Costume and Production Design for Rachel

One of the first things I realised when I decided to find a way to make RACHEL was that there wasn’t going to be a budget for hiring specialists to handle wardrobe or production design. And, more importantly, I had such a strong sense of what it should look like that I didn’t really want anyone treading on that territory.

In fact, that was already clear when the script made it to the final five being considered for financing by the UKJFF Pears Fund and I needed to put together a pitch to present to the panel. On the front cover of the booklet I gave to the judges, was a photo that I found online – we searched for the creator of that image and never did discover who took it, so if you happen to know, let me know so I can credit them.

To me, this photograph evoked a sense of who Rachel was – a rebellious, surf loving, music festival attending, free spirit.

Along with my booklet, and a one minute montage of images set to the music of Ned Landin, I also took a Tate Gallery postcard with my emergency reminders for the presentation written on the back:

1.Where did the idea come from? 2. Why is it important? 3. Directorial approach – it’s not about good and evil, I want to show love and compassion for the father. 4. My team – who are they? 5. Akua’s quote from Plato – Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

On the front of that postcard was a painting – Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais.

These two images, combined, really said everything I wanted to say about Rachel and they went on to influence every detail of production design and costume choice.

In terms of production design, what mattered most to me was that the film be filled with flowers, that even in death Rachel should be surrounded by life. They are in her hands, on her dress, around the coffin, on the table, on the dashboard of the VW van, and thanks to our shoot fortuitously falling in poppy season and Tania Freimuth rightly arguing the case for arty shots of flowers by the side of the road, they are a beautiful addition to the road trip montage. And there really was something quite magical about it being Norfolk poppy season when we filmed, as if Rachel were just destined to be filmed then and there, because I actually wrote in the original script that the VW van passes through corn fields filled with poppies.

Finding Rachel’s dress proved more difficult. It had to represent her character and it had to be able to compete against the overwhelming, dramatic of presence of the Holkham Estate beach, even when Aislinn De’Ath was far off in the distance. At first I was looking for that red dress – I trawled through every UK high street store to no avail, I ordered several from overseas, and cried when the perfect dress turned out to be a prohibitively expensive Vivienne Westward. Finally, in desperation, I turned to my own wardrobe and there, in the midst of the long black concert dresses, was a glint of green and pink.

The wacky green dress – designed by Kailash, Stockholm – that I wore to my brother’s wedding.

As soon as I pulled it out I knew that was Rachel’s dress, but it was too short –  in my mind’s eye she had always been wearing a long dress as she walked away along that beach. It was then that I thought back to my original presentation for the Pears Fund panel and to my montage, which included a collection of photos that were supposed to represent Rachel and Josh’s travels in India.  So, off Tania and I went to the Ealing Road in Wembley, home to some of the best Indian clothing stores in London and there, after much fun trying on beautiful outfits at Venisons, we found the gorgeous skirt that became the lower half of Aislinn’s costume – truly combining both the images that had been at the heart of my inspiration – and the rest is history.

Talking of history; I’ve written quite a lot about the ways in which my personal experiences have inspired this film but, in thinking about the costume and production design, I am amazed by just how far back the inspiration really goes. The first time I saw Millais’s wonderful painting, it was not in the Tate itself but in a gallery guide book, given to me by my grandmother when I was about six years old. I loved it immediately and later the painting became the inspiration for a romance for piano that I composed during my time at the Royal Academy of Music, and recently unearthed in a dusty pile of old music under my piano.

And finally, I’ve been asked about why there is a little Chinese figurine on the dashboard of the VW in amongst the flowers. Well, the VW campervan that I hired for the shoot from is named Flora and back when in lived in Boston, I had a Taiwanese housemate named Flora who loved Chinese vampire movies and anything starring Bruce Lee. She was such a joy to watch those films with – always so totally immersed in the story that even though she’d seen The Way of the Dragon a hundred times, she would still  shout at Bruce Lee and and Chuck Norris,tearfully urging them to “make up, you can be friends”.  Anyway, those movie nights were part of what led me to filmmaking and, long after Flora had moved back to Taiwan, one of my housemates happened upon a figurine that reminded him of her, so when I moved back to London he gave me ‘Flora’ as a gift to remind me of all our happy times together in Davis Square, Somerville.


I suspect that in the future, if you look closely, you will discover her hiding somewhere in every film I make.

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