"My husband said, 'Okay, now you can quit,'" says four-time Oscar nominee Jacqueline West. "'Do this, and you can quit.'"
The this in question is Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest crime saga from Oscar-winning auteur Martin Scorsese. A veteran costume designer and regular collaborator of David Fincher, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Terrence Malick, West has built a sterling portfolio for herself since she first began working in Hollywood in the 1990s, but she had yet to work with Scorsese. And then he called, seeking her expertise in all things period.
"I couldn't believe it," West recalls. "It was a high point in my career, I have to say, and I've worked with the most brilliant directors. But getting to work with Marty has been such a high point for me. To me, he's a real hero of American film."
Killers of the Flower Moon is based on David Grann's nonfiction book about the Reign of Terror that took place in Osage nation during the 1920s. At the time, the Osage people were the richest people per capita in the world, thanks to the oil below their land. In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a white man who marries an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), as part of a widespread conspiracy orchestrated by Ernest's uncle (Robert De Niro) to kill off the Osage and inherit their wealth.
Whether Scorsese knew it or not, West had been manifesting Killers of the Flower Moon. She first learned about the project while working on 2015's The Revenant (for which she received one of her aforementioned Oscar nominations). "Leo first told me about the book on The Revenant, and when I read it, I thought, 'Oh, that's a movie for me,'" she tells A.frame. "I had no idea who'd be directing it at that point. So, it was a wonderful phone call to get. Maybe it was Leo who put a bug in his ear."
A.frame: In your early conversations with Scorsese, what was his sartorial vision for Killers of the Flower Moon?
He wanted to make it authentic on every level, and really portray the Osage in all of their magnificence. It's an incredible, incredible nation, with incredible history, art, and sensibilities. Their stature, their artistry, the way they look at the world — it's a very special Native American nation. That was important to him. It's such an impactful story that we never learned about in school, and it's a tale that needed to be told. And he wanted to listen to the Osage — wanted all of us to listen to the Osage — and get it right, make it really authentic, and tell their story in the most sensitive, respectful, true way we could. He knew that I'm a big researcher, and I really do my homework.
Marty's always been a hero to me for his dedication to restoring movies and for being a student of the cinema and knowing every old film. And Jack [Fisk, production designer] always said that Marty would like me, that I talked about all the same films he talks about. And it's true. Our first conversation, I brought up Blood on the Moon, the old Robert [Mitchum] movie, and how the costumes really tell that story in the most beautiful way with no cookie-cutter cowboys, and how one of the first movies that I watched before I started doing this was The Winning of Barbara Worth, and it was one of Marty's favorites. So, we were on the same page all along. And I think the fact that I'd had this history of doing other Native American films — both The Revenant and The New World — gave him some confidence that I would really do my best to get it right.
In terms of getting it right, at what point did Julie O'Keefe [a member of the Osage Nation who served as a costume cultural adviser on the film] join the production, and what did your collaboration with one another look like?
I loved having her there. She was sent to us by Chief Standing Bear, and she brought a lot of artisans to me that would've taken months for me to find, scouring Oklahoma for who was the best at doing finger weaving, or ribbon work, or making jewelry. She knew all the artisans. She was sent to me, and I've not had that on a film. Usually, I'm a lone wolf. But having her there, I think, really made a difference. I know it was wonderful for Lily.
I'd send Julie to Lily's trailer before she'd head for set, because how the blanket is worn in different situations, it tells a story. And to get it folded just right gave Lily a lot of confidence that what she was wearing, and how she was wearing it, was appropriate for the scene. It was wonderful having her there. And it's funny, because many of the Osage people on set that were in the movie as background characters often had different ideas about it, so it was nice to have somebody of authority there to back me up. [Laughs]
I want to discuss one of Lily's looks in specific: Molly's wedding look, with the military jacket and feathered headdress. Walk me through how that look came together, both in the research process and then in your costume department.
The first time I came across that, I almost didn't believe it. My husband's grandmother was Blackfeet, and he first showed me that when I started doing research. We have a house in Deadwood, South Dakota, and he came across a photo of an Osage wedding coat, and I said, 'Oh, God, I don't think I could ever get away with that.' This was early on, so I didn't know how important it was. And I said, 'But that's amazing. No other tribe on the Plains wears anything like that.' Because I'm an art historian, I started diving into the history, and it goes back to the early 19th century, when an Osage delegation went to meet Jefferson and admired one of the coats on one of his generals. It's a military coat, and Jefferson had the general take it off and gifted it to one of the Osage chiefs.
But, of course, the jacket was too small. Most Osage men were much taller than anybody in Jefferson's entourage. They were these statuesque, beautiful men. Jefferson called them the most magnificent tribe of the Plains. So, it's too small for him, but he takes it home and gives it to his daughter as a gift. She was getting married, and she took the coat and appropriated it into her wedding coat. She had the women of the tribe make her a ribbon work skirt to wear under it and decorated the coat with Wabonka pins and ribbon work. It became a piece of finery. It became a traditional wedding coat for chief's daughters — like, princesses — up until the '50s. And then the hat, they took the top off the hat and placed all kinds of bird feathers and French silk ribbons all the way around it. And the hat also became part of the wedding regalia.
So, the beauty of it is, those were military coats to represent white man's power, right? And it's now been appropriated to be a very joyful, celebratory thing. It's just such a beautiful rebellion. And I had so much fun doing those. My whole workroom went to work on them. I had young Osage women, who were learning the trade, working on them. I had people all through the Osage community contributing the finger-woven belts and the ribbon work on the trade-cloth blankets for the skirts. We made, I think, 10 of them.
In your fittings, do you remember Lily's reaction the first time she saw herself in the complete wedding look?
Oh, she loved it. She got tears in her eyes, if I remember correctly. She just loved it. I showed her all the pictures from the past of different young women from the period, chief's daughters and families of her status, that were wearing them, and it just seemed so real to her. It felt like a real wedding.
Well, the real question is, what's it like going back a hundred years and then forward 10,000? [Laughs]
What is it like?
It's just changing your headset completely. But the way I've always approached movies is through the characters. So, it's a little different dressing somebody from the inside out. Brad Pitt once called me a 'method costume designer.' I'm trying to reveal a character's inner riches by what they're wearing on the outside. When you do that in the future and everyone's wearing a stillsuit, it becomes a challenge. When you're putting Timothée and Zendaya both in stillsuits, you really have to think of giving them little talismans and stuff that reveals their inner riches. Anaïs Nin said, 'A hanky in your purse can tell you exactly who a person is.' You never see it, but she knows it's there, and that tells something about her.
But getting back to switching from a hundred years back to 10,000 in the future: Fortunately, I had done Dune One, so moving from this to Dune Two was just packing different clothes for Budapest, and Dubai, and Qatar. Dune Two is a little different than Dune One, though. I had to create whole new worlds and dive into different worlds. Now, it's really expanding on the Harkonnen world, or the Sietch, the underground world of the Fremen. That was really interesting for me, because I've always loved nomads and nomadic culture. So, it was a different mindset going from the elegance of the rich Osage in the '20s and those beautiful, beautiful clothes, to desert-wear. But every movie is like time travel. You dive into the period, and then take the characters shopping in that period, choosing what they would choose by what you know about them after reading the script.
By John Boone