It’s not every year that my biggest cheer on Oscar nomination morning comes in the technical categories, but such was the case last week when Janet Patterson’s name showed up in the Best Costume Design lineup.
Patterson’s inclusion (following a senseless Guild snub) is gratifying not merely as recognition for her tangibly textured, richly story-serving threads in “Bright Star,” but as a representation of one of 2009’s most immaculately integrated – and under-rewarded – technical ensembles.
Jane Campion’s John Keats biopic derives its fresh, fragile romanticism as much from writing and performance as the combined efforts of Patterson, cinematographer Greig Fraser and composer Mark Bradshaw. Their work has prompted countless critics’ punning on Keats’s “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” chestnut, but sometimes the most obvious praise is the most appropriate.
For Fraser and Bradshaw, “Bright Star” represents their first experience on a Campion feature, having previously collaborated with the New Zealander on a pair of short films, “The Water Diary” and “The Lady Bug.” For Patterson, however, the film extends a collaboration with the filmmaker that dates back to Campion’s 1993 breakthrough “The Piano,” and has yielded previous Oscar nominations for both that film and 1996’s “The Portrait of a Lady.”
By this point, then, Patterson – who also took production design duties on the film – has a tacit understanding of the director’s creative priorities. “Jane is always very interested in how ‘the world will be,’” she says. “She placed a lot of attention on the details, especially pertaining to sewing and writing. With costumes, Jane is very interested, as I am, with creating character. As a bottom line, she trusts me.”
That trust, however, is not enjoyed only by Campion’s veteran collaborators. For Fraser, a 34-year-old D.P. here working on his first major feature, the project was an opportunity to fuse the handheld style of much of his previous work with the director’s more serene aesthetic. Despite her inexperience with the former style, Campion sought a more contemporary approach to the costume drama, and was therefore up for the challenge.
“We discussed the best way to work handheld into a more still, studied, composed frame,” Fraser explains. “So parts of the film are quite still whereas some of the film breathes a little bit or is quite alive and quite ecstatic with handheld movement. She’s very open to those things. It meant there was no fear of me going, ‘You know what, Jane, why don’t we try this lens? Crazy idea?’ And she’d say, ‘Yeah, great idea,’ or ‘No, that actually is stupid, so let’s not do it.’”
That’s not to say that the film is in any way tricked-out; Fraser is quick to point out that their experimentation was in the service of an overriding visual simplicity. “Too much camera movement didn’t help the empathy with the poetry. [Jane] wanted to try to make the visuals as simple as possible so that the audience wasn’t trying to battle over-powering movements or flowery images or garish colors … they could just be absorbed into the picture and into the words.”
Meanwhile, Fraser took great pains to keep his crew streamlined, in the interests of preserving the hushed quality of some of the film’s most emotive scenes. Working with first and second ACs, together with a gaffer and a boom, he ensured that there were rarely more than six or seven people in one room with the actors.
“I tried to keep the crew as small as possible purely for the sake of the actors, and for the sake of Jane,” he says. “There are times when it seems like the intimate scenes are so heavy, you really want to try to reduce your crew down. And even though the shots were very reasonably staged, we wanted to give the actors the feeling that they could go wherever they wanted to, as much as possible.”
Intimacy was also an operative word for Bradshaw, whose minimalist chamber compositions for the film – some of them organically integrated into scenes – blend historical authenticity with what he describes as the “unseen energy, the electricity” of first love, as experienced by Keats and the 19-year-old Fanny Brawne.
The delicacy of these emotions necessitated an understated approach, employing prudently selected instruments to highlight individual feelings.
“We both knew that we didn’t want a lot of music in the film,” he explains. “It’s a very human story and has an amazing rawness and vulnerability to it, so we decided writing for a small ensemble, featuring a few soloing instruments, would be most appropriate to the love story. We both find the intimacy of one instrument more exciting than the kind of inherent power of a huge orchestra. That was our motto, to work with simple means to create the emotion that’s necessary.”
At a mere 26 years of age, Bradshaw is even newer on the scene than Fraser. But while “Bright Star” may be his first feature credit, that very greenness was essential to Campion’s vision for the project. After all, the story it tells is of an artist who completed his life’s work at the age of 25.
“I guess [Jane] saw the project as an opportunity to trust young people and give them a go,” Bradshaw says. “Keats was so young when he died and it’s amazing how much he was able to produce and the maturity that he had at such a young age. Jane is also not very ageist, which is an admirable quality. She kind of trusts young people, which is, you know, great for me.”
In a film so in thrall to the words of its subject, it’s understandable that Keats’s own work was a reference point for Bradshaw. But while his poetry was a starting point for determining the musical rhythms of the piece, it was ultimately Keats’s most famous theory that proved most inspirational.
“I kind of became interested in silence in music,” he says. “And that idea, I guess, came from Keats’s theory of negative capability, which is mentioned in the film and which I read about before making the music. So I became interested in the negative space within music and discovered that music can often be more powerful when it’s used sparingly.”
Keats’s poetry was also Fraser’s first port of call in visualizing the project. If the exquisite earth and jewel tones of his lensing, and the film’s tactile conveyance of climate and landscape, bear an apparent relationship to Keats’s own preoccupation with the natural world, that is precisely Fraser’s intention. Like his director – and indeed, like the character of Fanny – he took an intuitive approach to the poems, reading them from a visual perspective.
“We referenced the poetry for images, which was insanely difficult … one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but one of the most joyous,” he explains, before likening the cross-textual process to that of a musician who can see notes in physical colors. “I didn’t see the poetry as color necessarily. But in the quality of light, like ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ the sequence of the words and the fluttering of curtains and him underneath the tree, framed by another frame of a tree trunk, for me it was trying to represent it filmically, something tangible.”
Fraser’s partner in this challenge was Patterson, who, as both costume and production designer, was tasked with bringing early 19th-century Hampstead to life in a manner that echoed the specificity of Keats’s imagery, without overwhelming the film in period clutter – as so many lavish costumers are wont to do. It is still relatively uncommon for an individual to take on both roles, but Patterson, who also did double-duty on Campion’s “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Holy Smoke!,” thinks the combination makes sense.
“It is organic, to the extent that one aspect informs the other,” she explains. “If you know how somebody chooses to live, that in itself is an insight into how they may express themselves with clothing. Designing the whole film is a huge amount of work, but there is an incredible flow and continuity to the process.” She credits art director David Hindles and costume assistant Deborah Scott for making the task more manageable.
As it turns out, her sparse yet convincingly lived-in sets serve as an ideal counterpoint to the more expressive flourishes of her costumes – an apt balance, given how the film initially portrays fashion design as Fanny’s own creative escape route.
Describing the costumes as “a character in [their] own right,” Patterson designed Fanny’s wardrobe – from playful, color-rich creations early in the film that have the air of period Project Runway experiments, to her more sober ensembles in the later stages – as a progressive reflection of her emotional development.
“So much tribute is paid to the process; from the first scene of the film, you are set up to become aware of them,” she says of the costumes. “Jane and I wanted them to feel real, modern, historic and, in the case of Fanny, as ‘out there’ as any fashionable 19-year-old’s should. At least, for part of the film – as Fanny’s world evolves, she is less concerned with appearance, as she moves into the very real world of her deepest feelings.”
Patterson’s comments exemplify why “Bright Star” is such a striking and satisfying crafts showcase: none of the artists involved have treated it as a showcase at all. Rather, the romance at the film’s heart is what led them to find creative visual and musical ways of articulating emotion – as well as the elusive words of John Keats. A solitary Oscar bid is the very least they deserve.