Into the Woods
The haunting and beautiful cinematic debut of Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy
When Kate and Laura Mulleavy set out to make a feature film, the sisters began in the redwoods.
The Mulleavys, the renowned designers behind the L.A.-based fashion label Rodarte, always seem to begin in the woods. They were raised in Aptos, a small town down the coast from Santa Cruz, where protected old-growth forest served as their playground. Their first collection, which landed Rodarte on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily, was created in their parents’ Pasadena home in 2004 and featured wispy dresses made of undulating strips of satin and tulle inspired by redwood bark.
Five years later, when they began working on a film script between fashion seasons, they returned to the redwoods. Ansel Adams and John Steinbeck, two California artists the sisters greatly admire, talked about how difficult it is to portray a redwood in images and words. The Mulleavys took this as a challenge. What if, they wondered, they could make a movie that conveyed what they felt while standing in a grove of immense, centuries-old trees?
Their answer is Woodshock, which stars their friend Kirsten Dunst as Theresa, a woman whose mother has just died. She works at a weed dispensary in Humboldt County, and she spends much of the film wandering among the redwoods, lost in her grief and in the throes of the powerful hallucinogen she’s smoking to cope with it. Her boyfriend works for a logging company, cutting down the very trees that are comforting her. “Woodshock,” the sisters say, is their term for being lost in the forest.
I meet them a few weeks before the film’s premiere on a bright Saturday morning at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. They’ve just returned from Paris, where they showed the Rodarte spring 2018 collection, inspired by Robert Altman’s 1977 masterpiece, 3 Women. (Their collections often have cinematic inspirations.) Today the sisters are each wearing polka-dot collared shirts (Kate’s is pink with tiny blue dots; Laura’s is cream with tiny black dots), jeans, and black flats. They have matching gold watches, both worn on the left wrist. With the exception of Laura’s black eye shadow, which extends to her brow ridge, they’re dressed like my own sister, who is a fifth-grade teacher at a Catholic school in Illinois — a far cry from the extravagant, meticulously handmade designs Rodarte is known for.
Laura hasn’t had coffee yet, so Kate does most of the talking at first. She wants to show me her favorite painting here, a Van Gogh portrait of his mother in arresting shades of turquoise. “She looks kind of sickly and strange,” Kate says. “That’s why I like it.” The painting was one of the inspirations for their spring 2012 collection, which featured garish teals and yellows and prints reminiscent of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes.
We order an iced coffee for Laura and find a shaded table in the museum’s garden café near a pond ringed with sculptures. The museum is a short drive (or a long walk, if you’re up for it) from their home. At ages 37 and 38, Kate and Laura still live together — and near their parents, whose home they lived in for years despite their success in the fashion world.
Their mother, an artist and film buff, instilled in them a love of movies, showing her daughters the complete Hitchcock oeuvre before they were 10 (her favorite is Vertigo, which includes a disorienting scene in the redwoods). Their father is a mycologist, whose expertise includes morels and fairy-tale mushrooms — the cartoonish ones with white-dotted red caps. “It’s the most beautiful mushroom on the planet,” Laura says — and, she adds, one of the most poisonous. The toxins can cause hallucinations.
“That’s where our interests lie,” Kate says. “I think there’s duality to everything. Humanity is capable of such beautiful things. But it’s also capable of such massive amounts of destruction.”
The Mulleavys went to the University of California, Berkeley (Kate studied art history, and Laura studied biology before switching to literature), where both signed up for a costume-design class but dropped it. Kate remembers a film class she took, though, in which the professor told the students that if they wanted to know what a movie was about, “don’t ask the director because so many things come out unconsciously.”
The Mulleavys are collaboratively self-taught in film, as they are in fashion. They wrote the script for Woodshock by handing a laptop back and forth. Laura read some books on cinematography, just to learn the established rules so they would be aware of when they were breaking them. (She then explained the rules to Kate, who hadn’t read up.) “I feel like our sense of learning comes from interacting,” Laura says. “It felt very natural.”
