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'Blue Jasmine' costume designer on working with Woody Allen, borrowing Chanel jackets

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Image Credit: Jessica Miglio

For her Oscar-nominated role in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett required a designer-label wardrobe worthy of a wilted New York socialite. The only problem? Costume designer Suzy Benzinger had a limited, more Nordstrom Rack-esque budget. (In fact, a New York Times piece estimated that the film’s entire wardrobe budget was $35,000, which is often the cost of just one Hermes Birkin bag.)

Knockoffs simply wouldn’t do to truly sell the story of a woman who lost nearly everything except a handful of luxury goods. That’s when Benzinger — who has worked with director Woody Allen since 1994 on projects like Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, and Whatever Works — took a deep breath and a leap of faith.

She began calling fashion houses like Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Ralph Lauren to see what strings she could pull.

“I relied on the generosity of all these designers,” Benzinger told EW. “I made a list of things I had to have for Cate’s character in order to tell the story. … Every day, my assistant and I would go through [the list] and I would say, ‘I’m going to call Hermes up. Wish me luck. I’ve got to get this Birkin bag.’ Every day we’d check off things on our list. [When] I got to the Chanel jackets, I thought, ‘Everything is going fabulous and this is where it’ll stop. … I’m not going to get the Chanel jacket. We’re going to try though. Wish me luck.’ When we got that, I burst into tears. I thought, ‘How did I get my whole wish list?’”

The costume designer admitted her experience was far from the norm. While brands often loan to celebrities for the red carpet, they rarely loan to films. “None of my friends who are costume designers have had the same experience that I’ve had,” she said, crediting Cate Blanchett’s personal fashion house relationships as a huge help. “The gods were watching when Woody wrote the script, because I [initially] thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I never thought I would have gotten all these things. I really owe it to Cate.”

With one character down, Benzinger turned her attention to Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who had a more casual aesthetic that reflected the character’s working class status. For this, the costume designer bargain hunted at stores like Century 21 in New York and Loehmann’s in San Francisco, where Blue Jasmine was shot. The biggest irony? “Sally Hawkins’ wardrobe cost more than Cate Blanchett’s. Isn’t that hysterical? I actually spent more money on Sally then I did on Cate. You have to laugh. But it’s only because of the generosity of designers like Karl Lagerfeld.”

Thanks to her thriftiness, Benzinger is nominated for her first Costume Designers Guild Award. “I’ve been doing this for many, many years. It’s nice to get the recognition on this. My feeling is that it’s for the whole Woody Allen family.”

Read on for our exclusive Q&A with Benzinger to learn what makes a Woody Allen set different from all others, Sally Hawkins’ surprising reaction to her wardrobe, who kept those designer pieces, and what it was like working with Bill Murray on Ghostbusters.

What type of feedback have you received from working on this film?
It’s such a funny thing because, honestly, when we do these Woody Allen films we race from the minute we start to the minute we finish. I just hope that I get by. I just hope [the filmmakers and viewers] aren’t gagging over the work that I’ve done because, honestly, I race and I just hope and pray that I do my best work. Honestly, I’m running by the skin of my teeth. By the very last day of shooting, I don’t even know what I’ve done. I’m so exhausted and so crazy that I just think, “I hope it’s OK.” I didn’t see any screenings of it at all. I was in Hawaii when the film opened in New York, and Cate [Blanchett] messaged me. She said, “I don’t know how you did it for like $1.99. The film looks incredible. I’m so proud of you.” I thought, “What?! No! It really looks good?” I’ve only seen the film once because no matter how good [people say] it may look, I sit there and I pick it up apart. Like, “Why didn’t I hem that an inch higher?” or “Why is an extra wearing that shirt?” I get so overcritical that I don’t enjoy watching the things that I’ve done. It really makes me crazy. Luckily, I’ve heard from other people that it looks nice. When I got this [nomination], I thought, “Are they crazy?”

What’s it like working on a Woody Allen film? How does a Woody Allen set compare with others?
It is funny to hear that I’m [nominated in the] contemporary clothing [category], because when we work on these Woody films, and I love Woody, but you always feel like you’re doing a period film because you’re in Woodyland, which is not contemporary. Yes, it is contemporary [clothing], but on the other hand everything gets funneled through his eyes. Woody’s idea of what contemporary clothing is [is different than others]. I had to convince him that people wear jeans. He was like, “Who wears jeans?” I felt like “99 percent of the world wears jeans.” In his mind, he doesn’t wear jeans, so nobody else wears jeans. So when I was nominated for contemporary, I had to laugh because it’s not. It’s Woodyworld. Believe me, he is his own time period.

