Qohen in Wonderland


Carlo Poggioli, Costume Designer for The Zero Theorem talks to Dreams

On day 26 of The Zero Theorem’s shoot, Phil Stubbs interviewed Costume Designer Carlo Poggioli. Sitting in his office at Bucharest’s MediaPro studios, Poggioli discusses the ideas behind his costume creations, and how they came to life.

Carlo Poggioli in the Costume Office within MediaPro Studios, Bucharest

Phil Stubbs: When you read the script for the first time, was it immediately obvious the opportunities you could have with the costumes?
Carlo Poggioli: Yes, of course. When I read the script, immediately I knew that this is Terry’s movie. I’ve worked with Terry for many years. I met him a long time ago – 25 years ago – when I was Gabriella Pescucci’s assistant, and she was designing for Baron Munchausen. I was young at the time, and meeting Terry was an amazing thing for me. I was a big fan of Terry at the time.

After that movie we worked together on The Brothers Grimm. I also worked on the bad experience of Don Quixote – another big adventure. And I’ve worked with Terry on commercials. So I know Terry very well. And when I read the script for The Zero Theorem, I said it will be wonderful to design this movie, to have the opportunity to recreate this kind of world.

Terry told me about the contemporary painter Neo Rauch. He said, “Carlo, start to think of the colours and kind of costumes you see in a Neo Rauch painting.” So I started to look at them and I had the inspiration and I understood what Terry was talking about: to create a kind of world where you really don’t know where you are. It could be the future, could be the past, so immediately my fantasy started and I started to draw. I met Terry in August and we had immediately a good feeling about what we were doing. Of course we had restrictions on budget, so we were thinking how to develop the idea. Sometimes you have wonderful ideas, but there’s no money, so it’s very difficult to get the results you are looking for.

So I started to think, and Terry agreed immediately, that we should find some kind of fabric that’s not a natural fabric. I showed him some samples of shower curtain and tablecloth in plastic. That will be our future really: in Italy we had so many places where they were producing silks and wonderful fabrics, but they’ve disappeared: we don’t have them anymore.

Where are you using the shower curtain material?
Eighty per cent of the movie is done with this kind of thing. With the table cloths, we are doing the raincoats. We did the umbrellas with the same kind of thing, we did pants, and we did hats. The light reflects off this kind of new fabric. We are doing these things, yet I didn’t know how the light would work. I was so worried with director of photography Nicola Pecorini.

But everything works very well. We were very happy, so I went ahead with this idea. And we also have this kind of rubber. I’m sure in a few years everybody will wear this kind of stuff, it’s a futuristic thing. We are using new materials, but using old shapes. The inspiration is from the 1940s and 1950s, so we have different shapes with new materials. It’s a very strange result, but I think it works.

“Qohen in the bus”, by Carlo Poggioli Click on image for further detail

How does the process work of creating the costumes – from the script to the finished costume?
You always start to do the research to understand where we are. Reading the script and the fact that I know Terry well from his movies and his history, it was difficult to think where do we start? I started to make some drawings, and initially I went in the wrong direction. I thought that the cubicle people were sad people like Qohen. Terry immediately said no, we have to create a kind of happy world where Qohen is the only one completely different from the others. In fact the only black or dark things I am using in the movie are for Qohen, so it’s just the colour for him. So when Terry said let’s try to make it like Qohen in Wonderland, I immediately realised what he was asking from me.

And so that was the start of the new drawings after the first meeting, and immediately I thought of this different world with this kind of strange hair, strange look and how now we can translate the happiness of these people into costumes. So I was thinking still about the budget, and I had this idea to use fabric that didn’t cost a lot but would make some wonderful shapes, to create this kind of strange world.

Could you tell me about the Africa party costumes, where the ideas came from, and how it was taken forward?
At the beginning it was not an Africa party, it was just a party. We were thinking with Terry how we could develop the idea. It had to be a strange party, because Joby was having it after selling the house. And at one point Terry had this wonderful idea: why don’t we give a theme to the party. Now the culture of Terry is amazing: he knows everything. I was shocked when I went to meet him at his home because you see how many books he has, how many photos. He started to show me some costumes from Africa. He said: let’s try to make a funny African party. The strange thing is we are using white people wearing Lycra or tattoos. And Terry asked me to use the real black people painted white. Because you can transform everything and give another sense to something that looks banal. And it became very interesting. The African party is a really funny part of the movie, and we had a lot of fun to create this world.

Could you describe Bainsley’s costumes?
Bainsley is completely different from all the others in the movie. For example, in the African party she is wearing something completely different from all the others. You start to understand there is something strange in this character. And after you discover when we see her on the website, she’s wearing rubber things. Again, we are using strange materials in this movie. She’s wearing the kind of thing that you really do not understand what she is wearing. It’s silk, it’s rubber, and it can be kind of different fabric that you cannot see every day. So you start to be very curious because she’s changing the look, and she’s changing the wig. So I was thinking about the transformation all the time. Whenever she appears in the film, she looks different every time. At the end we see the real Bainsley, when she comes and says hello to Qohen, and we see the real girl behind all this transformation.

