‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar’ Costume Designer Talks Creating Looks for the ‘Amazing Chameleon’ Benedict Cumberbatch

Kasia Walicka Maimone first collaborated with Wes Anderson while designing costumes for his 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom.” The film’s Boy Scout uniforms, Peter Pan collars and knee-high socks defined the film’s aesthetic and inspired Halloween costumes for years to come. The two reunited for Anderson’s series of Netflix shorts, creating a visual world to represent the Roald Dahl short stories from which they are adapted.

The shorts include “The Swan,” “The Rat Catcher,” “Poison” and “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” — the longest and most elaborate of the four with a 39-minute runtime that features Ben Kingsley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel and Richard Ayoade. Drawing on inspiration from the real world, Walicka Maimone presented photographs and sketches to Anderson bring his vision of Dahl’s characters to life.

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In an interview with Variety, Walicka Maimone discussed what working with Anderson is like and broke down some of the looks from “Henry Sugar.”

How did Wes approach you to work on the shorts? What was it like to work with him again after collaborating so many years ago on “Moonrise Kingdom?”

We’ve stayed in touch for all those years, and I think that “Moonrise Kingdom” was such an incredible, cementing experience for us. Developing a language together, we both knew what to expect from each other and what to expect from the process. In the meantime, Wes became more and more of a master of his craft, and I’ve done several quite big productions. We further developed our professional lives, so it was really interesting to meet after all those years because we both had years of experience behind us. Wes is a master of his craft and visual language, so he invites collaborators who are also at the level of masters. It’s such a privilege to be invited to that room. It’s a room where you exercise language that is quite extraordinary.

Wes Anderson has a very specific style in all his films. How did you capture his aesthetic while bringing in ideas of your own?

When we enter the world of Wes’ movies, you enter a world of his movies, you enter his visual language, so it’s difficult to say that any of us creatives coming in recreate his language. We function within Wes’ language. I think that’s a fair assessment for all participants in Wes’ films — that’s from visual to actors. We enter his world, and within that world, it’s finding out the communication of what each character brings the best in visualization of the character. It’s about finding the proper pieces, executing incredible tailoring, working with people who can provide that visual language of the of the material.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. (L-R) Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar and Dev Patel as John Winston in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Cr. Netflix ©2023
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. (L-R) Benedict Cumberbatch as Henry Sugar and Dev Patel as John Winston in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Cr. Netflix ©2023

I want to ask about the use of color in “Henry Sugar.” At the beginning, he starts off with this light blue, more neutral suit, and then by the end he’s wearing bright blue and bright red. Does this signify anything for the character? How did you come up with what colors to use?

I will leave it as a mystery of Wes’ language how those colors functions. He’s got such an extraordinary control of the color and the way that those films are shot. They also change the values of the colors. That’s very much strategized with the whole approach of the design of the set, and the way that those films are shot. The colors become probably brighter than they are in reality. There is definitely a development of the characters as the story progresses. There is an emotional journey that happens with them, but I’ll leave it up to the viewers to have the emotional response to the colors. We all have interpretations of red or bright blue or pale colors. I think we all share cultural responses to things that are muted and pale. And then I think that we have similar emotional responses looking at the brighter colors. That’s for each one of us to discover — what is our response to them?

I also want to talk specifically about the scene at the end of “Henry Sugar,” where Benedict Cumberbatch is putting on a bunch of different personas, and there’s one costume change after another. How did you come up with all those different looks?

That was a particularly fun fitting. Benedict was just phenomenal with impersonating every character. Once Wes writes it on the page, I go again with the photography experimentation of finding out the images that represent those kinds of humans, those kinds of characters. We take those characters from the real world and create our own version of characters that resonate with humanity. In this particular case, it was just Benedict creating those personas. He is absolutely fabulous in the fittings because he truly impersonates those people. He’s like this amazing chameleon, being able to transform from one person to another.

You’ve worked on some period pieces like “The Gilded Age,” which has such distinctive styles for that specific time period. However, in Anderson’s shorts, it’s not super clear where the time period is set. How did you design costumes that feel like they could exist at almost any point in time?

With “Gilded,” we have a very specific year. It’s a big historic piece, driven by history. In Wes’ story, I always feel it is inspired by 50s and 60s, but it’s his world. His stories are timeless, but they are inspired by 50s silhouettes, inspired by 60s silhouettes. We create this new language that is his. I don’t think that that you could call it a quote of a given period. It’s a language that is inspired by reality but not representing full realities. Stylistically, that’s how he tells his stories. They are not documentary style. They are not realistic. They are slightly heightened and shifted. That’s the story of working with a lot of talented directors. You have to enter their brain. You have to understand their perspective on the world. My job as a designer is to understand the language of the director and the world that they see and want to portray.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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