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Jenny Beavan: There are so many nature stories out there just waiting to be told. Maybe now is the time

The Oscar-winning costume designer on a love for gardening, a hate for waste, and the dawn of a new era in storytelling.

It’s taken me 30 years to get the garden as I wanted, and it’s still endless. It’s blossom time now, so everything is out. I have a little patio, a greenhouse, an area down the bottom with nettles, geraniums, roses – it’s a sort of organised wild. I take my cup of tea down in the morning and take care of things as they need it; I potter about. I’m not great on vegetables, but that’s mostly due to the squirrels.


I prefer to be outside if the weather is at all clement. I try not to think about work, give myself a break and try not to worry about climate change which is very evident in the garden. I think everyone would benefit from having somewhere outside to grow something - a balcony can be great or a flowerpot in a window. Just to have something green and growing can be very therapeutic.


And we know people do. During Covid, with many people locked away in high-rise flats, it must have been a nightmare. We saw how people suddenly clamoured for nature. And today they still do, which is why David Attenborough still pulls in a phenomenal crowd.


I’m horrified and fascinated how we are absolutely slaughtering the planet. It’s disguised as a relentless quest for growth, but in reality we are saturating the planet in this desperation. We need to rethink everything, but of course as long as there’s so much greed, we won’t. 

I’m concerned about my grandchildren and what they’re coming into; what they’ll inherit. The heat, the drought, the floods, and you can feel it getting more extreme. Even here in Peckham, you can feel the wind, the rain – the endless rain. When I’m in nature, I can switch off from these worries and just enjoy it, though it’s becoming harder to do so.

I have the mentality of a war time baby, so I hate waste

On set, we have something called Albert, an organisation which oversees TV and film production’s sustainability – ensures everything is being done properly, from reducing plastic waste to keeping an eye on carbon footprint. But is it enough? Sets in general are always a terrible barrier to sustainability because of the amount of materials that go into making them and therefore the waste that’s produced.


I have the mentality of a war time baby, so I hate waste which means in costume we’ve always been pretty good. Leftover fabrics go to primary schools, nursery schools, and art schools – because everyone needs fabric. And we rent a lot. People don’t know it, but so much of what you see on screen is actually rented.


There are limits, like when you're making the main costume from the 18th century, which is a very elaborate period. But even then, to make a dress could cost over £2,500 and we usually don’t have the time or budget or labour to make everything new. Especially when you can rent it for £300.


Take Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, which was made on a diddly squat budget. There was so much vintage clothing around that we could re-use, rent or adapt that was of the age. A lot of the costumes were originally from the 40s and 50s, which was lovely to use.


This is an interesting message to the public; to those who watch these films. If they know the clothes are rented or re-used, then they may think, “why can’t I rent or re-use my clothes and look this fantastic?” Even for very high-end clothing, there are plenty of stores you can buy secondhand or rent. At the Oscars, all those dresses and clothes are borrowed, because it’s a showcase for the designer. So if those stars – at the height of their fame and glamour – are renting their clothes, then why shouldn’t we? It’s hugely fun to change up your wardrobe; just rent something for the weekend, and then you don’t have the expense or clutter. 

I believe there is space growing for smaller films and proper storytelling again.

I haven't been in the studios much this year but in 2023, Pinewood was like a ghost town and I gather not much better now. My sense is that after the strikes the studio bosses are at a bit of a loss as to what direction to go in. There is less appetite for the mega Marvel type films and so hopefully there is space for smaller independent films full of good storytelling, where you really connect with the characters. Today, I believe there is space growing for smaller films and proper storytelling again.


For instance, there’s a very dark, very interesting, book called The Graveyard Book that could be given the greenlight, which is about a little boy brought up by ghosts. It’s beautiful and extremely clever; a proper story. There’s also a film set in Ireland with a £4 million budget (which is nothing), but it has Pierce Brosnan and Helena Bonham Carter in it. It’s beautiful, with glorious cinematography. These films are about making connections with people, not making megabucks, but doing good work and letting real feelings permeate more.


And in that there is potentially more space for nature stories. It still has to be a really good story, and people need to connect. But there are so many nature stories out there just waiting to be told. Maybe now is the time. Could it alter perceptions? Perhaps. Hopefully it does and we can get people to understand, to feel and to act.


My good friend John Bright – an Oscar-winning costume designer himself – has always known this and loves to help children. He bought a farm near Hastings and has turned it into the most wonderful place where disadvantaged kids can go and be part of the creative arts and outdoor activities. There are costumes, toys, storytelling, puppet making – a place for children to enjoy and learn, and do things they wouldn’t normally do.


The more creative you are, the more you’re drawn to nature – and vice versa. You appreciate design, and beauty and making connections so much more. Particularly with children. When you get children out in nature and being creative, they are healthier and nicer. And then they grow up to be healthier and nicer adults too. And that’s something the world desperately needs.

As told to Edward Owen-Burge on 6 March 2024. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.


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