Interview: Costume Designer Julian Day on recreating the flash and fashion of Elton John in 'Rocketman'
When it comes to dressing musical icons, you could say it’s all in a day’s work for costume designer Julian Day. Day has designed the costumes for several films about famous musicians, from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis (played by Sam Riley) in Control, to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s John Lennon in Nowhere Boy to his acclaimed designs for Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in last year’s award-winning blockbuster Bohemian Rhapsody, directed by Dexter Fletcher.
Day teamed up with Fletcher again for perhaps the most iconic musician of them all, at least from a fashion standpoint, Elton John, in this year’s critically acclaimed musical fantasy (don’t call it a bio-pic) Rocketman. Day’s costumes are both eye-popping and integral to the effectiveness of the movie, which is gaining steam in the awards season, particularly for Day’s inventive and brilliant designs and for star Taron Egerton’s passionate performance. I had the opportunity to talk to Day about his process and what it was like to work with Egerton and Fletcher in channeling a musical legend.
AW: I first wanted to say congratulations for the success of Rocketman and for such wonderful work in the film. The costumes are perhaps the most integral part of Elton’s story, other than the music— he says that he doesn’t even become Elton John until he puts on his outfit before going on stage. I was curious as to what your approach was for creating costumes that channel who he is both as a performer and as a person, and was that a challenge?
JD: In some respects no, because, you know, I’ve been designing costumes for films for 30 years so this was another project, another character, in a sense. If you’ll excuse me, I’m probably going to waffle on a bit about lots of different things but I’ll absolutely make the point. So, basically, yes it was a challenge because it’s Elton John. He’s a megastar, he’s incredible, he’s unbelievable so that’s one challenge you have, but the same time, it’s dealing with a character from a film and what we always said from the very beginning was this is not a straight up bio-pic, this is not a verbatim, “copy costume 1, 2, 3, 4,” you know. We were going to tear up all of that and do our own film as a musical fantasy. So I basically had carte blanche to do exactly I wanted to do, within the realms of, it’s in the 70s, it’s in the ‘80s, it’s about Elton John. So yes and no.
I’ve found that I design quite instinctively. So what I did was I was doing my research, I went to Elton’s archives and looked through all of that, I looked through the internet, and looked through books, so I found Elton’s silhouettes and then I researched the fabrics he used and the designs within the fabrics. And so I came up with this sort of jigsaw of a silhouette, a style of fabric, a pattern on the fabric…I had all of these and then put them together. Because obviously there’s no point in doing a film about Elton where anyone goes, “well, it doesn’t look like Elton,” I didn’t want to repeat any exact costumes so I have to represent what Elton stood for, but also doing our film. Does that make sense?
AW: Absolutely. I was talking about the same kind of thing with Jany Temime, the costume designer for Judy, and she was saying pretty much the same kind of thing, that she was interpreting what Judy Garland wore.
JD: Yeah. One of the things I found out in my research is that Elton used to love wearing a vest. So I went out and I bought all these lycra fabrics– I think I bought about 20 of them, you know some had stripes, some had stars, some had stars and stripes, some of them were shiny. So I bought 20 different fabrics, found the one shape that I liked and then produced 20 of these vests. There’s a scene in “Pinball Wizard” where he comes out in this big feathered cock outfit and there’s this montage scene where he sits at the piano and the piano revolves around and every time there’s a revolve, he changes costumes. Now, one of those costumes was this outfit that had a fez on, a leopard print tee shirt and a striped fabric. So I bought the fabric—a striped, sequin fabric— in Paris. Now, I didn’t know when I bought it, I just loved this fabric, it reminds me of Elton, I had no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I love it and I will use it in the film. So I already got that, so then I made a fez. So I already had this bit of armor already—it’s as if I created Elton’s wardrobe in the costume department, and then I used it within the scenes. Obviously, there were other scenes, for instance, the devil outfit, I specifically designed that outfit for that scene, because it was integral to the film. But the other things—I created an Elton wardrobe.
AW: I wanted to ask you about the devil costume. It’s the first shot of the film— it puts you instantly there—but then it had to have such practical purposes. He had to be able to dismantle it throughout the whole film because we keep coming back to it and as he strips down, obviously it’s a big metaphor— he’s stripping down the costume as he’s stripping down himself and breaking down and it’s so effective. The way the horns pop off and then it keeps coming off in pieces, that it was really perfect.
