Costume designer Judy Shrewsbury on creating spacesuits for Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and André 3000
The far reaches of outer space allow for ample freedom to play with conformity in costume design. The further you fall out of orbit, the looser constraints like gender or time become, until the characters’ garments become simply an extension of the filmmaker’s imagination.
To behold the uniforms in shades of oxblood and crimson, tapered lab coats and light spacesuits in High Life – a salacious, claustrophobic sci-fi starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth and Juliette Binoche – is to catch just a glimmer of Claire Denis’ psyche, which is something of a privilege given the director’s notoriously secretive tendencies.
“Claire had a very strong point of reference for this film, but it was inside her, so we didn’t really get to see it,” explains costume designer Judy Shrewsbury, whose lengthy relationship with the director means that she knows better than to question her. Shrewsbury has worked in film since the late 80s, collaborating with the likes of Wim Wenders and Mia Hansen-Løve alongside Denis, and dressing stars like Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Goldblum, and Nick Cave for the screen.
Ahead of the film’s release this weekend, Shrewsbury reflects on her time working with Claire Denis – a universally adored auteur with a wildly unique way of doing things – and talks us through the process of creating minimalist couture for some of today’s brightest stars.
THE PAIR FIRST MET AT A PARIS, TEXAS WRAP PARTY
Judy Shrewsbury: “My husband was working with Wim Wenders on the film, for which Claire was assistant director. We met at a social event after the film had wrapped, spent the evening together, and at the end of the night Claire asked me to work on Beau Travail. We’ve been working together for nearly 20 years now.
Of the films that I’ve worked on with her, I’d say that The Intruder is the film that’s best helped me to understand what she’s trying to achieve with her work. And I loved working on White Material with her. Being in Africa with Claire was fantastic.”
THEIR HIGH LIFE INSPIRATION BEGAN WITH A CUSHION
Judy Shrewsbury: “Claire arrived at the café where we were having our meeting with a whole cushion. The shades of red in the cushion cover – on the seat and the piping in particular – were what she wanted for the uniforms worn on the ship. I had to insist that she take the cushion back with her and that I just kept the cover! There were two references that we kept for the whole time that we were shooting but didn’t actually make it into the film: this cushion, and a real space suit that had actually been up in space, which was a fantastic find.”
THE SPACESUITS WERE FORBIDDEN FROM LOOKING ‘TOO AMERICAN’
Judy Shrewsbury: “Because science fiction is contemporary, a different type of research for the suits was called for. I watched Luc Besson’s last film, which I nearly asked the studio reimburse me for! It’s such a cliché, but a science fiction film that I really admire the costumes in is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I love how they remain relatively contemporary, but still have that 60s twist to them.
For High Life, Claire didn’t want anything too white or too NASA uniform-esque, so they’re very similar to the Sokol spacesuits, which are Russian. Every suit was made to fit each individual actor.”
JUDY’S SECRET WEAPON ON SET WAS A HANDYMAN CALLED JÖRG
Judy Shrewsbury: “Claire wanted some of the helmets to have glass and some to go without. There’s a key scene where she wanted Monte (Robert Pattinson) to take his helmet off as if he were a knight wearing a suit of armour, and so we had to make everything detachable.
Jörg was a real find, and helped to build all of the helmets and fittings: so many people were telling me how the helmets needed to be and how they needed to work, but none were quite what I wanted. And then in walked Jörg with all of these wonderful ideas, like building ventilators from computers into the suits so that the glass in the helmets wouldn’t fog up.”
THE COLOUR RED IS HUGELY IMPORTANT TO THE FILM
Judy Shrewsbury: “Claire already had the colours in mind before filming began. She knew that the spaceship was going to be brown, and that the lighting was going to be blue and yellow. But red was the very first thing that we decided on, before the spacesuits, before anything. It was at the core of the vision that she had for this film.
There were three phases of red, starting with a very deep shade that you don’t see very much on film. I didn’t want everybody to be wearing the same colour, because it would’ve looked too militant. Every red was just a little bit different for each person. Then we move to the reds of the cushion. We used kilos of dye for the uniforms, and every time something came out of the washing machine, we would compare it to that cushion. Lastly, there was a light, almost pinky red, which is what Monte is wearing towards the end of the film. Some of the characters also switched to this shade as time passed on the ship.”
EVERYTHING IN THE MOVIE WAS PART OF A UNIFORM
Judy Shrewsbury: “Everything on the ship, right down to Juliette Binoche’s bras, had to look as though they were part of a uniform. So I found these pants for them to wear; they were white cotton and like gym pants – they’re the sort of pants that my mother would’ve worn – but there was also something attractive about them. They suited absolutely everyone who wore them except me!
All of the actors were so willing and so open when it came to the costumes. I was looking at the first spacesuit fitting with Pattinson the other day, when he still had his hair long. If I’d been in his situation with a director who he’d never worked with before, with a costume designer that he didn’t know, would I have believed in their vision? He didn’t waver for a second. When the actors have confidence in you, if makes you in turn feel confident.”
High Life is released in the UK on May 10.