Dressing Spider-Man – An Interview with Jim Acheson

It’s surprising to hear someone with three Oscars and a hugely successful superhero series under their belt describe themselves as “a charlatan”. But that’s the word James Acheson uses when we meet over Zoom early one October morning – evening for him, as the Leicester-born costume designer lives in New Zealand these days.

It’s not so much false modesty as an earthy refusal to get highfalutin about what he does. At one point, he takes issue with me calling him an “artist”. That descriptor, he says, is only for the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, not someone who works in the “frock shop”. Acheson is no “artist”. He’s a craftsman.

And it’s a craft he still plies at the age of 75, despite claiming to be “well past my sell-by date.” He costume-designed the ballet Romeo and Juliet earlier this year, and has been asked to do another for the Royal New Zealand Ballet next year.

But of course it’s his illustrious film work we’re here to discuss, not least his huge contribution to superhero cinema with the costumes for 2002’s ground-breaking Spider-Man. A gig which, he admits, came out of the blue…

 


 

Obviously the superhero genre is dominant in cinema today, but when you worked on Spider-Man in 2002 it was relatively new. What was it like to come from doing period films, predominantly, and take on such an iconic costume in such a different genre?

I was as surprised as anybody to be asked to do it. Because somebody else was doing it, and then they jumped ship. Then I got the call and I remember going to Hollywood and they were quite pleased to see me. I thought, “This is a bit odd, with my track record.” To be suddenly doing comic-book heroes was a bit strange. It was a completely new way of working.

 

Production-made Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) Costume, SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)

 

How so?

First of all, it was a product that was very famous and very special and very precious to a lot of people. We went all around the houses in terms of what the costume should look like – there were probably hundreds of drawings and attempts. We were told it had to look “cool” and “awesome.” There was also this bizarre thing that supposedly it was a boy in Queens who’d made this costume in his bedroom. “Cool” and “awesome” don’t really fit into a bedroom in Queens! I found it very difficult. The thing I kept saying was, “We really have to respect the people that drew it.” I know a lot of people drew the comic-books, but there was a sort of archetypal area which seemed to be worth really looking at. But there were a lot of people with a vested opinion. I’m talking about studio heads. You didn’t just do a fitting in front of the director; you did it in front of up to six, eight people. It was a very strange time. Not the way I was used to working at all. And then, of course, there’s the famous story that they’d cast an agoraphobic. Tobey Maguire couldn’t bear anything over his head! The first time we tried putting anything over his head, he had to rip it off. So when he had to do the famous upside-down kiss, it was very difficult for him.

 

Production-made Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) Costume, SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)

 

Did that affect the way you designed the mask?

For him, obviously, there were suits with detachable hoods. But the other thing with the outfit was you had to work out where the harness was gonna be. I remembered working in England with harnesses and they were always these very cumbersome, lumpy things. I thought, “We’ve got a guy who’s basically head-to-foot in a skin-tight costume. Maybe we should start by working out how we’re gonna put a harness underneath this.” So we found this amazing guy who runs a company called Climbing Sutra. He was a mountaineer and worked for Cirque du Soleil. He knew to the millimeter how thin a buckle could be, the weight strain of every strap. He was this absolute connoisseur of harnesses. He was brilliant.

 

The suit wasn’t just worn by Maguire, of course – there were all the stunt performers, too. How did you deal with that?

We had to build muscle suits and hoods so that everybody had the same profile – body profile as well as head profile. It was a world I didn’t really know about, except that, in my dim and distant past I’d worked on Doctor Who. So I knew a bit about moulds and foam rubber and latex and all that stuff. That made it a bit easier. But it was an incredibly long and difficult process.

 

Battle-damaged Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) Costume Piece, SPIDER-MAN (2002)

 

What was it like working with director Sam Raimi?

Absolutely wonderful. The sweetest man. Until really late on when he suddenly said, “Spider-Man can’t wear boots. The boots have got to be part of the costume.” [Laughs] I suddenly thought, “Oh my God, how the fuck are we gonna do that?” So we had to build a shoe that fitted inside the outfit.

 

I’m assuming the costume was a tricky thing to put on.

It was kind of like a very large, withered condom which you have to climb into through the back belt, and there’s a series of hidden zips.

 

Image courtesy of Pinterest

 

Did you ever try it on?

I did. It was much more comfortable than I expected. It really wasn’t a problem. I mean, it’s a problem if you’re agoraphobic, of course.

 

You worked on all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man films. What did you think when you saw Alfred Molina return as Doctor Octopus in the recent trailer for the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home?

