Building The Buccaneers

Building The Buccaneers

December 19, 2023

Job Description

Jacquetta Levon, hair and make-up designer on The Buccaneers, tells DQ about creating the styles for the Apple TV+ period drama, working with the cast and why she has a 3D printer as part of her toolbox.

Across three decades in the television and film industry, hair and make-up designer Jacquetta Levon has worked on series as varied as The Last Weekend, Catastrophe and Little Bird.

Her career has also seen her dive into period dramas, among them Sharpe, Harlots and The Serpent Queen. And for her latest project, she travelled back to 1870s England for Apple TV+ drama The Buccaneers.

An eight-episode series inspired by Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel of the same name, it follows group of fun-loving young girls from America’s ‘new rich’ who explode on to the tightly corseted London season, kicking off an Anglo-American culture clash as the land of the stiff upper lip is infiltrated by a refreshing disregard for centuries of tradition. Sent to secure husbands and titles, the buccaneers’ hearts are set on much more than that, and saying ‘I do’ is just the beginning.

Produced by The Forge, the show comes from creator Katherine Jakeways and director Susanna White. Kriatine Frøseth, Alisha Boe, Josie Totah, Aubri Ibrag and Imogen Waterhouse star alongside Christina Hendricks, Mia Threapleton, Josh Dylan, Guy Remmers, Matthew Broome and Barney Fishwick.

Here, Levon, who is represented by Casarotto Ramsay, tells DQ how she created the hair and make-up styles featured in the series and how her role helps to accentuate the characters’ personalities.

Jacquetta Levon

How did you join The Buccaneers?
A job always starts with an attraction to personalities – most importantly to the story’s characters, the director and the writer’s gaze. The best jobs also have a good budget to support it.

I was sent a glimpse of the story: young, rich, optimistic Americans are dropped into uptight British society. It was written with great humour and pathos, and I was immediately drawn in. I was also interested in exploring the Victorian world of hair and make-up through the eyes of the young buccaneers, as well as shooting in Scotland’s beautiful castles with director Susanna White.

There was much talk about the differences from shows like Bridgerton, but The Buccaneers for me was darker and bolder. A fairytale, possibly, but not necessarily with a happy ever after.

What kind of research did you do?
The last few projects I had worked on were predominantly pre-19th century, and in those instances, I used artists’ portraits for my research. The Buccaneers is set during the new age of photography and, alongside artists such as Alphonso Mucha and the pre-Raphaelites, my research centred on images of real people. Victorians would often mark events with visits to photographic studios. I trawled through portraits from Britain, America and France, finding wonderful examples of Victorian ‘Sunday best’ properness. But among them were also images showing humour and love, same-sex partners, young girls with huge, piled-up hairstyles elaborately adorned with accessories, and incredibly long hair shown off in all its glory.

I also discovered magazines with articles about skincare, diagrams of complex hairstyles and tips on how to be a good wife.

The Buccaneers centres on a group of young American women coming to 1870s England

How did you collaborate with the rest of the team to create the style of the show?
Our costume designer Giovanni Lipari was already beginning to put together his ideas for the series when we met. We were both looking for a new interpretation for our young characters from what had previously been depicted as a period where emotions were hidden and self-controlled properness was the goal.

When I came on to the show, only half the episodes were locked down and only some of the cast were in place, but I was already beginning to understand that I wanted to apply a looseness to my interpretation. For example, I wanted it to feel like, however elaborate the hair, there was always a possibility that the buccaneers did it themselves with some help from their friends, maybe by following pictures in vintage magazines, like watching a YouTube video.

Each episode centres on a social gathering – some ‘out in society,’ others ‘at home’ – so there was an opportunity to show our buccaneers more casually, and in contrast to the more formal events. I think this has been one of the successes of the show, because it is here we get more access to their emotional journey.

Sometimes, the mask of make-up can occlude us from the emotion. This can be an interesting character choice, but in this instance my job was to support their youthful vitality and vulnerability, and for that to be the visual experience.

How did you prepare for the series?
Before the cast arrived, we made vast numbers of hairpieces, wefts and switches, experimenting with different shapes and styles. Victorian women would often use false hair to supplement their elaborate styles – it was big business. This was a joy, as it gave us the freedom to change hairstyles a lot.

We also made hair accessories that were so loved at the time. We put together velvet flowers and used a 3D printer to replicate tortoiseshell accessories.

Kristina Froseth (right) is at the centre of the ensemble as Nan St George

How did you create some of the characters?
Nan St George is the centre of the ensemble and is more of an anti-hero. Actor Kristina Froseth and I felt that her look needed to be less conformist. As the younger sister, she is not yet ‘on the scene,’ so she would have had more freedom. Having discovered historical photos of women with shorter hair, this felt the perfect direction to go in; not too obvious but very relatable.

Nan is happiest when riding wildly across the beach or swimming in the sea. When forced into tighter, neater hairstyles for society events, she seems less comfortable. The tousled bob, as well as being practical, also supports her differences from the group, as well as making her feel younger.

Christina Hendricks [Mrs St George] was keen to stay as a natural redhead, but happy to play around with the shapes of the time. She is an example of American ‘new money,’ her frothy hair adorned with feathers and jewels. She is a peacock compared with the restrained British Lady Brightlingsea [played by Fenella Woolgar].

With only a short amount of time with the cast before shooting commenced, the actors had to leap into the journey of their characters. For most, this was their first experience of a period show. There were, of course, discussions around such natural make-up styles, and I did have to prise the mascara away from a few of them on occasion!

Fortunately, we shot the ‘Weekend at Runnymede’ first [from episode two]. This gave us time to work with their characters and gain trust with relaxed, beautiful and easy styles. But it was tough. Most looks had extraordinarily little prep time, with costumes often not finished until the day of shooting. It was a hair marathon totalling around 45 different hairstyles over the course of the series.

The series also stars Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, who plays Mrs St George

How was the shoot?
The first few weeks are so important when getting to know new faces. I find the process of tweaking and adjusting the hair and make-up on camera immensely rewarding. Our director of photography, Ollie Curtis, was shooting on an Alexa LF with NDA lenses, which is great for skin. His sympathetic portrait style of lighting enabled me to use techniques and priming products that enhanced the natural skin tones, focusing on luminosity and keeping their appearance young and fresh.

I wanted them to be an open book, showing highs and lows, compared with the repressed Victorians around them. We pushed the rosy flushes of first love and allowed the gentle perspiration of anxiety to show.

What are you working on next?
I am currently filming an 18th century ‘comedy of manners,’ with Claire Foy and Richard E Grant – men in huge wigs and make-up, all shot in candlelight. It looks incredibly beautiful, but the colour disappears so we must really push the make-up to get the balance right. This, in contrast to The Buccaneers, is not a natural look. How faces can change by the aid of different make-up and lighting will forever interest me.

I am also drawn to stories of people where society’s rules influence appearance, whether in the past or the future. Going forward, I would love to interpret the world of geishas, flamenco dancers or even Harajuku fashion. Getting to the bare emotional roots of an extreme of visual identity is fascinating.

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