They’re not good at explaining exactly what they had to learn, and when. They can be reluctant to fill in all the details of their process for even their closest collaborators. When the sisters asked photographer Autumn de Wilde to capture their first fashion collection, de Wilde asked if she could see the clothes before committing. They brought her a single sketch and a swatch of fabric. “They’re very secretive,” de Wilde says. “After about five minutes of talking to them, I still didn’t know what they did, but I stopped them and said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, I’m in.’”
She’s worked with Kate and Laura ever since, and they’ve grown so close, they spend Christmas Eve together every year. “There’s two of them,” de Wilde says, “but they’re my best friend.” The Mulleavys are known for keeping a tight circle of collaborators — de Wilde, the artist Miranda July, Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson, and actress-muses like Dunst and Natalie Portman. Being present while the sisters are batting around ideas has inspired her own art, de Wilde says. “Sometimes you become a part of the organism, and sometimes you’re the wall that they’re playing handball against.”
The sisters consider themselves storytellers first and foremost, no matter what the medium. But unlike a fashion collection, in which months of labor are distilled to a quick 15 minutes on the runway, much of a film’s work happens after it’s shot. De Wilde has observed them both backstage at fashion shows and on the set of their film. When you think one of them isn’t paying attention to some detail, the other one is, she says. “They have this amoeba-like personality together and yet a fiercely independent personality individually, and they switch roles depending on what’s needed for the partnership. When one is weak, the other is strong.” On set, though, those shifts were almost imperceptible to people outside the sisterly bond. What was apparent was their confidence in their shared vision. De Wilde photographed them goofing around in the dressing room and in moments of concentration at the monitor.
The Mulleavys have known for a long time that they wanted to make a movie and set it in Northern California. Their parents went to undergrad at Humboldt State, and Kate and Laura grew up looking through “the blue book,” which is what they called the album full of photos of their young parents from that period. “So I think in our mind we always had kind of a romantic connection to the landscape there,” Kate says. Perhaps this is why Woodshock has a timeless feel: Even though Dunst’s character works in a modern dispensary, all of the cars are older models, the furniture is vintage, and none of the characters use cellphones.
Dunst had seen redwoods before, but she’d never been among the really big ones in person. On the first day of production, the sisters blindfolded her, led her into a grove, and started filming her first reaction to the trees. She fingers the bark, drags an arm across the trunk, gazes upward. This footage makes up the opening shots of the movie.
“There’s not a lot of dialogue in the film,” Laura says, “because no one in your life really explains everything they are thinking. I don’t tell Kate what I’m feeling all the time; I just talk about random things.” This, the sisters say, is what they’ve felt when they’ve gone through periods of grief and isolation. Sometimes there is no explanation. Sometimes you get lost in yourself.
To complete the movie, they squeezed in the filmmaking between fashion seasons. Most brands deliver four or more collections every year; Rodarte releases just two. They shot the film during the summer of 2015, then did a fall collection. They started editing that October, stopped to make a Rodarte collection in January 2016, then came back to the film in March. “When I was in that world, I was in it,” Kate says. “What was hard was that we’d finish shooting, and we had a month to get ready for a show.” Over the summer, they traveled to London and Sweden to finish the score, the coloring, and the sound. In September, they showed another Rodarte collection. And then did the film’s final sound mix in October.
“It was actually crazy,” Kate says.
“The stress,” Laura says, “was making our shows better.”
“Which was weird,” Kate says. “It made us different as designers. I think our decision-making process was faster.”
They’ve recently switched up their Rodarte calendar: Now they show in Paris instead of in New York. “Making the film probably made us feel like we could break that cycle,” Laura says. Not because they want to make time for more movies — though they want to write and direct again — but because they’d been designing Rodarte on the same schedule for a decade, and it was time for a change.
The sisters like to think of themselves as fashion outsiders, despite their years of experience and the shelf of awards, because they’ve always lived far from the industry capitals of New York and Paris. But now that they’re filmmakers, I point out, they live in L.A., the epicenter of the entertainment industry. They’re still outsiders, Laura insists. “I think our version is being in Pasadena.”