Mayes Rubeo is the costume designer for The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe, but she’s also worked on Avatar, World War Z and Warcraft: The Beginning. She was born in Mexico and currently lives in LA, and she’s been a costume designer since the Eighties. I talked with her about her inspirations, her biggest challenges during the film, and which costume she’d design if she could design anything.
How did you get into costume design?
I was born in a family of artistic people and into the movie industry. I’ve always been practical and into fashion, so I went to school in LA for costume design. I started working in the industry once school ended and I’ve just never stopped!
How much oversight did the director have – did he give specifics or did you have free reign?
He was really specific about how the costumes should work, and move, and be constructed. He was involved every step of the way. He wanted me to be careful to make the costumes visually attractive, agile and sexy but also strong. Also, the animals we designed had to look Chinese – because every troop was represented by an animal, we had to make our own animals to have a signature. Every single symbol and animal and shape was designed, the scales for protection were designed. Nothing was rented, it was all designed by us.
What was the biggest challenge design-wise while making the costumes?
The time constraints, definitely. Everything had to be ready by day 1 of shooting – I had 5 months to make 3,000 costumes. I had the pleasure of working with Chinese people who taught me so much and I just had so much to learn, it was an eye opener seeing how they constructed the costumes, the techniques they used. I had the best group of costume constructors in China, I recommend going there to my colleagues because those guys know how to make a costume! And of course, the production team was wonderful and supportive.
What’s your favourite costume from the film and why?
I like General Shao, the crane corps [the female warriors]– I like them very much, I liked Andy Lau’s costume because of the simplicity, it’s very elegant and austere. It’s hard to choose my favourite because I love them all, they’re my children.
How many people worked on the costumes?
It’s difficult to say because there were so many people to make the 3,000 costumes and that’s not including civilians. Probably around 120.
Was it difficult to get the blues and reds so vibrant on screen?
Not particularly – the colour was chosen by the director, he had an idea that because the crane corps were airborne attackers/defenders, he wanted the costumes to become one with the sky. The crane corps are they’re all female and they’re the most agile, graceful attackers. They’re acrobats, so all of that airborne attacking he thought that would be cool, it’s just so different.
How did you find it taking into consideration the fighting scenes and acrobatics that the actors would have to do?
None of us wanted the cranes to look cumbersome or bulky which is a possibility when you’re wearing a harness like they were, because of course they’re flying and doing acrobatics. It was a lot of adjusting and tweaking to make them still functional.
Was it difficult mixing the Western and Asian worlds?
Not really because it’s very much a clash of cultures and visuals – the dynasty was more like a renaissance, the travellers from Europe were ragged, and when you have that mixed with the colours and patterns in China that they just hadn’t seen before, it was very simple.
Who are you inspired by?
The director, definitely. He just has so much knowledge of the culture and refined taste, he was moving everybody forward throughout the whole process, he was a wonderful director.
If you could have worked on any film or made costume what would you have made?
1920 flappers! I’m craving that and I have to work in something like that, I love the 1920s look so any directors out there reading this, spread the word!
Watch The Great Wall trailer here: