Mayes C. Rubeo has designed costumes for some of the biggest studios, on some of the biggest movies. She worked on films from “Avatar” to “World War Z,” assembling a portfolio of incredible work.
In 2017, Rubeo first worked with director Taika Waititi on “Thor: Ragnarok.” It was not long after that film became a Marvel fan favorite that her phone rang again and Waititi had another project for her. This one was much smaller in scale, but provided a wealth of creative opportunities. And now, Rubeo is celebrating her first Oscar nomination for “Jojo Rabbit,” having just surprised many with a win at the Costume Designers Guild Awards for Excellence in Period Film.
I recently had the chance to speak with Rubeo, an enthusiastic and happy woman whose love for this film shines through everything she says. We spoke about some of the specific costumes, the collaborative process, and how she’s feeling about her first Academy Award nomination.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Hello! How are you today?
Mayes Rubeo: I’m very happy for everything!
KP: I am happy too. Thank you so much for taking some time to talk with me today. I am really excited for you and for “Jojo Rabbit.” Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Where were you when you got the news?
MR: I was at work and trying to avoid all kinds of social media and everything because I’m working on another project right now for Marvel Studios. But then my assistant designer who has been with me for ten years started sending me Whats Apps and I saw the notifications — like 57! And I thought something happened in my family. But when I looked it was all “Congratulations!” So I was very excited.
KP: I was excited for you. It’s such a beautiful film and so well made. And one of the things that really brings it to life is the costume design. When did you first sign on to “Jojo Rabbit?”
MR: It was the beginning of the year, two years ago. It was a phone call with Taika Waititi. He was my director on “Thor: Ragnarok.” It was under wraps a little bit, this story and what he was going to do. After “Thor: Ragnarok” did so well that year, I thought we were going to work to do a bigger project, but he had this project in development for about ten years, I believe. And he let me read the script and I immediately wanted to be part of it. We were all on board and in Prague prepping this movie and shooting it. It was a smaller project, but it was kind of like a bijou project. Really we treated it with some care… for this story and how to tell this story with these characters.
KP: What were the early meetings like with Taika and the crafts team, deciding on the color palette and the look?
MR: The big part of the movie takes place inside of this house. So many of the conversations were what colors would we paint the walls or what color would the furniture be? So the colors were determined mainly by the fashion period and how the eyes of Jojo would see these colors. Are his memories vivid? Trying to create that without falling too much into fantasy colors. Just trying to get into a child’s mind and see how will he see it? If he wears a green sweatshirt, what kind of green? Can you describe it? Can you describe the print? No you can’t. You remember some triangles there, but it’s a little bit abstract. And that also comes along with the kind of prints that we think most people would have.
We like to believe [Rosie] was part of an intellectual and artistic elite from that era. So it happens that there were so many art movements. Really avant garde art movements in war time. So the combination of all those elements really made the costumes. And also so many conversations with Taika and Ra [Vincent] and Mihai [Malaimare Jr] and makeup. We had so many meetings about it and we were making a better movie by having these kinds of communications.
KP: It’s really clear how closely all the departments worked together to make this film. There are two specific costumes I want to ask you about. The first is Rosie, Jojo’s mother. Scarlett Johansson. How did you find the perfect coat and the perfect shoes?
MR: The shoes, I had to design them. They didn’t exist. And the coat, the green coat? The coat was designed and then we made it in house. Because it’s a kind of vintage fabric that had this kind of pea coat, very interesting candy green, emerald pea coat color. And it was a super tiny grid, twill, silk. Very unusual fabric. I had enough yardage to make the coat.
The coat and the shoes — we designed everything — but these we had a lot of fun making because we didn’t want it to be so ordinary from those times because she was so different. Different from many women. So the idea of the shoes is that if you think of Rosie Betzler in that time, she was also an artist, an actress, a complete artist. So we think the shoes made Rosie think of better times, of happier times. And because she was so eclectic, she would mix and match everything together. I really believe it completes this eclectic character.
KP: The shoes are amazing.
MR: You can’t find those shoes! But the funny thing is that one of the conversations of the shoes, we couldn’t decide what we wanted immediately, if we wanted red with white or blue with white. I made the two different ones and literally the evening before, we were aging the shoes for the shooting. And we went for the red.
KP: The way they pop in that particular moment–
MR: It’s like a reality that brings you the memories of better times, but it also becomes the bearer of bad news, right in your face. So that’s the moment where the movie turns with the geniuses of neorealism. From old school to neorealism. I find this moment brilliant. And the analogies to that era, I think it really works perfectly, that scene. And that performance from Roman [Griffin Davis], which I think is a genius and a wonderful person. We just love him so much! He’s our boy!
KP: I’ve seen the movie three times with audiences and every time, the audience gasps at the exact same moment.
MR: Yeah, exactly. When they shot that scene, two scenes, the whole crew in Video Village was in tears. And that scene with Captain Kletzendorf, when they’re saying good bye. We were gushing tears.
KP: I get emotional just thinking about it!
MR: Yeah! It’s amazing. We’re so proud of this project. We did it with love, not so many riches. But having a person like Taika, he has a great spirit. He is a true artist. It is a privilege to collaborate with him.
KP: I got to meet him the other day and no one can be that happy all the time.
MR: You’ve got to believe it. He is like that. He’s happy and he’s positive, and he’s also very focused on his work. He’s incredibly focused and very decisive and any answers you need, he will clarify anything. He can even sketch! He’s a great artist, so when he doesn’t have much time to explain something to you, he’ll just sketch “This is what I mean,” and brilliant sketches. A complete artist.
KP: How does that make it easier when you’re trying to do your work, compared to other directors you’ve worked with?
MR: We all operate in different ways, but when you have clear communication with a director and he has ears to listen and gives you his undivided attention whenever he can, it makes it a lot easier. Especially when it’s someone as artistic as Taika Waititi. You know where you’re going because of his genius.
KP: Speaking of artistic, the other costume I wanted to ask you about was the one at the end of the movie that Sam Rockwell wears when Captain K alters his Nazi uniform.
KP: How did that design come about?
MR: The glam of Captain Kletzendorf! That was something that happened in the script and instead of making a brand new uniform, I took the historic uniform that he wears, for his normal captain’s rank, and decided to add trims to it and more trims and fringes. And then we decorated the cape, and then we put the plume on his helmet because that was a fashion in military uniforms in Europe, that red plume. There was a movement in Italy and they are really elegant. But of course, in war time, they don’t use that, they don’t have access to that.
Sam had a lot to do with it also, because he wanted to homage Bill Murray in this way. Because we also have great conversations with actors and say, “How do you see it? How do you see this character?” And he was talking about my costume truck on set and he said, “You know, Mayes, you see this guy?” And it was a picture of a headshot of Bill Murray. And he said, “When you think of Captain Kletzendorf, you have to think of me like this, like this guy.” So that was also another approach, that input.
KP: It’s such a great film. Your work is so beautiful. Congratulations!
MR: Thank you! This was a very special film for me.