The title character in Bong Joon Ho’s latest sci-fi parable Okja, on Netflix today, is a supersized pig that its young caretaker Mija must save from slaughter by a giant corporation. While this lumbering, soulful swine is the story’s beating heart, Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal each bring a hefty screen presence as the film’s zany villains – thanks in large part to costume designer Catherine George.
Swinton steals scenes as a brace-faced, power-hungry CEO whose pink Chanel suits belie her company’s blood-thirst for gentle “super pigs” like Ojka. But the award for greatest transformation arguably goes to Gyllenhaal as TV biologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox. With a look that’s a cross between Steve Irwin and Groucho Marx and a mad scientist demeanor, the doctor is a far cry from Gyllenhaal’s usual clean-cut, red carpet-ready image. While Gyllenhaal has changed his look before, losing weight for Nightcrawler and going head-shaven for Jarhead, this nutty departure proves he can be both a leading man and a chameleon.
Here, we talk with George on the film’s fashion inspirations and working with one of Hollywood’s most innovative new directors.
Was there anyone you modeled the character of Dr. Johnny Wilcox after?
We had done a lot of research on the character based on animal experts like Steve Irwin and Jack Hanna. Jack Hanna used to come on David Letterman, and his clothing is pretty close to what Dr. Johnny wears. And a lot of it we based on a character from a UK show Animal Magic starring a guy called Johnny Morris. Jon Ronson, the film’s co-writer is from England so he also knew that show.
Was Bong involved in creating the looks for the film?
We had to do quite a lot of Skyping because he was in Korea shooting while I was in New York. They shot all the stuff with Mija in Korea first while I was prepping in New York to get all the Western characters ready. But Bong was here for Jake’s fitting and he really is a collaborator and also does have instincts for costumes.
Did you know what the look of Okja would be while you were coming up with these costumes?
I had just seen sketches and the concept art. I think it’s hardest for the actors who have to interact [with it]. The production traveled around with a giant stuffed animal, basically, so that the little girl could interact with it. There was someone who was actually moving the stuffed animal and acting as Okja. I think it made the whole thing much more natural for everyone.
Once you had Jake with you and were trying clothes on him, did it take a while to find the right outfits?
He kind of jumped into it and the character and went for it. He kind of hitched those shorts up and that became a thing. The shorts were like you could see his thighs. And the hat became very important. We tried a bunch of stuff on but it actually came together quite quickly.
The shorts are specific traveler explorer shorts. They’re from a company that specializes in that. The shirt was very thin and tropical. A shirt company Eton Shirts worked with us on that. They had this amazing shirt in their collection that, when you go in closely, has little tiny animals all over it, which is very fun.
What was it like working with Tilda?
She’s the most fun collaborator, and obviously she already has a fashion persona. This is out third project together. Our first was the movie We Need to Talk About Kevin. I believe that’s how Bong found me. he saw that movie and wanted to cast Tilda in Snowpiercer and also enjoyed the costumes in the movie, so that’s how I got to be involved in that.
Lastly, was Jake’s facial hair real or fake?
It was a choice between him and Bong. I think it came organically with the costume and it’s his own hair. I thought of it as sort of a 1930s leading man look, in a funny way, of course.