x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Stewart 'trusted me, just like that, and it meant everything'

Costume designer for Rosewater, Jon Stewart's directorial debut, speaks about working with The Daily Show host

Jon Stewart and Phaedra Dahdaleh. Courtesy Phaedra Dahdaleh
Jon Stewart and Phaedra Dahdaleh. Courtesy Phaedra Dahdaleh
Hala Khalaf talks to Phaedra Dahdaleh, the Jordanian costume designer on Jon Stewart's movie

After working as an on-set costumier, costume assistant and costume supervisor on almost every movie shot in Jordan in the past five years - whether local, regional or international - Phaedra Dahdaleh was more than ready to take the helm in ­wardrobe.

"I'd reached a point where I felt that, after being an assistant to some of the greats in costume and costume design, I could really do the entire job myself, as a professional," she says. "When Jon came to Jordan, he trusted me to do just that." 

The 32-year-old Jordanian describes landing the title of costume designer for Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater, which just wrapped up production in Jordan last month, as the "biggest opportunity" in her career so far.

Earlier this year, when Stewart made his first trip to Jordan to begin hiring his crew and scouting for locations, Dahdaleh landed an interview with the host of The Daily Show, based both on the recommendation of local producers and on her work in costume and wardrobe for movies such as Redacted (2007), Captain Abu Raed (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Incendies (2010), all of which were filmed in Jordan. 

"I was nervous meeting him, which is so funny to remember now because he's just the most amazing, friendly, down-to-earth kind of guy. He just got up, gave me a big hug and immediately made me feel at ease," she says.

When Dahdaleh confessed to Stewart that this would be her first big production flying solo as the head of costumes and as the costume designer, he wasn't fazed.

"He said to me: 'Don't worry about it, it's also my first big production.' He trusted me, just like that. It meant ­everything."

Creating costumes for Rosewater, which is set in Iran in 2009, involved a lot of research, says ­Dahdaleh.

"The most important thing about my job is to be fair and authentic and real, to the story and to Iran as a country. I can't have the characters wearing the wrong things; it has to seem like this film was really shot in Iran."

She read the script closely and had long conversations with Maziar Bahari, the BBC journalist who co-wrote the memoir that Rosewater is based on and who was present on the set from time to time, which helped form the basis of the vision for the characters' costumes. 

Some of the clothes were sourced from Phaedra's House of Costumes, Dahdaleh's five-year-old business born when she bought the costumes used on Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker after shooting wrapped in 2007.

That's what she does - she purchases the costumes that are no longer needed after a film wraps in Jordan and hunts for clothes from flea markets in the old city, or from donation piles of friends who sometimes have vintage treasures that they're not even aware of. "I bought a washer and dryer, learnt everything I could from anyone who comes to Jordan to work on a film and is willing to teach me, and now I rent out costumes to filmmakers and commercial directors who need to dress their characters when shooting in the country," she says.

Some of Rosewater's costumes had to be designed and made, such as the police uniforms, but most could either be sourced from Dahdaleh's costume house or shopped for.

She worked closely with Stewart and with the production designer Gerald Sullivan and the look for each character quickly began to form. 

"In choosing the costumes, it's really about feeling and understanding the character. It's not about making them look good; it's about making them look real. What would they wear, and why? It has to look that it really belongs to them," she says. "That's what's really beautiful and fun about the process."

Being part of Rosewater will hopefully open even bigger doors for Dahdaleh.

"Working with Jon was an experience I'm never going to forget. Not only was he a genuinely nice, supportive guy, but he was so encouraging of all the local talent we have in Jordan." 

hkhalaf@thenational.ae