Le Coudy is this strong passionate lead that’s going up against these men, but there’s also a sort of tenderness or delicateness to her as well, with her being a flower seller. Did that duality or juxtaposition play into your choices for costuming Vivienne?
AD: Good picking up on that! The story is a bit different from a Western as it is more from a female perspective and that really is at the heart of the story. With that being the heart of it, we decided that she’d be in reds. Little Vivienne is in rusty red and terracotta. When you jump 30 years later and find her in San Francisco, she’s more in salmony colors and a little softer. And then when she decides to go through the mountains and end up in this frontier Timbuktu pretty harsh male world that’s there and the bleakness of it, we decided to soften her even more just so that the juxtaposition was even stronger visually. But to keep her with some strength, she starts integrating within her own silhouette and wardrobe part of Holger Olsen’s (Mortensen) jacket which I designed thinking that he’s a carpenter, so let’s give him a Carhartt-type jacket. We built one that was in the cut of the time. Vivienne then borrows it and starts wearing it, turning the sleeves up, and has the chemise underneath but has the jacket that gives her some oomph.
She also starts off with a bonnet which is very period-appropriate. When she’s a working woman in the flower market, she’s got a straw hat. When she first arrives at Elk Flats, she’s still got the straw hat because of the sun and everything. Then as time goes by, she decides to be more utilitarian and uses Olsen’s old hat so that’s when she’s got the Stetson. It keeps her feminine, but there’s this strength and masculinity at the same time. There’s a balance there.
Did Vicky Krieps who plays Vivienne come to you with any ideas or input?
AD: What I always love is when an actor comes for their first fitting. They’ve had discussions with the director, but they haven’t seen anything or been encompassed in anything. So then they come into my world and I’ve got my lookbook and my boards. Right, so it’s like now you’re in the 1860s, and then from there, Vicky got to see Vivienne as a little girl so she could start picturing herself.
What was it like collaborating with Viggo, the makeup team, and the production designers? It really does take a village to bring these stories to life.
AD: This one took a city or a country! First of all, we pulled in Spain so we had Peris Costumes in Spain making us a whole variety of costumes. We prepped in Mexico City. I also had a crew in Durango, Mexico. I also had a crew in Ontario prepping and a crew in British Columbia prepping as well. There were a lot of people.
With Viggo, the joy is and the dream about it is, he’s such an artist. He’s such a renaissance man, so his artistic vocabulary is vast. He has a real understanding of the craft and the arts so there’s a real flow. He gets just as excited as I do when I find little period silver buttons. Because I did Falling, his other film as well, and with his production designer Carol Spier, there’s a real flow between all of us and a synergy. Where does the thread start and finish? I don’t know. We just communicate really well which is nice. The same with the DOP (director of photography) and Jason Clarke the other production designer. And Nea was the hair and makeup head in Mexico City. She’s the one that really created a lot of the looks and we worked together consistently and she was an amazing collaborator. That was my first time working with her, and hopefully not the last time. She’s wonderful and has a real affinity and reality. We kept it more minimalist. One, for time and budget as well but mostly for visuals, so that we in the audience can connect with the story and the people. It was great.
You mentioned that you’ve worked with Viggo before. What is it that draws you to certain projects? Is it the characters? The people working on the project? The plot?
AD: It varies. First of all, the story. If I don’t like the story, there’s no point. I won’t work on something that’s just whatever. The people for sure. Because once you’re on it and with the hours, your life goes aside so you have to like the people. Once you start making relationships with people, to continue that is a blessing, a joy, and a dream. I like to challenge myself to keep growing and not get stale, so I like to work with a variety of people and in different genres as well. It just keeps you fresh.
Last question, I’m sure it’s one you get all the time, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into costume design?
AD: Jump in! Go full force. Take anything in the department. It doesn’t have to be designing. The more you do, the more you learn, the more you grow, the more you will get to wherever you want to go. It’s all about the journey. It’s not always about the end result. For instance, I did hats many moons ago on a theatre show and it helped on The Dead Don’t Hurt because we didn’t have a milliner when we were in Durango. And for Chinatown and we had our Chinese character, we needed a hat and all we had were Stetsons in Durango being the ranch country. I was able to buy some, take the crown off, steam it off, shorten it, change the brim, and then re-sew it and put leather. There I had a Chinese hat. That was thankfully because I had the experience from way back and I could use some of those skills. If you want to be a costume designer, please do but just get in there in any way, shape, or form. It’s a collaboration.