Ep 2 | Ngila Dickson - Costume Designer: Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai

Credit: New Line Cinema

Mike: This week's guest is Oscar and BAFTA award winning costume designer Ngila Dickson. First working in her home country of New Zealand on projects such as ​Xena: Warrior Princess and ​P​eter Jackson’s​ Heavenly Creatures.​She soon rose to become one of Hollywood's go-to creatives after crafting the unmistakable costumes of the​ Lord of the Rings ​trilogy.​ As well as; Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai ​and many more. It’s 11pm here in London because Ngila is joining us from a beautiful New Zealand morning. How are you doing?

Ngila: I’m doing good. Thank You Mike.

Mike: Very good to hear. Now I’d like to start at the beginning because it is often documented with successful people that they rarely have a set path with their career. And you were certainly no different. So how did you go from selling your own fashion creations at the Cook Street Market to running a fashion magazine years later?

Ngila: Wow you have done your homework haven't you. It’s a small country and it’s really hard for those kinds of businesses to really gain traction. I began in fashion and then realised I didn’t like the fact I couldn’t go out and look at what everybody else was up to. My curiosity about everything else that was going on was really stymied in that role. So to facilitate having a fashion label I used to work as a pay-stop artist for a music magazine called Rip It Up. The fabulous Murray Cammick in the end one night he said to me ‘with$2000 you can start a fashion magazine’. Because I had been banging on about where are the fashion magazines? And so on and so forth. That led to probably the most wildly creative, best time five years. Which I spent working with a lot of up and coming writers. A lot of up and coming photographers and a lot of up and coming designers. So you can see where all that is leading. So after five years there was one of those fabulous economic crashes, which was 1987. Murray had to cut back and he said Ngila you can take the magazine and go out and see if you can find someone to; buy it, run it, be your managing director. And I just knew that wasn’t for me. So we shut it down and there I was out on the pavement, and I started styling. I was styling commercials for bands and inevitably in that world you get to know all of these people and then some crazy, young director decided that should be the person who did the costumes for his first movie. And it was an absolute baptism of fire. The director was a man called Gregor Nicholas who has gone on to be a really successful commercials director. But one thing right here in this moment I will say, you have really got to listen to your instincts. I could tell right from the get-go that this one was going to go wrong. But I had such limited knowledge that I just didn’t feel it was my place togo ‘erm this all feels wrong.’ And so you just bowl on and actually in that process you meet extraordinary people. And that’s part of the film industry isn’t it. It’s with every job you do. I mean when you’re at your age Mike your circle is much bigger. But what you find is that as the years go by you walk away from every project possibly only with one or two people that you’re determined to stay in touch with. But at the beginning of your career you are right there with all of that energy and ideas, everything seems possible.

Mike: Often there is a prevailing argument that in those early years, usually regarding smaller budgets that people do have more creativity than when you rise up the tree and hit the blockbusters/ the politics etcetera. Would you subscribe to that viewpoint?

Ngila: No I don't buy into that at all. I think they’re all the same. I think when you are working on a small, and honestly that comes from having pretty much done the lot, everybody talks about how they long to get back to that place where they started: that energy. But I don’t find that the energy or excitement has gone anywhere. And I just think all of the problems are the same, they’re just amplified on a larger show. So as long as you’re really conscious of that, is one way of remaining level headed when you’re dealing with something that it seems when you pick up a script and you meet the director that you’re suddenly in this rarefied atmosphere. The bottom line is I don’t think that is the case at all, I think you’re still working as a bunch of student filmmakers. Ultimately that is what we all boil down to.

Mike: I think that’s really interesting because often for the juniors, and there are a lot of juniors listening to this podcast. You often hear from the seniors that there is this ‘back in the day’ this ‘amazing back in the day’ and the open creativity and everything back in the day.But obviously you’re here at the top of the industry saying that you do have those capacities to do that in the industry now which is amazing.

Ngila: You totally do, and for all the gravitas of being at my age and stage in the industry.Believe me I am as wide-eyed every time I go into a film. So maybe that's a peculiarity all of my own.

Mike: I’d like to go back to something that you mentioned earlier. You spoke about the 1987crash when Cha Cha magazine came down. I’d love to know, where you frightened at that moment? I assume you didn’t know at that point if you were going to end up in the film industry. How did you feel at that time?

