Worlds of Her Making

Whether she's creating a bright scarf or a crushing boulder, movie designer Suttirat Larlarb specializes in the totally convincing.

March/April 2011

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Worlds of Her Making

TALES OF THE TAPE: Larlarb at work in London on a National Theatre production of Frankenstein. Next up: the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics. Photo: Martin Hunter

Riding the London tube to work, Suttirat Anne Larlarb likes to guess passengers' life stories from their shoes. But trying to suss out Larlarb from her mint green ankle boots could be tricky. It might not occur that the elfin 38-year-old on the Piccadilly line is a Stanford grad whose most recent professional triumph was building a replica canyon in which to film 127 Hours. Or that she's riding the underground to the National Theatre, where she's costuming a new production of Frankenstein. Or that the gig that looms on her professional horizon is to help concoct the 2012 Olympics' opening ceremonies.

Even when I sit down with Larlarb, '93, armed with her complete IMDb profile—where amid credits as costume designer, art director and production designer, the most eye-catching one is as costume designer for Slumdog Millionaire —it's hard to be entirely sure what all she does. She's made spacesuits for the sci-fi epic Sunshine and fitted George Clooney into an Ermenegildo Zegna suit for The American. As the New Orleans location art director for a Southern gothic called The Skeleton Key, she needed to decide which would work better: Find the right swamp and build a plantation house, or find the right plantation house and build a swamp. This range of skills would seem unusual, but Larlarb says, "I'm still thinking in the same way" in each job. "It's just a matter of executing it differently."

For 127 Hours, Larlarb executed set and costumes all at once. The movie tells the real-life tale of climber Aron Ralston who, pinned by a falling boulder, fought for survival in a Utah canyon. British director Danny Boyle needed a designer who could find the right Patagonia jacket for star James Franco and one who could recreate Bluejohn Canyon on a sound stage. As a multitalented American of Ralston's generation, Larlarb—whom Boyle has described as a "mini-director"—seemed the perfect choice.

She began by hitting the library, amassing everything from Utah tourist brochures and Outside magazine ads to images of Richard Serra sculpture, using them to create a "paper world" of inspiration. The gleanings from such research "might just be something like a light in the sky or the certain way that grass is cut on someone's lawn," she says, but "it's all those little moments that make up something bigger."

The film presented Larlarb with her most formidable "character" yet: the 100- million-year-old canyon that entrapped Ralston until he amputated his own arm. Larlarb says her team recreated the canyon "grain for grain," meticulously documenting a 100-foot expanse with thousands of photographs, 3D images from a laser scanner, and pencil and measuring tape.

Larlarb got down on her hands and knees and measured the width and height of the canyon floor every six inches. At its widest, the canyon floor could accommodate a small child. Sometimes it was no wider than a human hand. After drafting the canyon like an architect, she oversaw a plywood-and-silicon reconstruction of the thing in a Salt Lake City warehouse. Construction crews stretched a skin over a wooden frame, and then carefully created layer upon layer of the sandstone walls, adding in bits of sawdust, minerals and mica before spraying it with red sand quarried from private canyons. The considerations were aesthetic and acoustic: When Franco squirmed around in the canyon, it had not only to look like one, it had to sound like one, too.

Was all this fidelity really necessary? It was, Larlarb says—and not only because Ralston had documented his experience and put the photos on the web. The physicality of the canyon—and the boulders—plays such an essential part in the tale. "Everything about them, their form, their mass, their shape, their weight, everything informs his experience in that spot," she says. "If we cheated on any of that, or if we went a bit interpretive on it, it actually changes the story."

That isn't to say Larlarb isn't above a little artistic tinkering. To heighten the audience's visceral experience of Ralston's parched state, she eliminated watery blues from the canyon scenes and heightened those shades everywhere else—in her designs for the walls of Ralston's parents' home, at his girlfriend's front door—to provide the audience with subliminal relief from his sandstone cell. "His dreams shouldn't be hot and dry and salmon-colored," she says. "They should be blue."

Compared to building a canyon, the movie's wardrobe must have been as easy as falling down a hole, right? Larlarb says even creating Ralston's shirt is trickier than it looks. "One of the comments about 127 Hours from people is, 'Well, you didn't really have to do very much because it's just one T-shirt.' Well, actually there are about 78 of those T-shirts and there are 15 of each stage of distress," Larlarb says good-naturedly. "If it's a dirty, ragged shirt, it has to look dirty and ragged, but it can't actually be physically dirty or sweaty or smelly."

On set, Larlarb runs a complex operation, working with staff that ranges from her second-in-command, the art director, to the person who fixes an actor's collar if it falls down during a shoot. "It's sort of like I'm the chief of staff, and everybody has their world that they supervise, but it all has to go through me before it goes to the president—the director." As head of this hierarchy of cutters, drapers, dyers, seamstresses, costumers, designers and supervisors, Larlarb has to make sure it's all perfect: "The way an architect would make sure the moulding is right or the joins are fit in the right way, that's what I do with the clothes." When she's on production design duty, it's the same deal: Larlarb's core team consists of at least three or as many as 11 people on a big film. But under her are at least 200 people, including a set decorator, a prop master and a construction coordinator, all with their own crews. On set, Larlarb isn't particularly involved in shoots. Instead, she's planning five steps ahead, setting up the next location, making sure everything is ready for the director to call "action."

