With a track record including critically-acclaimed titles Forrest Gump, War Horse, and Lincoln (for which she received an Oscar nomination), costume designer Joanna Johnston has had a hand in some of Hollywood’s most influential movies.
It comes with the territory of working with film mavericks Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, both of whom Johnston has worked closely with for over 20 years. For her latest project with Zemeckis, the newly released adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches on HBO Max, Johnston designed costumes for a whole coven of terrifying witches that front as normal women and lure children to their demise.
Zemeckis' new take on the 1983 children’s fantasy novel places the characters in 1960s Alabama with an African American protagonist and his grandma, giving the story a more inclusive update.
Juxtaposing the witches that roam the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel where the action is set, Octavia Spencer's "Grandma" offers a sense of warmth and home, outfitted in floral prints and comfortable house dresses.
In contrast is Anne Hathaway's Grand High Witch, whose perfect red lips give way to a wicked, sharp-toothed grin; coiffed wigs and chic hats cover a bald head covered in sores, and gloves and pointed-toe heels conceal claws. Fans of Anjelica Huston's Grand High Witch from the 1990 version of the film won't see the same horror-level makeup, but rather CGI and some strategic prosthetics transform Hathaway on-screen. Joined by dozens of other witches from around the world, the costumes act as their ultimate disguises to their true, children-despising forms.
Here, Joanna Johnston speaks to L'OFFICIEL about the defining features of Spencer, Hathaway, and the other witches' costumes, from drawing from Spencer's personal background to paying homage to the start of her own costuming career.
You've worked on a couple children's movies before The Witches, but they've been few and far between your other work on period pieces and action films. What drew you to this project?
You don't usually choose it for the genres, you choose it for the storytelling. For instance, I used to say I was never interested in doing sci-fi, but then, I ended up doing a film which was partly science-fiction because the story was so amazing. I think it's just the story and the directors.
Between BFG, Polar Express, and The Witches, they all fall between Bob Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. They are the two directors that I work with ongoing. It was them more than the type of films, so to speak.
For this telling of The Witches, it may be a new generation's first introduction to the story. How did you, Robert, and the rest of the team begin imagining the world you wanted to create?
Roald Dahl is majorly important as a storyteller and enormous in Great Britain. There are very few children — as I understand it — who haven't been taken into his stories in some form. The Witches is in the consciousness of a lot of people. It's a huge point of reference—I know it's a little bit less so in America, but he's in the psyche of storytelling here.
The icing on the cake was that [Bob Zemeckis] moved the story from the 1980s, which was when it was written, to the 1960s, and then set it in America.
Since the movie is set in Alabama, did you do any research into the fashion of that period and place in America?
It was actually an international research, because all the witches at the convention, they come from all over the world, so we had a whole lot of witches who were representing their countries. Witches can be any kind of peoples. I went all over the place. It was an extensive research platform to play on.
What were the influences behind Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch costumes?
There were some iconic people of the ‘60s and I did a homage to my boss Anthony Powell, who I worked with when I was an assistant. He used to do fabulous, dramatic black-and-white [costumes] as one of his specialities. I wanted her to be glamorous and be the focus where the other witches would really look up to her, so she had the greatest impact out of anybody. It's all about her vanity and her projection.
For Octavia Spencer's character, she wears a lot of patterns and prints. What was the choice behind that?
She has great standards in her dressing and she always looks lovely. Earlier on, I decided I wanted her to be in print pretty much all the time. Flowers and details—she's the polar opposite of the Grand High Witch, so you're playing characters with each other.
Octavia is from Alabama – did she share any input for her costuming since she's familiar with the setting?
I talked to her about her childhood and I knew that women wore housecoats in the home when they're doing domestic stuff, and she reiterated that to me about her family. You keep all your better clothes when you're going out, but when you're in the home, you have these house dresses. They're practical but they can also be very good-looking, made out of cotton and nylons. I definitely tapped into her and her experience.
The witches’ accessories are the main component of their identities. What was it like coordinating those elements for so many characters?
Complicated, because the witches have claw hands and feet, so I came up with this concept that all the witches have to wear gloves to cover up their clawed hands. They have two fingers, which are false fingers in a five-fingered glove. If you look at the film closely, they are rigid. They don't move because they're actually stuffed. The shoes had to be quite long and pointy, so they were elongated to accommodate their clawed feet.