Ngila: I was miserable. I really felt like at that moment we were peeking. We had sort of found our feet. If I look back on it now I would have made quite a lot of different decisions.But we were doing really interesting things. And it’s something that I find, every now and then it’s fun to go back and remind myself of that. I was terribly depressed but I had such a fantastic group of friends around me at that point in my life, that they were just like ‘right what are we gonna do’. And we came up with a concept for a new magazine which I still have tucked away, and we have a kind of brief flurry with it. I still think it was a brilliant scheme. But we were already moving on, sometimes you don’t actually recognise that until you’re in it. But you have already moved on. Even though you’re wishing to be back in that place, another part. And that is the great thing about being in that particular age group, that you don’t realise that your brain is going ‘yeah all very well Ngila but let’s go over here because this looks really interesting.’

Mike: That’s really cool to hear. And it sounds like from that and also there was stuff that we were talking about with you making your own designs, Cook Street Market etcetera, that you were a bit of a self starter. Is that something that you think juniors moving into the industry now could use to get a hold, and maybe when you were hiring you might look for?

Ngila: For a while recently whenever anyone brought up the subject of my past of how I got into the film industry, I always wanted to say ‘this is really irrelevant to what is happening with the up and comers.’ Now that we’re in this COVID world I don’t feel that way anymore. I sort of feel as though we have cycled back to much more of a view that education and degrees and art college aren't really the answer. No, hang on that’s not true, not everything.Because we have got a whole bunch of people in the industry now that have been through all of the colleges, and education and degrees and all those sorts of things. Whereas, I think now we might be having a whole new group of people that are just getting out there and doing stuff. Or just sitting in their house and sitting on Illustrator or Photoshop and creating characters and writing things and just doing it because they can figure out how to do it.Whether it’s YouTube and online seminars and all sorts of things are the new tools for them.I think there is going to be a lot more self startups. And I think it is really going to surprise young people that actually they can do a hell of a lot more just by getting on with it.

Mike: Definitely, and following on from that you’re obviously talking about the notion of education as well, and college and people moving into the industry. You have mentioned before that people think that the real career turning point for you was meeting a young PeterJackson on ​Heavenly Creatures​. But from my research it seems powerfully clear that you actually view your long tenure on tv show ​Xena: Warrior Princess a​ s your education.​ ​What was it about that show that provided that?

Ngila: Yeah, that is an absolute truth. It was Rob Tapert. Just the most remarkable producer, really remarkable. Rob arrived in New Zealand, Sam Raimi his producing partner. They had already done a kind of trilogy just to try and sell the concept of Xena. Although it wasn’t Xena then it was Hercules. And they then decided that they were going to go into Hercules as a full on TV series which was when the job was offered to me. And here was one of those moments where you meet someone who has real financial naus along with crazy creative ideas. And a person willing to let HOD’s just run a muck and give you the tools to do that with. And so really the online deadline or the only issue for us was the ten day turnaround on those episodes. And we did, I don’t know it wasn’t for that long, Hercules all of a sudden Rob wanted to do Xena as well. And so suddenly I was doing two TV Series simultaneously with a 10 day turnaround. So a deadline every five days. And we just grew and you we're gathering in creative people and figuring out ideas and everything was just a joy. A daily joy of what crazy script was going to land in front of you next and how the hell was you going to make aloof this stuff. It really, truly was a great time. In fact since you have been the guy doing all of this research and would have read the bit where I said that ‘I was really unsure that I wanted to leave ​Xena​ to go and do ​Lord of the Rings​. And there is an added bit to that... I was in Rob Tapert’s office or outside his office and he was yelling and screaming in his fabulous way, in his Detroit way about the writers, and how writers became useless after three years, they were just repairing themselves. And I was like ‘but I have been on the show for five years’. And that was what made the decision and I actually told Rob that at one pointI said ‘I overheard that conversation and I realised that it was time’.

Mike: And speaking of that, you brought it up. I guess it’s time to speak about ​Lord of theRings​. So what came next was of course Lord of the Rings which won you an Oscar and cemented you as part of the Hollywood landscape. While lots of attention is understandably directed at the success after. I would like to know what it was like before when yourself,Peter Jackson, Grant Major and Barry Osborne had your heads together in prep. Did you understand the mammoth you were undertaking filing all three films at once? And the blood, tears and ultimately awards I guess that you were in for?

