'Blue Jasmine' costume designer on working with Woody, borrowing Chanel
For her Oscar-nominated role in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett required a designer-label wardrobe worthy of a wilted New York socialite. The only problem? Costume designer Suzy Benzinger had a limited, more Nordstrom Rack-esque budget. (In fact, a New York Times piece estimated that the film’s entire wardrobe budget was $35,000, which is often the cost of just one Hermes Birkin bag.)
Knockoffs simply wouldn’t do to truly sell the story of a woman who lost nearly everything except a handful of luxury goods. That’s when Benzinger — who has worked with director Woody Allen since 1994 on projects like Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity, and Whatever Works — took a deep breath and a leap of faith.
She began calling fashion houses like Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Ralph Lauren to see what strings she could pull.
“I relied on the generosity of all these designers,” Benzinger told EW. “I made a list of things I had to have for Cate’s character in order to tell the story. … Every day, my assistant and I would go through [the list] and I would say, ‘I’m going to call Hermes up. Wish me luck. I’ve got to get this Birkin bag.’ Every day we’d check off things on our list. [When] I got to the Chanel jackets, I thought, ‘Everything is going fabulous and this is where it’ll stop. … I’m not going to get the Chanel jacket. We’re going to try though. Wish me luck.’ When we got that, I burst into tears. I thought, ‘How did I get my whole wish list?'”
The costume designer admitted her experience was far from the norm. While brands often loan to celebrities for the red carpet, they rarely loan to films. “None of my friends who are costume designers have had the same experience that I’ve had,” she said, crediting Cate Blanchett’s personal fashion house relationships as a huge help. “The gods were watching when Woody wrote the script, because I [initially] thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I never thought I would have gotten all these things. I really owe it to Cate.”
With one character down, Benzinger turned her attention to Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who had a more casual aesthetic that reflected the character’s working class status. For this, the costume designer bargain hunted at stores like Century 21 in New York and Loehmann’s in San Francisco, where Blue Jasmine was shot. The biggest irony? “Sally Hawkins’ wardrobe cost more than Cate Blanchett’s. Isn’t that hysterical? I actually spent more money on Sally then I did on Cate. You have to laugh. But it’s only because of the generosity of designers like Karl Lagerfeld.”
Thanks to her thriftiness, Benzinger is nominated for her first Costume Designers Guild Award. “I’ve been doing this for many, many years. It’s nice to get the recognition on this. My feeling is that it’s for the whole Woody Allen family.”
Read on for our exclusive Q&A with Benzinger to learn what makes a Woody Allen set different from all others, Sally Hawkins’ surprising reaction to her wardrobe, who kept those designer pieces, and what it was like working with Bill Murray on Ghostbusters.
What type of feedback have you received from working on this film?
It’s such a funny thing because, honestly, when we do these Woody Allen films we race from the minute we start to the minute we finish. I just hope that I get by. I just hope [the filmmakers and viewers] aren’t gagging over the work that I’ve done because, honestly, I race and I just hope and pray that I do my best work. Honestly, I’m running by the skin of my teeth. By the very last day of shooting, I don’t even know what I’ve done. I’m so exhausted and so crazy that I just think, “I hope it’s OK.” I didn’t see any screenings of it at all. I was in Hawaii when the film opened in New York, and Cate [Blanchett] messaged me. She said, “I don’t know how you did it for like $1.99. The film looks incredible. I’m so proud of you.” I thought, “What?! No! It really looks good?” I’ve only seen the film once because no matter how good [people say] it may look, I sit there and I pick it up apart. Like, “Why didn’t I hem that an inch higher?” or “Why is an extra wearing that shirt?” I get so overcritical that I don’t enjoy watching the things that I’ve done. It really makes me crazy. Luckily, I’ve heard from other people that it looks nice. When I got this [nomination], I thought, “Are they crazy?”
What’s it like working on a Woody Allen film? How does a Woody Allen set compare with others?