The Years of Living Indispensably

Larlarb's Jill-of-all-trades approach may be unconventional, so it's lucky that convention is not her strong suit. Growing up in Ventura County, Calif., Larlarb always knew she wanted to be an artist, but her parents—both Fulbright scholars from Thailand—had other ideas. "It's that sort of cliché of the Asian immigrant family, like I was basically being groomed to be a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist—something with a secure financial future." After casting around for a major with "gravitas," Larlarb gave in to her true interests and studied studio art at Stanford. ("The general feeling among the student body and probably everyone's parents was that you don't go to Stanford to do art," she recalls.)

After she won a Javits Fellowship and entered Yale's MFA program, her parents dropped their objections. She doesn't regret not being an art-school whiz kid and she values the liberal arts education she got. "The knee-jerk visual thing? That's already in me," she says, describing how she picked up a drawing pencil at age 5. "But it's that other stuff, it's the critical thinking, philosophy, literature . . . all of those things synthesize themselves in every decision I make when I'm interpreting a story."

Larlarb traces her design ethos to her training with theater guru Ming Cho Lee, famous for mentoring generations of theater designers as co-chair of the design department at the Yale School of Drama. "Anybody who's anybody of note in the last 30 years all refer to him in this sort of cult-y way, like, we've all gone through the cult," she says. Its rituals included a scenic design class where students cast a new play every week. "It could be a magazine tear-up of Obama, or James Dean, or whomever. It could just be a picture of a girl in overalls at a gas station. But for some reason she looks like Aida."

After Yale, Larlarb headed to London. She fell in love with the city's vibrant art scene and the fact that British theater designers often create both costumes and sets. She assisted Richard Hudson, the Tony Award-winning stage designer for The Lion King, and she dabbled in film. She heard that Trainspotting director Danny Boyle was heading to Thailand to make a film about an American innocent abroad called The Beach.

Larlarb vowed to get hired on the production and make herself "indispensable." Along with the gung-ho enthusiasm of a newbie, she brought a serendipitous Thai-American pedigree that helped bridge the differences among the English crew, the Thai crew and the American story. "The only other American there was Leonardo diCaprio." That was the start of her film career.

Initially, Larlarb had to choose between costume and set design. She decided she knew costuming from her theater studies ("You're basically still putting clothes on an actor—a body.") Set design for film, as compared to theater, was another matter. "You're designing for the camera's eye, which is much more detail-oriented and scrutinizing [than a theater audience]. In film you could be in a canyon or in space or in a dentist's chair. There are so many more technical challenges for film that I didn't understand from my design education because it was about theater." While she continued on the side to costume for the stage, she concentrated on working her way up in the art department on films like Enigma, Men in Black II and Alfie.

Who Wants to Dress a Millionaire?

Seven years after The Beach, Danny Boyle remembered Larlarb and asked her to design the costumes for his 2007 space odyssey Sunshine. (For astronauts getting close to the sun, Larlarb designed giant gold space suits that drew inspiration from medieval armor, diving helmets, the properties of Mylar and South Park's Kenny.) The experience reignited her love of costume, but not everyone in the industry was immediately receptive to a role switch. "When I tried to do more costumes, so many people in the film industry only knew me as an art director or an art department person, so they weren't actually in their minds able to consider me as a costume designer. So I then fought tooth-and-nail to be thought of in that way," she says. "I worked very hard on making sure that the people . . . knew that I was capable of both." Then along came another costuming job for Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire.

It was a huge job dwarfed by the logistics of filming a story about a rapidly changing city of 18 million amid that city's rapidity. Its characters inhabited three eras—while the three young protagonists aged from 7, to 13, to young adulthood. The plot involved three timelines—that of game-show contestant Jamal's appearances on the TV show, his interrogation by police and the long arc of his personal life.

It was also the kind of project where a designer could get the cocktail-party anecdote of a lifetime: how she got the boy playing little Jamal comfortable with the "outhouse" sludge his character falls into. That fecal-appearing stuff was entirely edible: made of chocolate, peanut butter, butterscotch and marshmallow creme. But tiny actor Ayush Mahesh Khedekar would have none of it until Larlarb plunged in her hand and took a great lick.

Now and Noteworthy

Most movie designers are at the mercy of what projects came their way, and what came Larlarb's way after Millionaire (for which she won the Costume Designers Guild award in 2009 for excellence in contemporary film) was a flurry of costume work. But after 127 Hours, Larlarb received offers for projects that combined production design and costume. Her dream to regularly combine both skills in film had come true. She was so exhausted, however, she turned them down. One morning, having coffee with her boyfriend in New York, she told him her ideal next project would be a play on Broadway or at the National Theatre.

