From watching Manga with Tarantino to scoring Chanel shoes for Uma Thurman – costume designer Betsy Heimann spills her on-set secrets
After bursting onto UK screens on this day back in 1994 in a shocking, hilarious baptism of blood, crime and Burger King skits (and with a soundtrack that’s probably been stuck in your head for the last two decades), Pulp Fiction is officially all grown up. Divisive on its first release – “I knew it was either one of the year's best films, or one of the worst” wrote legendary critic Roger Ebert, before giving it 4/4 – a big part of the film’s allure was its utterly unique characters. From bored mob wife with a glint in her eye, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), to Bible-quoting, suited assassin, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), they have become truly iconic – for proof, just wait until Halloween.
The woman behind their looks was costume designer Betsy Heimann, who worked on both Almost Famous and director Quentin Tarantino’s first feature – 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. When they met, Heimann was already established – unlike the young director. “I had quite a few films under my belt at that time,” she recalls. “He was so gracious, he was like, ‘I can’t believe this! I’m so thrilled to meet you! Let’s do it! I love your work!’ His enthusiasm was contagious.” To mark Pulp’s 21st birthday, Heimann talks us through how she created some of the most recognisable costumes in movie history.
MIA WALLACE WAS A RESERVOIR DOG
“So Mia... in this character, I thought alright, she’s a really cool girl, kind of a bad girl, in a marriage with a big time gangster who totally isolates her and protects her from all the fun. So what I do, I sort of break down the character and I feel like I get an impression and I would talk about it with Quentin and say this is my idea. So I said to him, ‘I think she’s a female Reservoir Dog,’ and he really liked that idea. So that was my initial inspiration for her.”
AND SO WERE JULES AND VINCENT
“We created the characters together. I said to Quentin, I think Vincent and Jules are Reservoir Dogs too. I wanted a really short collared, very tight-fitted suit on Sam Jackson because Jules is like a preacher. And on John as Vincent, I wanted a linen, rumpled suit because he’s a mess with the long hair and the earrings and I wanted him to have the same outfit that he’s been sleeping in, been living in. I think one of the reasons that the look from Reservoir Dogs was so popular is because it’s so hard to imitate, each one of those guys has a different silhouette that was for their character and their body-type.”
“I thought: alright, Mia’s a really cool girl, kind of a bad girl, in a marriage with a big time gangster who totally isolates her and protects her from all the fun. So I said to Quentin, ‘I think she’s a female Reservoir Dog’” – Betsy Heimann
MIA WENT AGAINST THE FASHION OF THE TIME
“We had very little budget and I couldn’t really find pants that were long enough for Uma. So because we had this 50s diner theme, I said ‘Let’s just cut them off!” She said, “That’s great, let’s do it!” There were no cropped pants at that time, but they came back after that. I don’t think we were dressing at all like contemporary fashion. We made that shirt for her, although many people have claimed credit for it. She had a bandeau that we see when they tear open her blouse, with that sort of hanky print that goes back to John’s cowboy bolo tie. That was not really in fashion at that time either.”
BUT SHE DID WEAR SHOES FROM CHANEL
“The only thing I borrowed were those gold slippers that Uma wore. They were from Chanel and it was a really important thing for me – to show that she had money. And Uma was like, ‘Oh my feet are so big!’ and I’m like ‘Hey! Come on! Show ‘em off!” So then called Chanel and said, ‘Would you by any chance have some gold ballet flats?’ and when I said her size they said ‘Well actually we do’. They were samples so it didn’t cost anything.”
SHE HIT UP OLD SCHOOL WESTERN SHOPS AND SCHOTT LEATHERS
“I found Vincent’s bolo tie at Kenny’s Western Wear, which is no longer in existence. It was this old time Western shop way deep in the Valley and it was this amazing store, and I also got these jeans which were these old-fashioned Levi’s made from polyester. Then Quentin said, well I want Butch to wear a leather jacket and I said, ‘How about one like Nick Nolte wore in Who’ll Stop the Rain? And so that led me to go to Schott, they’ve been making jackets since World War Two, to just get that a jacket that is like the classic everyman. There’s nothing fashion about it – that’s it.”
INSPIRATION CAME FROM WATCHING MANGA WITH TARANTINO
“Quentin and I watched Japanese cartoons together and I was struck by this ‘Speed Racer’ t-shirt. I said to Quentin, ‘That is a fantastic t-shirt.’ And he said to me, ‘Well I have one!’. We decided to use it on the Eric Stoltz character. Here’s a guy who never leaves his house. Everybody comes to him. He never gets out of his bathrobe – that bathrobe I found, it was a different colour, but I had this vision that he had to have this sort of dirty grey colour. I don’t know why that felt right with the Speed Racer t-shirt underneath but I loved that! With Quentin’s character, I just wandered into this thrift shop and saw that red bathrobe and I was like ‘Oh my God’. You know I hadn’t even thought what I was going to do about him yet, I just knew it was perfect. And I brought it back and he loved it and there you have it!”