It is funny to hear that I’m [nominated in the] contemporary clothing [category], because when we work on these Woody films, and I love Woody, but you always feel like you’re doing a period film because you’re in Woodyland, which is not contemporary. Yes, it is contemporary [clothing], but on the other hand everything gets funneled through his eyes. Woody’s idea of what contemporary clothing is [is different than others]. I had to convince him that people wear jeans. He was like, “Who wears jeans?” I felt like “99 percent of the world wears jeans.” In his mind, he doesn’t wear jeans, so nobody else wears jeans. So when I was nominated for contemporary, I had to laugh because it’s not. It’s Woodyworld. Believe me, he is his own time period.
What was the process like?
Most of my friends are costume designers. We all started together and grew up together. I hear from them. They’ll say, “I only have six months’ prep on this film.” I think, “Six months? We have four weeks’ prep.” And we don’t have all the actors cast when we start. While we’re prepping all the stuff, I’m getting calls from the casting department saying, “So-and-so is now playing this role. And you meet with them next Tuesday for an hour.” So we race. The actors come in and do their bit, but their time is very limited. Time is limited and we have very low budgets. [The actors] are not overly compensated for what they do. They do it because they want to do it and they love it. We have to be really adaptable to their schedules. I get the script and I read it numerous times and I break it down. I see Woody a day or two days after I read it and then I start. It’s not like other designers. When I hear about what my friends are doing, I think, “You’re on vacation doing a film.” We race around like crazies. I started at 5 in the morning and I [went] until [late] and we work out of my loft. Poor Cate Blanchett [was] changing her clothes in my bedroom and then coming out into the work room. The way I work is a little insane. We do it because we love it. Every time I get the script, I love the script so much that I get excited that the last thing I’m thinking about is money. I’m like every other actor that gets their part and says, “I want to do this.” I’m in the same boat that they’re in…except I’m responsible for all of their looks, which is daunting, but it’s like exercise. It uses every single creative muscle you have. So your nerve ends are going from the minute you start. There’s no resting. But you love it and that’s why you do it. And you learn wonderful things about actors.
What did you learn about actors working on Blue Jasmine?
I learn something different every time I do these films. When we do these Woody films, [the actors] always come in and they’re always very nervous because they heard stories of the old days where Woody would let an actor go because of this or because of that. But I learned on this one the passion that Cate and Sally [Hawkins] had for the script. They were in so much of the film. A lot of the films I’ve done with Woody, the actors were playing bit roles [in an ensemble cast], but the commitment that those two gals had working on this film… We worked as a team — the three of us — every single day, working to do the best we could for Woody. I learned about the passion of a really terrific actress and what it was like. I was [humbled] by how passionate they were. They begged for more takes after they finished. They’d say, “Can we do it one more time?” Woody’s one of those guys that if they do the take the first time and he thinks it’s terrific, he doesn’t do a second one. He’ll say, “This is great. Why would we need to do it again?” The two of them were so involved in the script. They killed themselves on this thing. They wanted it to be great.
How involved is Woody when it comes to wardrobe?
This is what I love about Woody: Nobody works as hard as he does and as efficiently as he does. Every year, he puts out a film. He has a way of working that is very precise. He doesn’t waste time. When I have an appointment with him, his assistant will say, “Your appointment is between 3:15 and 3:35.” You go, “OK.” He is generous with his time, but if I say, “I need an hour,” it’s a very precise hour, because he works hard. So I come in and I show him my ideas for the characters. I’ll say, “This is what I’m thinking,” and he’ll say right away, “You’re on it. Perfect. Great.” I don’t have to show him everything. I just have to show him my basic feeling on things. Once he’s OK’d my basic feeling about the characters, he leaves me alone. He’ll say, “OK. Do it.” We have our screen test and he sees the screen test. This is where I always laugh… I love Woody… He’s written the script. I’ll say, “You wrote the script.” He’ll say, “Why does she have 10 outfits or 12 outfits?” I’ll say, “It takes place during different years. And this is for a dinner date. That’s why she has different clothes.” And he’ll say, “Well, that looks really terrific. Why does she have to change out of that?” And you’ll say, “Because it’s six years later.” That’s how he feels. You’ve seen pictures of him. Can you tell what year [the picture] is from? Never. If you look at it, he’s wearing the same corduroy pants and a Ralph Lauren shirt. Nothing is different about what he wears. So I keep my meetings short because if I start to say stuff like you say as a costume designer: “I think this might work for the scene because it seems a little sad…” His eyes glaze over. Like, what do you mean sad clothing? He’ll stop me. This has happened many times. Obviously, I haven’t learned because sometimes it just comes out like a costume designer. He’ll say, “Suzy, I wear this outfit to work. I wear this outfit to Le Cirque at night. I wear this outfit to an opening.” I think, “Yes, but you’re Woody Allen.” That isn’t how everyone else dresses necessarily. He probably has 50 pairs of those same pants, but he loves those pants. Sometimes with the costumes, his eyes will glaze over when you start to talk about clothing. It’s not that he doesn’t love it, because Gianni Versace was a great friend of his. Carla Fendi is a great friend of his. Ralph Lauren… So he loves fashion designers. I think there’s this wonderful affinity with fashion designers and Woody because he gets the way they work and they get the way he works. He does a film a year and they do [multiple collections] a year. They’re like-minded.
