Bojana Nikitović, Costume designer

I Don’t Have Complexes About Being from Serbia

She’s the most successful woman from this region in the film world. She was the first associate to costume designer Milena Canonero when she won the 2007 Oscar for Best Costume Design for the Sofia Copolla’s film Marie Antoinette. She has long since operated as an independent costume designer for numerous top-class film productions. Apart from all of that, she also works in the theatre, which is her first and greatest love, and four Sterija Prizes merely serve to prove that she also does so very successfully

Bojana Nikitovic Costume designer

She grew up in a house where her father, Dragan Nikitović (1930-1997), was a genuine sporting and television star and legend of journalism. And it was perhaps because of that that she never idolised famous people. Her mother Vojislava, aka Vojka, was a specialist doctor and the real pillar of the home, supporting at all times her daughters Aleksandra and Bojana:

“Today I’m increasingly fond of my childhood, I increasingly appreciate my parents for the kind of upbringing they gave me. They had a wonderful marriage and the two of us grew up in the beauty of socialising with friends and with family. Our house was always filled with people; my parents socialised with friends, our friends came round to see us, we went to theirs. Everything exuded intimacy that was lost in the growing up of children during later years. We belonged to that proper, good middle class that devised life in such a way that both children and parents feel good. It was known that once a week we would go for lunch at a good tavern; it was known that lunch or dinner would be eaten with neighbours, with the wishes of us children respected. This way of raising children was a product of a time that had a system of values in which the majority of the inhabitants of our country – and that country was called Yugoslavia – felt good, and we were satisfied.”

Bojana Nikitović, Costume designer
WITH EMILY BLUNT

The simplicity that characterised her father – with his wide smile, charm and emotions – seem to have been directly transferred to Bojana, who was born in 1965. In both character and stature, her famous father is resembled by her son Vuk, born of her marriage to actor Gojko Baletić. Vuk completed studies in economics and management in the U.S. and now works for an American company. His parents, long since divorced, have very good relations:

“I’m very proud of my Vuk. It wasn’t easy, due to my absences, but he understood that the best. That’s because he know that even when I was absent I was with him, and that I would catch the first plane if he needed me. And when I was here, I was devoted to him completely. We mutually shielded each other from typical heartfelt stories and concerned comments that could be very painful. Because, how can a mother work and be a good mother? That’s forbidden here; you have to prove you’re a devoted mother by sitting at home and mainly watching TV shows, not your children. This story of mothers who are always present but are in fact totally absent, and who have the right to cast judgement and comment, today – finally – only makes me smile, but it hurt me a lot for a long time. We are truly connected today; we have a healthy, honest relationship. I’m sorry my father didn’t get to see that we’re doing well and the kind of guy that Vuk grew up to be. I think he would be very proud. Whenever I start talking about him, I’m overcome by emotions. I am grateful to him, or more precisely to mother and to him, for the most beautiful childhood and adolescence that I had.”

Nevertheless, her father’s glory – regardless of how beautiful it was in providing her with opportunities to meet many wonderful people from the worlds of sport and culture – sometimes also had an unpleasant side:

Bojana-Nikitovic-Costume-designer-Marie-Antoinette
MILENA CANONERO AND BOJANA NIKITOVIĆ “MARIE ANTOINETTE

“It happened that a parents’ meeting was dedicated to the blue suit that my dad brought back from Sweden. The truth was that other children also already had some different details at that time, shorts, trainers, although most wore black suits, but that didn’t bother them, Nikita’s daughter was the problem… So I dressed in that suit once and never again. And I’ve remembered it always. I didn’t pass the enrolment to enter the Faculty of Applied Arts the first time around because I was “Nikita’s daughter”. My father returned that day from an athletics event in Zurich that he’d covered and in the car he heard the Studio B radio show ‘From breakfast to lunch’ had a guest director in Applied Arts Faculty professor Aleksandar Mandić. They discussed how children of actors have an advantage when enrolling in acting studies, then some woman called the show and said that this was also the case at the Faculty of Applied Arts, where the entrance exams haven’t yet been completed but it is already known that Nikita’s daughter will be accepted. She also said that I had a special table where I set to work while the entrance exam was taking place, and that my father brings me to the enrolment every day. My father, righteous and honest as he was, went straight to Studio B and said that it was all a lie; that he was just coming back from an official trip, that he had no idea what his daughter had been doing during the previous days because he hadn’t been in Belgrade. Then my schoolmates and teachers began appearing, it was discovered that I’d been the only Vukovac [top graduating school pupil] to register for the entrance exam… The entire show gained another direction, but it was all to no avail because they didn’t accept me at the Faculty of Applied Arts that year. I was the first below the line, which – as anyone who has ever taken an entrance exam to any academy knows – is the worst possible variant. But they actually did me a great service, because that generation was extremely poor. Nobody did anything serious. I spent that year studying English and Italian, which would prove really worthwhile later in my life, and the next year I was accepted in a class that was excellent.”

