New York City was a vastly different place when RENT premiered on Broadway in 1996 with its reworking of La Boheme to tell the fractured fairy tales of a group of artists, singers, film makers, and other bohemians dealing with life, love, death, and disease in the East Village. While the show never stated when it took place, RENT is very much a tale of its time in dealing with the burgeoning AIDS crisis and the effect is had on a ragtag group of friends.
Almost a decade after it received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an armload of Tonys, including Best Musical, RENT is finally making it to movie theatres under the direction of Chris Columbus. However, this version is rooted firmly in the throes of the late 1980s, and costumer Aggie Rodgers — whose diverse resume includes Beetlejuice, The Color Purple, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, to name just a few — was determined to pay homage as best she could to the show's original costumer Angela Wendt. “I wanted to complement her beautiful work but to push it back like period films can do,” she says. “I kept several things Angela had done and I tried to keep one silhouette for each character from the play,” she says explaining that certain looks for the characters onstage were so iconic that it was important that they find their way into the film. “We only physically used things on two or three characters that had actually been used in the play. For example, the leather jacket on Collins is his iconic piece.” In the show, the coat is purchased by Collins' new boyfriend, Angel, from a homeless woman who acquired the jacket — with one sleeve missing — from the muggers who attacked Collins earlier.
“When Angela first did the play, the shopping then was fabulous down in the Village,” Rodgers explains. “There was a distinctive look from East to West Village and the production [at the New York Theatre Workshop, where RENT first began] had a limited amount of money to spend on costumes so a lot of what was onstage was the actor's own clothes. We had a lot more money than theatre pieces do and sometimes that's not good because then we pick it to death and it gets muddled.”
Rodgers says that the 1980s is her favorite decade to costume, so the first thing she does is “see what's still out there” in Goodwill stores or vintage clothing shops. “I get my palette that way so I don't get into too much trouble because you throw in things you like but may not be from that period.” She added that the choice to move RENT back in time was so that the medical crisis the characters were going through would be more relevant. “To place it in the 90s would not be as kind to the horrific medical problems that they had in the late 80s.”
Rodgers gives due credit to Columbus and director of photography Stephen Goldblatt for enabling her color palette to really pop out on screen, not an easy task for a movie that is filmed with a lot of darkness. “Stephen had a brilliant dark palette that is just exquisite. He is a brilliant cameraman. It looks rather dark in some places, then you see these breathtaking deep colors. It was a thrilling experience. I love a lot of color and rich tones, but between Chris calming me down in those tones and Stephen filming it, it looks really beautiful, deep, and rich.”
Dressing the actors was also a treat for Rodgers who says that Rosario Dawson, who plays Mimi, had a knack for creating her own look for the film. “Rosario is really good at putting stuff together,” she says. “Even though I like to take full credit for everything, I can't. It's a matter of putting a lot of things in the actor's room and standing there and watch it come together and that happened with her. I rarely had to tell her what to do. She made all these pieces her own. You don't see them as being costumes because she put them on as her own clothing.” However, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, who play Mark and Roger, had the bad habit of taking the clothes Rodgers picked out and hanging them on hangers. “I went in and threw them on the couch!” she says. “I wanted these guys to pick up their clothes, put it on, and not look in a mirror, just like guys do — Does it stink? No? Then it's okay! I hope I accomplished that.”
Since the characters in RENT are mostly on the downtrodden side, Rodgers explained that this was far different than other movies she's costumed that are mostly middle class and all about the designers or the labels. “You have to paint this swath quickly and not make it stand out,” she explains. “You want the audience to watch the lips and hear the words and music so you push the eye right past the shirt. You don't want that shirt, you want to listen to the words and make his heart yours, and that's something I feel strongly we got away with.”