Friday, May 31, 2024




Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks

I was delighted to be asked to introduce a film in The Autry’s long-running ‘What is a Western?’ series. I chose News of the World not only because it is an exceptional Western but, because of the pandemic, so few people had the chance to see it as it should be seen: in a theatre, on a screen. The title, which admittedly doesn’t sound particularly Western, refers to the profession of Captain Kidd, played by Tom Hanks in his first Western. He’s a former Confederate Civil War officer, now barely making a living by travelling from town-to-town with a sheaf of newspapers, reading them to the public. He meets a young girl (Helena Zengel), a former captive of the Kiowa, and is given the unwanted responsibility of returning her to her family. It’s a tale that echoes John Ford’s The Searchers, focusing not on the search, but the challenge of a long-time captive’s return to her former world. The Autry bookstore will have copies of my book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, which I will be signing after the film. The link to The Autry, with all of the particulars, is HERE.

And if you want to buy my book right now, you can get it  HERE.


Joseph Porro

Joseph A. Porro’s costume design career is astonishing. Since 1985, beginning with no-budget films like Neon Maniacs, Porro has used his amazing design skills and style in a wide range of genres, from horror films like Fright Night Part 2 (1988) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007), to crime thrillers like The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (2015), science fiction like Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996). And there’s his international work. “I’ve spent three years in Hong Kong and seven years in mainland China and India. I'm probably one of the most traveled designers, because early in my career I worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lungren, who didn't like to pay taxes in the United States.” His designs for the 2003 version of The Music Man, and 2020’s The Mandalorian earned him Emmy nominations.  But his most appreciated designs? “I still get fan mail from Tombstone all the time.”  He also designed costumes for the Western comedy Shanghai Noon, and even the unsold pilot for the space western Martian Law. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Jospeh about his wide-ranging career, and especially his Westerns.

HENRY PARKE: I've just been rewatching Tombstone, and I love your work in it. It just doesn't look like any other Western; the costumes just seem to breathe authenticity. I understand that you're from Boston. Is it the movies that brought you to California?

JOSEPH PORRO: No, not at all. My mom was living out there with my uncle and my cousins, and I wasn't doing well financially in Boston. So I went out just to see if I could get some work out there. I said to myself, you have a design degree from Parsons in New York. Maybe you should look into costume design. I was making animal costumes like Bugs Bunny for Warner Brothers, actually sewing, in the factory in North Hollywood. And this lady, a designer, drove up in this brand new 450 SL Mercedes, and I was like, wait a minute. I'm on the wrong end of this business. (laughs), I quit the job that day. It was very scary, very lean years, the first years in Hollywood, but I was determined to be a designer.

HENRY PARKE: What was your first costume job? I mean designing, not Bugs Bunny.

JOSEPH PORRO: Near Dark was, probably. I did some stuff that went directly to video, but this was for Catherine Bigelow, who's won an Oscar (for The Hurt Locker). It was a modern-day western vampire kind of thing. Very unique in its day. That was my first decent movie.

HENRY PARKE: One of your earlier direct-to-video films was Neon Maniacs which was written by a high school friend, Mark Carducci.

JOSEPH PORRO: That was my first film as a designer and it was quite a disaster. We didn't get paid. They owed us four- or five-weeks salary and I was living in my car then. That was not my favorite film, but you know, whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

HENRY PARKE: Absolutely true. With Independence Day, Stargate, now The Mandalorian among so many others, you've specialized in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Was that your primary interest in film at that point?

JOSEPH PORRO: I liked movies where you actually designed, where you didn't go to the store to buy the outfit. You actually took a pencil and paper and did your own thing. Which I did on Tombstone, and it wasn't how I originally wanted to approach it. At the time I was hired, Kevin Costner was doing Wyatt Earp, and they were doing Geronimo. So literally every single western (rental) costume was gone. The only place that had any left was American Costume. So I go to Luster Bayless (who owned American Costume). “I've just been hired on Tombstone.” And he sits me in his office and tells me that when hell freezes over is when he will give me a costume for that movie! (laughs) Luster Bayless had interviewed with (writer/director) Kevin Jarre as a designer for Tombstone, and (not been hired).

All the big costume houses were empty, so how the hell am I going to do this movie? I said, I can get Victorian clothes in England. I think you need to put me on a plane because there's nothing here. I said, I'm from a fashion design background, so I ‘get’ manufacture. I was in New York for four years working with the designers, and we made things. So everything was manufactured, and that's why I think it had that look. There's things I would change today. I'm much more persnickety about period men's suits and coats and how they're done. Then I was just happy to get someone to make it. So we built it: we built the whole show. And Kevin (Jarre) wanted it much more Technicolor. He was very into the history. He really knew his shit. He got fired, of course, like a week into it. But he wrote the original script too. I was very sad to see that happen. And then they brought in George Cosmatos. He was a piece of work, that one. (laughs) He'd walk on this new set, he'd turn to the set dresser. He'd go, “You see that painting? You see that chair? When we're done with the scene, I want those sent over to me.” He just cleaned the place out! He said that to me with the sketches, too. He said, “I want all your sketches.” And designers were allowed to keep their sketches back then. Now everything's on a computer, but back then they were all original drawings. And in 40 films, he was the only one ever to say to me, “I want your sketches.” I gave him some, I let him think it was all of them. It was either that or be fired. He was not a nice person, but he liked me. I think he fired about 40 or 50 people. Cleaned house. I don't think he's got a devoted fan club, but he finished the film right, and it did look good.