NEXT: How Suzy Benzinger managed to get her Chanel jackets.
Despite a small budget, Cate Blanchett’s character is clad in designer clothing throughout the film. Just how much begging was involved?
When I think of the generosity of Karl Lagerfeld? It was during Fashion Week in Paris the week before, and I called up. My friend said, “You are not going to get those jackets out of Karl Lagerfeld. He has a show next week in Paris.” I thought, “I have to get the Chanel jacket. What am I going to do?” Two days after I called Chanel, the jackets arrived.
What do you attribute that to?
Part of it is the Woody thing. And, of course, a lot of it was Cate, because who does not want Cate Blanchett to wear their clothes? In my loft, I had 20 racks of clothes just for Cate. You can’t name a designer that did not send me boxes of things that were requested. I went to their [showrooms] and I dug around like a kook. I went to Fendi and I went to their basement and they said, “No one has gone through their stuff here.” I found incredible things. I requested from designers: “I want the things that not everyone has seen. I want the stuff that you made for a show and it never made it onto a model.” Cate is a magician. She fit into everything… All these designers sent me these clothes. I said to Cate, “I’m getting samples,” and she said, “I’m [going] on a cabbage diet. Here we go. I guess I’m not eating.” But she came in, she walked into everything. It’s a film in itself watching Cate Blanchett as she’s about to put something on that she wants to get on. It’s like, “Don’t get in the way.” That gal is going to get that dress on and that dress is going to fit. Determination like you’ve never seen… She got it on and it looked spectacular. I don’t know how she does it. When samples came in, I’d get a little note in the box saying, “If Cate loves this, we’ll make it for her in her size.” But we didn’t have time for that, so that wasn’t going to happen. I [also] didn’t want to be imposing. They were so kind to send me the clothes anyway. But we had the samples [lined up] and she’d say, “Give me that dress. I can get into that dress.” Sure enough. I’m telling you, it’s like David Copperfield. She gets into those things and she looks spectacular.
Was Cate Blanchett’s aesthetic based on anyone in particular?