Ngila: No. I had read Lord of the Rings, we all read Lord of the Rings and generally read it somewhere between 16 and 25, don’t you. And I have always been a great sci-fi/ fantasy reader anyway. I absolutely think Pete understood what he was getting into, to a degree. Whereas I do think I was much more naive about it. We didn’t have much pre-time on that, so it was pretty nightmarish. And in many respects that was an ongoing nightmare. The one thing that saves any HOD from walking away from shows or losing heart or irrecoverable emotional damage on these kinds of projects are the moments when everything comes together. And they become like ming for gold. And then when you have figured out how to mine for gold you get better and better at it.

Mike: Did you ever feel perhaps a little bit of imposter syndrome when you were making thousands of costumes with hundreds of crew everyday?

Ngila: I still feel as though I have imposter syndrome. I mean every project is terrifying to me.It’s an extraordinary combination of excitement and terror. And if you have got both of those surging through you, you know you are doing the right thing. So don’t be fooled by your HOD who appear to know what they’re doing. To a degree they have got all kinds of experiences that are in their background to draw from. But it’s always different, you must have had that experience already Mike. There is nothing predictable about the film industry and that is[perhaps what makes it so addictive.

Mike: Absolutely, the whole point of this podcast really is to hear about people such as yourself saying things like this because I feel like almost it would join the teams together because I do feel the juniors sometimes go ‘ohh here comes Ngila with her costume team all behind her’ and it’s amazing to know that you’re in the same position as us in many ways.And thinking of those blockbuster movies, one of the things I have learned is that in a creative role like yours, lots of people don’t realise that not only are you juggling design but also the large scale management and budget of a large department. So what advice do you have to creators that want to move up the ladder but aren't necessarily confident yet in the left hand side of their brain?

Ngila: Make sure that in your life, you have developed a deep and abiding friendship with the person that is really good at managing the money. I really believe in supervisors and I believe really strongly in assistant designers. I think there is an argument to be said that an assistant designer is as crucial to any job as the designer, as is that supervisor. I am kind of a slightly ... well I don’t know actually because I don’t get to sit around and talk to other costume designers. I am very financially conscious. The first thing I always want to know is ‘what’s the budget’. And that’s a whole discussion we should have about that aspect of it because I always like to know that I can produce what I creatively want to, with that amount of money. And that automatically means that you have got to have this conversation with your supervisor and that person is going to be the one that is going to tell you that you’re right or you’re wrong. And then that third spoke, your assistant designer, if you’re doing a large scale production or even a medium scale production that’s the person who is actually going to make that happen. I mean I can sit around and dream up extraordinary things, but there has got to be a reality check in there. You do have a responsibility, and I’m not talking so much about the production but your department, to not give them something that is impossible to achieve. It’s part of what you should be thinking about as a designer; What’s my timeframe? How much money have we got? We are going to go down this road.

Mike: Speaking of your management style, this isn’t actually a question but just a funny thing for you. You might find it interesting. During an interview for Return of the King you said you view your role as head of department as the conductor of the Orchestra. And I don’t know if you know but Aaron Sorkin gave nearly those exact same words ‘I play the Orchestra’ toSteve Jobs many years later, so maybe you deserve a credit for that.

Ngila: I still think that, actually I really, genuinely do think that. I have surrounded myself, and you must have experienced it in the Art department Mike, I get quite emotional about it.Because the people who work for me, I genuinely believe in many areas that they are so much goddamn cleverer, they’re more creative than I am. So my ability, or my strength is to be able to gather that together and focus it. And get the best version and pull all of that together and get it on screen. So it’s having that ability to draw all of that out of people.

Mike: Whether it is Lord of the Ring, The Last Samurai or Dracula Untold, it is clear that you’re a go-to hire for world building as it were. How do you go about piecing together these vast tapestries and how far do you root the work in realism?

Ngila: I have sort of fought that label for a while because I like to wander about, I like to try all kinds of different genres. But I actually at this age and stage, I truly believe that’s what I love to do. I love to world build, I love reading what is written and immediately just going with the first vision. Because that often seems to be a very true one. If you can get down on paper the emotional and the impact that the script or the story has on you in that first instance, if you can get that on paper then that is your big picture and then you have this opportunity to begin to develop all of that and it is always one of those strange moments when you lay out your first thoughts with your director and find out whether you are so wide off the mark or the two of you are just immediately sympatico, or you offer up something that they had never thought of before and they're incredibly excited about it. Those are such great moments in design.

