It’s tough working as a costume designer in Hollywood these days, especially if you want your work to be noticed. Although there is endless competition in the industry, there are only so many films out there that will really get a costume designer noticed. There’s even less if a director stays loyal to a designer he or she has worked with in the past.
“We all want to design the cool movies, but sometimes you can’t,” costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo told me during an interview from Los Angeles to promote her new sci-fi action film “John Carter.” “Every costume designer wants to design wonderful things and get acknowledged and rewarded.”
At the beginning of her 24-year career, Rubeo started as an assistant in the costume and wardrobe department on such films as “Total Recall” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Her first film as head costume designer was on the 1996 sci-fi film “The Arrival” starring Charlie Sheen. She went on to design costumes for the 2006 Mel Gibson-directed film “Apocalypto” and James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster hit “Avatar.”
In her new film, “John Carter,” Rubeo helps director Andrew Stanton create a new world first imagined by author Edward R. Burroughs in 1912. “John Carter” tells the story of a Confederate captain who is mysteriously transported into the center of a major conflict on Mars.
During our interview, Rubeo, who is of Mexican descent, talked about the vision behind the film and why she doesn’t allow her Latina heritage to influence her work as a costume designer.
How much of the original text by Edgar R. Burroughs did you explore to start on a project as massive as “John Carter?”
I think our director Andrew Stanton used a combination of his books for the film. We didn’t follow just one book like “A Princess of Mars.” We included others.
As a costume designer, do you usually do a lot of research on the film’s subject?
Yes, but in this case we wanted to be more original with the design. There is a huge background of artistic influence in these stories. The character of John Carter has been around for 100 years. There have been many attempts to make this movie by many filmmakers. Many of those had their own artwork and were different from each other. Andrew really knew what he wanted to do with the film. It was very easy for me to work with his very specific and creative ideas.
How does the process begin for you when you sign on to do a new film? Does it start with a meeting with the director?
Andrew knew me from my prior projects, which were “Avatar” and especially “Apocalypto.” “Apocalypto” is a project that has brought me a lot of exposure. It was a high-caliber design movie. We manufactured every single thing that existed in that movie. That was a good guarantee that I could help Andrew create the new world he wanted. I was asked to come and interview for the job, which is a normal procedure. We wanted to see if we were on the same page from the start. From there it was only constant and creative dialogue between the two of us. Andrew always kept me in the creative circle even in post-production. It was a great collaboration.
The John Carter series has a huge fan base that has been waiting a long time for this movie. Do you feel like those fans are going to look at this new film under a microscope because they want everything to be perfect? Does that worry you?
I think it’s natural to feel a little pressure and feel exposed to the expectations of so many fans. It would be the same if people were waiting for a new Superman movie. Everyone would be waiting to see if he had on the right cape. I think John Carter fans are going to have fun with the movie.
Do you ever let your Mexican culture influence any of your costume designs?
I try not to because I don’t want to be a designer that people will tap just to do ethnic stuff. A costume designer should be able to do any kind of costume for any kind of period that is put into their hands by a director. That’s the kind of costume designer I want to be.