Dressing Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan: The Aussie designer taking on Hollywood

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Alice Babidge missed the premiere of her first major Hollywood film, Beau Is Afraid, because she was at home with her newborn son.

Only recently has the Australian costume designer had a chance to watch the movie, which was directed by Ari Aster (Hereditary). “I watched it over three nights,” Babidge says.

“The baby would wake up, so I’d push stop, turn off the TV, go deal with the baby, and I’d come back a night later and watch the next bit.

“I always think I’m going to watch something and I’m going to see how terrible my work is. But I absolutely loved what Ari had crafted. I just thought it had the most exciting and charming strangeness, and it was completely, confidently itself.”

The surreal horror adventure clocks in at three hours and cost $US35 million ($54.3 million) to make. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as a paranoid man desperately trying to make it home for his mother’s funeral.

It’s Babidge’s largest film project to date, the costume and production designer having previously worked on local films including Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, Nitram and True History of the Kelly Gang, for which she won an AACTA Award; as well as British movie The Dig, directed by fellow Australian Simon Stone.

Beau Is Afraid and her latest movie Foe, in cinemas now, are her two biggest films in terms of both scale and budget. “I don’t really approach them any differently to anything else,” she says. “My expectation of what I’m supposed to do and deliver is the same, whether it’s for an audience of five or 5 million.”

Like Stone, Kurzel and Beau Is Afraid’s Australian production designer Fiona Crombie, Babidge started her career in the theatre. After graduating from NIDA in 2004, she became resident director at Sydney Theatre Company in 2010, under artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton.

She co-designed the costumes for Snowtown with Crombie in 2011, and has been juggling film and theatre ever since. It was Crombie who recommended Babidge to Aster for Beau Is Afraid.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid.Credit: Takashi Seida/A24 via AP

Babidge embraced the challenge of creating costumes for Beau Is Afraid, which rollicks through genres, settings and moods. “We thought, ‘let’s be bold, but let’s ground it in humanity’,” she says. “It was about defining and detailing every single person who was on camera. It was really exciting to be able to do that and invent who all of these people were around Beau.”

She wasn’t daunted by the task: “I used to work from a place of fear of getting it done and of it being good. I still worry, but it’s now more about the excitement around the challenges.”

Babidge was shooting Beau Is Afraid in Canada when she was approached by Australian director Garth Davis to work on Foe.

It tells the story of Hen (Saoirse Ronan, Ladybird) and Junior (Paul Mescal, Aftersun), a married couple living on barren farmland in a future America that is on the verge of environmental collapse. Their lives are up-ended when Junior is conscripted to go to space for two years and the government organises to replace him at home with an AI replicant.

Irish actor Saoirse Ronan stars in Australian director Garth Davis’ Foe.Credit: Transmission

Phoenix, who worked with Davis on 2018’s Mary Magdalene, raved to Babidge about the director, and reading the script sealed the deal.

“I like to understand the period that I’m working from, but work out a way to make it feel easily understood by a contemporary audience,” she explains. “It was interesting to me to think about something that was future-facing.”

It didn’t hurt that she was working with two of today’s most critically lauded young actors, in Mescal and Ronan. “They were incredible actors to collaborate with,” she says.

Babidge comes up with costumes in conversation with actors, directors and crew. She then creates a full wardrobe for each character, down to their underwear and socks. “You know how they start their day, how they end their day,” she says. “Whether you need to shoot it or not, you have it, so you can draw on all the elements of that person’s life.

“It’s not about putting on a costume. It’s about a person having clothes.”

Foe is in cinemas.

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