What were the influences behind Joby’s costumes?
When I started to think about the cubicles, we said that in this kind of office they wear short pants, slippers or bathing suits. And then we decided we needed to create costumes for the supervisors. In fact when we shot the cubicle you see they are wearing different colours. So the supervisors are in a different fabric, and Joby is wearing a kind of rubber. And he looks a little bit like a captain as we put something on his shoulders. Later when he goes to see Qohen, he looks like he has transformed completely. He’s a very fragile person – he’s been fired and he goes there shouting to Qohen, and we see another face of Joby.

And of course it’s very funny when we do the party. He is wearing a tiger costume, it’s amazing. It’s funny.

Did you make all of the tiger costume?
Of course, everything. I’m lucky because here in Romania, we have this wonderful workshop so we have made everything. The people here are very good so I could make many things. And it’s not an expensive place to work.

Where did you find the materials?
There is a big Chinese market here in Bucharest where you won’t find any wool or silk or cotton. You can find only polyester and plastic. Terry was laughing with me when I told him that I went to buy this fabric and I bought the fabric by the kilo. So I came back with Matt Damon’s fabric. I said “Terry, this is three kilos for the coat, and two kilos for the other suit”, and he was laughing all the time. And when Matt came, Terry said, “Matt, you know how much it cost for all your wardrobe, and Matt if you don’t believe me, Carlo bought twelve kilos of fabric for you. Matt let me tell you, it was really not expensive to buy your suit!” So that is what we did for all the other stuff: looking for the plastic, and we went to this big shop where they sell shower curtains.

Can you talk about Qohen’s virtual suit?
That was the biggest challenge on this movie. It had to be a virtual suit, so when he is wearing this, he has to dream. He goes into another world, and it had to be something very special.

When you think how many strange suits we have seen in our lives – like Spiderman or Batman – I said there is no way we could do something like that. We took so much time to do this suit but at the end it is wonderful, because there is so much handiwork on it, and it looks like we see veins coming through the skin.

To make just one of the suits, it took three people working for two weeks, for many hours a day. We made three, with the third one for where Qohen destroys the mainframe. But in the morning before we were supposed to use the third virtual suit, I had a phone call from Terry. He said to me, “Carlo, you know the surprise of the day is that Qohen will not use the virtual suit at the mainframe. In this scene, I think it will be much better if he is wearing his pyjamas.” I said that it was a wonderful idea because he is in a dream, he is like a kid, and the pyjama remind us of that. So it was a good choice.

But then I realised that we’d only had one pyjama.

So now you have to recreate the pyjama suit!
Now this is very difficult because this fabric was impossible to find because of the stripes and the colour. It’s a very old pyjama, so it’s very used. So now we are trying to recreate it, because there is no time at all to go to the place where they can print it. So we are making a handmade printed fabric here. And I hope it will work but we are working very hard because we need it for the beginning of next week. I don’t know if it will be ready… but we will do it.

Could you tell me about Matt Damon’s look?

Matt is Management, and he is the father of Bob. The first time we see him, there is a chameleonic look. When Qohen goes to the party, he finds Management in a chair, but you cannot understand that Management is sitting there. I used the fabric from the suit that Matt is wearing to match exactly the fabric of the chair. So you don’t really know what is moving. So all you just see is the hand and the face moving, and then you realise it is Management.

And the same later when Qohen finds him in the studio and he is in front of the curtain, that is black and white curtain fabric. Again, he is chameleonic with the curtains, so the suit is exactly the same fabric of the curtain – still by the kilo!

The costumes themselves in their entirety, they look as extreme and unusual as in any of Terry’s films
Terry is unusual, so there’s always a big surprise, there are always wonderful ideas. But there are some really magical things in this movie, everything works so well together – even though we didn’t have a big time to prepare. Sometimes we were sharing all the drawings with Dave Warren the Production Designer, and Jille the set decorator. But sometimes we didn’t have the time to put the stuff together earlier – so the set was not ready, or I was not ready with the costumes. I could check with the drawings or with some pictures but sometimes we went on the morning on set – for example with the cubicle or at the Africa party – we went there at the last minute and everything worked well.

At the cubicle, I went in the morning and I was worried about the light because Nicola was telling me about how they would light the cubicle, and I asked how would it work? But – this movie is magic. We were so happy because everything works so well all together. The set works with the costume. Everything works so well. The lights are so perfect for my costumes. It’s really a magical movie.

Has it been an enjoyable experience?
Yes of course, I’ve enjoyed everything from the beginning. How can you not enjoy working with Terry? Terry is the kind of director who has to trust you a lot. But with my experience with him over so many years, I knew exactly what he was asking from me. And at the same time at the beginning we had exactly the same ideas, so it was never a big surprise. And when he changes an idea about the pyjama or about some colours, he’s always right!

More to explore

Meet Bainsley

Mélanie Thierry, who appears as Bainsley in The Zero Theorem, writes about her experience on-set in Bucharest

Films in depth

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Zero Theorem
The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus
The Brothers Grimm
Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
12 Monkeys
The Fisher King
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Time Bandits