From Monuments Men to Iron Men:
Louise Frogley Has You Dressed Perfectly!
By Bridget Brady
In this candid interview with famed costume designer, Louise Frogley, she shares her immense knowledge and experience with us. She talks about design, gardening, travel, the Oscars, and her somewhat personal life. With her delicious British accent and humor in tow, we sit down for a chat.
I would love to start with why you do what you do, and what drives your passion for costume design?
I ended up doing it by accident. It wasn't what I thought I'd be doing. I thought I'd be a gardener. I ended up working for an advertising photographer in London as an intern. I ended up doing his styling. Then I left him to go freelance and ended up doing commercials. Then the commercials led to films because a lot of English commercial directors were going onto films in those days. Doing films led me to LA 27 years ago, and I just stayed. I love it.
We have to rewind...You thought you were going to be a gardener?
Well, I was hoping. I didn't know. I think I was a bit more hippie in those days. Things just rolled on by and you went with what was going on. I still do gardening like crazy; I find it extremely relaxing. It's another aspect of design. You're putting things together and planning things; it's not dissimilar.
What is your educational background in the realm of design?
I trained as a textile designer, and then did my further degree in Art History. To me, it's all very, very similar. I used to use gardens a lot. I used to draw plants for my textile design. It all links together.
You just finished the costume design for The Monuments Men that did quite well at the Oscars! That was great for Cate, and everyone!
Yes, and she's so nice. She's so normal. Nice husband, three sons, completely sensible and down to earth. She's really great. I worked with her before on The Good German, and she's just fabulous.
How much do the actors and artists have a say in their own wardrobe and costume design for a film?
It depends entirely what sort of film it is. In the case of The Monuments Men, it was a very specific period, plus we were following the look of the original lady who Cate Blanchett was playing. So, what I did under those circumstances, I got a fitting model in, so I could play and get the look right. So, when I did the fitting, it was the opportunity for Cate to apply what she thought. We discarded a lot of things that wouldn't work. It made a lot of things more pure and to the point. It's a way to short-hand a fitting so you're not dealing with stuff that doesn't stand a chance. That way it gives you time to build in their observations. Nobody could be more respectful of an actor than me. I think their job is so stupendously terrifying. What I really want to do is be as supportive as I possibly can. With George Clooney, he has a shape of suit he prefers, so we work around that. I fitted him in some period suits, got the ideal shape. If it was a film involving for instance, space suits, although you would tend to adjust so that it was as flattering as it could be on the actor, the actor would be a little bit controlled in what the look was going to be. If it's modern day, then the actor has a lot more input because they know what suits them; they go shopping too. You have to try and find out what they like, what they fear about their body, what they like about their body, who they see the character as, who the Director sees the character as, and you try to work within that so you can do it between all of you. I don't believe in being autocratic, I think it's very unproductive.
You seem to work with a lot of the same people, over and over again.
Yeah, I like to. You know who they are; you know what they want, and they are sort of friends. It's pleasant; it makes the whole experience enjoyable. The hours are long, the pressure is great, the experience, if possible has to be enjoyable; because it's your life going by, so you want it be as perfect as it can be. The Monuments Men was lots of fun. I loved living in Berlin. The company rented me an exquisite apartment in an old mansion. It was fabulous, the whole thing.
How do you find balance between your professional and personal life? Or do you??
Well, it kind of becomes one and the same, because you're away so much. I only worked in LA last year, under two weeks. Because of the tax incentive, and various reasons, you're almost always away, whether it's in the US or Europe. I've just come back from Australia; I'm doing Unbroken with Angelina Jolie. You're just away all the time, so you just have to kind of accept it, run with it, and make it fun.
I know you have a grown daughter, are you currently married?
Not at the moment, not for some time. I very much have settled into having a lovely house and garden, lovely friends, terrific daughter, and when I'm not working, I travel a lot. I just came back from Sri Lanka; I went to one of those Ayurvedic health spas and had the best time. It was heaven. I just love traveling.
You've had an incredibly successful career, and it seems there are very few "spots" in this industry, and sometimes it seems like they are all “taken.”
I'm always terrified I'm never going to work again. I think I'm at the top of the “B-List.” I never think of myself as higher than that.
Are you kidding me? You've done so much amazing work...The Monuments Men, Iron Man 3...
That was my favorite film! Those people are marvelous. They're smart, they read, they're completely up-to-date with everything. Books, film, theater, everything. They're the smartest guys, I just love them.
So where do you go from here? Professionally and personally?
I just want to carry on doing it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm entirely happy doing it. I love living in LA. I love my friends. I'm so, so lucky that I've landed in a way that makes me so happy. I like doing houses as well, I've flipped a few. It's so similar to being a costume designer, being super organized, and figuring out the look. If costume designing ever went away entirely, I think I'd do houses and gardens.
