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‘Hail Caesar!’ Costume Designer on Creating Looks for Film Within a Film

Costume designer Mary Zophres calls “Hail Caesar!,” her 12th collaboration with the Coen brothers, the best job she’s ever had on a film. “I’ve never had more fun,” she tells Variety.

Part of that had to do with being raised on MGM movies — Capitol Pictures, the fantasy factory at the center of “Hail Caesar!,” is based on the Tiffany studio. She also enjoyed the opportunity to create costumes for the handful of movies within the movie that hark back to a time in Hollywood when Technicolor extravaganzas were a way of luring people away from the encroaching medium of television.

“They weren’t going for reality, and neither were we,” she says of the late-’40s/early-’50s musicals, Westerns, drawing room dramas and biblical epics, all of which are represented in “Hail Caesar!”

This meant dispensing with the kind of true-to-life accuracy for which Zophres is known — an approach that came into vogue in ’70s Hollywood, when gritty realism was the norm — in favor of a more flamboyant theatricality.

For the Roman epic that is the film’s namesake, Zophres viewed pictures like “Ben-Hur,” “The Robe” and “Quo Vadis.” Although research for those pictures’ looks were based on Roman sculpture and paintings, the costumes “are idealized,” she notes. And because the Coens were working on a limited budget, the metal breastplates worn by as many as 500 soldiers in the film are molded from plastic. “It’s painted to look like metal, but it’s really more pliable — it’s almost like a polymer gel,” Zophres says.

“Doing Tilda was like a mini-movie because there were so many details that we were paying attention to.”
Mary Zophres

For the scenes in which George Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, is kidnapped by a cabal of Communist screenwriters, he’s wearing a leather breastplate and Roman skirt, with the running joke that he keeps stabbing himself with his sword when he sits down.

“There’s all this metal and trim and a lion’s heads on the top of his shoulders,” explains Zophres, “and all of those we molded and made in our shop in L.A.”

For the character of Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin), a more benign version of the actual MGM executive and “fixer,” Zophres admits she was trying not to repeat herself on work she did for another Brolin vehicle set in the same time period, “Gangster Squad,” in which he wears a fedora, versus the homburg he sports in “Hail, Caesar!” And although it was the filmmakers’ intention to create an original suit for Brolin true to the period, she ended up using a beautifully maintained relic from Western Costume that falls somewhere between taupe and mauve. “I found some fabric, and we were able to duplicate it,” Zophres says. “But we ended up using the original suit because there was something about it that no one wanted to give up, including myself.”

The look for Tilda Swinton’s roles contrasted with the film’s earth tones.

Perhaps the most fashionably attired person in the movie is Tilda Swinton, who plays the double role of a Hedda Hopper-like columnist, Thora Thacker, and her twin sister Thessaly. The Coens told Zophres, “This is where you spend your money,” and the result was “form-fitting but period-correct” ensembles with a more vibrant color palette — bold green and canary yellow, for example — that contrasts with the earth tones that distinguish the non movie-movie scenes.

“Doing Tilda was like a mini-movie because there were so many details that we were paying attention to,” says Zophres, “from the stitching on the gloves to the handbags to the hats,” one of which was a mini-fedora with a feather cocked just so. “She’s kind of a ballsy woman for those days,” Zophres adds, “and so we have a hat that was fashioned after a man’s hat.”

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