Although it not the first time Michael O'Connor has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, the Brit confesses he was "like a child" when he heard the news that he was up again for his work on "Jane Eyre." "It's a strange feeling," O'Connor says, "It feels a little different [than the first time I was nominated], but not too different. You don’t expect it, but then people say, 'I knew this would happen.' It’s quite an honor. How the Academy ever narrows it down to five I will never know."
Although he won an Oscar for "The Duchess" in 2008, O'Connor confesses "I think I am most proud of the "Last King of Scotland" and “Jane Eyre," in terms of my work." We had the chance to catch up with O'Connor to discuss his inspiration behind "Jane Eyre," what it was like to force Mia Wasikowska into a corset and what he thinks of his competition:
How did you got started in costume design?
I used to do photography and I was keen on that, so I went to this theater and worked at the Old Vic in London.Then I did classes and went to college and I sort of started assisting designers. Eventually, I sort of thought I’d branch out and try to do it myself and become the head of the department. I started doing small films and then one meeting after another meeting, and I’m here.
What was the inspiration behind “Jane Eyre?”
The inspiration is her character, the challenge is making a woman from that time look stylish today, while still looking simple. She’s sort of a “thinking” Jane, so it was about looking and finding paintings of women in simple costumes at the time. And notes from Emily Dickinson, things like that. I just thought, "How would we make something exciting in all black?" So, instead of black, she could be in dark grey, and it could show more of the style, or detail. The original costumes were a great inspiration. I looked at them and was like, "Oh my God. How did they do it?" I was trying to recreate it really, without, you know, replicating.
Do you feel like it’s more challenging to work on a film where people have read the book and have an idea of how “Jane Eyre” should look?
I think it is, unless the script is designed to run away from the vision of the book. I think in this case, the original source of material is crucial, really, to what we were trying to do. So for me, although the characters are being described as sort of plain and simple, I didn't want to make them not plain and not simple. The character doesn’t have to be exact, but you don't want them to be unrecognizable. It's about achieving the spirit of the character, I think.
How do you bring a contemporary aesthetic to the period costumes?
It's challenging because people are looking at the actors, they know the actors and know that they are real people, so you can’t kind of over-encumber them with lots of fuss. The key is in the details, like Jane’s sleeves are probably tighter than they would have been, or adjusting the fabrics. It's not an exact replica of what Jane would have worn. If she had great big, puffy sleeves or something, I feel that would be inappropriate.
What was it like working with the stars, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench, on the film?
Well, I don’t think many women want to wear a corset everyday of their lives, but that is what Mia had to do to get the right shape. I’m sure Michael doesn’t want to wear trousers cut quite so high with braces and skirted coat and scarves around his neck. And likewise, I don’t think Judi Dench really wants to be so buttoned up. I know with Judi, we could’ve gone further over-the-top with her, but I know that she wouldn’t have felt correct like that. So even though it was a dialogue with all of the actors about those things, but you know, really, Mia has to be congratulated because she tolerated all of it everyday, without a single complaint.
Were there any things you did to make the corsets more comfortable?
Not really. It’d be great if you could, but for them to do their work, it has to be constructed in a certain way. If they’re not, they won’t last half a day. It’d just be like a flannel or an old rag. And I know when Mia put it on, she was feeling - she was becoming Jane as it were, so it helps the character. It’s quite a relief to take it off, as I’m sure she’ll tell you.
Do you feel that the costumes contribute to their character?
It takes time, they might have done something the week before where they’re sort of shot out in Los Angeles or something, in a t-shirt and jeans. So they come in, and they see this thing and they look and aren't totally comfortable. You know, I’m around these things a lot, so they’re familiar to me. But to them, it’s a bit tricky. But, slowly, I think that it’s good for them to meet the costumes designers, so they get a sense of where we’re going with it and they take the information, they use that and they come back to me with more information - what they feel about the character and then it’s like a journey together really.
What do you think about the other designers who are nominated?
I met Mark Bridges [who is nominated for "The Artist"] once in Los Angeles, he’s very pleasant. I met Arianne Phillips [who is nominated for "W.E."] many, many years ago. And I met Lisy Christl [of "Anonymous"] when I was doing “Jane Eyre," in London. I’ve known Sandy Powell [who is nominated for "Hugo") for a very long time. Definitely the longest. I love her work and all of it – I think this year, particularly, the people are really strong, amazing technical achievements.
Take a peek in our gallery below for some of the remarkable costumes in "Jane Eyre."