THE OSCAR-WINNING COSTUME DESIGNER HAS MADE STRANGE BEAUTY HER SIGNATURE. IN HER LATEST PROJECT, SHE EXPLORES IMMORTALITY, AND THE RESULTS ARE APPROPRIATELY UNFORGETTABLE
“Beauty itself is her medium,” Francis Ford Coppola wrote of artist Eiko Ishioka in the introduction to her 2000 monograph, Eiko On Stage. “She is, and always will be, something of a foreigner in the film industry, no matter how many films she works on or awards [she receives].”
“I don’t know if it’s beauty or not,” Ishioka says in reference to this statement. She is seated at a clean, white table over a pile of carefully organized illustrations and sketches. We are in her immaculate, minimalist high-rise apartment that overlooks Central Park from the seventieth floor. “It is from my point of view, and I always want to create my own kind of beauty.” But one thing is for sure: the Academy Award–winning costume designer behind the costumes for Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula has not only found her niche as a designer for film, she remains one of the industry’s most in-demand costumers.
“I am lucky to have started working with Paul Schrader and Francis,” Ishioka says. “Dracula was my first big Hollywood film, and Francis gave me complete freedom by expecting never-before-seen, unique, timeless, and revolutionary design.”
This isn’t to say that Mr. Coppola’s assertion doesn’t hold a ring of truth. “Nobody realizes Eiko is a production designer,” Ishioka laments in charming third person. She speaks in careful, precise English with a Japanese accent dense enough for her to sometimes employ the use of a translator. “I really wanted to design production for Hollywood, but since [Schrader’s] Mishima, I have never received production design work. Francis wanted me to design costumes for Dracula, and then my work became too famous so I never had the chance to recede to set design after. This is a very sad thing.”
Choosing projects meticulously, Ishioka has been able to traverse media and create works of profound visual poetry from the stage to the screen to the stadium. It was she who famously designed the spellbinding sartorial creations for Tarsem Singh’s breakthrough 2000 film The Cell, as well as its 2006 follow-up, The Fall. She directed the music video for Björk’s “Cocoon,” in which the singer emerges from a lineup of clones and binds herself into a chrysalis made from animated red strands that shoot from her nipples. She also designed costumes for Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Appropriately, it was right after that job that Ishioka was again approached by Singh and asked to design for Olympians of a different sort: the ancient, battling gods in his forthcoming fantasy epic, Immortals.
“The Beijing Olympics were a completely different world from Greek mythology, which is based on a story,” she says. “The process was incredible because I went to the Metropolitan Museum to look at sculpture. A [late 19th-century] helmet mask from Burkina Faso inspired me very strongly, so I cooked myself different versions of the original design. I would draw about ten different drawings, then Tarsem and I would discuss it many times until we finally reached a direction.”
This collaborative synergy is what brings Ishioka back to Singh’s productions time and again. Even though she may not be steering the ship, Ishioka finds great creative fulfillment working as part of a team. “Tarsem as a director has given me guidance,” she says. “I feel like I have a freedom to build ideas based on his guidance.” She also takes comfort in film industry’s top-down power system. “Hollywood is a good example of dictatorship. Hierarchy is very important. It doesn’t matter if I am working under a general and I say ‘I don’t like it, I don’t like it, I don’t like it.’ He should be able to carry on with his own vision. Luckily, Tarsem and I find a consensus. Mostly it’s a success.”
If the otherwordly costumes exhibited in Immortals are any indication, Ishioka’s statement comes across as incredibly modest. Ares, the god of war, wears a solid gold helmet that boasts a Mohawk of sword blades. Theseus, the film’s hero, slips into armor with intestines sculpted into its surface. King Hyperion, the villain portrayed by Mickey Rourke, sports a helmet featuring crab pinchers that resemble Satanic horns shooting out of his head, while his face looks like it’s emerging from the subterranean mouth of a primordial sea urchin. Inspired by the hollow, filigreed basket hilts of 17th-century rapiers, the vestments of the gods are designed to be “translucent,” in Ishioka’s vernacular, like gilded cages for the body, emphasizing the character’s immortality and the futility of wearing traditional armor.
Immortals marks a milestone for director Singh, as it is his most massively budgeted film to date. “I am very excited because I love to design for a huge audience,” Ishioka says. “I am not interested in a very limited, snobby, salon kind of audience. I like people walking on the street to see my movie posters and say, ‘Wow!’”
Next, Ishioka takes on her very first fairy tale, designing costumes for Singh’s 2012 adaptation of Snow White, and she remains curious about what wonders the future may bring. One thing she would like to attempt is to create designs that are purely computer-generated, “like Toy Story,” she says, “but completely my way. I would love to do it not as a children’s movie but for adults, as a more exciting, never-before-seen kind of expression.”
Despite no shortage of blue-chip projects on the horizon, Ishioka laments that perhaps her imagination has grown beyond the constraints of the silver screen. “I don’t know how long I can work for film,” she shrugs. “I don’t want to limit myself. I have no idea what may come tomorrow. The future is very mysterious.”