How Hitchcock, royalty, and straitjackets inspired bonkers Paradise Hills costumes
Spending a spiritual sojourn at a hollistic wellness center run by Milla Jovovich — all while she's decked in 1950s couture and impossibly large sunhats — sounds like an ideal getaway, no? For the ladies of Alice Waddington's fantastical Sundance breakout Paradise Hills (now playing in limited release ahead of a Nov. 1 digital and VOD debut), it's anything but, as they soon realize there's a sinister secret brewing beneath the surface of their picture-pefect stint in paradise — one which costume designer Alberto Valcárcel stitches to fruition via some of the wildest, most jaw-dropping costumes of the year. In the gallery ahead, Jovovich, Waddington, and Valcárcel exclusively take EW inside the making of the restrictive garments that play vital costarring roles opposite Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, and Eiza González.
Here comes the bride
Waddington's film opens innocently enough, as Roberts' Uma makes the rounds at her lavish wedding to the wealthy Son (Arnaud Valois) in a utopian society separated into polar extremes of rich and poor. What appears to be a day filled with wedded bliss quickly turns sour, as Uma sings a song about her commitment to subservience while a prison-like mask tops off her ornate gown.
"We made something crazy," Valcárcel tells EW. "The women look stunning, but they're deliberately uncomfortable. [The wedding dress] has a birdcage on the face, like a mask. It had to be something that looked charming and beautiful, but also looked like a jail. The idea was to make it look like a bride going into torture."
Soon after the wedding, the film flashes back several weeks, as Uma wakes up in a sun-kissed facility overlooking the sea, with no memory of the events prior. It turns out she's a student at a healing center run by Jovovich's Duchess, a high society woman paid off by wealthy families to train young women to behave better, look prettier, and conform to societal expectations of femininity. And Valcárcel knew their "school uniforms," as it were, had to be just as uncomfortable as their precarious situation.
"Fashion is like a symptom of a sickness of the moment we’re living in, and that’s what it is in the film," he says, adding that he was inspired by 19th century corsets. "It's a society that’s restrictive with women, so we made things that are totally unrealistic, with thin waists that are beautiful and pretty, but something in which they wouldn’t be able to do anything by themselves."
"They’re also based in straitjackets, with textiles, buckles, and bird cages on the shoulders," Valcárcel adds, explaining that the women on the island needed to feel caged in order to properly set a story about their attempt to escape the clutches of the overbearing society around them. "We tried to combine classical textiles like pure silk or velvet with metals, plastics and fake leather. All of their pockets are made in plastic so you can see what’s inside at all times. It’s about having control in what the women are even thinking. It’s a power issue."
While most of her students only wear white, Jovovich's Duchess separates herself from her inferiors with splashly clothing inspired by everything from historical royals to classic cinema.
"She designed a universe that is a frame for herself. She’s the big exception to this world. Everyone else has to be a certain way, but she’s the queen," Valcárcel explains, further elaborating on his desire to separate her like Queen Elizabeth I did with her royal garb. "We had to be clear at all times who was the queen, so she wears all these hats, and there's inspiration from the height of couture in the 1950s, and her hat was inspired by [Joan Fontaine] in Hitchcock’s movie [Rebecca]."
Jovovich tells EW she felt the transformation almost immediately upon sporting Valcárcel's designs, and that it funneled the right energy into her particularly menacing portrayal of a powerful, misguided woman with grim secrets.
"Alberto's direction helped tremendously by informing me of the personality type we were creating. The attention to ultra feminine dresses and detail created a persona of perfectionism that is actually quite frightening," she observes. "Like the film The Stepford Wives, I believe the costumes reflect an unrealistic desire for a perfectionism that simply does not exist. The costumes are also restrictive, which is what the theme of the film is all about: Restricting young women from having minds of their own, to fit themselves into unrealistic roles of servitude. Turning women into something beautiful on the outside without a single care for how that exertion of control is rotting their insides!"
"It was important to me that each costume reflected a different aspect of a character's personality or social status as well," Waddington continues of her collaboration with Valcárcel. "You have Uma and Amarna's [Gonzalez] costumes, who have a romantic relationship here and are the only purely matching ones. Yu's [Awkwafina] is adapted to a different idea of modesty and also repels unwelcome strangers with its spikiness."
Despite their small differences, the uniting thread was that of discordance — and discomfort, as Valcárcel and Waddington wanted the characters to look and feel physically unfomfortable in their restrictive garments.
"When crafting their nightgowns, I would speak about them being 'more infantilizing', and when working on the corsetry we'd talk about them becoming 'more oppressive,'" Waddington finishes. "It was all part of an ongoing dialogue, and a truly fun, rewarding one at that!"
Waddington feels Valcárcel's take on Jovovich's character also comes through in the garb of those who work beneath her: "The motif of the golden cage repeats itself constantly here. There are references to mental institutionalization in the straitjacket-style dresses, and to colonialism and an open appropriation of Asian cultures in the villain and her minions' clothes," she explains.
Pushing through the pain
According to Valcárcel, more than 250 costumes were made for the film, which shot for two months in Barcelona and on the Canary Islands. He says he was given roughly a month and a half to make everything, and even crafted more designs during production.
"I've worked in opera, so I’m used to costumes being uncomfortable. It’s always a challenge to think that the actresses might say they can’t do their movements with [my clothes], but in this case it was really great, they were very collaborative, even being so uncomfortable," he remembers. "To be in those corsets for a whole day, it was a very hard shoot, but, we took care of them!"