"Star Trek" Costume Designer Michael Kaplan On Dressing Starfleet And Keeping Trekkies Happy
"I'm not a Star Trek fan at all. In fact, I turned J.J. Abrams down the first time he asked me to work on the film."
Award-winning costume designer Michael Kaplan jumped back on board (the U.S.S. Enterprise) for Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Since winning a BAFTA for his very first gig on a theatrically-released film — 1983's Bladerunner, Michael Kaplan has remained a force in the costume design industry. His work has featured in movies as diverse as Fight Club, I Am Legend and Pearl Harbor. Also Flashdance, in all it's Lycra-clad glory. (Flashdance always warrants a mention.)
His most recent project, part #2 of the rebooted Star Trek series, began back in 2007 and marked his first collaboration with J.J. Abrams — it's a working relationship that's now set to continue with another Star-ry series on the horizon, in a galaxy far, far away, yadda yadda...
Upon Into Darkness's U.S. release, Kaplan explained to BuzzFeed his meticulous approach to designing the film's characters' clothes, and just how to balance incorporating enough of the franchise's history. Who wants to make the Trekkies mad, after all? He also discussed bending the laws of physics for a good-looking design, homages to his previous work — there's a nod to Deckard in the mix — and which of Trek's cast he felt had the best manners.
(Ok, that's obvious. It's the quintessentially British Mr. Cumberbatch of course.)
How do you approach a project like Star Trek — it feels like the potential is both limitless given the sci-fi genre, but also very much limited because there's such a history associated with the brand?
Kaplan: "I'm not a Star Trek fan at all, really. In fact I turned J.J. [Abrams] down the first time he asked me to come on board. But I came around.
"I based a lot of the costume designs on the original TV series; I wanted the film's costumes to be grounded in iconic pieces from that show. Not any of the sequels, just the original run. And I decided upon key elements to hold on to [design-wise], details that, to me, were 'Star Trekkian' as opposed to representing any other futuristic genre."
Which costumes in particular stood out as worthy of replication?
"A lot did. One thing in particular that was a definite — I felt we needed to hold on to the classic Starfleet look: the blue, the red, the yellow uniforms. But at the same time, I wanted to modernize them. Clean, modern uniforms. So there's a design woven into the fabric of the new uniforms, a textured printed design of the [boomerang-shaped] Star Fleet logo. The technologies we used making these fabrics weren't even available in the '60s, for example.
"Also in the original show, when the Enterprise's crew travelled to other worlds and explored, they would do so in their uniforms and [not change]. I wanted to do something a little different there and make some costumes specific for their travels. So I designed shuttle suits that the characters put over their regular uniforms. I wanted to expand the scope of the world already in place. "
It sounds like a meticulous approach. Do you ever worry all the little details will be overlooked, particularly in the context of a high-flying, space-exploring action flick?
"Well I know they're out there, you know, die-hard Trekkies who will not miss things like fabric patterns or colors relating to a crew member's branch of service, for example. The reaction from hardcore fans was extremely positive — and embracing. To be honest, I was a little shocked, because they take Star Trek so seriously. But JJ said that, knowing the work I'd done previously, that I'd be able to recreate the world Star Trek lives in.
"But then there are also people who are new [to the franchise] who won't pick up on everything. I went to see the film the other night with a big group of friends and they all picked up on different elements [of the costumes].
"The Devil's in the details, they always say. I just like including a lot of details in my work, especially when they're historical and grounded in the show's origins. Star Trek historians appreciate that."
Is sci-fi your favorite film genre to work with?
"I wouldn't say I have a favorite film genre to work on... but I would say I don't think sci-fi would be my favorite. Does that sound strange? I think what I really like working with is simply a great script. And that's what is so great about Star Trek, for example — I was even more impressed when I saw the script for Into Darkness: there's detail and there's wit and it's smart. Full of things that are not often the case in big tentpole movies.
Did you find yourself inspired by the 'mainstream' world of fashion design?
Definitely. I looked at the work of lots of modern fashion designers, and lots more designers working during the time of the original TV series: Courrèges, Quant, Gernreich, for example. I looked a lot at the silhouettes of the period, that '60s futurism. But I don't think there's anything in particular I made a homage to, or you know, ripped off — which I do from time to time [for other movies]. I just wanted to be very aware of the designers while I was working."
Do you expect people to pick up on those reference points?
"I did read a piece recently and the author argued, correctly, that Benedict Cumberbatch's coat in one particular scene was reminiscent of Blade Runner. Now I worked on that film a long time ago, but when I was working on this particular scene I wanted Benedict to have a trenchcoat. Yes, I thought of the futuristic trenchcoat we'd done for [Harrison Ford's character] Rick Deckard. There's a flavor of it, definitely.
"It's funny — I think British actors are much more respectful of costume designers. I would never dictate an outfit to any actor but… well, Benedict seemed to love all his clothes."
Aside from Benedict, then, were the rest of the Enterprise crew pickier about their outfits?
"With most actors there's a certain amount of back-and-forth with costumes. I get input from them and, in this case, from J.J. but it's difficult to do something like, say, a uniform and then make changes. It's a uniform, everyone looks the same. For the most part with the Starfleet crew, they were very happy. You know, our actors are all very fit and they look great in clothes. So we give them slightly sexy and body-conscious costumes, they're happy!
"Now, in one scene some of the crew go to Kronos [the Klingons' home planet]. For that scene they got to wear futuristic civilian clothes. That got the cast excited, like kids in a candy store at the thought of wearing anything. And of course you get the "hey, how come he got the better one?" here and there. So you just make little diplomatic changes so that everybody was at their best."
Do any of the costumes stand out as the most successful, or your favorite?
"I wouldn't say I have any favorite looks though. I love the way the dress uniforms work and I love the hats, I love what the Klingons wear and I especially love the wetsuits. What's fun about a film like Star Trek is there's so much scope to make different looks — they're all so, so different that they're hard to compare. I will say about the wetsuits. (These wetsuits feature in the film's opening scene.) You see them and you're like, "sure, that's a wetsuit. Nice enough." But these suits were custom-made, with each actor going through about twelve fittings. Twelve! It was an incredibly labor intensive process — we were told the suiting wouldn't dye when we needed a particular color red, and then we couldn't find the right color dye that would work… it was a very pleasant surprise when it all worked out in the end."
"I would also say I liked Spock's copper suit a lot. It's a custom space suit and I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. The idea of using a copper color for a space suit in a movie was new to me — I loved the color and the way it reflected the flames [spoiler: of a volcano Spock falls into, as you do] so perfectly. Of course, copper is probably the last thing you would use in such a situation because it conducts heat so well, but sometimes a costume looks so good you throw logic out of the window. Maybe that's something Trekkies will be annoyed about?"
So will you be switching up and maybe picking a period drama for your next film? What's coming up next?
Well, I've just learned I'll be working on the new Star Wars movie, again with J.J. Everything just got formalized [last week], I haven't even had the chance to talk to anyone about it all other than to be told 'welcome aboard.' It's a little too soon to know exactly what's in store but I'm excited, absolutely, to get to work on another prestigious sci-fi series."