Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy tell EW how costumes serve story in their directorial debut

By Joey Nolfi
September 21, 2017 at 07:42 PM EDT
Autumn de Wilde/A24

A steadfast marvel of nature, the endlessly gorgeous redwood forests of northern California have inspired many a work of art, laying the foundation for the wondrous stretches of Endor in Star Wars to hosting pivotal moments in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The latest film to showcase the region’s beauty is A24’s trippy, highbrow stoner drama Woodshock, perhaps the most unlikely product you’d expect from a pair of fashion designers known for dressing the likes of Michelle Obama, Natalie Portman, and Kirsten Dunst. The latter stars in the film and is also credited with putting her directors, Rodarte founders Kate and Laura Mulleavy, on the map in the fashion world after rocking their creations on the red carpet.

Dunst comes full circle at the center of Woodshock — a highly symbolic, intoxicatingly beautiful cinematic poem — as Theresa, whose wardrobe shifts as subtly and delicately as the many-layered fashions her devisers have sent down runways from New York to Paris since their 2005 debut. A young woman grappling with grief and isolation in a weed-tinged haze after assisting with her mother’s suicide, Theresa slowly unravels over the course of the film, her fraying mental state gorgeously reflected in the film’s meticulously crafted costumes.

“[The clothing] symbolizes Theresa’s connection to the forest and the destruction of [her mental state],” Dunst tells EW, particularly singling out a recurring piece — a slip which mirrors the cream-colored nightgown her mother died in — which continuously tatters and tears as the film progresses. “I did have a lot of different slips that deteriorated, depending on where I was [in the scene] and by the end, it was shredded in a tree nymph kind of way, so Theresa’s almost like a sacrifice [when she goes] back to the trees… Everything’s metaphorical in this film. You could take it so many different ways. It’s all up to how you want to ingest it.”

Adds Laura, the younger of the Mulleavy pair: “It was about finding things that could subtly show Theresa’s evolution as a character. The clothes are textural and link her with nature. The mother’s slip [that appears throughout the movie] had nine incarnations in total, because there are different stages of decay [in Theresa’s mind].”

Autumn de Wilde/A24

“For Theresa, her costumes were reflective of the way she felt. It wasn’t an idea of ‘costume design,’ it was more about the emotions she experienced,” Kate explains. “As Theresa goes deeper inward into this mental landscape, deeper into the forest, her mother’s slip becomes part of the forest around her. Moss grows into it, the colors change, it’s fraying and coming apart, decaying and deconstructed.”

A24

The film culminates in a particularly striking sequence that caps Theresa’s evolution, while she dons one of the most intricate concoctions made specifically for Woodshock: a glistening, jet-black gown.

“[At] the very end of the film, you get a set of sequined dresses… the actual dress she’s wearing subtly shifts. So, in one scene, the first time you see it, it’s all black and the jewelry is set in place. The next time you see it, the dress is black and red, and the jewelry starts coming apart, and in the final version of the dress, it’s completely shredded and torn apart,” Kate says. “When people see it, they don’t really notice it. We tried to use costume design to slightly dislocate the viewer. You know something is slightly off, and you’re getting deeper into our world, but you’re not necessarily cognizant of what the things are that we’re using to help take you there. Costumes [were] very pivotal to that process, sometimes in a very subtle way.”

Autumn de Wilde/A24

Atmosphere wasn’t the only thing the sisters attempted to disrupt across their directorial debut.

“Looking at something like this, as a woman coming into a very male-dominated space for storytelling, we looked at every rule people have said about cinema, and said I don’t want to follow that rule. We wanted to tell a story we feel relevant to using our voices for. [We wanted] to do something new that challenges a viewer and us, but will engage viewers [at the same time]. But, this also incorporates the stream of conscious narrative, which has been around forever. I’m coming from a place where James Joyce is the end all, be all, and that’s a huge influence in my work… I love poetry by T.S. Eliot and [artists] that question the straightforward narrative,” Laura says. “[We had to] reject any type of typical logic in explaining Theresa’s behavior. The object of the film is illogic. That’s a powerful thing, because that’s how the mind works. It’s emotional… Every time I watch it, it’s different, and I urge people to watch it multiple times. There are new layers that come to the forefront each time.”

Audiences can peel back the tiers of the existential abyss along with the Mulleavy sisters when Woodshock hits theaters Friday.

Autumn de Wilde/A24
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