Mike: It goes back to what you were saying earlier I guess about going with your instinct.And that first feeling when you read the script and what comes into your head straight away presenting that.

Ngila: Yeah I mean Lord of the Rings is an interesting example of that. I had such a clear picture of what those worlds should look like and I don’t know whether you know but in every department probably except mine there were the most devoted Lord of the Rings fans. There were people who were there that were probably living on the smell of an oily rag just to be on that production because of their obsession with Lord of the Rings. So my view was that I was going to design it as I saw it, and then I use these people as my touchstones. Like when we were a distance into it, and I really felt like the image was good I would then drag one of these people in, whether it was the illustrators...and it was just really interesting to see that it fitted their vision of it, and the great thing was that 9 out of 10 times it did. And after a while you have got the language, so once you have got the language then you just get to flesh it out more and more as you go along the way.

Mike: One of the phrases I have heard bannered around a little bit with making films is ‘we are not making a documentary.’ And with things like The Last Samurai, which obviously there is a historical record of how certain people....

Ngila: It is a documentary...

Mike: Tom Cruise was there! How much does that come into your workflow I guess and how much do you care because I have heard people go ‘we’re not making a documentary’ which is totally understandable.

Ngila: I care, New Zealand does have a particular affinity for Japan. I’m not quite sure why but we do. And to get that right meant everything to me. We spent, I think, three weeks inJapan. Myself and my two assistants Lizzie and Bob. We went to Japan and we went around all of the museums and we went to all of the costume houses. And in fact part of the point of that was to see what we could just hire. The reality check was pretty damn quick when you realise that Japanese people are like this big and Kiwi is a healthy farming size. It was not going to work. And so once we had sort of studied all of this, we just went ‘we are going home, we are going to build this in New Zealand which is what we proceeded to do by, in some cases actually downloading patterns for the armour off of the internet. So we came back loaded down with books and references, I have the most vastly referenced library. We employed a lot of young jewellers from art school to make all of the decorations that are on them. Anyway, so the trickiest of that was to fly to Tokyo, to go to a studio and to be confronted by someone of jinbaori stature in the Japanese film industry and to hand him and to hand him New Zealand made Samurai armour. There were three of them there and right from the get go they were not interested in us. And then they went out the back, and we had them dressed up in this armour and the most extraordinary change happened. They suddenly realised that the Samurai armour was being built in Japan for their Samurai movies were chompy. And this is actually what we had come to realise. It just wasn’t to the quality of the original armour. And when they put the stuff on and they realised that was just of such quality, game over. We were best friends. Film making is full of these extraordinary moments. That’s an extraordinary moment, when you take something which is so culturally heavyweight that you have built in a little pacific country at the bottom end of the world and you take it to wear that. It wasn’t invented, it was designed. It has thousands of years of history to it. So, we were very hand in glove. There was the most extraordinary costumeSupervisor in Japan. I became very close to him and we also involved the customer to the emperor of Japan. So it was a documentary, believe me. It is really bloody accurate.

Mike: A magic moment certainly. And I’d love to go on from that realism now to go on to something totally different and talk about computer effects. The Green Lanterns CGICostume has been a matter of fierce debate. Which to my knowledge was a studio decision.With hindsight, how do you feel now about the look, and do you think this is something we might see more of moving forward?

Ngila: When I look back on now I think about how naive I was. How incredibly naive. I mean there’s a book in that, and it’s a fascinating thing to look at all of the designs that were done for that, compared to what ended up on screen. Which genuinely, and I am not trying to make myself feel better about this, there were some genuinely really great ideas for that show. The politics of it totally overwhelmed it and I also think it was very very hard for MartinCampbell, who is such a storyteller. I just think it was a really hard thing to go from. He’s a gritty storyteller even doing a 007 movie, you’re still dealing in real, and I think there were so many lessons there and of course at the same time Marvel were just getting started and they just totally nailed it. There was a discussion very early on about whether we were going to build the suit in the real world or build it as a CGI and I can remember this discussion so clearly saying well ‘there has got to be CGI in the suit somewhere.’ Because we can build it but for movement and all kinds of things there has got to be a CGI element and it became an absolute bottom line. It was one or the other, and so of course we said ‘well CGI’ because I can’t build something that is going to operate to the level that we need it. But then of course unfortunately they completely bailed on the quality of the CGI. They totally bailed.

Mike: So I guess we probably won’t be seeing more of that in the future?