HENRY PARKE: Did he have the kind of strong feelings that Kevin Jarre did about costumes? Or did he just go with what had been planned?

JOSEPH PORRO: He went with. He said what he'd seen in the dailies totally worked and just stay with it. He wasn't persnickety about what I did. He gave me free rein.

HENRY PARKE: Obviously the costumes for all of your characters were very different. I'm thinking particularly about characters like Curly Bill or Ike Clanton.

JOSEPH PORRO: I built all of it. What I rented from England were background, Victorian costumes for people doing crosses (background extras). I built all the chaps.  We did the hat thing with Stetson. I had a glove manufacturer downtown doing the western gloves. I had guys doing all the hand tooling on different things. Guess who it ended up with? This is the part that's great.


JOSEPH PORRO: Well, the line producer wanted Luster (Bayless) to be on it. It was some serious kickback kind of thing going on. At the end of the show I was given two days to wrap, and it all went to American Costume. Everything. I swiped one pair of cowboy boots, and Charlton Heston's neck scarf I kept for myself because I paid for it with my own money. American took everything. That would never happen today in a studio film. But back then it was different.


Design for Dana Delany's lilac dress

JOSEPH PORRO: But there was that interesting mix of characters there. Dana Delany was absolutely wonderful. All the ladies, the wives were all great. And Bill Paxton, that first film I did, Near Dark, Bill Paxton was in that. I loved Bill. God, it's so sad he's not with us anymore; such a great guy. Fun, enthusiastic, and he worked your costume, you know what I mean? He got into it, and it helped him become a character; he really was just a joy to be around. Really fun.

I ended up spending literally the whole year with Kurt Russell because I did Stargate with him right after Tombstone. I got to know Goldie (Hawn) pretty well because I'd see her like 20, 30 times at the house for the fittings. She was absolutely lovely. From the crew perspective, boy, Sam Elliott worked the whole room. He knew everybody's name -- the guy who was doing the coffee in the morning, and his wife's name. All the girls thought he was the most charming thing that ever walked, and I thought he was wonderful too.

Billy Zane was an absolute joy, just fun to be around. And so was Powers Booth, absolutely lovely. Stephen Lang, Jason Priestley, Thomas Hayden Church. Michael Biehn was nice, very polite, but he was kind of reserved. What's the name of the other guy who became a much bigger star? Billy Bob Thornton. Yeah, he's a great guy. And so was Charlton Heston. I was kind of in awe. It was originally going to be Robert Mitchum. He couldn't pass the medical; that's the only reason he wasn't in it. And I think it was one of Heston's last films. It was a real joy to dress the guy. Because I was a kid who saw Ben Hur, and he was such a big, big, big star for so long. Planet of the Apes and all these great films he did. He was lovely. He was with his wife every second of the time. And she was a lovely lady. She was by the camera, and as soon as they stopped, she would be with him and she'd go get him a cup of coffee. The two just were very close. You could tell he was having fun. I think it was like a bunch of overgrown kids, playing. And I saw this again when I did Shanghai Noon too. It was like, these really are a bunch of overgrown kids, they get their toy guns and they get on a horse and they get to ride over the hill and shoot the gun, and they're having a ball. It's that kind of environment when you're on a Western. There was only one real pain in the ass on (Tombstone). And you know who that was.

HENRY PARKE: No, I don't.

JOSEPH PORRO: Val Kilmer. And I think he had a lot to do with Kevin Jarre getting kicked out. He didn't think (Jarre) was up to snuff. He stole my father's watch-fob chain, which he was wearing in the movie. He took everything that he could of his (character’s) stuff. He stole the guns that were genuine pistols of the period; a big gun collector was a gun guy on the show. And he brought in the real deal and Val stole 'em. I don't know if those got back, but I called the producer and I said, he's got my grandfather's watch-chain; it's a family piece. I didn't get it back. He said, I'm going to send you a check for a thousand dollars. He had been dealing with props and everyone with Val. I'll tell you one thing he did do well. He was definitely the one who worked out (twirling) the silver cup. I'm the one that supplied the silver cup. I still have it.

HENRY PARKE: I particularly loved Dana Delany's costumes. Was it fun to design for her?

JOSEPH PORRO: It was. We used the Tucson Opera House to build the clothes for her and the other ladies. And the cutter fitter there, the head person, ended up staying with me. She was on The Mandalorian with me. We stayed together for 30 years. Her name is Maggie McFarland. Lovely, lovely lady. And she's still working in Hollywood. I'm retired, but she's still working.

