What Rajni and Will Smith have in common
Aseem Chhabra spoke to her in New York.
Mary Vogt is a senior Hollywood costume designer who has worked on several big budget productions.
She specialises in science fiction film costumes and her filmography includes Men in Black 1 & 2, Hocus Pocus, Inspector Gadget and Batman Returns.
Given her specialisation, Vogt was approached two years ago by the team behind filmmaker Shankar's new sci-fi drama Endhiran-Robot starring superstar Rajnikanth.
Her job was to design specific clothes for Rajnikanth and the many different robot costumes seen in the film.
Vogt spoke with Rediff.com contributor Aseem Chhabra in New York City about her experience designing costumes for Endhiran -- the most expensive film to be made in India.
Chhabra met Vogt at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, where she is currently overseeing a huge project -- designing hundreds of costumes for director Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black 3, which will once again star Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones along with Emma Thompson and a variety of aliens.
Chhabra and Vogt sat down to talk in the designer's office. But before that there was a brief tour of the rooms where the Men in Black 3's costumes were being designed and stitched, and a visit to an elaborate set of a Chinese restaurant, where a crucial scene will be shot in November.
ALSO READ: How India is reshaping global film industry
Image: Sketches of the costumes and a scene from Endhiran. Inset: Mary Vogt
'I would design the clothes, but they would be made in India'
I have always liked Indian movies because of John (Muto, Vogt's husband, who has often programmed Indian films at museums in Los Angeles, including a recent screening of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas and a tribute to the production designer Nitin Desai).
I have seen Devdas and Lagaan and gone to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and seen art house films like the Apu Trilogy.
How did you get involved with the Endhiran project?
Jack Rajasekar (of Fusion Edge Media, a production company in Virginia, USA) approached my agent in 2008.
Jack asked whether I would design Rajni's clothes for the evil Chitti character and also the robot clothes during the dance numbers and for the robot army in the end.
They had a designer in India (Manish Malhotra) who was doing the bulk of the clothes. He was doing Aishwarya Rai's costumes as well.
I said yes that will be so much fun, because now with computers you can e-mail sketches, which you couldn't do 10 years ago.
They wanted multiple costumes and that would have been very expensive to make in Los Angeles.
So it was decided that I would design them but they would be made in India.
Image: Sketches of the costumes and a scene from Endhiran
'Rajnikanth had this incredible presence'
Rajni came to Los Angeles with Shankar and the film's art director Sabu Cyril.
That was when a different group -- Eros International and Ayngaran International Films -- were the producers, before Sun Pictures come on board. Jack came in with Ayngaran.
I went to meet them at the Stan Winston Studio and they were all talking over lunch.
They all had come from India and I thought they would be jet lagged.
There was a guy sitting quietly in a chair, being very sullen. I first thought he was the producer. But I couldn't imagine him being a star.
I was introduced to everybody, but not to him.
Suddenly they asked 'Do you want to meet Rajni?' and I said 'Of course!'
They brought him over and I couldn't be more surprised.
Suddenly he smiled and the whole room lit up.
He had this incredible presence.
Is it the same kind of sense you have when you meet Hollywood actors?
You know when someone comes into the fitting room, you can tell if they are a star or not.
It's obvious they have that presence and he (Rajnikanth) certainly has that, and even more so than usual.
He's not a very tall guy...
No. I think he's about 5' 10".
Image: Sketches of the costumes and a scene from Endhiran
'Rajni was very streamlined and elegant'
Was it similar to taking measurements of say, Will Smith?
I have worked with many actors, but the big actors are similar to each other.
Rajni's charisma is very similar to that of Will or someone like Tom Cruise.
Will has quite a personality. But I recently did a film with Steve Carell (Dinner with Schmucks) and he's very quiet.
When I met Rajni, I wasn't sure what they wanted. I never got a script. But I was impressed that he was very grounded and centred.
He was very streamlined and elegant.
I decided I would do that for the costume. I like to design clothes that go with the personality of the actors and not make them wear some weird costumes.
Often with science fiction costumes they want a lot of stuff on them and I thought that would not go with Rajni, because I didn't get that sense from him.
So I designed a simple leather jacket, pants and shirt.
We made two sets of them here in Los Angeles. And then I did a pattern for the robots and they made multiple costumes in India.
I was very impressed they did a good job of matching the leather and its colour with what I had designed here.
Later we bought the sunglasses in Beverly Hills. I went shopping with Jack, because his skin colour was similar to Rajni.
I do a lot of glasses, because of Men in Black, so I was very familiar with the stores.
We didn't have a lot of time and they said send some glasses with the outfit.
I was able to find two identical sunglasses for Chitti.
I put it all in a suitcase and someone carried it to India.
Image: Sketches of Endhiran's costumes
'Shankar was very much like an American director'
No, not with him. He was quiet and focused. He may have been jet lagged too.
I did talk a lot with Shankar about him, via e-mails especially.
But I did not know about the whole snake thing at the end of the film.
They never discussed that with me.
Good thing I designed the robot army's clothes in all black.
You made a mannequin of Rajnikanth. How was that done?
We did a laser scan of his body and then they built the mannequin from that.
Will is having a laser scan tomorrow.
It's cool because after the laser scan Rajni could return to India and we could fit the clothes on the mannequin.
Was Shankar's thinking process different than that of a big Hollywood director like Tim Burton or Barry Sonnenfeld?
I would have thought it would be different, but it wasn't.
It was interesting that he was very much like an American director -- 'I want what I want.' And that was good.
Shankar was very specific about what he liked. Barry is very much like that.
Some directors are a little bit more wavering. But I guess the kind of films I do, they attract the type of directors who are more definite about what they want.
In dramas things are a little bit more evolving, but in sci-fi things are a little bit more distinct.
Image: A sketch of the costumes and a scene from Endhiran
'I did some sketches for Aishwarya, but they went with the other designer's work'
What was very influential for me was the art director.
He is a very talented set designer and he had very beautiful designs of the sets and that's what I went by.
Once the clothes were stitched, did you get to touch them and feel them?
As I said, the leather costume for Chitti was made in Los Angeles. I sent them the sketches for the robots' costumes, but I never saw them until I saw the previews and then the film.
And it was amazing, because I didn't even know if they had used my designs.
I nearly screamed 'Oh My God' in the theatre.
How long did you work on the project?
I was working on other projects at the same time, but it was a couple of months.
I did some sketches for Aishwarya, but they went with the other designer's work. And she was busy, so she could not come to Los Angeles for the fitting.
Image: Sketches of the costumes and Rajnikanth in Endhiran