Within weeks, the phone rang. It was Boyle, asking Larlarb to collaborate on a play by Nick Dear based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The play, which opened in February in London (but has high-definition broadcasts in March to cities worldwide), is told from the monster's perspective. "In most productions the creature is quite repugnant," she says. "He just growls a lot, always. We're trying to upend that a bit—hope the audience will empathize with him and his experience, and what it says about the society around him."

Theater work, she says, is the perfect prelude to her collaboration with Boyle and fellow Sunshine designer Mark Tildesley on the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics because it forces them to think big. "We've been focusing on film stuff so much in the last decade, you sort of forget the theater rules a bit. The first instinct is to design these beautifully meticulous things that the audience's eye will never pick up, and we have to step back to realize that we actually need to be a bit bolder and more obvious."

Larlarb is sworn to secrecy about the two-year design process—documents get fed into a shredder at the end of each meeting. She does tell me their work will have to play to "80,000 people in a stadium plus a television audience. So you're kind of having to design for both the camera and an audience at the same time."

Meanwhile, Frankenstein poses the intricacies of period costume after she's worked in a contemporary idiom in recent films—including Beastly, which opens March 4. She says her method remains the same, even for a thriller set in the early 19thcentury. "It's science fiction, so the costumes are heightened to express that, but at the end of the day, the play cannot only be just an exercise in museum-period accuracy or heightened gothic style. The substance informs the style always for me, and it's just that I've done more 'contemporary' work than not on film, so the misunderstanding that things aren't as expressive as if it was fantasy or period still prevails."

The field of film costuming is preoccupied with period costume—a bias that years of Academy Awards for lavish period productions seem to confirm. "Just because something reads as contemporary and real doesn't mean the same design process isn't at work," Larlarb says. "Many Oscar-winning costume designers will stand up for the films that are not period or fantasy because the Academy seems to think narrowly that design is just about making up something that doesn't exist now."

But in some quarters, directors and producers appreciate her interdisciplinary approach. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the writer/director couple who hired Larlarb for the costumes on The Extra Man and the upcoming Cinema Verite, relish her art background and "uncanny" way with color. "She had this holistic vision. It wasn't just wardrobe in its own little universe," Berman says. "Suttirat is that kind of person who understands what's going on in all the departments and finds a way to complement them."

Most of all, however, directors value Larlarb's exhaustive research and dedication to character. "Every decision she makes, everything that a person wears, everything they put on their body has some reflection on their personality and their character," Berman says. In The Extra Man, Kevin Kline plays an aging dandy who scours Upper East Side charity shops for chichi cast-offs. To help build an authentic wardrobe, Larlarb and Kline actually went thrift-store shopping, with Kline in character.

For the 2012 HBO movie Cinema Verite, based on the groundbreaking 1970s documentary An American Family, Larlarb raided her mother's wardrobe for Diane Lane's portrayal of worldly Patricia Loud, a 1948 Stanford grad who had traveled in Asia and lived in Santa Barbara. "My mom came over in the late '60s as a graduate student from Thailand with clothing that was made for her," she says. In America, a young woman with "amazing taste," she "accumulated a lot of interesting '60s clothing that was West Coast specific and so incredibly reminiscent of that character."

Larlarb noticed that the Loud family shared clothing, in particular a special white and silver belt of the mother's. "It would show up on one of their daughters, sometimes the really flamboyant older son, sometimes the middle son, who was kind of a Mick Jagger wannabe," she says. "There's this theory about how the show exploited the family until it broke the family apart—the deleterious effect of reality TV on its subject. But when you watch the documentary, you notice all these things that link them together in other ways."

When Not Knowing Is Bliss

"I'm not the sort of designer who signs her name across something." It's one of the first things Larlarb tells me when I call to set up a meeting, and it's a theme she returns to again and again—the desire to subsume style in substance, to root everything in observation, character and storytelling, to work from the inside out. She may be a "mini-director," but Larlarb is the anti-auteur. There's not a recurrent style in her films, only a recurrent process.

This is one reason she loves working with Boyle. "He has this theory," she explains, "that your first film is your best film, and it's down to that sense of not knowing what you're doing. As a designer that's very exciting because you can rely on your experience and the knowledge you have from a process, but you couldn't ever rely on just getting what you got last time and tweaking it a little bit."

That process has led her to elements as different as a handmade woven-flower boutonniere for Kevin Kline's graying popinjay, the exquisite Malò dress worn by a svelte assassin in The American and even to standard-issue fatigues. For Sunshine, Larlarb realized that astronauts don't have clothes tailor-made for them. She designed the uniforms and sent them off to a factory, "so they wouldn't feel like they fit each person perfectly in that annoying Hollywood way."

To what end all this verisimilitude? Don't we go to the movies to escape reality? Perhaps, but for Larlarb, true escape means believing in the place you escape to. "You should as an audience member enter a world, believe it, and almost forget that it's a world that you don't know."

The downside of building such a convincing world is that sometimes people forget there's a designer at all. Larlarb tells me that several journalists have mentioned they couldn't believe the canyon in 127 Hours was a set. "It's a great compliment," she says with a laugh. "But it stings just a little because of all the hard work that went into it."

Sonia Van Gilder Cooke is a London-based journalist who writes for Slate.

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