My favorite day on Tombstone was the day that they all rode over the hill -- that big crowd of cowboys. Because that was a big setup, and very early on in production, the third or fourth day of shooting. I was so desperate: how am I gonna get clothes on these guys? And when I saw them all come over the hill and thought, I still haven't been fired! That was my, “I did it!” day. It was one of the toughest films I've ever worked on in my life. It was 18-hour days and a 40-minute drive to that set. The last two, three weeks of shooting Tombstone, the Stargate people wanted preliminary sketches. <laugh>. So then I was getting three to four hours of sleep, because I'd have to do drawings at night. It was a tough show.

HENRY PARKE: Did the success of Tombstone have a big effect on your career?

JOSEPH PORRO: Well, no. You would think I would get 20 westerns after that, right? It doesn't work that way in Hollywood. So many directors liked it, but they weren't Western directors. It was definitely a feather in my cap. And they would be like, oh, he did Tombstone. So it did not hurt my career at all.  And here I am now looking back; it's probably, movie-wise, the one I'm going to be known for, you know? I've done television things that were costume-wise better than Tombstone. Much better.

HENRY PARKE: What was your favorite part of doing Shanghai Noon?

JOSEPH PORRO: The barroom scene in Shanghai Noon is something that I'm incredibly proud of, because that was hysterical. It took three weeks to shoot, as it was like 40 people in the fight, and everything that they've done in every movie for a hundred years with barrooms they did in that one. And they did it with a great sense of humor.

HENRY PARKE: Was doing a comedy Western a lot different from a serious western?

JOSEPH PORRO: No, there was no difference at all. What the joy for me was to actually see Jackie Chan still in his golden years, working at a level of choreography and magic that I've never seen in my life, on anything else. I mean, I worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme and those guys, a lot of action stars early on in the eighties. And none of them could put a show on like Jackie Chan, like him in a fight. His choreography and his sense of humor -- like, I can't believe that he just did that, you know?  <laugh>  I mean, he jumped over this or tumbled -- it's like, what the hell?


A Shanghai Noon design for Jackie Chan

HENRY PARKE: When you did Shanghai Noon, did you actually get to go to China?

JOSEPH PORRO: It's the first time I was in China. It was an absolute nightmare: they forgot to get me a Chinese visa. I didn't know I needed a visa because I was just a guy from L.A. I didn't need a visa when we shot in Canada. So here I am at the airport for 18 hours, and Jackie Chan made one phone call and I was let out! <laugh>. He was that powerful. Since Charlton Heston did 55 Days at Peking (1963) the only American to do the Chinese Imperial Court was me, in Shanghai Noon. And I did the full-on court. I did 500 guards, all different levels, with generals. I did the whole royal family, I did a Chinese opera troop, and I did all the servants and the eunuchs. It was roughly 700 costumes to pull those scenes off. My God. And I had 'em all built in China.


JOSEPH PORRO: That it was! It was fun!  <laugh>. And I made friends from that first trip and then, they called me for something else, and I ended up doing seven Chinese movies. I was the American in China doing Chinese movies. I'm so proud of some of them. No one's ever going to see the Chinese movies in America, some of my best work. But they paid literally double what they were paying me in Hollywood. So I took the work, which was bad because that kept me out of the loop in L.A. It kind of took me out of the picture. You need to be seen and be around. It was bad on that level, but otherwise it was great.

HENRY PARKE: We’ve talked about Jackie Chan, but how was Owen Wilson to work with?

A Shanghai Noon design for Owen Wilson

JOSEPH PORRO: Oh, dreadful, horrible. Me and my crew wanted to just slit our throats every five minutes we spent with (Kilmer and Wilson), they were that obnoxious. Owen Wilson: you're doing an 1870s western and I've done all these sketches, and we have all these materials that are authentic. I've got actual pieces from the period, to show him how the real shit looked. And lots of black and white photos from the period, and sketches. And he comes in and he goes, "Oh, I was just on Rodeo (Drive) yesterday" -- and he actually talked like this -- “I was just on Rodeo and I saw these white Gucci jeans, and I really feel that is direction we should go in." Could you hear me? 1870s western male lead wants to wear white Gucci jeans? How is he with Jackie (Chan)? Amazing. The two were perfect together. The chemistry was great. How was Val Kilmer in Tombstone? He was amazing. You watch him, and he's the perfect person for this role. Could I stand him? No. It wasn't just me; it was hair and makeup. He drove all of us crazy.

Val Kilmer would just sit in front of the mirror staring at himself like he was a Greek god, and we have five other fittings to do today, and this is a film done on a tight little budget. I’ve got to get shit done nonstop around the clock, and he is sitting there and asking you, can you get sushi in Tucson? I go, you've got 28 (costume) changes; we need to lock them in and do the alterations on them <laugh>. And we didn't know what he was wearing till 10 minutes before he was in front of camera.  Everybody has their tough times on a shoot. And if you're good at what you do, you have a vision, you fight for it. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. Take it for what it is, but it's a hell of an exciting business to be in. For every person that's difficult, I had 500 that were a joy. And I never had two days that were alike in 45 years.


Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright May 2024 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved