Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms makes its way to Blu-Ray and Digital on January 29th. In anticipation of the upcoming home video release, I recently had the opportunity to interview the film’s Costume Designer, Jenny Beavan, who played an integral role in bringing these magical characters to life. Jenny is an extremely talented designer from London where filming took place. Throughout the interview, it was clear that Jenny has a lifelong love for The Nutcracker and was very passionate about this opulent family film.
Alex: The Nutcracker is a very well known ballet and there’s a lot of visual iconography that goes along with it. Were there any elements of the ballet that influenced your approach to the costumes for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms?
Jenny Beavan: “Not really, because the ballet is such a different format in my memory. I saw it since I was about seven-years old and absolutely love it, but it’s a sort of vehicle to get [Clara] into the land of the sweets where you then have the whole lovely set piece dances. And ours obviously is very different, we’re trying to tell a richer story. So basically no, and at the same time yes, honoring just the spirit of it, I think.”
Alex: All of the costumes, especially in the Four Realms, are very elaborate. I was wondering if there was one in particular that was more challenging than anything else on this project.
Jenny: “I think Sugar Plum because we chose to do a look that actually sucked up vasts amounts of fabric and it was all hundreds of these little fans that then sort of flounced about. But what we hadn’t quite realized was to get the amount of fabric it would eat up, doing that, and getting enough of the same fabric is always tricky. In this country, and i think probably in the States, you can get eight to ten meters no problem. The minute you go over twenty, it will take six weeks and you can order it, but it’s more of a problem of just getting enough fabric, especially if you always have to make repeats. Dresses like that, you can’t just rely on one, and we had to do little bits of second unit so we had a second Sugar Plum dressed up. So you need an awful lot of just basic material, but it was a fun one to do.
Alex: Hawthorne and Shiver don’t get a ton of screen time in the final film, but both of their costumes are highly detailed. I was wondering if you can explain your approach to dressing the characters from the lands of flowers and ice that we don’t see as much of.
Jenny: “I never think about how much actual screen time they’ll get, to me it’s just important that they’re completely right and can be shot on from any angle. And in the polite form of Nutcracker was thinking up how to do these different realms and give them their own type of look. I think it all came from various research, looking up fairytale illustrations from 19th century and some people like Alexander McQueen, who did amazing things with… I never think of them as fashion, I think of them as sort of works of art really. And lots of flowers. I think it was probably the flowers that got me going first, that and finding the most extraordinary piece of cutwork fabric that felt to me, it was like the pattern that ice makes on windows, you know, when you do get a real frost and you get those extraordinary geometric patterns on windows and those came together and I thought, ‘Ooh, that might be the way to go,’ and started to put bits of fabric and put them on a dress stand and clothe it and embellish it and add prop flowers or snowflakes. And of course you can get amazing things in shop display stores that sell stuff to do window dressings. We were just out finding anything we could to just find ideas and from those ideas came those costumes. I had as much fun in fact with Hawthorne and Shiver as I did with Sugar Plum. They don’t end up on screen for so long, but to me they’re just as important.”
Alex: Clara’s final costume has some light up elements and I was curious what was the approach behind that?
Jenny: “Well, I have to say that one of our Disney Producers was really keen on the idea of the light up thing and I thought, “Well, that’s really good fun.” Actually it was IKEA Christmas decoration lights and I think they digitally enhanced them. But we took them and sewed them into the costume in patterns… It just sort of felt right. Isn’t it just a fantastic little thing? She’s in this extraordinary world and I thought ‘Well, that’s a nice idea,’ but it wasn’t mine, it was one of our Disney Producer’s.”
Alex: I remember they did something similar with the Fairy Godmother in the live-action Cinderella.
Jenny: “They absolutely did and of course my partner did some iconic thing for the MetBall, so it’s nothing new to that end. But it’s one of those things that I’m quite envious that I didn’t do it, but I obviously did take a different thing. It was meant to be taken and molded and just lightened up.”
Alex: The hair for the four regents feels like such a natural extension of the costumes, did you have a lot of impact on those hairstyles or was it just a lot of collaboration with another designer?
Jenny: “Yes, no it’s Jenny Shircore who did the hair and makeup on this film, she and I get along brilliantly. I think this was our finest collaboration, we have worked together before but we were just so in tune. The very early days in pre-production we asked if we could have three actors come in, extras really, who we could just dress up to see if they were working and that was really exciting. They came in early and we dressed them up and then Jenny did this amazing makeup and hair and that was the beginning of it. And what we learned from that day we could refine it and it was absolutely a brilliant collaboration and to be honest, it’s the pair of us together that make it look good.”
Alex: You got to work with some legendary actors, particularly Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman. What was it like bringing in talent that are so recognizable and trying to transform them into something very different than the roles we’ve seen them play?
Jenny: “I think you do it because of the roles they’re playing rather than trying to consciously make them different. I think it works when you’re just working out what that character is and who they are and how they fit into the whole. I never normally think about trying to do something… And the eyepatch thing, Godfather Drosselmeyer does wear an eyepatch so it really helps a little bit when Morgan Freeman is so distinct, it’s hard to change him. Helen is slightly easier in a way because she is more manipulable, I think, in terms of looks. But I didn’t really think about making her not look like Helen Mirren, I was thinking about what Mother Ginger should look like.”
Alex: This film reportedly had a lengthier reshoot schedule than most. How impactful was that schedule on your role as Costume Designer?
Jenny: “Not, because I was already doing something else and I had the most amazing Associate Costume Designer, Sally Turner. But luckily she was free so she could look after the reshoots and make sure they were exactly as we wanted. I think I did the mother character… I had time to do that, but other than that it was Sally who did the reshoots and brilliantly. I think it’s seamless, you can’t see where they put in new work. If you do your job well, you should be able to walk away and someone else can… You’re not indispensable. If you’re not there it should all carry on if you’ve left very good instructions, so it was fine.”
Alex: Disney films tend to have a much longer shelf-life than most, particularly with merchandising. For this film, Barbie chose four of your character designs to turn into dolls. What is it like for you to see kids playing with these characters that you had such an important role in creating?
Jenny: “You know I haven’t seen… I’ve seen the Barbie dolls online and thought ‘Oh my goodness.’ I think this is the first time that’s ever happened to me… it’s another world. But at the same time it has nothing to do with me. I hope they enjoy it. I hope kids go and get the same magic out of it that I got from the ballet as a small child. I think it does have quite a lot of magic, our film, and it’s amazing there’s Disney toys out of it, it’s great. I want a Mother Ginger puppet myself, which they haven’t made yet, but there you go.”
You can bring Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms home on January 29th, where you can appreciate Jenny Beavan’s incredible work in high definition across a variety of formats.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.