Ngila: I really think we should because if that had been in the hands of what was originally intended, and absolute A1 top VFX House I think it would have been an entirely different ballgame. And I remember being shown the first trailer and saying at the time ‘you’re not putting that in, are you? Because that doesn’t look finished.’ And the answer was ‘no, no, no, no,no’. And then the next morning it was out and that was the beginning of the history.’

Mike: Amazing to hear, so it sounds like obviously there were some studio politics there. And there’s various gripes about the industry obviously in the press. I was going to ask you, if there was one thing that you could change, or multiple; is there one thing that you would change about the way the industry is run at the moment?

Ngila: I guess one of the things that I would change is, and everyone will laugh at me and go‘Yeah you’re still naive aren't you Ngila,’it’s the financials as we begin our project. And in this instance I am now talking of the voice of long experience. And I say this now because I have the same discussions. I suffer from the same pushbacks now as I did 25/ 20 years ago. But what I do know as a designer is that the budget that I write at the beginning is pretty much the budget we will hit at the end. And in that process we will be beaten up and beaten upa nd beaten up, forced to take things out ect, ect, ect. And I’m not saying around a million reasons for this but I just wish they would find a new Roadmap for how they deal with it.Because in, and I’m sure you will hear this in the art department as well, you’d hear it fromDP’s but I do know because actually quite recently I did a comparison with about 10 budgets of mine. And so you cut and cut and cut and cut and then as the show moves along, they have to add and add and add and add. It comes back to that place, give or take 10%. I think it begs the question, whether everybody knows this is a game that has to be played, therefore to me an enormous loss of creative energy while all of these battles are had, or they really don’t know and therefore shouldn’t be in the job.

Mike: One of the things I would be interested to hear your opinion on is given that costume is one of the only areas that doesn’t usually have a male majority, do you feel that the job of equating gender in the department is ‘done’ or are there still old issues at play?

Ngila: I would say that in the last forever, the financial discussions that I have had have been the women of the costume department versus the men of the finance department. And I see that as a genuine A Grade problem. I think there is a low grade sexism that lies there. There is still a vague ‘what do they know about handling?’It’s not really in your face, but it is there.But I also have to say on the other hand, in recent shows that I have worked on. While I do have the, and this is predominant this business of ‘cut the budget, cut the budget, cut the budget’ at which point I go ‘cut the script, cut the script, cut the script’. There are some great producers, still I just think they are fewer and farther between. I still think the costume department is still seen as something that they don’t really understand and therefore it is trouble which is utter and complete bollocks. We are as financially clear as any other department, we are as emotional as any other department and we are as creative as every other department that they deal with, it should be a level playing field. I don’t think that it is.

Quick fire
Mike: What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Ngila: Have a very clear focus on the big picture. Have a very clear focus on the detail. And do not confuse the two.

Mike: Do you have a favourite film?

Ngila: 1900.

Mike: What gives you a reason to get out of bed for an early call time?

Ngila: Nothing.

Mike: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? And which job in the industry would you do if you weren’t doing yours?

Ngila: I’d like to be an editor again. But I won’t be. And the second question; well we all want to be a writer don't we? And I just say that in the sense that we all want to be a writer, but you also know how bloody hard it is.

Mike: What general profession would you not like to do?

Ngila: Mortician.

Mike: If you could work with one person, living or dead. Who would it be?

Ngila: You’ll have to skip that question, too many good ones.

Mike: What is a book that everyone should read?

Ngila: Something that I’m reading right now and I have been reading for a little while, it’s Apeirogon by Colum McCann. It’s an extraordinary story. It’s all I can say it has  nothing to do with films or fashion or frocks. It’s profound, you can only read a little bit at a time so you can put it by your bed. And I know when I get to the end of it, I am going to go back to the beginning and start reading it again.

Mike: Finally, my question is normally ‘If you won an Oscar, who would you thank?’ But given it’s you Ngila, I must ask you; Who did you thank? And why?

Ngila: Anyone who says they weren’t a wreck when they were in that moment is kidding themselves or they’ve won a few. The one person I didn’t thank was Jannice McEuen, who was my supervisor on that job. And I went down the list and I thanked my assistant, my assistant designer, I thanked my producers and Peter and Fran. All of these people, and then as soon as I was walking off of the stage I remember Janice, and I knew that I couldn’t go back. So she was the first person I rang and I have been mortified ever since. Which brings me back around to my earlier thing of how important supervisors are.