By Kaleem Aftab www.thenational.ae
If there were an award for the strangest place I’ve met an interview subject, then Michael Kaplan would win it hands down. I was swimming in the sea in Aruba when I was introduced to the costume designer, who was on the Caribbean island to make an appearance at the Aruba International Film Festival.
The irony of meeting a costume designer when he is only in his bathing suit did make me smile, and it also made the introduction a lot less stilted when we sat down to chat about his distinguished career the next morning.
The films that the Philadelphia-born designer has worked on include Blade Runner, Flashdance, Clue, Fight Club, Se7en and Star Trek. Most recently, he’s been working on the fourth Mission: Impossible film in Dubai.
After wrapping the Cher film Burlesque, he moved on to one of his longest projects, spending three weeks in November working on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
He says: “I was having costumes made in India because there was a whole portion of the film that was supposed to be made in India, but they decided instead to shoot it in Dubai, so they had to recreate India in Dubai. There is so much going on and you need a lot of people that you hire in the country and a few that you bring with you everywhere you go to oversee it all.”
The film is now in post-production and due out later this year.
When Kaplan first started out, he says all he had was a bit of talent and naked ambition. “I attended the Philadelphia College of Art. I studied sculpture and drawing and I was very proficient as a draughtsman,” he says.
“I took a minor in commercial art because I wasn’t too sure about fine arts as a career. Sure enough, when I graduated from college I realised that my temperament wasn’t really that of an artist, where I would get up every morning and make art, and so I worked for a little while as a commercial artist, doing graphics, layout and book design. And I hated it.
“I decided that I really would like to work in the film industry and work as a costume designer. I don’t know, it just popped into my head and for a young guy from Philadelphia, seemed totally out of the question. I was very shy and timid and not known for my bravery, and I mustered up the strength to move to Los Angeles, knowing no one, having no job prospects.”
Kaplan obviously has the gift of the gab. He put together a portfolio containing dress ideas for imaginary films and shopped it around. A friend put him in touch with the legendary TV costume designer Bob Mackie and he soon got his first job on the TheSonny and Cher Show.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, he landed a job as the costume designer on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner with seemingly little experience. “You know, when you read somebody’s bio, or when you read somebody’s notes, it doesn’t talk about failures, it doesn’t talk about movies you might want to forget about, so it seems that Blade Runner was the first film I worked on – but it wasn’t.”
What is indisputable is that this rise seems and was meteoric. Of course, it’s also easy to forget that Blade Runner was a flop at the time of its release. Kaplan got the job because the director Scott was looking for someone Los Angeles-based to aid the British costume designer Chales Knode.
With typical modesty, Kaplan explains: “Charles Knode, who is a really amazing British costume designer, wasn’t all that keen about leaving London to work on a film and wasn’t all that keen to work alone because he always worked with a partner in London, but they weren’t able financially to bring his partner. He said: ‘If I can find someone I think I can work with in the States, then I’ll do it.’ So he and Ridley flew over early and interviewed a lot of people in the Costume Designers’ Guild.
“At that time they were saying they were doing a futuristic movie and there was a lot of older people in the Costume Designers’ Guild back then, and when people heard that they were doing a futuristic film, they would do some research and some sketches, but everything was like silver Mylar and space suits and not the right take on the script.”
Kaplan says Scott asked the woman who ran the guild if there was someone young available, and she mentioned Kaplan, who had only been there a year, and Scott wanted to meet him.
“I went in and I obviously said the right thing,” Kaplan adds.
In his next film, Flashdance, Kaplan would start a trend that defined the 1980s. The off-the-shoulder sweatshirt look, as worn by Jennifer Beals in the poster, was copied worldwide. “I guess the sweatshirt became what she would wear to work,” he explains about the Pittsburgh-based character who was a welder by day and a dancer by night. “You’d wear sweat clothes because they are cheap and you’d throw them in the washing machine, but because she was fashionable maybe she would personalise it and cut it up.
“Also, dancers at the time, ballet dancers, always needed to keep their muscles warm and they would wear sweat clothes and leg warmers and that type of thing, but they would cut them so they would be able to move better. The garment was never created to set the trends that it set, but to define the character that she was playing.”
And so Kaplan’s career was born, and perhaps the most notable aspect is his four collaborations with David Fincher: Fight Club, Se7en, Panic Room and The Game. He says of the director: “He is a perfectionist but for some reason we are in synch. I’m a perfectionist and I guess we are the same kind of perfectionist and so he is OK with it. But if things weren’t right, you would hear about it.” As his career has progressed, he has become much sought-after. JJ Abrams had to persuade him to design the costumes on the Star Trek reboot.
“I got a call a few summers ago, and JJ Abrams, who is a visionary television director, was, I heard, revamping the series. He called me and I told my agent I don’t think I’m right for it. My agent told JJ, and JJ said ‘will he please come and just talk to me. I’m in Maine so we are going to send a plane for Michael and if he doesn’t want to do it, fine, we shall just take up one afternoon and meet me at a coffee shop and we’ll talk about it and he can tell me why he doesn’t want to do it’.”
As Kaplan explained he wasn’t a Trekkie and didn’t want people on his lawn protesting about his designs, the director said that this was exactly what the franchise needed. Kaplan, charmed by Abrams, took on the role.
It would seem obvious that his connection with Cher would then see him move to Burlesque, but he argues: “Not at all, when I worked on The Sonny and Cher Show she would see me in the hallway and see my face, perhaps, but I was a little kid. I think that the director and the head of the studio picked me.
“The head of the studio is a close friend of mine and he’s been wanting to work with me for years and years, and that is how that came about. I’ve always wanted to do a musical but it was hard, it was one of the hardest movies I have ever done.”