JD: Yeah, thank you very much. I mean that was the first thing that I designed. It was the first thing you see in the film, it’s throughout the film and you see it at the end of the film. And you know, depending on who you speak to, whether it’s me or Dexter— you know if I remember rightly when I first got the script there was not a mention of the devil suit, so it came from my mind. But if you talk to Dexter, he’ll say, “ah yeah, it was me,” you know? [laughing] We joke about it. But it was so important, that image when he bursts through the doors and he’s being a real devil at that point—I’d use a stronger word, but I won’t— and, as you say, it’s so important as he reveals his inner self and you get to see the inner core of Elton, the costume has to do the same. The horns weren’t originally going to pop off but Dex was like, you know, maybe we should do that, so I put magnets on the hood so they’d pop off. The wings come off, the jacket comes off, there’s even a shot when he’s walking down the corridor and we see crystals fall off, and feathers fall off. Obviously, I did it, but I feel it really works for the film. And I have to say—I should have said this at the beginning—this was probably my most favorite film I’ve ever designed. Because it was a true celebration of this incredible man and I got to have so much fun. And it deals with such important issues in his life and I think issues that people experience throughout their whole life and it was such fun to do. And seeing Taron in some of those costumes made me laugh, made me cry. So going back to, was it a challenge? No, because it was such good fun.
AW: That’s awesome. You did mention the time span—it’s so interesting how the movie spans all the way from the fifties through to the eighties, all obviously very different decades for fashion. Were there any specific fashion notes that you wanted to make sure to hit for each decade?
JD: One of the things I really wanted to capture was Elvis Presley and there is a scene that unfortunately didn’t make it to the film, where Elton meets Elvis Presley. Elvis was so integral to that ‘50s youth culture and Elton is very inspired in his look. Also, his mother’s boyfriend obviously is a huge Elvis fan and that sort of rock-and-roll look, with the quiff and the long jacket and the brothel creepers, we see that in the fifties, but we also see it in the ‘70s. That devil costume is inspired in some respects by the Las Vegas Elvis. With that big, high collar and the big white trousers. There’s that sort of Elvis theme going through the film. I’ve done a couple of other films that felt inspired by Elvis, so, for me, that was very important.
Going back to the idea of notes for each decade, I think one of the most important things for me was color. Shapes do change but those colors we’ve got in the film, those nice, muted, rich colors for the fifties, they sort of desaturated for the sixties, then we went to the primary colors of the seventies, then we went to the sort of bright neons for the eighties. So, those colors really pinpoint which era you are in. What I wanted to do is get across the idea that fashion migrates through each decade. You don’t just go, “right we’re the sixties now,” or “we’re in the seventies.” Things linger, like the shape of the trouser would linger, the size of the tie would linger. What I really wanted to get across was that nice flow of fashion through the decades.
AW: Definitely. Going back to what you’re saying about fabrics, one particular thing that really stands out to me that isn’t even a stage costume is the robe that he wears in the pool scene. The shot is so effective but it’s all because of the shape and the movement of the robe in the water. How much thought went into that because, for me, visually, it’s all about the robe falling in the water and the way it fans out behind him.
JD: It’s interesting you say that because, actually, there was quite a lot of discussion about that scene because it’s such an important scene in the film. It’s sort of the crux of his life, and he’s going to take his own life, therefore it’s quite important. When we first talked about it, I talked to Dexter and Taron—and Taron loves to get involved in all of these discussions and I think it’s important that someone playing this person has this involvement—and we talked and it was this idea that he was actually going to come down in this outrageously huge costume—almost comical—and sort of storm into the party and then dive into the pool. And then Taron and Dexter went into rehearsals and they were rehearing the scene and I got a call from Dexter, saying, you know, the whole bit was incredible, but Taron and I were discussing it, and maybe we actually want to do the reverse. The idea of the simplicity of the costume makes it more effective. Otherwise, it becomes a comedy moment instead of a dramatic moment. So we came up with this idea of sort of like this guru-like outfit, with the white, flared velvet trousers and this floaty, diaphanous dressing gown. One of the things that made me think of this was, when I went to Elton’s archives, I went to look at his personal clothing as well and there was this row of dressing gowns, so I learned he really loves dressing gowns. They have this sort of beauty. Plus, when it goes in the water, it had almost this sort of stingray style of effect. We had to weigh it down so it didn’t float up. I’m glad you appreciate it because so much thought and effort went into that and I actually had the fabric printed for it so it almost looks like a Versace dressing gown and I think that sort of striking pink color against the blue of the swimming pool. Throughout the film, there is a lot of reference to pink and blue. I recently went to Los Angeles. Do you live in Los Angeles?
AW: I do, yes.
JD: Okay, one of the things that really struck me—because that was obviously an L.A. pool party—was the idea that you just see so much pink and blue and it’s in neon, it’s in colors. Often, my designs are not premeditated, they are things that have gone into my memory bank and I’ve pulled them out. So, without realizing, I designed this outfit with the blue of the swimming pool and the pinks of the neon that you see in L.A. Throughout this whole thing, things come together, but not necessarily at the time. But that’s what’s really nice, sometimes, about designing. It can be organic, and not clear-cut, actors have involvement, directors have involvement, that’s what I really love about the process. Sometimes it’s challenging, you have such a tight schedule, you want to get things done and out of the way so you can move on, but it just doesn’t happen like that sometimes.