When I read the script, I couldn’t help but think of the Madoffs and all of that. But Mrs. Madoff was not a fashion plate. I did research. I thought, “Well, I’ll look at her and see what the deal is.” Well, forget it. Bernie Madoff’s wife did not spend her money on clothing. That much I can tell you. I gave up on her right away. Here’s the thing: I know those Upper East Side ladies. I know all of them. I thought back to women I’ve known who have a lot of money. They look fabulous and you don’t know why. I couldn’t help but think [of] Elaine Wynn because she embodies chic elegance. That [idea of] wearing a gorgeous Oscar de la Renta day dress and you don’t really know who the designer is, but it’s spectacular. Oscar caters to those ladies. Cate wore a lot of Oscar. I really wanted that look of those Upper East Side ladies who wear, like, Piazza Sempione and they wear those designers that maybe you don’t know who they are, but they look incredible. I know a lot of those ladies and the thing about them is that they’re not going to Bergdorf and Saks buying clothes. They’re going there maybe once a season and they’re loading up for the year because they’ve got the Met Gala. They’re on the board of ABT. They have to look chic and moneyed, but not flashy and not trendy. Those ladies are married to men with money. They can’t look like they’re spending it in that way ostentatiously. There’s a certain elegance and a certain decorum. I did a lot of research and looked up all those ladies. I know how they dress and I know where they shop. They’re not wearing trendy things. They’re wearing classics. They’re wearing the Chanel jacket that they can wear for four years. They’re not wearing it saying, “This is the latest thing I saw in Vogue.” They dress so that they can wear it again and again. They go for timeless and we really tried that for Cate. I wanted a timeless elegance about her. She has that look about her anyway, doesn’t she? I lucked out that it was her. For me, the hardest thing about Cate was making her look bad. Those were the scenes that were really hard because look at her. Cate Blanchett on her worst day is a day that 99 percent of women will never have. I remember the first days of shooting, I’d go into the hair and makeup trailer and, before I’d go in, I would cross myself and say, “Please, I hope she looks horrible because I don’t think it’s going to happen.” It was something I was frankly nervous about because she is so elegant and we had to really believe that this gal had fallen upon hard times without making it a caricature. It had to be subtle. So the hair color has gone wrong because she’s not having the expensive hair color done any more. She’s not totally perfect in every outfit. It was like mixing up designers. Wearing the Oscar de la Renta jacket with the Alberta Ferretti dress. It was that kind of thing.
In what way does Ginger’s look contrast with Jasmine’s?
It was really tricky, but that’s the kind of thing we love. For Sally, I relied on Santo Loquasto, who was the production designer, to show me her apartment. In the beginning scenes in San Francisco where Sally is in her apartment, if she didn’t look right in her apartment, in her environment, it wasn’t going to work. I thought, “I can do all I can clothing-wise, but if the set doesn’t work, if we don’t believe she’s coming out of that set, it’s going to be hard.” So I asked Santo for his colors and what he was going for. Once Bobby Cannavale was cast as her boyfriend, I thought, “OK. I know the direction I can go.” Sally, God love her, is a very conservative girl in real life. You’re not going to see Sally flashing around in a midriff top. That’s not Sally Hawkins at all. When she came to my loft and I had her rack of clothes, she looked through and said, “OK. That’s where we’re going.” They just had the script and they don’t really talk to Woody about their characters when they get their script. She was like, “Ohhhh-kaaay,” with a pause. I got her a glass of water and she looked at it all and said, “OK. That’s where we’re going.” By the end, I had to pull her back. She started to look trashier and trashier — and I said, “Oh man. We can’t go there.” They really get into it. She was terrific. Cate’s wardrobe and Cate’s persona has gotten such press — and she well deserves it — but to me the contrast was Sally and Sally’s persona. She really worked [well] with Cate.
Other than borrowing, where did you go to find designer pieces at discounted prices?
In the end, I don’t have much time to shop. Do you know Century 21 in New York? I live a couple blocks from Century 21 in New York. They open at 7:45 in the morning. They had some of the most amazing discounted designer things on the face of the earth. I was there at 7:30 in the morning with my hand on a cup of coffee waiting for the doors to open. I would run in there and pick up what I could. I’m not making it up, we really [didn’t] have money. I’m there for every one of Woody Allen’s films. There should be a Woody Allen wing at Century 21 because I do whole films out of Century 21. I got some great things there. And when I went to San Francisco, I went to the Loehmann’s there. A lot of the stores in New York with New York-kind of clothes get picked over. Whe I went to San Francisco, a lot of the things that looked “New York” were still there. That’s where I got a beautiful Valentino. The dress that [Cate] wears during the cocktail party? That pink, strapless dress? That was from Loehmann’s and it was a Valentino. Isn’t that unbelievable? It’s a very expensive dress.
Did anyone keep anything from set? Where are the costumes now?
No! Everything that was loaned — and that was what I told them when I borrowed — I said, “The minute we finish shooting you’ll get it back. Everything goes back.” So everything went back. The Chanel jackets went back to Chanel. Everything was returned. The Hermes bag went back to Hermes. It’s like Cinderella. Because, in the end, we don’t really have a use for it. What is Woody going to [do with it]? We can’t use any of these pieces again in another way. That was the deal we struck with them: If we borrow, we give it back. We dry-cleaned it and off it went.
