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'Exodus' costume designer talks research, controversy

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Kerry Brown

Maybe because the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments is on TV every Easter season, it doesn’t feel like very long since Hollywood last produced a grand Biblical epic. Yet when costume designer Janty Yates went into costume houses in search of anything she could use on Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, the decades that had passed between that film (released in 1956) and the new one became apparent.

“The last big Egyptian movie was Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor,” Yates said. “Of course, that was full of corsets and polyester fabric that you wouldn’t use now, and bright colors because those were the thing back in the ‘60s.”

As a result, Yates and her Exodus team had to make almost everything themselves. This meant assembling big teams of leatherworkers, metalworkers, and embroiderers to construct over 6,000 costumes from scratch. Not only were there untold extras to clothe, but the film’s main characters had multiple different costumes. For instance, one of Yates’ favorite costumes from the movie was the gold armor worn by Ramses (Joel Edgerton)—but over the course of the film, Ramses cycles through many other outfits, depending on whether he’s at court or battle or bed.

“We all bled more for the costumes at court. I had jewelers lined up and special effects teams for every personage,” Yates said. “Pharaoh Seti, Ramses, their wives, and all the courtiers had huge amounts of changes and huge, huge amounts of jewelry: upper arm bands, rings for each finger, matching bracelets, earrings, headdresses for both men and women, these huge collars, pendants, and then enormously ornate belts with ornate aprons.”

In the clip above, also included on the Exodus Blu-Ray and DVD out March 17, she and Scott talk about making the armor totally gold, since the historical Ramses was very vain. Yates said that, despite only having four and a half months of prep time for the movie, she was able to make extensive use of historical resources as reference points.

“I spent a huge amount of time looking at wall paintings,” Yates said. “You can get a huge amount of reference from tombs, temples—an enormous amount, even color. Obviously after a few million years, it’s faded a bit, but you can get some color as well.”

Despite this research, some critics have taken issue with what they see as historical inaccuracy in Exodus: namely, the casting of majority-white actors like Christian Bale to play ancient Egyptians. Like Scott, Yates said the casting decisions were made to maximize international box office appeal.

“You can’t expect studio to back you because they want box office. So they want names they recognize,” Yates said. “Ridley’s not like that at all. If you look at Kingdom of Heaven, Saladin was played by a Syrian actor. I think what people were rebelling against was an Australian playing Egyptian, but I don’t know any necessarily big Egyptian actors. If you make a film in France or Thailand, you don’t necessarily employ French or Thai actors. I think it was people just looking for an excuse to have a bit of a go. The cast is great, Christian Bale is great as Moses, and Joel Edgerton was great as Ramses.”

Although this Exodus has some of the same diversity problems as The Ten Commandments, it is certainly more visually spectacular, thanks both to astounding special effects and Yates’ detailed costumes.

“To make them better wasn’t hard because they were very dated,” Yates said. “But to make it glorious, that was my mission. And I think we succeeded, my team and I.”

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