What was the process like?
Most of my friends are costume designers. We all started together and grew up together. I hear from them. They’ll say, “I only have six months’ prep on this film.” I think, “Six months? We have four weeks’ prep.” And we don’t have all the actors cast when we start. While we’re prepping all the stuff, I’m getting calls from the casting department saying, “So-and-so is now playing this role. And you meet with them next Tuesday for an hour.” So we race. The actors come in and do their bit, but their time is very limited. Time is limited and we have very low budgets. [The actors] are not overly compensated for what they do. They do it because they want to do it and they love it. We have to be really adaptable to their schedules. I get the script and I read it numerous times and I break it down. I see Woody a day or two days after I read it and then I start. It’s not like other designers. When I hear about what my friends are doing, I think, “You’re on vacation doing a film.” We race around like crazies. I started at 5 in the morning and I [went] until [late] and we work out of my loft. Poor Cate Blanchett [was] changing her clothes in my bedroom and then coming out into the work room. The way I work is a little insane. We do it because we love it. Every time I get the script, I love the script so much that I get excited that the last thing I’m thinking about is money. I’m like every other actor that gets their part and says, “I want to do this.” I’m in the same boat that they’re in…except I’m responsible for all of their looks, which is daunting, but it’s like exercise. It uses every single creative muscle you have. So your nerve ends are going from the minute you start. There’s no resting. But you love it and that’s why you do it. And you learn wonderful things about actors.

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Image Credit: Jessica Miglio

What did you learn about actors working on Blue Jasmine?
I learn something different every time I do these films. When we do these Woody films, [the actors] always come in and they’re always very nervous because they heard stories of the old days where Woody would let an actor go because of this or because of that. But I learned on this one the passion that Cate and Sally [Hawkins] had for the script. They were in so much of the film. A lot of the films I’ve done with Woody, the actors were playing bit roles [in an ensemble cast], but the commitment that those two gals had working on this film… We worked as a team — the three of us — every single day, working to do the best we could for Woody. I learned about the passion of a really terrific actress and what it was like. I was [humbled] by how passionate they were. They begged for more takes after they finished. They’d say, “Can we do it one more time?” Woody’s one of those guys that if they do the take the first time and he thinks it’s terrific, he doesn’t do a second one. He’ll say, “This is great. Why would we need to do it again?” The two of them were so involved in the script. They killed themselves on this thing. They wanted it to be great.

How involved is Woody when it comes to wardrobe?
This is what I love about Woody: Nobody works as hard as he does and as efficiently as he does. Every year, he puts out a film. He has a way of working that is very precise. He doesn’t waste time. When I have an appointment with him, his assistant will say, “Your appointment is between 3:15 and 3:35.” You go, “OK.” He is generous with his time, but if I say, “I need an hour,” it’s a very precise hour, because he works hard. So I come in and I show him my ideas for the characters. I’ll say, “This is what I’m thinking,” and he’ll say right away, “You’re on it. Perfect. Great.” I don’t have to show him everything. I just have to show him my basic feeling on things. Once he’s OK’d my basic feeling about the characters, he leaves me alone. He’ll say, “OK. Do it.” We have our screen test and he sees the screen test. This is where I always laugh… I love Woody… He’s written the script. I’ll say, “You wrote the script.” He’ll say, “Why does she have 10 outfits or 12 outfits?” I’ll say, “It takes place during different years. And this is for a dinner date. That’s why she has different clothes.” And he’ll say, “Well, that looks really terrific. Why does she have to change out of that?” And you’ll say, “Because it’s six years later.” That’s how he feels. You’ve seen pictures of him. Can you tell what year [the picture] is from? Never. If you look at it, he’s wearing the same corduroy pants and a Ralph Lauren shirt. Nothing is different about what he wears. So I keep my meetings short because if I start to say stuff like you say as a costume designer: “I think this might work for the scene because it seems a little sad…” His eyes glaze over. Like, what do you mean sad clothing? He’ll stop me. This has happened many times. Obviously, I haven’t learned because sometimes it just comes out like a costume designer. He’ll say, “Suzy, I wear this outfit to work. I wear this outfit to Le Cirque at night. I wear this outfit to an opening.” I think, “Yes, but you’re Woody Allen.” That isn’t how everyone else dresses necessarily. He probably has 50 pairs of those same pants, but he loves those pants. Sometimes with the costumes, his eyes will glaze over when you start to talk about clothing. It’s not that he doesn’t love it, because Gianni Versace was a great friend of his. Carla Fendi is a great friend of his. Ralph Lauren… So he loves fashion designers. I think there’s this wonderful affinity with fashion designers and Woody because he gets the way they work and they get the way he works. He does a film a year and they do [multiple collections] a year. They’re like-minded.

NEXT: How Suzy Benzinger managed to get her Chanel jackets.

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