Are you working on Magic in the Moonlight next with Woody?
That was done in Europe. He already shot it. When they do the European films, he uses a wonderful costume designer in Europe because they don’t have money. They don’t bring us there. The American crew doesn’t go to Europe. He uses a European crew, which makes sense… And she’s marvelous. Sonia Grande is wonderful. She does his things in Europe, and he loves her.
What are you working on next?
Every year, I do a documentary about a costume designer who is no longer with us. I have a film due May 2nd, and I write them and edit them and do all that craziness. This is my 15th. I do it every year. It’s a one-shot deal. In New York, we have an awards ceremony called the Irene Sharaff Awards, where we award costume designers different things — lifetime achievement, new young designers coming up, there are awards for shoemaking, dressmaking, wigmaking, or whatever. Every year, we do this awards ceremony and I do a 15-minute documentary on a costume designer, but we only show the film once and it’s there… This year, I did one on Sam Kirkpatrick. He’s been dead now for many years, but he had a certain way of working. Every year, we focus on a different discipline. It started with Irene Sharaff and then we did Lucinda Ballard and Cecil Beaton and all these different designers. This year’s theme was a costume designer who worked on regional theater and never made it big. Sam did beautiful things, but — like a lot of times — people don’t break through to the big time. They work on a smaller scale. As costume designers, we’re so dependent on our budgets. If I see a costume designer that gets an Oscar for something that’s a big, huge film, “I think, well, they had $3 million.” Not that it makes it any easier. It doesn’t really, but they can afford to have everything made from scratch… Sometimes a budget can determine [things] sometimes. You’re either giving it in blood or you’re giving it in money. Thinking of this Woody film, honestly, I did much better having a lower budget because… even Woody had said to me, “We’re doing this film Blue Jasmine. She has to look wealthy, so we’ve given you a million dollars for the clothes,” I couldn’t have done it better. Having the money would not have made a difference. I got so much more begging or relying on people and working in a different way. I really did go to their archives. I really did not do the obvious thing. I was lucky, so I had to work in that way and it actually it turned out really well. Plus, I had Cate Blanchett. I always have to add that. If I had a burlap sack, you’d say, “My God! Suzy Benzinger designed the best burlap sack on the face of the earth!”
How did assisting costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge (The Great Gatsby, Network, Annie) prepare you? What did you learn from working with her?
I worked for Theoni for seven years. Theoni never turned a job down. Never. If she had come from a poor background, I would have sort of understood it, but she was a wealthy gal. She did costume design because she loved it. And she taught all of us to really love it too. There were no less than three or four projects in our office at one time. There were only three of us assisting. We did Ghostbusters at the same time as doing a company of 42nd Street and a Jane Fonda workout line. Believe it or not, Theoni did that all these years ago. I kid you not, I was at my desk every morning at 7:30 every morning. She wasn’t, but I was. We didn’t leave until sometimes ten or eleven at night. We killed ourselves–seven days a week we worked. One year, we worked seven days a week for a full year. After that, we tried to keep it to five or six. She always chose assistants who loved doing what we were doing. We all would rather do that than anything else on the face of the earth. That’s how we worked. Theoni worked in a very methodical manner. Even if we worked in different ways before we came to work, we all continued to work the same way after working with her because it was so methodical. It was a textbook way of getting a show done. Unfortunately, two of the assistants that worked with her while I worked with her both died last year. They were both great friends of mine–one was my best friend. He died right in the middle of shooting Blue Jasmine. It was horrible. He was my best friend. I tried to stay at his house as much as I could [while shooting]. It was hard. He had an incredible, beautiful career with many Tony Awards. When I worked with her, we got down to a basic [way of working] because we never had time. So when I went to work with Woody, it wasn’t a huge shock for me to work in a Woody fashion because at least I was only doing one project. I wasn’t doing four. In the old days, we made everything. With Theoni, we made everything. We made every shoe, hat, glove, everything–like the film Annie. Everything was custom made. [It prepared me.] You trade your energy to a different energy, but you’re still racing. Believe me. Woody keeps you one your toes.
