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Oscar-winning costume designer Michael O'Connor on dressing Rosamund Pike in 'A Private War'

The costumer was challenged to recreate war reporter Marie Colvin’s Middle East uniform for the Hollywood film

'A Private War' stars Rosamund Pike as journalist Marie Colvin, with costumes by Michael O'Connor.
'A Private War' stars Rosamund Pike as journalist Marie Colvin, with costumes by Michael O'Connor.

“I read it and, within the first five pages, I knew instantly,” says costume designer Michael O’Connor about the script for A Private War, which landed on his desk late one Friday afternoon. “At the time, I was actually planning on doing another film that was much more contemporary,” he adds. But after meeting director Matthew Heineman and reading the screenplay for the real-life story of American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in 2012 while covering the siege in the Syrian city of Homs, O’Connor “knew instantly that I’d rather be involved in this project”.

It’s a feeling that the Oscar-winning designer has had at least once before, for the 2006 Forest Whitaker-starring The Last King of Scotland. “I think it’s the script, really, and whether I relate to the story, and if I feel I could give something to the film,” says O’Connor. Much like A Private War, The Last King was “another really strong example of that, where the story and period in which it’s set just felt like something I could relate to”.

Forest Whitaker in 'The Last King of Scotland', with costumes by Michael O'Connor. Shutterstock 
Forest Whitaker in 'The Last King of Scotland', with costumes by Michael O'Connor. Shutterstock

In 2009, O’Connor swept award season with The Duchess, a period drama starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, culminating in an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Equally at home designing clothing for period films as he is putting together a wardrobe for a modern-day story, O’Connor says: “The truth is, I like them both. They are different challenges, but they’re both about characters. Obviously, it’s nice when you get to work on actual costumes, because you get to create fancy things, while contemporary clothing feels a little more common.”

Keira Knightley in 'The Duchess', with costumes by Michael O'Connor. Alamy Stock Photo 
Keira Knightley in 'The Duchess', with costumes by Michael O'Connor. Alamy Stock Photo

O’Connor is also comfortable designing for both woman-centric films, such as A Private War, and those with more masculine characters, such as The Last King of Scotland. He’s even used his craft to full effect in sci-fi superhero films, notably Dredd, which is set in the fictional, violent metropolis Mega City OneIt’s ultimately still about finding the character, and that’s where the meaningful differences begin and end,” he says.

A Private War is not the first time O’Connor found himself designing for a story set in the Middle East. The London-born designer has previously created the costumes for the 2015 film Mohammad: The Messenger of God. I ask how he achieved authenticity for such an important ancient story. “There was very little reference on what was actually worn, so I based it on as old as possible references of traditional Arab clothing. The textiles we used were all hand-woven and hand-embroidered — fortunately, we had a lot of time to prepare.”

Baharak Salehniya in 'Muhammad: The Messenger of God', with costumes by Michael O'Connor.
Baharak Salehniya in 'Muhammad: The Messenger of God', with costumes by Michael O'Connor.

With A Private War, the challenges were different. O’Connor elaborates that “for the scenes in which Marie [Rosamund Pike] is in Sri Lanka, there was very little reference for what she was actually wearing during those experiences, so the costumes I created for her were based on what a reporter would wear in the 1990s in that kind of environment”.

Colvin is, of course, best known for her iconic eye patch, the result of being hit by shrapnel while in Sri Lanka in 2011. However, that obvious prop aside, Colvin and Pike are also very different type of women, and O’Connor and his team needed “to make Rosamund look as much like her, physically, as we could”. This was done by padding the actress’s shoulders and finding looser-fitting jeans, “similar to the kind Marie wore”.

Clothing choices were also impacted by Pike herself, whom O’Connor recalls as “a very glamorous woman”. The actress contributed in putting together the costumes as she had access to friends and colleagues of Colvin, which allowed her to find more references and photos. She was even given some clothing that belonged to the journalist. “Two jackets and a sweater,” O’Connor says, “and we had them copied.

A film still from 'A Private War'. Marie Colvin dressed more stylishly when meeting leaders like Muammar Qaddafi.
A film still from 'A Private War'. Marie Colvin dressed more stylishly when meeting leaders like Muammar Qaddafi.

“I think Marie, and brave women like her who go into those terrible foreign situations, wear sort of a kit,” the designer adds. It’s an interesting choice of words, this idea of a common uniform for female war correspondents and photojournalists. “They have to carry their own Kevlar vest and their own helmet –that’s not supplied to them, so they even need to bring that with them to and from zones,” O’Connor explains.

The costumer spent quite a bit of time putting in place a team in Jordan, which substitutes for Libya and Syria in the film, prior to the commencement of the shooting schedule. I ask how the Middle East set-up, specifically Syria and Libya where Colvin travelled as a reporter, impact the clothing choices. His response gives some insight into the geopolitics of the region prior to 2011. “When she goes to the mass grave, which is in central Iraq and was taking place in a Shia village, she would wear a head scarf, which she would need to put on that to get this story from these women,” explains O’Connor. “And when she didn’t need that, in a situation like when she met [Muammar] Gaddafi, she wouldn’t wear that — when meeting people like that, she dressed more stylishly.” O’Connor describes his standout moment in the film thus: “In one scene, when she meets [former Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat, he gives her a diamond and pearl necklace, and so I had a special one made to replicate the real thing.”

Costume designer Michael O'Connor. Getty Images
Costume designer Michael O'Connor. Getty Images

He admits that one of the most challenging aspects “was differentiating the civilians and soldiers of each country Marie covered.

"We did this by making sure that all the extras in each scene were properly dressed.” Extensive research was done on the difference between clothing worn by Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims, as well as the differences between Sri Lankan, American and Afghanistan uniforms.

O’Connor concludes that “a really big part of the job was making sure there was no doubt as to which country you were in. Even with the team out in Jordan, the viewer had to know if they were in Iraq or if they were in Libya. When designing costumes, it’s about finding the reality of the time, and I try to be true to the period and true to the person.”

Updated: February 25, 2019 02:49 PM

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