I’m sorry my father didn’t get to see the kind of guy that my son Vuk grew up to be. I think he would be very proud… I am grateful to him and my mother for the most beautiful childhood and adolescence that I had

She already knew when she finished primary school that she would be either a costume designer or nothing. She gained her first job at Jugoexport, which was then still a powerful firm. However, she resigned the same day she was called by Egon Savin to dress his actors for the play Laža i paralaža at the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad.

She couldn’t have wished for a better entrance into the theatre. She spent a short time assisting Ljiljana Dragović and Mira Čohadžić, when famous actor and director Branko Pleša invited Bojan to design the costumes for his play Kus Petlić. The actors were Branimir Brstin, Dara Džokić, Aljoša Vučković, Rale Milenković et al. The set designer was Geroslav Zarić. This call came after the discovery that she was the assistant of Ljiljana Dragović, who Bojana simply adores:

“In the National Theatre, where I’m actually employed, there are no longer those old seamstresses who would say as soon as they saw me, ‘Here’s that one of Dragović’s!’ And I’m sweeter, growing. I remember the talent and tranquillity with which Mira Čohadžić worked. She undertook enormous, demanding tasks with the kind of ease that I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since. I was left with the regret of not having worked with the great Božana Jovanović, but I always remembered how she communicated with actors and ballet dancers. That was a unique experience.”

Bojana Nikitović, Costume designer
POKONDIRENA TIKVA

Theatre director Dejan Mijač represents a special chapter in Bojana’s career. In his setting for the play Troilus and Cressida, she made costumes that many dubbed as being the best designs devised for the boards of a theatre stage. And when they adapted Krleža’s Leda Dejan didn’t even want to see the sketches of the designs. He made jokes in the style, ‘what should I look at; I know you’re making the wrong costumes’:

“Even today I think that the costumes for Troilus and Cressida and for Ice were the best things I created in the theatre. The time came for a dress rehearsal for Ice, and I told Mijač three times that the costumes weren’t adjusted because I’d been waiting to see them on the stage, and it was only after that I’d know which costume to adapt and by how much. However, it was to no avail, because when he saw them he started jumping up and down on the stage, shouting how nothing was up to scratch and – as if that wasn’t enough – Dejan interrupted the rehearsal from time to time just to give more criticism. Ognjanka Mlićević, a wonderful director and professor at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, sat next to Mijač to watch the rehearsal and say: “Wow, how beautiful the costumes are!” And he responded:

“If I’d wanted pretty costumes I’d have engaged Božana Jovanović”. I decided to keep quiet and to cry when I got home. I adapted the costumes and the next day was a full dress rehearsal with the proper costumes and under the right light, and the great, great Dejan Mijač hugged me and said: “You surely didn’t tell Vojka (my mother) that I scolded you”. I told him that I’d complained to her first, but he’d already repented and wouldn’t stop telling me how great the costumes were, how they were the best. I had the fortunate of working with our best directors, but the experience of working with Dejan Mijač was perhaps the most important for my formation. He knew how to create directions for me, to call me and say: “Turn on the TV, on this or that channel is a fashion review, have a look and tell me what you think”. Through those remarks of his, costumes for plays simply appeared in my mind and I knew what I had to do.”

I received my first Sterija Prize at the age of 25, and my second very soon after. I’ve been lucky with awards. However, only great successes in a career mark a serious artist. For me, that was the film Maria Antoinette

Bojan’s film career is divided into the periods before and after Milena Canonero. This celebrated Italian lady, who today possesses four Oscars for costume design, came to Belgrade in 2001 to work on an Italian film, which unfortunately never made it into cinemas, and Bojana was her Belgrade-based assistant. And they immediately clicked. The choice of materials and costume solutions that Bojana proposed were very much to the liking of this great artist. What Bojana did with the costume of a large actor who played the role of an extra tasked with just laughing was particularly fun. She tailored him pyjamas from tricot material with a print of racing horses and a sunset. Fatal kitsch. But she tailored the pyjamas in such a way that the horses crossed on the stomach, where they came together when the buttons were fastened. And when the extra laughed it appeared as though the horses were colliding on his stomach. This solution was very interesting for Milena, who really liked Bojana’s sketches, and so began their collaboration, which would culminate with an Oscar for costume design.

Success with Milena opened doors for our costume designer and she has been independently signing her name to major film projects for many years, including – among others – Die Hard 5, Underworld 5, Coriolanus, The November Man, Papillon, The Aftermath etc.

Bojana Nikitović, Costume designer
PAPILLON

“I am a swot who considers that the most important thing in every job is to work, to prove yourself and to love what you do. It is also important to recognise the right moment to take the initiative. I learned that working with Milena. However, a person still needs to have a little luck in their career, and mine was that I met Milena; she opened the doors to all of the world’s best costume houses to me, introduced me to the best costume designers, tailors, hairdressers and make-up artists. It was next to her that I learnt everything I know about cuts, silhouettes of epochs, materials – working with her represented my post-graduate studies.