You mentioned Ghostbusters and it’s your first credit on record. What’s your fondest memory of working on the film?
Ghostbusters to me was so much fun. It was a film that Theoni didn’t want to do. Theoni was an older lady. If you talked her about Brando, she’d know who you were talking about. The people who worked in her office were all young. I remember the day we got the Ghostbusters script. She handed it to me and said, “Egh.” And she accepted everything. When we read a script, she just wanted to [hear feedback], but we knew we were going to do it. When I got the script, it had the projected cast inside. I remember looking at all the names going, “Oh my God. Saturday Night Live.” Looking at all the names, she says to me, “I only recognize one name on that whole list. Sigourney Weaver. She’s a nice girl.” Theoni had designed at the New York Public Theatre for many years, and Sigourney had been an actress there as a young girl. I said, “Let me tell you something. I think everybody knows Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.” She said, “Do you want to do it?” I said, “Of course!” I have to tell you. Dan Aykroyd was really sort of the star then. People knew Bill Murray, but it was really Dan Aykroyd. I believe the film was really written for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. When they wrote it, the thought was that John Belushi was going to be in it. Bill Murray was a substitute person, if I recall. Bill wasn’t quite the star as much as Dan was. I think he was probably just getting used to that weird fame thing. I really specifically one day–and I’ll never forget it–we were in Central Park South and we were going to shoot the big Marshmallow Man scene, and I was walking Bill to his trailer, and somebody yelled, “Hey Bill.” His head swerved immediately. The guy said, “Love ya. Love ya.” He turned back to me and said, “Uh, I’ll just never get used to that.” He was implying, he thought it was a friend calling out to him. It was just a fan. When you work with so many different stars, you realize how much they give up to be who they are. I think about how hard it is for them. I don’t envy. You get a lot of young actresses who say, “I’d love to be Meryl Streep,” and I think, “Think twice about what you’re giving up” because it’s hard. The really terrific actors and actresses have learned to be observers. Once you put them in a cage like an animal, once they’re the observed, it’s hard for them. The ones that benefit the most are the ones who get away like Cate Blanchett who has a theatre company and a family. They can be observers and not be the observed. That always stuck with me because I thought, “Here’s Bill. The sweetest guy.” I’ve never met anyone with so much compassion for other people. He knew everybody’s name in the crew. He was the sweetest, most wonderful guy. It’s a funny thing. Theoni used to have it in her contract that we couldn’t be listed in the film with her, which was fun. I was so happy to work that I didn’t really care. What happened on that film was that Bill Murray requested that my name be the first one on under the Thank You’s. It was because of Bill that I got that thank you. Theoni was great about getting jobs and sometimes she was there and sometimes she wasn’t. Not to speak ill of her, because I’m not–she gave me so much, but we did a lot of work. But we loved it. Nobody twisted our arm to do it. We had so much fun… I couldn’t make up the people that I worked with and the shows that I did. I loved it. It was great to be a fly on the wall with all that stuff. I was young. No one would have hired me as a costume designer on Ghostbusters, but I got to be there every day doing a lot of it.
Over the last year, do you have a favorite costume design moment from a recent film you didn’t work on? Why?
Let me think what I’ve seen… I love documentaries. I loved Saving Mr. Banks. I thought it was a really terrific film–though I’m the worst for remembering costumes. I’m horrible. I got an inquiry about something the other day and I thought, “I can’t even remember that dress that Cate wears.” What films are up for Best Oscar?
In terms of costume design, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, American Hustle…
I’ve seen stills of The Grandmaster and it’s spectacular. How does someone do things with such precision? It was beautiful. I saw Gravity, which I loved. I’m always amazed at how they do the spacesuit. I kept thinking, “I can’t imagine all that.” I wonder how many they had. And I have to see American Hustle. I’ve seen the stills and they look spectacular. It’s hard to do 70’s now. I would have a hard time with 70’s… I thought they looked great. It’s like the best clothes of that period were picked and I thought they looked wonderful in them. They really looked like characters. I loved that they went there. I loved that Bradley Cooper did his hair like that. It was like a wonderful theatre piece. The pictures are beautiful. I have to go see it.