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“Birdman” Costume Designer Albert Wolsky Takes Flight

Costume designer Albert Wolsky built the clothing work by leads Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts and Zack Galaifianakis in “Birdman” – photo credit Fox Searchlight Pictures

Albert Wolsky can’t stop working, no matter how hard he tries. The veteran costume designer’s first feature credit was 1967’s “The Desperate Hours”. Since then, he’s worked on over 75 films and received seven Oscar nominations, including wins for “All That Jazz” and “Bugsy”. In 1999, the Costume Designers Guild presented Wolsky with a lifetime achievement award. Proving excellence continues beyond such recognition, Wolsky earned a CDG Award nomination in 2002 for “Road to Perdition” and again in 2008 for “Revolutionary Road”. On February 17th, Wolsky will once again be honored at the CDG Awards as a nominee in the Contemporary category for his work on “Birdman.”

Wolsky respected director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous films and was delighted to learn from his agent that he’d been recommended for the costume designer position on “Birdman.” Prior to preparing anything Wolsky’s first course of action was to learn what initially  attracted Inarritu to the story.

“He had spent three years getting this film off the ground. What was it that drew him to this story? What was it that made him passionate?” said Wolsky. “Speaking with the director is the first of two things I always do when I start.”

Research is Wolsky’s second ingredient. The costume designer has a library of books he enjoys “pouring over” for inspiration, in addition to using resources like the archive at Western Costume. To fully prepare for “Birdman” Wolsky read a number of Raymond Carver short stories. Carver wrote many of his stories in the 80s and his plays were set in the 70s. Wolsky suggested Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) adaptation of a Carver play be set in the 50s. Production designer Kevin Thompson, who’s “Birdman” set won the 2015 Contemporary ADG Award, agreed with Wolsky’s vision. Wolsky and Thompson then met with DP Emmaneul Lubezki to work out color palettes for the layered storylines wrapped within “Birdman”.

“I started with swatches I shared with the director and DP, including different palettes for the stage set and street clothes. For the play we were aiming for 50s colors,” said Wolsky. “For the contemporary style I re-examined the script with fresh eyes, being mindful of what world they are in, what they are doing.”

Wolsky was particularly mindful of the bold patterns Thompson employed in the carpets and wallpaper, finding solids that remained balanced in the atmospheres. The clothing worn by the leads (both on and off stage) was built by Wolsky and his crew (with the exception of one vintage camisole). Wolsky took great care to ensure the actor’s felt the outfits were a natural extension of their persona.

“You have to work with the actors, they have to feel like they are in their own clothes,” said Wolsky. “It’s not something that can be convinced, they need to feel natural. You follow their likes.”

Wolsky also oversaw the clothing in the crowd scenes. A New York native who spent years in the theater scene, Wolsky knew exactly how the extras should be dressed. Needing some street performers, Wolsky feel into odd luck, finding a $20 Spiderman costume, and discovering the marching band members fully outfitted before his eyes.

“Maybe Alejandro had heard them somewhere. I just turned around and they were there, they just appeared out of nowhere,” said Wolsky.

Generally preferring a small team, the film’s tiny budget stripped Wolsky’s team to an assistant wardrobe supervisor and two dressers. Despite a six week production timeline, Wolsky did not skimp on important elements such as carefully selecting fabric – one of his favorite aspects of costume design. Noting material made today doesn’t have the same hang and movement for period films, he’s often made his own fabric, as was the case for Tom Hank’s wool coat in “Road to Perdition.”

Wolsky appreciates the accolades he’s received from his work on “Birdman,” recognizing his peers see the value in the work he’s created. He also enjoyed stepping back into the New York theater world, the place where he began his costume design career before moving to production.

“I originally began in the theater. I began taking some movie of the week jobs in television but theater was my aspiration,” said Wolsky. “You just never know what will come your way.”