Michael Kaplan, the Philadelphia-born costume designer, may not have a name as recognizable as such sci-fi giants as George Lucas, Ridley Scott, or J.J. Abrams, but he is certainly as prolific, with work in such genre staples as Blade Runner, the rebooted Star Trek, and now Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in theaters everywhere (and beyond?) Thursday night and Friday.

Kaplan will stay in a galaxy far, far away for the next film in the Star Wars series, under the working title Space Bear.

What was your first "Star Wars" impression?

I had just moved to Los Angeles. I remember going to Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood and seeing the huge crowds and the seemingly endless lines around the block. I didn't make it in on my first attempt. When I did finally get to see it, it felt newer and bigger and different than any of my previous moviegoing experiences.

"Star Wars" exists in a universe with defined clothing, so you're not working from scratch.

There are always rules when I take on a project. I like the challenge of working within defined limits. With Star Wars, that only meant working within the confines of a world which I had visited a long time ago. I knew it needed updating; I needed to make it clear that time had passed, and yet stay true to that world and the characters that millions of people knew and loved. No pressure.

Ha! To say the least.

I went through this before, with Star Trek. J.J. Abrams asked if I wanted to work on Star Trek. I said I would love to work with him, but that's not the right project for me. It's not on my radar, I didn't keep up with it. But I do know there are millions of Trekkies that would come gunning for me. He said, "I understand, but would you mind speaking with me about it anyway?" I came back - and was doing Star Trek. He's charming and persuasive, and he gave me the confidence to go do it. So when he asked me to do Star Wars, I thought I wouldn't even argue with him about it.

You mentioned updating. How does that work?

A lot of it is not more than instinct. I want Harrison Ford to look good, but in the context of the Star Wars universe. The character has continued to dress himself, but there's been a gap of 30 years. I didn't dress that different from when I was at the Philadelphia College of Art. People dress themselves in a similar way, maybe they get a different size or they're not as a trendy, but the colors you like don't change. It's a continuation, and I wanted it to feel that way and look that way.

You've worked on some of the biggest science-fiction film properties of all time.

I never, ever imagined I'd be the go-to guy for these big macho sci-fi movies. Fight Club is a pretty macho movie. It's odd to me that has become my resumé. When I started working on The Sonny and Cher Show, I thought that would be my career, dressing more beautiful ladies in beautiful clothes. Not that I'm complaining - I get to do that as well - but it's not something I predicted. You don't compose your life. It's full of surprises.

When did you know you wanted to design costumes?

I attended what at the time was the Philadelphia College of Art [now the University of the Arts], thinking I would be a fine artist. I realized I didn't have the temperament for that life. I wasn't fulfilled, and after some soul-searching, I figured out what I thought would make me happy. I moved to Los Angeles, where I knew no one. After pounding the pavement, many interviews, Edith Head for one, and a series of part-time jobs - house painting - I eventually landed a pretty amazing job as an assistant designer, and gofer, on The Sonny and Cher Show.

How did growing up in Philadelphia affect you?

Philadelphia has so much to offer culturally. I remember school trips to the Franklin Institute and the Barnes Foundation when it was still in Merion. I practically lived at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I saw many shows in tryouts prior to Broadway, like Funny Girl with Babs, frequented the Academy of Music. I used to sketch the young ballerinas during Edward Caton's classes at the Pennsylvania Ballet. For a while, I lived at 10th and Pine; the brilliant architect Louis Kahn was my neighbor. This all had a great effect on me to this day.

meichel@phillynews.com
215-854-5909

@mollyeichel

KAPLAN'S PICKS

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Michael Kaplan identifies the best-designed characters (human or not) in the Star Wars galaxy:

C-3PO

Stormtrooper

Darth Vader

Luke Skywalker

Yoda

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