Costume designer Alexandra Byrne earlier this month garnered an Oscar nomination, the sixth of her career, for Emma (Focus Features) which is based on Jame Austen’s classic novel of the same title. Emma marks the feature directorial debut of Autumn de Wilde and stars Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role as delightful heiress Emma Woodhouse who dabbles in matchmaking, yielding results that range from wondrous to dreadful. A mostly faithful take on the Regency-era story, this latest adaptation of “Emma” has a touch of incisiveness, with the new wrinkle of delving more deeply into varied supporting characters.
Like the wide range of results emerging from the romantic pairings concocted by Woodhouse in early 19th century England, the film too provides a far reaching continuum spanning the comedic and satirical as well as cutting pathos. Byrne was drawn to the vision and storytelling touch of de Wilde who made her first mark in music videos and then diversified into commercials, her current ad roost being Anonymous Content.
Byrne cited in particular de Wilde’s appealing approach to mining the comedy in Emma. “She lets the humor spring from the reality instead of imposing it on the story,” assessed Byrne whose costume design is among the strong cinematic elements, including Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and Kave Quinn’s production design, that come together to take us to the right place with the right tone, supporting the narrative at every turn.
With limited prep time, it became imperative for de Wilde, Quinn, Blauvelt and Byrne to get on the same wavelength as soon as possible to create the proper visual language. Byrne recalled striking up a rapport with de Wilde from the outset, even prior to their formally coming together on Emma. Byrne first met de Wilde in L.A. while the former was doing a publicity gig to promote Mary Queen of Scots, which earned the costume designer an Academy Award nomination in 2019. During that initial meeting, de Wilde told Byrne about Emma. “In describing the film she wanted to make,” recollected Byrne, “it became clear that she lives and loves fashion.” Additionally, observed Byrne, it was evident that de Wilde was “carnivorously hungry to know about the time period--not to make a museum archive piece but so that the film would be based on reality in order to get to the story.”
Byrne noted that de Wilde and Quinn were meticulous in “defining the world” they were creating as well as the story being told. “There was a clear shorthand of what this film was going to be, how it would feel.” Byrne added that de Wilde had a productive stretch of rehearsals with the actors, resulting in the cast bringing a lot to the table, helping the film to “grow very organically.” The costumes had to reflect the characters being portrayed, to support and facilitate those performances.
Costumes helped the narrative and characters in varied ways. “Humor and satire makes Jane Austen’s novel very vibrant. I wanted to bring out that sense of fun--and in some cases pain--to help tell those real stories,” said Byrne.
Among the challenges Byrne confronted was the film’s large cast which had to be outfitted. “We had to make nearly everything,” said Byrne of the costuming. “For the women, that was often very delicate, very fragile attire. That doesn’t last in a costume house on a hanger so we had to create something new with a special understanding of color and pastels. But we met the need by thoroughly setting up a department, dying our own fabrics, controlling the fabric and the creation process.”
The esprit de corps within the costume department and among the different departments was stellar, according to Byrne. “Everybody had to pull together and collaborate. We all had to catch the ball on the run and go with it. There was a great sense of adventure within my department--and expanding knowledge. We had cutters doing things they had never done before but loving it and growing with it.”
Emma also marked in some respects Byrne coming full circle. The first film she designed was Persuasion, also a Jane Austen adaptation. Returning to Austen years down the road appealed to Byrne, providing an energy as she sought ways to make Austen’s work come to life in a unique manner.
While Byrne recently yet again found herself prominent in awards season banter, this time around it wasn’t confined to one film. She wound up getting an Oscar nom for Emma but was also in the conversation for her efforts on The Mauritanian, which tells the true story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi (portrayed by Tahar Rahim) who sought freedom, having been locked up in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade yet never charged with a crime.
Byrne won the Best Costume Design Oscar in 2008 for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Rounding out her six career nominations were Hamlet in 1997, Elizabeth in ‘99 and Finding Neverland in 2005.
Emma additionally landed Byrne her eighth career Costume Designers Guild Award nomination. She won that honor in 2017 for Doctor Strange, topping the Excellence in Fantasy Film category. The balance of her Guild nods came for The Phantom of the Opera in 2005, Elizabeth: The Golden Age in 2008, Thor in 2012, Guardians of the Galaxy in 2015, Murder on the Orient Express in 2018, and Mary Queen of Scots in 2019.
This is the 13th installment of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.