Throughout her career, costume designer Mary Zophres has worked for some of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood. Nominated for multiple Oscars in her career, her designs are instantly noticeable. Last year, she had a pair of projects that offered up some of the most distinctive costumes of the season. So, to get inside her head and to pick her brain, that was a pleasure.
Recently, we got a chance to speak to Zophres about her terrific 2018. Nominated for Best Costume Design for her most recent Coen Brothers collaboration “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” she also did noteworthy work on “First Man.” As an added bonus, one of the stars who wore her costumes, Zoe Kazan, was kind enough to help out and pose some of the questions asked of Zophres. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix and up for three Academy Awards.
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: Congratulation on the year you had.
Mary Zophres: Thank you!
JM: For this interview, I actually cheated. I got Zoe Kazan to ask the questions for me.
MZ: (Laughs) To make up the questions?
JM: Yes! She’s a big fan of yours.
MZ: Aww! (Laughs) That’s funny. She’s so bright and, you know, such a talent in her own right. I’m so impressed by her. She does it all, right? She can write, I’m sure directing is in her future, and she’s just smart. Well read. It was a total pleasure working with her. Now I’m a little nervous! I’m sure her questions will be good. And she’s genuine. It’s not just
JM: Oh, she’s awesome, and incredibly nice.
MZ: And she’s genuine. It’s not just for show, not to get her any further. It’s for real, and she does that all the time. She shows genuine interest in people who aren’t going to move her forward in any way, career wise, socially, whatever. I’m a big fan. She’s so malleable, in terms of her look. I want to work with her again, and just turn her into something else, you know what I mean? She has that character actor capability, to become hundreds of different characters.
JM: Speaking of turning someone, you have an ability to do that that’s incredibly impressive. You’ve hit a lot of genres and have almost done every style of movie out there. Even just this year, going from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” to “First Man,” they literally couldn’t be more different. What was the challenge about each of those?
MZ: I think that, what you noticed about what I choose to do, is exactly why doing those two films back to back was so interesting to me. I like to do things that are different, and although I’d done the 60’s before and I’d done space before, having “First Man” come, it actually came after, made it such an interesting project for me. It was like getting out of the dirt and getting out of the western genre, it was just flexing a lot of design muscles. I enjoy that.
JM: It really shows. When it comes to research, what is the first step for you? Are you hopping on the computer? Do you have specific sources you frequent?
MZ: The first step is definitely research. For me, the internet has opened up an en enormous portal to just finding research and finding it faster than ever, for those of us who have been designing since before the internet! But, it’s not my sole source, because there’s no way to catalogue everything. I got inspired on both projects, but particularly with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” by paintings. Yes, you can find painters on the internet, but how did I find them? It was through books, and also going down different venues. In reading “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” each story begins with an illustration. In the script it said “much in the style of NC Wyeth.” So, that was the first thing I started to look at, and I didn’t just want to look him up online. I had to get my hands on an original NC Wyeth illustration. It’s like physical! I wanted it physically in front of me. I had long discussions with Joel (Coen), to get us in the mood. He was an illustrator whose work took place a little later than our movie, in the early 1900’s. He followed cowboys. When they first began, they were rustling cattle, so he was following them, just to see what their life was like. So, he would illustrate that. Something about his illustrations captured what we look at now as quintessential tropes. It was in this conversation with Joel and Ethan (Coen), just trying to find something that tells the story, even when you look at a character from head to toe, you know where they’re coming from. It comes from a knowledge of the old west, but also being inspired by this illustrator who captured it in the beginning, you know? It’s a combination. The good fortune that I had with both of these projects was that I could research them in advance. I had almost six months to research both of them. In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” there’s a whole level of cowboys I was getting inspired by. It was watching old films. So, it’s films, fine art, illustrations, magazines, the internet. The last piece of the puzzle is, the old west makes you understand, the photographs taken of it, they’re almost entirely done in a photo studio. The people who had money would wear their own clothes and a portrait would be taken. Smiling wasn’t in vogue in those days. It was a very serious endeavor. They’re these daguerreotypes that we’re looking at from the 1870’s of wealthy people, so you can’t really rely upon them. People who didn’t have money were not taking pictures. Of course I looked at those pictures, I loved them, but what was really helpful was reading the text, the diaries that are reprinted. The hardships. What’s really special is there are some diaries I found, some letters back and forth, that were about people on the wagon train. How difficult that journey was. I would last about a day! You learn certain details about how they washed, whether they bathed or not, how they washed their clothes, the fabrications, the wool and how heavy they were, how uncomfortable they were. The things they had to dispense with as they made their journey west. A man would never go out without a vest on, it was almost indecent. Weather made it so you had to take your vest off. It was okay to do that. And women, by the time they got to the middle of the country, they weren’t wearing their corsets anymore. They didn’t tell anybody, but they stopped wearing them. It made life more comfortable. Little things like that, I eat it up! It gives you this knowledge and this background. Once I have all that in my brain, then I go out and start the physical process of designing the film, finding the fabrics that I’m looking for, but always in the back of my mind is this knowledge. The written word is so invaluable for this time period for me. I like having things in my hand. I’m a tactile person, because what I do for a living is so tactile. At a certain point, I have to get away from the computer and see it in the real world. That’s why I like books and paintings.
JM: It would be strange not to use those things, just like it would be strange not to collaborate on set with other departments, like if you never dealt with Hair & Makeup.