AW: That’s actually what I wanted to bring up next. Taron praises you as being extremely collaborative and I wanted to ask you what the process was like, working with the other artists. Was it a fluid process, during pre-production and production, working with everyone?
JD: Absolutely! I love Dexter as a director. I’ve worked with him on Bohemian Rhapsody, I’ve worked with him as an actor too, he was in this film I did with Margot Robbie [2018’s Terminal]. He loves clothes, in his own life, so that’s a real bonus. When a director loves clothes, for me as a costume designer, it really helps. We were talking about Rocketman when we were still shooting Bohemian Rhapsody. Just before Bohemian Rhapsody, I worked with Taron on Robin Hood, so we were chatting about it then, so there’s this nice, organic process at the start, we’re all talking to each other, we’re all talking individually. And then, obviously, the production comes together and we all sit around, George [Richmond] the DP, Marcus [Rowland] the production designer, Lizzie [Judd], of hair and makeup. We sit ‘round the table and discuss ideas and throw things in, throw things out. What happens is, at the beginning of prep, everyone has time to sit around and talk, but as prep slowly creeps into shooting, everybody has to go off to their own world and do their own thing and I think that Dexter manages to put in such a good, concrete base. He builds the foundation for this incredible house and allows each person to go away and build their own rooms. He’s one of the most extraordinary collaborators I’ve ever worked with. It’s a real pleasure because he has such a strong image to begin with, but then employs people he likes and can get on with and lets them run and do their job. So there was a great process. He rehearses with actors and comes back and says, “I want to rework this, or “I feel like this.”
I also deal with emotions when I’m designing things, and I think an emotion is so important when you are designing because an actor will be portraying that emotion within a scene. There was this scene where he goes to visit his father and he takes the watch and so much was discussed about that. We looked at what originally he wore when he went to see his father and it outrageous, it was just this mismatched, a tartan trouser with a tartan jacket and it was the weirdest outfit to go and visit your father. So we looked at it and went through lots of different variations and ended up with something that Taron and Dex felt was appropriate to go see their father, but also something that would put his father slightly on edge, so we obviously ended up with this check suit, and these shoes that almost look like clown shoes and then the vest and the jewelry. Every scene was really thought out but, at the same time, there was a real organic feel to them. That’s why I think it’s such an enjoyable film to do.
AW: Beyond letting you go into his archives, how much input and collaboration was Elton involved with?
JD: He came down to the studio for a day because he was, obviously, doing this 3-year world tour so he’s a very busy man and I showed him the designs that I’d done. He looked at them and his favorite one was actually the Queen Elizabeth. He knew exactly what he was going to get. That was the only time that I saw him. David Furnish spent quite a bit of time on set and they are obviously an incredible partnership, they know each other extremely well, so Elton was obviously very comfortable that David was there. Some of Elton’s friends came down and again, I hate to keep using the word, but there was a very organic process of people coming in and out. Obviously, Elton looked at the rushes and David looked at the rushes. The bravery of Elton was that he didn’t interfere. He let us get on and make the film of the script that he had read. It’s such a difficult thing to let people get on with making the film. But he let us get on with it. I think he wanted to see what the final product was. By all accounts, he’s very happy. He wrote me a very lovely personal note to say how much she loved the costumes.
AW: Did he want to take any of them?
JD: I got a note from David to say that he loved a shot of a pair of shoes with blue, red and gold and they’ve got the wings on them and he sees them in the shop and I got a note from David that Elton really loved these shoes, so I made a pair specially for him, with an E on the left shoe and an R on the right shoe, so they will be somewhere in his collection of clothes. And I know Taron, when he’s composing “Your Song” in the house, I know Taron wanted to give those glasses to Elton for his birthday. So we got Elton’s prescription to put in the glasses and gave them to Taron to give to him as a birthday present. I think “Your Song” is very important to Elton, it was very important to Taron as well, which I think is very important. Because I know that he really loves his glasses and keeps them separate from the rest of his collection of clothes, so I thought that was a nice gesture of Taron to do.
AW: It really was. I know that we’re almost out of time but I would be completely remiss, as a child of the eighties, not to mention the “I’m Still Standing” video that is so iconic. How much fun was that to re-create?
JD: That was incredible because, again, that ending had so many different incarnations—we were going to do this, and we were going to do that—it’s an homage to what Elton wore. It’s not an exact replica, but it’s my homage to that. We used the boater, we used a lot of showy jewelry on it and we used an incredible brooch. And there’s a scene on the beach, he’s got the gray tailcoat. We actually re-made the piano glasses and the fur glasses and it was really good fun. For me, it was something from my teenage years, so I remember it really well, and I remember it being on Top of the Pops all the time. We just recreated Elton and everything else was from the original video. It was great fun to do.
Julian Day was recently nominated for a Costume Designers Guild (CDG) nomination for his work on Rocketman. Rocketman is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and to stream.