Costume designer Mary Zophres moves on from 'La La Land'

mary-zophres-judygraeme.jpgPhoto: Judy Graeme

As one of the most in-demand costume designers in Hollywood, Mary Zophres has worked with many high profile directors, including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau and Nora Ephron. Until last year she was best known for her 20-year collaboration with Ethan and Joel Coen. That is, until December when a little film called "La La Land" came along -- thrusting all involved into an awards campaign spotlight the likes of which Zophres had never experienced. Her boldly colorful and dance-friendly costumes married perfectly with director Damien Chazelle's vision for his exuberant musical and earned Zophres her second Oscar nomination.

"This one was different," she said during a recent chat in her home office, located in a quiet West Los Angeles neighborhood. "The other films I've worked on that were nominated (Zophres' first Oscar nod was for "True Grit" in 2010) were with the Coen brothers and they're not particularly interested. They're happy that awards bring better box office, but they never would have tolerated the amount of work like screenings, Q&A's, and interviews." Zophres is used to hearing from peers and costume geeks when her films come out, still she is amazed at the amount of La La Land-related fan mail she's received.

"I've gotten letters from all over -- from the UK, Asia -- people wanting those dresses that Emma (Stone) wears. That was not my intention! I just wanted them to be pretty and feminine. They want to know if I have the patterns and if I can loan them."

Zophres' library of film, photography and design books along with artwork by her young son dominates her work space. I've caught her on a rainy Tuesday during a rare in-between phase. Even on this gloomy day her energy and exuberance are contagious. Coming to the end of an eight-month hiatus, she's ready to tackle two films back to back. This summer she will go on location for the Coens' new project, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and in the fall will begin work on Chazelle's follow up to La La Land, "First Man," the story of NASA's mission to land a man on the moon.

Although already deep into prep for the next projects, Zophres is still enjoying the La La Land euphoria. "We all loved working on it," she says. "Damien was so communicative with everybody in his crew. From crafts services to grips, everybody had a special experience on that film. If you're shooting dance numbers and music's playing in playback I defy anyone -- you're a grump if you don't get some kind of energy off of that!

"I've done lots of dark movies and I'm good at characters and making people understand character through clothes but at heart I'm a schmaltzy little kid who loved the musicals my mom and I watched on AMC when I was a kid. I had a blast designing it."

She especially loved working with Chazelle. "Damien is a Coen brothers fan and he had seen "Hail, Caesar!" -- which has a big musical number.

He also responded to the buoyancy of Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." "He knew my resume. What he definitely didn't want was the look of any other musical that had been done in the last ten years. He wanted a nostalgic feel and he knew that I had done period films."

Zophres sounds slightly bemused with her professional ascent. "I didn't come out of the womb or out of college intending to be a costume designer," she says. Growing up in South Florida she worked at her parents' clothing store and experimented with sewing. "My mother's favorite story to tell was that I had 100 projects going that I never finished," she recalls. While an art history major at Vassar she had a revelation during a screening of Truffaut's "Day for Night" -- that one could actually work on a film. It was at this point that she also realized she wanted to be behind the camera. To her parents dismay she moved to New York after graduation. Bartending and retail jobs (including a stint with designer Norma Kamali) paid the bills until she began to get small film production jobs, one of which was in a costume department. She says that her background in art and art history, and dressing people in her parents' store from a young age, strangely synthesized into preparing her to be a costume designer.

The turning point in Zophres' career came when she began to work for costume designer Richard Hornung, who she knew socially in New York. She started as a production assistant and considers the experience her graduate school. She gained a new level of confidence working with Hornung as his assistant designer on the Coen brothers' "Hudsucker Proxy." When "Fargo" came along, Hornung was too sick with AIDS to do the film. She interviewed and got the job of costume designer.

Kevin Jones, the curator at FIDM in downtown Los Angeles, admiringly describes her design aesthetic as "modern and dynamic with strong lines and frills." Zophres credits Hornung with instilling in her an "intuitive" sense of working: "You kind of go and go until you get it right. Keep on going until that person becomes the character you're intending them to be." She has grown comfortable with the delicate balance her job requires. "As a costume designer your first duty is to the director and the script," she stressed. But when working with actors, she says, "I'm myself, I'm a social being and I'm empathetic. I make sure they know I would never send them to camera in something they're not comfortable in-ever. We're building this character together."

Filmgoers will next see Zophres work this September in "Battle of the Sexes," directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine"). Starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, the film recounts the buildup to the much-hyped 1973 match at the Houston Astrodome between tennis greats Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. King won the match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

In a recent article, The Guardian's Angelina Chapin set the scene:

Billie Jean King's entrance on to a Houston tennis court on Sept 30, 1973 was more suited to a Las Vegas stage than a sports stadium. The top-ranked 29 year old player arrived atop a gold throne framed by flamingo pink feathers and carried by four shirtless men. Her opponent, the 55 year old former No. 1 player Bobby Riggs, arrived on a rickshaw pulled by models dubbed 'Bobby's Bosom Buddies'. This wasn't a regular tennis match. It was the Battle of the Sexes.

Chapin goes on to write, "When King battled Riggs, she was fighting a widespread cultural attitude that women were inferior to men. She knew a theatrical face-off was the perfect means through which to grab the nation's attention and change their minds." She quotes King as saying, "Had I lost, women's tennis would have suffered, Title 9 would have been hurt and the women's movement would have been damaged. I knew it was very important I win the match if I wanted people to take women's tennis-and women-seriously."

Zophres says, "I was really moved by the whole topic of the women's lib movement because I remember as a kid my mom was into it. Doing the research for that film reminded me so much of my mother, who I lost a couple of years ago, so it was really heartfelt for me." For the costume team, "a lot of it was about getting into Billie Jean King's 'style vibe' in the '70s." King's actual dress from the Battle of the Sexes (replicated in the film) is now housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

"Battle" reunited Zophres with Emma Stone and the designer says the two have fallen into an easy working relationship. "Emma is a very open, loving person, a professional. She's there on time if you need her for fittings. She knows what it takes to get it done. She's collaborative but not in an obnoxious way." For the tennis movie, Stone had beefed up into a "wildly different build" than on "La La Land." The challenge for Zophres and her team was dealing with lots of costume changes, for Stone as well as for the rest of the cast. "We had to shoot big matches, big scenes with lots of background. We worked every weekend on that film. It was hard and exhausting but I really got a kick out of it."

emma-steve-battleofthesexes.jpgFox Searchlight

Nowadays, Zophres finds herself balancing the demands of career with family and parenthood (she has been married to comedian and writer Murray Valeriano since 2006.) She is clear about the fact that her choices of projects are guided by wanting to do something different each time, but that's not the only criteria for the veteran designer.
"The film industry can be really hard on relationships," she says, referring to the often long periods spent away on location. Zophres relishes any opportunity to work in Los Angeles. "If it upsets me to imagine someone else designing that film, then I'll go on location. It's my litmus test and I still do it to this day. If I don't care, then I'm not going to uproot my family. I want a balanced life."

Mary Zophres' costumes from "La La Land" and "Hail, Caesar!" can be seen at FIDM's Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition until April 22.

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