How many films do you typically work on in a year?
Two or three, three if possible. That's all there's time for.
As the costume designer on a film, are you part of the "family" on set?
Yeah, absolutely! I was friends with Bob Balaban and Bill Murray on The Monuments Men, plus friends with the others. We just all had a great time.
Who are some of your all-time favorite people to work with?
I really love working for George Clooney; he's ever so nice. He was brought up properly. His mom and dad are absolutely great. You can tell he's so well adjusted because he had a really happy, good family upbringing; he's just a good person. I really enjoy him, he can be so silly, it's brilliant. When you work with the same Director, you end up working with the same Production Designer, and the more you can work with the same people, the more you understand what it is the other people like, and how they work. You can make it all fit in together, so it's extremely harmonious and a very pleasant experience.
The ones who are the most stable, like Brad Pitt for instance, what he and George have in common is they were both working in Hollywood for about 10 years before they made it big. They both came from stable families, and I think that kind of background means that you know all the ins and outs. You don't arrive like Bambi in the middle of something and get lauded, and praised and enabled right away. The longer it takes for that to happen and the more stable your background, the more ready you'll be to be a film star, or a powerful actor. I think background is very, very important. You see a lot of people who can't cope with it.
It's interesting that you talk about the time it took for them to become famous. We see a lot of people who get fame very young, or very quickly and it can kind of destroy them.
It's not good for them, and they're not always surrounded by the right people who will help them. It's very sad. I really like actors, even if they've been through difficult times; most of them are just so great to work with.
Speaking of actors who've been through hard times, how was it working with Robert Downey Jr?
He's great! He's just great. He has a system, and once you know his system, and what he needs, he’s incredibly great. The poor man has to do fittings so, so much, it must be annoying. He really loves everything, and you just get on with it. It's marvelous; I really love working with him, he's fab.
What do you mean, “Once you understand his system?”
Each actor has a system. If you work as much as he does, you find yourself either at home, or at a designated fitting place having to put on racks, and racks, and racks of clothes with somebody you may, or may not know; telling you what to put on, with stuff you may or may not like. Inevitably over the years, you cut that down a bit by letting the person know what cut you like, or what kind of jeans you like. He's good, he really helps, and he's interested. On Iron Man he had to have this sort of American-Mid-West-Country-Winter look. The Japanese have been copying American period work-wear for quite some time, and it's pretty great. It's much better cut than what we have here, so I was doing a lot of his stuff from Japan.
What's your biggest challenge as a costume designer?
It's trying to assess what the Director wants, and finding a way to do it that's right for him or her, and the film, that stills feels right for yourself. More often than not, what they're asking for is entirely correct, and entirely do-able.
What are you working on now?
Nothing. I just did two and a half years without a break. I just turned down a job because I wasn't quite ready.
What's your dream project?
A cowboy film. I'd love to do that more than anything. I love Mexico. The cowboy look came from Mexico. I love it; it's so elegant.
Who's your dream Director?
Wes Anderson, but I’ll never work with him because he always works with Milena Canonero.
Who are your favorite costume designers?
Patricia Norris, I think she's absolutely genius, and of course Milena Canonero. I love Patricia Norris; I love the integrity of her work. And Alex Byrne, she did all the films about Elizabeth the First, and the Marvel films.
What awards have you personally won?
None. I hate awards. I'll never win anything. I'd rather be at home doing something else. I don't mean [to] be disrespectful to the industry, but I'd rather be just working. I'm sure I'm being unduly negative, but I just like the process of working so much.
Outside of working, and gardening, what else are you passionate about?
Traveling. When I was in Sri Lanka I unearthed a lot of antique fabric from the 18th and 19th century. I spent a lot of time going through all that, and buying tons of it. I can't fully explain to you why, but it's so beautiful. Just going through funky antique shops there, I ended up buying a bag of hands and feet from 19th century puppets. I feel a bit embarrassed, because I don't quite know why, but they're just beautiful objects, and I love finding things like that. I love meeting unusual people that I wouldn't end up meeting.
Finally, what would your advice be for costume designers who want to get into the film industry?
Quite honestly, I know it's really boring, but I would go work at a costume rental house. Even though the work is hard and ill-paid, you learn a lot about the subject, and you meet a lot of people. If I was to start again now, I'd go work at Western Costume as an intern. My daughter did that, it's a great entry, and you learn such a lot.
We wrapped up our chat, and I secretly hoped I would run into her someday in an antique shop on the other side of the world. This way I could catch a glimpse of her process, her brilliance and how she continues to create and organize beauty.