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Mary Zophres on ‘La La Land’ Costumes and George Clooney’s ‘Hail, Caesar!’ Dress

In her 23-year career in costume design, Mary Zophres has designed for the biggest stars and directors in the business, from George Clooney, to Scarlett Johansson, to the Coen brothers. Having garnered her second Oscar nomination for her work on “La La Land,” Zophres spoke with Variety about working with Damien Chazelle, her long-term collaboration with the Coen brothers, and George Clooney messing around with his dress on the “Hail, Caesar!” set.

La La Land” seems like it was an incredibly fun movie to make, what was your experience like working on it?

I have to say [Damien Chazelle] was very inspiring and he was our greatest advocate, and cheerleader, and brainstormer, it was like an unstoppable ship. We went over the script page by page, which I had never done before as a costume designer, and after the first meeting I was like, “On your marks, get set, let’s go!” I knew how the movie was going to look after that meeting.

“La La Land” was inspired by old Hollywood and French musicals, did you apply similar techniques that they used back then to your costume design for the movie?

I wasn’t around in the heyday of Hollywood, but I’m sure they had conversations like the one we had about movies like “Young Girls of Rochefort,” because the synchronicity of the shots and the dance numbers and the color, it doesn’t happen accidentally, and that’s what happened with us. But we had the advantage of modern technology because when we find the right fabric, we can just email it to the art department to demonstrate the desired color. Making it was fast and furious and magical, and I think it shows in the final product. There was a synchronicity of the art and other departments that was definitely on purpose.

I’ve read that Emma Stone’s yellow dress in the “Lovely Night” scene has helped start a fashion trend in yellow dresses.

I knew that Damien wanted to film the scene at the magic hour and outside, and we wanted the dress to pop because it’s a dance number. I’ve worked with Emma before so I know what looks good on her and silhouettes that look good on her, but I also looked at a lot of photos of her online, and I saw a photo of her on the red carpet from a few years ago — she was wearing this canary yellow dress and I showed it to Damien. On paper yellow may not be a great color for everybody, but he loved it. I noticed at the Golden Globes that yellow was all over the place, and it makes me happy. The reason it spoke to me for that scene was that Damien had spoken about this emotional arc, and we followed that arc with the use of color. It’s like an MGM musical, and that yellow is a joyous color, it symbolizes happiness. Film influences fashion, fashion influences film — it’s all great for me, and I’m thrilled that people are responding to it in such a positive way.

You worked with Emma Stone before on “Gangster Squad,” and then straight after “La La Land” on “Battle of the Sexes,” how did the costume design differ for that movie?

We did “Battle of the Sexes” a couple months after “La La Land” wrapped, and talk about a transformation! Emma packed on pounds and muscle and it was kinda fun. She worked so hard to prepare for “Battle of the Sexes,” and in fact we had to do a re-shoot, an additional insert, a little montage bit for “La La Land” right after “Battle of the Sexes,” and we had to cover Emma’s shoulders and her biceps because she was bulked up, she wasn’t like that at all for Mia. It’s funny, we joked that if it seems too much like Mia, it’s definitely wrong for Billie Jean.

Do you prefer designing for contemporary or period pieces, where you know exactly what the characters wore?

It’s interesting dressing someone from history because you have a lot of photographic research, and you have a level of knowledge, and it allows me to get into a mindset, a sort of trance where I can’t think about anything else, I don’t think at all about what I’m wearing, and it comes from just burying yourself in the material, your research and your ideas. I get into a zone where I walk into a costume house and I gravitate to exactly what I need, it’s not like you’re distracted or looking around, you zone in on what you’re working on, and that happened to me on both these movies.

You also have a long-time collaborative relationship with the Coen brothers, is it very different working with them as opposed to with Damien Chazelle?

I actually think they’re very much alike. I think Damien is a younger generation’s version of an auteur, because they all write their own work, and all three of them have the movie in their head before they start shooting, but they’re also open to other ideas and exploration. In that way they’re very similar, they’re in their own zone. I mean Joel and Ethan have much more experience, but Damien’s 25 years younger so he has plenty of time to catch up.

The last film you did with the Coens was “Hail, Caesar!”  which had a wonderful array of wacky costumes, my personal favorite was Scarlett Johansson’s mermaid outfit.

Joel and Ethan liked the idea of putting scales on the costume, and I wanted some movement so we hand-beaded it and had her move around during the dialogue with her costume flopping around. The color choices for that film were hard because we didn’t have much time to prepare, whereas MGM, back in the day, had a whole water tank just sitting there. I’m sure they did camera tests and they were well versed in what would work under-water, whereas we were using a GoPro and an above-ground pool.

You’ve worked with Scarlett Johansson many times before, did that give you an advantage going into designing for that movie?

I’ve been designing for 23 years now, and I’ve worked with a lot of actors, but I’ve worked with Scarlett as a teenager, as a young woman and now as a mother. I almost cried my first day on “Hail, Caesar!” because I told her, “You’re a mom now, and I’ve worked with you since ‘Ghost World’ when you were a teenager!” It does help working with an actor on so many movies, because you get to know the bulk, or lack of bulk, and the shape of their shoulders and you have that insider knowledge.

Last question, was George Clooney comfortable wearing a Roman dress for the whole movie?

I think he really enjoyed it to be honest with you, I was impressed with him for him agreeing to wear it for the whole movie. I think Joel and Ethan were amused by the fact he was going to be in this tunic the whole time, and George was joking about it at first, but every time he put it on he never complained, and he would use it as a comedic prop. There was one day when he came out of his cabin and yanked his boxers out of the dress, and he would lift it up and put bits of leather in between his legs, and he used it as part of his physical comedy and that was thrilling for me. When the costume is supposed to be comedic, as it was in this instance, there’s something really gratifying about having a costume work so well like that.

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