The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the third collaboration between costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays and Cohen. One of the biggest challenges was creating costumes for the beginning of the film. “There was very little to go on,” explains Hays. “There was some reference to jewelry, a few drawings, a bit of cloth and discovered mummies. I based most ideas on research from museums and books. The most useful were findings from Xi’an; we went there to look at the Warriors.”
Hays and two sketch artists worked nonstop for four months to imagine the costumes for Cohen’s world. “After you have a sketch approved, the second part of the creative process starts,” she explains. “You look for fabrics and the details from all over the world—from Hong Kong, China, Thailand and India to New York and Europe.
I used hundreds of yards of fabric, many which I bought in Montreal.” Particularly, silks—which take dyes beautifully—were used to complement the film’s Asian themes.
The designer supervised a large team on two continents. She created a huge workshop at Mel’s Cite du Cinema, where she employed craftsmen from every area of expertise: a sketch artist, cutter fitters, embroiderers and jewelry makers. She also outsourced to Film Illusions, a company that specializes in unique costumes for the film industry and was responsible for creating the Emperor’s armor.
Hays designed a new look for Rick, therefore more mellow outfits were created for Fraser, more “John Wayne.” She says, “Brendan now wears a few suits and looks terrific in the ’40s look; he is so built now. As the action begins, we put him in a bomber jacket to toughen him up, and, toward the end of the movie, he goes back to his ‘mummy chaser’ look: pants, shirts and big guns…so he becomes the Rick O’Connell everyone knows.”
Designing for Luke Ford was amusing. “Luke starts the movie down and dirty; a Marlboro man with a 1946 leather jacket, unshaven,” she explains. “He carries that look beautifully, as he is tall and has such great charisma. Then, we clean him up and switch him into the white tuxedo, Bogart-style. Alex is more like a ’40s hip-hop, with the big, baggy pilot pants, big old shoes, big jacket. It all is very proper period, but the silhouette is more modern and appealing.”
Isabella Leong’s character begins as an anonymous assassin. Cohen and Hays agreed on a tunic look that kept the moving shadow hidden…and tricked the unsuspecting into believing Lin is a man. “For the scene in the museum where she tries to save Rick and Evy,” Hays explains, “I dressed her up for Chinese New Year in a coat—a little Matrix-style. She needed to be ready for action, so we added dress pants underneath. The coat is a long cut, so when she flies through the air, it flies behind her.” For Li’s long trek back to Shangri-la, the costumer provided her with a warm outfit inspired by the Tibetan national costumes.
The designer created nine stunning costumes for Michelle Yeoh, designs not exactly determined by the period. Hays notes, “She is a sorceress, so it gave me more freedom. When Michelle put them on, they became alive. She is so graceful and wears the costume so beautifully. The way she moves and holds her neck…she almost floats.”
One of Yeoh’s costumes was inspired by Chinese ethnic minority clothes. Recounts Hays, “It was for the big sword fight with Jet Li where she wears a pleated skirt. I bought a knee-length skirt for myself in Shanghai; I swirled in it, and the way it moved was amazing. We made it in a long version, and one of the girls here, Malika, went through hell trying to figure out how they did it. Everything was hand-pleated, but we finally figured it out. The skirt is very straight when Michelle is standing, but when she kicks, fights and swirls in it, it flies out in a full circle. I can’t wait to see it on screen.”
Designing armor for Jet Li was a long process, one Hays started months before photography began. It was the first thing she designed, as many needed to know what the armor was going to be—in particular the visual effects and art departments.
Hays had to design several versions of the armor, as each served a different purpose. “For the scenes where he walks around and looks majestic, we created the heavier outfits, which used the replica jade pieces. We had to come up with a much lighter version for the fight sequences, so he is able to move properly. Finally, we needed a version for VFX as he turns into terracotta, covered in mud and goo.
“Initially, I got into these philosophical discussions about the Emperor and his search for immortality with Rob,” Hays concludes. “We realized that the jade in ancient China was connected with immortality, and that he may have been dressed in jade just before he died. Rob and I got very excited because armor had never been made out of jade. Then the search started for the perfect piece of jade to give it the color, and how to make it. Each piece was individually done and they are connected.”