It looks like they’ve brought [his costume] back almost as it was. But do you think there’s been a gracious phone call saying, “We like what you designed 20 years ago. We’re using it again. Would you like a credit?” No.

 

You’d won three Oscars by the time you did Spider-Man, for The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons and Restoration. What made you want to do this film?

Well, after I’d won my third Oscar, the phone stopped ringing. Suddenly I wasn’t getting any work. I was having a terrible time. I mean, they talk about the Oscar curse. People say, “Well, we thought you’d be too busy,” or, “We thought we couldn’t afford you.” All those excuses. So when the phone rang I jumped on the plane! Spider-Man rescued me.

 

Venom Costume Designs, SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)

 

What drew you into the world of costume design to begin with?

When I went to art school, I wanted to design sets for theater. I loved the theater and I loved the magic of the illusion. Then after art school I became a waiter, you know, like everybody did. I had a lovely girlfriend who said, “There’s these jobs going at the BBC,” but I didn’t know anything about costume design – or at least I had no technical expertise. I hardly knew a bust dart from a side seam. We all have this impostor syndrome, but I really was! [Laughs]. And the terrible thing is that I got the job and my lovely girlfriend didn’t. So that’s how it started, and it was a wonderful grounding, because we did everything from Doctor Who to War and Peace.

 

How did you move over into film?

I got an interview with Terry Gilliam [for Time Bandits], because the guy I worked for at the BBC, a wonderful designer called Charles Knode, had done Jabberwocky [Gilliam’s previous film] and didn’t want to do anymore.

 

Gilliam’s such a rich visualist. Did you worry that he’d have everything mapped out and decided in his head before you’d even started?

I remember thinking, “He knows exactly what he wants. I’ll just have to follow orders.” But it wasn’t like that at all. I was given incredible free rein. I did lots of drawings. I still remember the incredible day when we had the great show-and-tell moment [for the Bandits’ costumes]. We dressed everybody up and I was shitting myself. I remember saying to these guys, “Anything you can do to sell the costume would be great, even though you’ve got a colander on your head!” [Laughs] Anyway, Terry came in and he just giggled and giggled and giggled, and there were no notes! So that was my passport, if you know what I mean.

 

Six Hand-painted Costume Designs and Sketch, TIME BANDITS (1981)

 

You also worked on his 1985 masterpiece, Brazil. How was that?

I can remember a number of actors – and we’re talking about famous actors – who would come for their costume fitting and say, “Do you have any idea what this film’s about?” And I’d say, “No, not really. Climb into this.” [Laughs] Again, there were lots and lots of drawings. I had this idea we’d make the Samurai Warrior out of computer parts, which of course you can’t see on film, ‘cos you never get that close. And Terry loved this idea that somehow it was a criticism of the whole Japanese takeover and all this kind of thing. But stupidly, because I didn’t know any better, I was building it with the prop makers in computer parts, so of course it weighed an awful lot and it took forever to find the bits. Terry got very, very angry about the impracticality of it, and the cost – which was about 15 grand. But generally he was great to work with.

 

Brazil Behind The Scenes Photo – Image courtesy of Pinterest

 

Many would say that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is your crowning achievement. Would you say that’s fair?

I’ve been very lucky for a charlatan. I guess I’ve worked on a lot of showy stuff. That’s the thing about the Oscars: they should really look a little harder, because it’s always the big period frocks that get the accolades. It was good to see Black Panther win best costume design, because it made a change from the 18th century at last! So I’ve been very fortunate to work with the glossy stuff that gets noticed, whereas the best stuff is much more modest and more about supporting the characterization. That’s what the job is about, really: to support the actor in their characterization, and the director in their vision. But with The Last Emperor, I don’t think anybody realised how big it was gonna be. It became this unbelievable monster that grew and grew. I can remember Bernardo phoning me one day. He said, “James, I’m in the Forbidden City. I think we need another thousand extras for this scene.” [Laughs] “Okay, Bernie, don’t worry, don’t worry. We’re on the case!”

 

Is The Last Emperor the film you’re most proud of?

The best thing about my career was to have a 30-year friendship with Bertolucci, because I was allowed into his world and his family. At one point I remember him saying to me, “What will you miss about this when you go back to London?” And I said, “I know this sounds corny, but I’m gonna miss your respect.” He always wanted your collaboration. He recognised you as a contributor. And that’s always great, you know?

 

Costumes On Set Of The Last Emperor – Image courtesy of Frockflicks.com

 


 

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