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Costumes by Kurland

Costume designer extraordinaire – not to mention Oscar nominee, BAFTA award winner, and chairman of this year’s 86th Academy Awards Governor’s Ball – Jeffrey Kurland is one of the many people who work behind the scenes on some of your favorite films. But while all of the grips, best boys, and cameramen are undoubtedly important cogs on the filmmaking wheel, Kurland has become something of a standout in his field, garnering plenty of attention and kudos for his designing talents.


Without Kurland, Radio Days may not have so perfectly captured the 1940s, the Ocean’s Eleven cast may not have been as dapper, and Julia Roberts’ and Cameron Diaz’ clashing characters in My Best Friend’s Wedding may not have been so distinctly defined – but Kurland actually almost ended up on the screen instead of designing clothes for it. While the world would’ve gained a dapper and poised actor, they would have certainly unknowingly missed a man with a remarkable eye for costumes and clothing that translate perfectly to their respective film storylines.

“I was a theatre major at Northwestern University, studying to become an actor,” Kurland says. “While at school, I began to learn more about, and dabble in, set, costume, and lighting design. But I was a theatre major – film work was not even on my radar yet. I guess because of my interest in acting and character development, the natural draw was to costume design. The more I designed, the better I became (at it), and it quickly became my main interest.”

Once Kurland got into films, his costume design work started to take on a pattern of its own.

“The first part of my design process begins with reading the script,” he explains. “As the characters unfold, I begin the process of visualization. I then have my first conversation with the director and share my thoughts on the visual storytelling that we will pursue. Once I feel that I understand the director’s vision, I begin to research the subjects and characters of the piece.”

Period pieces, Kurland says, are researched mostly through books and periodicals, while the research for more contemporary films is more often found in printed material and “observations of life around us.”

“Fortified with this information, I put pencil to paper and begin to draw,” he says, “I myself still prefer old school drawing, but that doesn’t stop me from using computer graphics when the project will be better served by it.”

Once the film’s director approves the sketches, Kurland takes them to the actor, and the two sit down and talk at length about who is being portrayed and what the visual impression of the character is meant to convey.

“These conversations are extremely important,” Kurland says. “The actor’s comments are discussed, and the appropriate changes are made. Then the fitting process beigns, which brings another dimension and many new discoveries to the process.”

Two of our favorite films that Kurland has costume designed are the cowboy-meets-Arabian-desert epic Hidalgo, starring Viggo Mortensen, and the mind-bending Inception with Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy. We perhaps couldn’t have chosen two more diverse films to ask Kurland about, given the storylines and very opposite settings of each – but Kurland is an expert at capturing the perfect atmosphere, ambiance, and mood for each character no matter how challenging.

Hidalgo presented several unique challenges as a costume designer,” Kurland points out. “The period of the film was late nineteenth century, and it took place in North Africa and the western regions of the United States; these were also the shooting locations. Crews were set up in both the U.S. and Morocco, and costumes had to be made and fit in both countries.”

The director’s vision for Hidalgo, Kurland reports, was “historical accuracy infused with a painterly romanticism.” Viewing of the film confirms that this aesthetic was perfectly and beautifully executed via Mortensen’s dusty, rakish cowboy gear and the contrasting Arabian garb of Omar Sharif’s horse-breeder, Sheikh Riyadh.

“To capture these looks, I studied the Orientalist painters of the turn of the century, noting their color palettes and style,” Kurland explains. “The history of the west in the United States was a great stylistic influence, as was the actual horse race that took place in North Africa at that particular time in history. I wanted to create a sense of mystery and fantasy as well as history and action.”

Inception – as might be expected – needed a completely different approach.

“I had to read the script for Inception several times before I sat down with director Christopher Nolan to discuss it,” Kurland says. “The story had no definitive date per se, and he did not want the audience to put the action in a specific time or place – it could be happening now, or twenty years from now.”

“We also had as our leads six distinctive male characters with six distinctive personalities, all of which had to be individually fleshed out through style and color palette,” he continues. “Scores of drawings were created until we settled on a look for each character, and discussions with the actors went on throughout the design process until a very unique look for the film evolved. All of the costumes were made in the United States and then sent to the broad spectrum of locations around the world, and I was very happy that my director and producer were on board with me designing and making all of the seemingly contemporary suits and shirts.”

Kurland says he found it very rewarding to work with the stars of both of these films, as he found them to be intrinsically interested in their respective characters’ appearances.

“With both Viggo and Leonardo, I was fortunate to have interesting and talented actors who were committed to the visual story to be told,” Kurland says. “Fittings were insightful, fun, and filled with discovery, the product of which can be seen on the screen in both films.”

Good scripts, such as the ones for Hidalgo and Inception, are the most creatively challenging for Kurland, who also especially enjoys working with a full filmmaking team to make stories of all genres spring to life. Next up, you’ll be able to see his costume work in the post-apocalyptic, set-in-Russia thriller St. Sebastian, and the futuristic George Clooney sci-fi epic Tomorrowland, two diametrically different film “looks” that will surely benefit from Kurland’s visual stamp.


“What I like most about my profession is working with talented and imaginative storytellers – directors, actors, producers, cinematographers and fellow designers all working toward the same goal,” Kurland says. “It does take a village, and the outcome can be awesome. What I like least is mediocrity – no matter what the budget or time given to produce and complete the finished product, open yourself to new discoveries. Stretch your boundaries and take chances. Strive for the best and you will never disappoint, others or yourself. With a good story – creatively speaking – the sky is the limit.”    – Kristi Kates