MZ: Right. That’s the nature of filmmaking and one of my favorite parts, that you have this synchronicity with other departments, like you mentioned. That’s what makes a successful filmmaking process, when everyone is communicating. And it’s not just on set, it’s well before. My conversations with, not just Joel and Ethan, but with Jess Gonchor, the production designer, started months before the shooting started. Jess and I have done a lot of films together, so we have a shorthand. We email each other a lot, text each other a lot. We always have meetings before we start, but then a month into prep, Jess is prepping maybe in New Mexico, I’m still in LA, it’s cost prohibitive. It’s just a lot of email and texting. Then, I always work very closely with the hair and makeup department. I’m always the first one on, doing all this prep, and I’m the first one meeting with the actors, before they put hair and makeup on payroll. So, I’m filtering information, saying what inspired me, what they’re wearing, and emailing photos. A lot of times, we don’t do camera tests on Coen Brothers films, but especially on this project, people needed to practice either riding a horse or just getting into the mood of the project. They would come a few days before, we would put them in their costume, and instead of a camera test, we would just show them to Joel and Ethan. I’m kind of like the person who really promotes that. I think it’s a really helpful thing for everyone. I’m always suggesting they come in a few days before, and on this job we were lucky enough to have that. People came in a week before! That was very helpful for everyone. It’s such a collaborative art form, and both Buster Scruggs and “First Man” were examples of that. And then, the cinematographer is always in on a lot of those meetings. Joel and Ethan might be with Bruno (Delbonnel) and they might be scouting. They finish their scout and the final stop might be the costume department. They hop out and we go “hey.” You want everyone’s thumbs up. It was lovely and I thought everyone was really in synch on this project.
JM: Zoe specifically asked you to talk about the woman who sews for you.
MZ: Yeah, Celeste!
JM: She made a big impression on her. Then, also why you actually choose to personally oversee every background actor, which not everyone in your line of work does.
MZ: Yes! You know, on a Coen Brothers film, they don’t want to be casting while they’re filming. So, the best part, I’ve gotten spoiled with them, but you start with your leads, and we design for them first. Then, basically by the time I got to location, there was aging to do, and I have an aging department. I do have Celeste, who’s sewing, and there were things she was still sewing when we got to New Mexico, but by and large, the costumes for the leads were designed, which allows me to be heavily involved in the background. It’s like a painting, making a movie. They’re layers of paint and the background is another layer. You never know if they’re going to get seen. And, I also enjoy it, to be quite honest with you! It’s like doing a mini character. My team is also fitting. We’ll have four people in a fitting room. I just like to be there and give my stamp of approval. I don’t like looking at fitting photos. I will if I have to, but to see it in person, to see what they’re going to become, it’s an accomplishment. I just like to be there. I’m a bit of a control freak.
JM: It shows in the work. There’s something to be said for that, whether it’s here, “First Man,” “Interstellar,” “La La Land,” to be able to see everyone in the background all looking the right way. It’s a little extra bit that I think people latch on to.
JM: It really shows. Even the Academy has taken notice of it, deservedly so.
MZ: Well, that’s very nice of you to say. I do it because I think it makes a difference. It’s unusual and, like I said, if I’m done with the principals, what am I going to do? Go have lunch? I’m a hard worker. I’d rather be hightailing it back to the office to conduct sittings. It does drive my crew a little crazy, they know they have to schedule all these fittings around me, drives the extras person a little crazy. I’m sure there’s giant eye rolling going on! (Laughing) I’m also the hair police. Or, there will be a woman with breast implants. She can’t come! (Laughing) Hair is the most important. I see someone with a fade going on, how is that going to work in a western? Thank you for coming, but you can’t work on the movie. Also, I have the authority to say that. Sometimes my crew will notice but won’t want to say anything. I’m going to say it! A lot of times, I contact the extras people six months in advance. I’ll tell them to tell their people to grow everything! Nobody cuts their hair. In all of our pre-fits, hair would be giving the thumbs up, but makeup, there was some very unusual facial hair going on in the 1800’s. We’d ask to bifurcate someone’s beard and they would be like “okay.” So they’d let us shave down the center of their chin and they’d have these two muttonchops. To be honest, everyone got into it. It allows everyone to flourish and have a creative experience, not just me!
JM: Before we wrap up, what’s your favorite Coen Brothers movie?
MZ: Hmm. My favorite? “No Country For Old Man” is my favorite Coen Brother movie. A lot of the other ones are very close seconds, but I think it’s one of the best movies made in the past decade, or it might be even longer than that! The past 20 years. It’s tight, I love that movie. I think it’s great!
JM: Is there a classic Hollywood movie you wish you could have designed?
MZ: “Rear Window.” I love Grace Kelly’s clothes in that movie. I think they’re divine. But, I don’t wish I could have designed it, because I think it’s perfect. I just like watching it. That’s a good question. Like, could I have done it differently?
JM: Totally open-ended. Whatever springs to mind.
MZ: I think something like “An American in Paris,” which is so full of different opportunities, I would have loved that. Instead of “Rear Window,” maybe “An American in Paris.” That’s the first one that comes to mind.
JM: Awesome. It’s a good one. Congratulations again, and is there anything coming up next for you?
MZ: I’m feeling out a few projects. There’s one project that I really wanted to do that I’m not going to be able to. I’m just feeling out several things, but I’m ready to go back to work. That’s the problem though, there’s more talented designers out there than there are interesting design jobs!