Fit for a King


Costume designer Jenny Beavan is no stranger to lavish period films, having contributed her talents to such projects as A Room With a View, Howards End, and Sense and Sensibility. But Anna and the King, which was filmed entirely in Malaysia, is in another category entirely. "I think it was the biggest thing I have ever undertaken," Beavan says of the $80 million 20th Century Fox picture, released in December. "We had to make all the clothes, because you can't go and rent 1860 Siam. Of course, you could rent The King and I from Western Costume, but that's a much more stylized look, and in nothing like the numbers we needed."

What were the numbers, exactly? "We think we made about 6,000 costumes, and dressed 27,000 extras overall," says the designer, an Oscar co-winner with Cosprop owner John Bright for A Room With a View. "Because of the humidity, and the wear and the tear on the costumes, we had to make two of everything, particularly for the children. It rained a lot, and everyone was running around in the mud. We also had two sets of children, so we had to make all their clothes twice, and then twice again."

The story, based on true events, should be familiar from Rodgers and Hammerstein's famous Broadway musical and movie. In 1860, British widow Anna Leonowens traveled to the independent monarchy of Siam, to serve as tutor to King Mongkut's 58 children, as well as his numerous wives and concubines. She recorded her experiences, including her often tumultuous relationship with the king, in a volume of memoirs that has been freely adapted (and romanticized) once again.

This time, director Andy Tennant lost the songs and cast real Asians, including Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat in the role of King Mongkut. He is paired with Jodie Foster as Anna. And rather than filming on Hollywood soundstages, like The King and I and an earlier film, the 1946 Anna and the King of Siam, before it, Tennant took his production to Southeast Asia--though not to Thailand, the former Siam. The Thai government, sensitive to previous treatments of its national hero, was uncooperative. So production designer Luciana Arrighi undertook the construction of massive sets like Mongkut's palace and the streets of Victorian-era Bangkok in sweltering Malaysia.

Still, "the main research was in Thailand," says Beavan. "We were helped by one of King Mongkut's great-grandsons, a man called Pan. He is a textiles and antiques expert, and generally an authority on and enthusiast about Thai and Siamese history. He took us around the museums and through his fantastic library of books, showing us original textiles. He let us color photocopy them, and then have them printed in England. We weren't always doing a recreation, but to know what it really should be like is always the best way to start."

Beavan says that in her designs, she probably enriched some of the colors of the original fabrics, "although it's hard to tell, because the palettes tend to fade in humid museum conditions." King Mongkut's clothes are on view in Thailand, but the designer took great liberties here. "They're cottony pieces in earthy and blue colors; it looks like what a French peasant would wear. I think if you did that, no one would believe you." With the help of Mongkut's great-grandson, she found some "extraordinarily beautiful" examples of the traditional Siamese male garment, a rectangle of cloth wrapped through the legs and up the back, producing a "knickerbocker effect." These were printed and recreated for Chow's king. "I went for as rich as I could with him, while still keeping him a simple man," Beavan says.

The designer settled on red and gold, the royal colors of Siam, for Mongkut, while costuming Foster's Anna in whites and other pale colors, and in light Indian cottons and prints. "Since she came from India, we assumed her clothes were made there," she says. "If you look at photographs of the period, a lot of British women in India did tend to wear light colors, because of the climate. What that also does is pull Anna out of the richness of the landscape, so you always see her."

Beavan obtained her glittery embroidered fabrics everywhere from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur to London, but the rough-woven cottons were primarily bought in Chiang Mai, in the wholesale textile region of northern Thailand. "We probably bought 10 to 15km of fabric in about three days flat, and had it all sent down to Malaysia," she says. "There, we had about 10 people from England and 50 local people on the crew, divided between the workrooms and the lot who helped dress and organize. Much of the attention, of course, goes to the principals, but I tried to dress each extra as properly as possible."

The intricate details on many of the costumes, Beavan says, are in the fabric. "We also bought wonderful braids, and used sari borders decoratively." One of Beavan's most creative assignments on the film was creating dresses for the Siamese women to wear at a ball attended by English officials. "We made 35 Siamese versions of European costumes, using mainly saris, which are made in different pieces," she says. "We'd use all these different bits on the dresses, creating a sort of patchwork applique."

Though Beavan says she felt "whacked" by the end of Anna and the King's five-month, brutally hot and humid shoot, she adds, "It was terribly exciting doing something on that scale. It wasn't a debilitating exhaustion, though I did sleep a lot when I came home."