Interview: Indiana Jones costume designer Bernie Pollack

Filed under: Interviews

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of this summer's most anticipated blockbusters. It's been nearly 20 years since The Last Crusade, and ever since then fans have been waiting for the next installment in this classic serial. It's been years in the making, and the product of finally finding the right script and the time when Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford were all able to get together. As the years went by and Harrison Ford continued to add another year to his age, it began to look like it just might not happen. In fact, when I spoke with producer/director Frank Marshall in 2006 a few short weeks after Firewall came out (Ford's return to the action genre), I urged him that the window may indeed be running out. Marshall replied that he always got asked about Indy in every interview he did, and that fans should be patient.

Now, two years later, that patience has paid off and Ford has once again donned his famous Fedora. Although the film remains shrouded in secrecy, even now just a mere few days before its release, I did have the opportunity to talk to Bernie Pollack, the man tasked with making sure the Indy we see up on screen looks just as we remembered. Over the course of our telephone call, we discussed the state of modern clothing manufacturing, how you deal with recreating such an iconic figure on screen, and how he got into the business.

Bernie Pollack: Hi Mark.

Mark McLeod: Hi Bernie, how are you this morning?

BP: I'm all right, thank you very much. How are you?

MM: I'd like to first start by asking you how got into costume design?

BP: That's an interesting question, you're the first person to ask that. I actually got started in costume design because I was an unemployed actor and needed a job. Believe it or not, it was as simple as that. I was working in New York as an actor and doing odd jobs on the side and without dragging this out too long, I wanted to stay in the business. I worked in retail; I sold vacuum cleaners, fire alarms, stereo sets, door to door, everything I could... fuller brush. I got married very young at 21 years old, had a child on my 23rd birthday and I was trying to stay in the business. I had always had an interest in style and fashion. I had worked at Sax Fifth Avenue in New York and all the men's departments, and the opportunity presented itself to be an apprentice costumer on a film with Edith Head -- not directly working with her, (though) I did work with her, but it was working for the costume supervisor. And I lied and said I had a lot more experience than I did, and that I knew more about fashion than I did. But that was the beginning.

MM: Now this isn't your first movie with Harrison Ford. How did you become involved with working with him?

BP: I had done a couple films and I had been with Robert Redford for like 25 years. My first film I happened to meet Redford, the film was This Property is Condemned with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford back in 1964. I ended up doing 21 films with Redford. I worked my way up from set man to supervisor to designer. I became a designer in '75 on All the President's Men. Just worked with him on a lot of films, then worked with Dustin Hoffman on a few. I had done a few with Redford like Indecent Proposal and Blue Chips,and a few at Paramount, and I got a call when we were doing Blue Chips from Sherry Lansing and she said, "there's a film coming up and I'd like you to meet Phillip Noyce, the director. It's called a Clear and Present Danger and it's going to star Harrison Ford." Long story short, I flew home from Ohio where we were shooting Blue Chips with Shaq and I met Phillip Noyce on a Saturday and the following Wednesday and I started prepping Clear and Present Danger. And that's when I met Harrison, and the rest, like they say, is history. I've done 8 or 9 films with him now.

MM: You've worked with Ford and you mentioned Redford a couple of times. Do you think it's important to have some consistency in who you work with as a costume designer?

BP: I can't really speak for them. It's a pleasure because for me, you know basically their thoughts and how to help them develop the character because you know how they think and how they approach the character. I believe it would be just as comfortable for them as it is for me. I know exactly what looks good on Harrison and what doesn't. I think it's really beneficial for everybody. You know all the nuances and you've been down the road already, and there (are) no problems with communication or trust. All of my relationships in this business have been long term. I've been very, very fortunate to have that and it worked out well, just like with Redord and Dustin Hoffman. I even did a couple of films with Sly Stallone and he wanted me to stay with him as well. I do the whole films most of the time, but my relationship with Redford also went to a lot of his directing jobs, so it went beyond just working with him as an actor.

MM: The character of Indiana Jones has a rather defined and classic look. Did you find it difficult to have to work within the pre-existing mold?

BP: It's a daunting task to do an iconic movie where everyone knows it as well as you do, or thinks they do. The difficulty was that the last one was 18 or 19 years ago. Nobody's around that did any of those outfits before. You now have to try and find the fabric, the buttons, and the hat bodies, which is a very difficult task. I try to tell everybody about the hat bodies that I found, and I wasn't happy with anything else that I found from around town. The ones I did like came from New Zealand. I found the hat maker in a roundabout way through London and then Germany and ended up in Columbus, Mississippi. It's like a puzzle and it takes months, literally months to come up with the outfits, and not just because there is kind of a sample of a look and you're trying to realize that look and bring it up to that day which is in the 50s, instead of the early 40s. It's just really, really difficult. It's like suits, and if you look at the old movies like the Cary Grant movies or Clark Gable, any of those films, the suits were all beautifully made and tailored. It's hard to do that today and it's hard to find really good craftsmen today -- it's a dying art, to get that pinched look of the 30s in the waist. The same thing is true for all of the outfits that Indy wears. 20 years ago they had much better craftsmen. It's hard to come up with the look and find the fabric you want and have them drape and fall properly. I wanted the hat to be right. What they have on the internet are rip-offs, cheap copies of a basic look of an Indiana Jones fedora, but they don't hold up well over the course of a shooting or in bad weather. There are all types of material, too -- there's rabbit felt, cloth felt, and beaver felt, which is the best and lasts, but it's hard to buy them and they are more expensive and there are very few hat makers that make hats out of that.

MM: It's just like most things now-a-days -- things are not manufactured or made to the same standards that they were 10 or even 5 years ago.

BP: That's true, and like I say, trying to find the best fabrics you can use and getting the multiples that you need -- like 3 dozen hats, 72 pairs of pants because you have stuntmen, different sizes in stuntmen who wear different sized hats, pants. You want some that are oversized because you want padding. And the same thing with the jackets -- 3 dozen jackets. It's a big puzzle at the beginning and trying to figure out what you're going to use, where you're going to get it made, what color you want it to be, and it's just a daunting task when you're dealing with the icons of Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford, and that kind of iconic look.

MM: Lastly, have you had a chance to see a version of the film?

BP: No, I've seen the dailies while we were shooting. I've seen none of it cut at all and I don't think Mr. Spielberg allows that except for some very privileged people. I'm anxious to see it. As far as I'm concerned, it's great. Everything I saw in dailies (was) just terrific. I think people will be absolutely shocked at the gentleman who's got a little age on him, but what he's capable of doing and how well he knows and is suited to this character, I can't even picture anyone else. But it's brilliant -- I think it's a great storyline and has everything you want in an action adventure film. I think it's going to be terrific and I just can't wait to see it.

MM: Neither can I. I think it's going to be a really great movie. Thank you for your time this morning, Bernie.

BP: It's my pleasure, Mark, and I hope I was able to give you a bit of information.

MM: Yeah, most definitely. Thank you very much.

BP: Thank you, Mark.

Tags: Bernie Pollack, Indiana Jones, costume design

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Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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