Bringing the Song Dynasty back to life

An interview with Mayes C. Rubeo - costume designer for 'The Great Wall'

Movies are a wonderful way to leave the daily concerns behind and dive into a parallel world. Personally, I rarely considered the role that costumes play in the creation of this world. This changed when I got the opportunity to talk to the accomplished costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo, who was responsible for the costumes in Avatar, World War Z and, most recently, in Zhang Yimou’s (张艺谋) film ‘The Great Wall’.

sinonerds: Why did you decide to work on ‘The Great Wall’?

Mayes C. Rubeo: Why should I work with Zhang Yimou? Imagine working with the best visionary director in Asia. As far as I am concerned he is up there with Wong Kar Wai and many others. But, you know, I have a thing for him. He came to my shop – I was working on another movie with Legendary Pictures at the time – looked at my costumes and said ‘would you like to work on my movie?’ And I was like ‘Are you kidding me? Of Course!’ It’s like Prince Charming comes to your door with a glass slipper! He is an incredible director, the way he formulates his ideas, the way he gently guides you as a director.

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Zhang Yimou and Lu Han (鹿晗) as the soldier Peng Yong (彭勇)
Title picture: Kenny Lin (林更新) as general Chen (陈将军)

Did you have any previous experience or connection to China before working on ‘The Great Wall’?

Not by working there myself, but my husband worked on two movies in China. We always had an interest in China. Our house in Italy has lots of Chinese corners and we have enormous respect and love for China. I previously have been in Beijing and in Shanghai. Actually, I think I am a Beijinger, I really love Beijing. It’s wonderful.

What did you do in preparation for the film? It must have been a massive undertaking.

Definitely. I studied so much. I immersed myself in researching Chinese culture and Chinese military 24/7. From the Song Dynasty (unintelligible) to the armours. I would send my research results and e-mails to the director and he would send me back some guidance. When we came to China, we had a whole factory for making the costumes. It was really amazing. We employed the best people in Beijing, many of which had worked with those kinds of fabrics and textures before and brought their expertise. And that’s how we created the costumes.

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Karry Wang (王俊凯) as emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty (宋仁宗)

Most of your employees were Chinese. How was it to work in a multicultural and multilingual team?

Well, it was great! I really don’t like it, when people say ‘Oh it was difficult to work in China. The Chinese were so and so.’ But look, if they are giving you an excellent translator. If they are giving you the best, most talented people, all you have to do is to embrace the situation. My team was so knowledgeable, they were so kind. It was wonderful. I had a great time! Sadly, I did not have enough time to learn Chinese. I think it took me a month to know the word ‘no’. In the end, I was able to learn about 30 words that got me by and helped me to be polite to my team, at least. I wanted to be nice and polite to them, because this is how they treated me as well. They were working so hard.

Did you live in China during the time it took to make the movie?

I lived there the whole time. I was in China, probably, for eleven months. I lived in Chaoyang District (Beijing) and we were working in Changping Distrct, which is in northern Beijing. It’s where our studios of the China Film Group Corporation were located. It took about an hour and a half of commuting every day, because of the heavy traffic. I definitely don’t miss that.

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Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon as the Western mercenaries Pero Tovar and William Garin

What do you think was the most challenging part of working on ‘The Great Wall’?

Ah, the time constraints. With close to three thousand costumes that we had to make in so little time… In fact it sounds like I’m a spoiler, but six months is just not enough time. There were so many costumes that we had to make from scratch.

Is there anything that you are most proud of looking back at the film?

I look at the whole movie as an achievement, really. It was a big undertaking for me. I am not Chinese. When I was in my most open-minded disposition, I was able to learn the most from my team. I think that helped me a lot. Being able to keep it up with the director, and to really achieve his vision at the end was an achievement as well.

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Zhang Yimou giving directions to the generals of the Nameless Order

Did the work on ‘The Great Wall’ change how you work now and how you approach future projects?

This is probably the most interesting question I have been asked in all the interviews.

Thank you.

And yes, it changed me. It changed a lot. It changed everything, because it gave me a perspective of what is achievable. What is possible to make. Even for a group of people that doesn’t speak the same language. It changed everything, because now I can do any kind of costumes, any kind of project. This project was so big, I can’t imagine that I will work in another movie of that size. Movies like this one are going to be difficult to come by, but I am ready, because now I have the experience.

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Jing Tian (景甜) as general Lin Mae (林梅)

Well, I wish you good luck on your future projects and maybe we are going to talk again, when you work on another Chinese movie.

Oh, I hope so. Thank you so much Johannes and good luck with sinonerds!

Thank you very much for your time, Mayes!

This interview was done on the 12th of April 2017 via transatlantic phone call and made possible through the support of Panorama Entertainment GbR. The movie will be released on DVD and Bluray on May 18th 2017. The rights of all pictures used in the text lie with Universal Pictures and were used with prior permission.



Johannes Heller

Jojo studierte Chinastudien und Friedensforschung in Berlin, Nanjing und Brisbane. Akademisch steht für ihn Chinas aktuelle Rolle als regionaler Akteur in Asien im Mittelpunkt. Nebenher entdeckt er gerne neue Musik und Podcasts.

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