Of course, I was also shaped by the great directors with whom I was fortunate to work, from Branko Pleša, via Rale Milenković, Egon Savin and Dejan Mijač, to my own Jagoš Marković, with whom I have special collaboration, as we both already have experience, knowhow and identical commitment to work… I received my first Sterija Prize at the age of 25, and my second very soon after. I’ve been lucky with awards.

“However, only great successes in a career mark a serious artist. For me, that was the film Maria Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola. I was initially scared of the responsibility, then Milena Canonero encouraged me by saying that we have the same taste that implies simple and minimalistic aesthetics, which was the greatest compliment ever for me.”

Bojana explains for laymen that every trim on the costumes was sewn by hand, that they were made from the same material as the costume, and that there was no consideration to sew them by machine, because then the effect would have been lost. When the trim is sewn manually it is like foam. And that was the case for each costume individually:

“That effort, which all of us in the costume department invested in that film, I don’t think any of us could repeat. For three months, or more pre-cisely for 12 weeks, we worked at locations in Paris, and there wasn’t a single day of deviation from the shooting plan there. That was the only way that it was possible to do such a large and demanding job.”

When she creates a costume for an actor, Bojana is in close contact with them, and these famous stars are fairly exposed in front of her – not only physically, because they strip during rehearsals, but also their character is exposed to a great extent:

“I really love actors and I wouldn’t be able to work with them if that wasn’t the case. They behave differently, of course, but it’s somehow a rule that actors who can’t relax – who don’t want to work with people who are doing their part of the job for a film – always somehow pass the worst. Their costumes are almost always the worst. Some people are really changed by fame, but there are those who fame suits very well, and one of them is Pierce Brosnan, who I worked with to my great pleasure and remained in good contact with. I hope we’ll work together again. I recall Ralph Fiennes as being a perfect professional who is unbelievably dedicated to his work. He knows how to avoid sitting all day during shooting just to avoid spoiling the perfectly ironed seam of his trousers. It was a pleasure to work with him. I was at his place in London and we became friends in a certain way.

Bojana Nikitović, Costume designer
WITH SON VUK

“Sofia Coppola is a wonderful, intelligent and courageous young woman. Like Anjelica Huston, she has strong family foundations in the profession and in her private life that are very important. There is no improvisation with her; she knows precisely what she wants, so it’s easy to work with her. Her father, the great Francis Ford Coppola, sometimes came to shoots, but only as an observer, of course. So, if I’ve ever been fascinated by someone while doing this job, that was the moment I saw him at the entrance to our rehearsal hall. I remember calling friends and whispering: ‘I’m standing just two metres away from Francis Ford Coppola!’

“Another great actress and great person is Cate Blanchett. We worked on a film together while she was pregnant, but nobody felt that. She never complained and never asked for anything; she was a real professional.”

Bojana says that the film world is actually small and that directors usually call her because they’ve heard about her from some colleague or friend with whom she’s previously worked. As is the case everywhere, recommendations are important. Everyone more or less knows everyone else in the film world and they tell each other about the experiences they’ve had with the people with whom they’ve worked.

Sofia Coppola is a wonderful, intelligent and courageous young woman. Like Anjelica Huston, she has strong family foundations in the profession and in her private life that are very important. There is no improvisation with her; she knows precisely what she wants, so it’s easy to work with her

“One of the producers on the film Papillon told me that he wanted to hire me because he’d watched Maria Antoinette. And his great friend was one of the producers of that film. He called him and asked if he recalled Bojana, who was Milena’s assistant on Maria Antoinette, to which his friend replied that he remembered me very well, then he gave me many compliments and that’s how I came to work on Papillon. The director of the film Fallen, Scott Hicks, called the director I worked with on The November Man, Roger Donaldson, who is his old friend, and asked him about me, to which he said that I’m excellent and that he should hire me.”

Or when she worked on a film with Keira Knightley, she was called by director James Kent, with whom she’d already collaborated, and the determining factor in her accepting the job was that she was to work with Keira Knightley for the first time – because who wouldn’t like to dress Keira Knightley?!

In this serious film world it isn’t irrelevant whether they call Bojana Nikitović or have some clear English, Italian or French name. What’s more, Bojana doesn’t allow herself to lag behind the team in any way. She speaks Italian and English excellently, and is very talented, diligent, precise, responsible… We should also add that she’s a very distinctive character; very slim, tall and dressed with absolute chic. But her career still wasn’t easy. She used to hear comments “This one has come from Serbia to tell us about costumes”, there were even those who were jealous while she was Canonero’s assistant, but she also forged wonderful friendships that remain from that period. Thus, Francesca Brunori, who was also Canonero’s assistant at one time, remains her best “Italian” friend, who Bojana can now call whenever she wants to be her associate:

“It’s always easy with people who are selfrealised and don’t suffer from vanity. I don’t have complexes about being from Serbia when I work with foreigners. It once may have initially required a little more effort for them to believe in me, but I always felt equal with others in my work. I’m perhaps sometimes to blame because I’m a swot, a perfectionist; because I’ve raised the bar for myself despite nobody seeking that of me.”

Two days after this interview for CorD, Nikitović travelled to Bucharest for the shooting of another American film.