The Designer's Palette

In a Civil-War era movie, Richard LaMotte relies on winter hues and earth tones to dress the Blue and Gray.

January 29, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

HARPER'S FERRY, W.Va. - Richard La Motte stands, eyes narrowed, on the edge of a movie set. The hills cradling this historic town rise and fall in gentle swells around him, and the trees cling to the reds and golds of an unusually warm autumn. But in the scene from Gods and Generals, the Civil War movie unfolding before him, it is supposed to be a chill December day in 1862, just after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Corpses and broken furniture and shards of ceramic pots litter the streets. Feathers from a mattress shredded by Union soldiers waft through the air like snow. Confederate foot soldiers, some shivering in their winter uniforms, stagger through town, their expressions blank as they survey the destruction. Behind the infantrymen, officers on horseback wend their way past the wreckage. They are followed by Gen. Robert E. Lee - played by Robert Duvall - who rides into town on a muddy white horse.

To many eyes, the wintry tableau would seem picture perfect. But La Motte views the scene differently. As chief costume designer, his job is to illustrate the film with clothing. When he looks at the drama before him, he sees not the soldiers, but every detail of what they wear.

A frown lowers his brows. "Argh!" he says under his breath to an assistant. "They don't look cold enough."

He is in luck.

Director Ronald F. Maxwell, unhappy with the way the feathers are falling, wants to re-shoot the entire scene.

When the assistant director yells "Cut!" La Motte rockets across the set. Like a nimble quarterback, he swerves around plundered housewares, rushes through clouds of artificial gunsmoke and leaps over mannequins outfitted to resemble fallen soldiers until he reaches a wardrobe truck parked out of camera range. He and an assistant grab armloads of heavy woolen coats that have been meticulously splattered with mud and run back across the set toward the soldiers.

"Coats are walkin' into you right now," a second assistant radios ahead.

"Beautiful," says still another assistant from an off-camera position closer to the action.

La Motte and his crew rush from actor to actor, passing out overcoats. No one wants to keep the director waiting. "You got a big coat?" asks Carl Brandt, a Civil War re-enactor from Augusta, Colo.

Barely slowing, La Motte yanks the sleeves of a giant wool coat over Brandt's arms, tugging it past the soldier's bulky uniform. "Here you go. This'll fit."

"Clear the set!" the assistant director yells.

Within minutes, La Motte is back on the sidelines, standing amid the cameramen, hairstylists, makeup artists and grips. "They didn't look cold enough," the costume designer says, slightly out of breath. "It's all about how it looks." Then he turns to watch as the soldiers, now bundled into blue overcoats, march into town again.

In mid-afternoon, La Motte leaves the set and drives to nearby Hagerstown, Md., where he has transformed an empty department store into a temporary wardrobe department. Washing machines and dryers hug one front wall, racks of clothing line another. In the center, a half-dozen seamstresses and tailors sit at a line of sewing machines, stitching sky blue cloth into Confederate overcoats.

Head cutter-fitter Robert E. Moore III sits at a desk, trying to locate by telephone a button-hole machine. "We kind of need it," he says to La Motte. "We're going to do 13 buttons times 275."

The men roll their eyes. "Button-hole machines are like hen's teeth," Moore says, redialing.

La Motte weaves through rows of hanging garments - women's petticoats and day dresses, shawls, ball gowns, hats, men's trousers and jackets and children's clothing - to his makeshift office. His desk is covered with sketches of period gowns, tubes of acrylic paints and brushes. Books titled The Civil War Source Book, From the Neck Up and Dixie Gun Works line a nearby shelf.

"How's your day?" he says to assistant designer Gamila Smith.

She simultaneously points to a stack of phone messages and says: "I've set out the costumes for Mira."

In about two hours, Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino, who is playing Fanny, the wife of Col. Joshua Chamberlain, will fly in for a late-evening fitting. Between now and then, La Motte will: stand in the parking lot spray-painting Styrofoam balls bright blue for use as pom-poms on Confederate hats called "shakos;" remind an assistant to get wet suits for the stunt doubles who next week will be filmed crossing a river; review the costumes to be presented to Sorvino, then meet with Sorvino; figure out how to build a dryer big enough to dry overnight 250 or so wet, wool overcoats.

By just about anyone's standards, Gods and Generals is a behemoth. From a costume designer's perspective, La Motte says, "it is a monster that needs to be fed."

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