Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Mary Zophres. Mary was the costume designer for The Big Lebowski which is the main focus of this particular interview. Mary is also a Two-Time Academy Award nominee for Best Achievement in Costume Design with many other incredible credits under her name.
For example – La La Land, True Grit, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Fargo, Battle of the Sexes, Iron Man 2, No Country for Old Men, Hail Caesar!, Interstellar, Inside Llewyn Davis. This list barely scratches the surface and she has not even stopped as soon we can see her work again in First Man.
For now, I hope you enjoy my discussion about her start with this career, her work with The Coen Brothers and much more.
Verge: Let me first say what an honour it is to be talking to you. You have worked on many movies which I have loved especially La La Land which is one of my all time favourites.
Mary Zophres: Oh thank you! That’s good, it is mine too.
V: So it would be great to know what got you into costume design and what kick-started your passion for it?
M: When I was a student in college, it was not until my junior year that I took my first film class. At my college, you had to take a year of theatre before you could take film. Which I think is a good ground rule for everyone.
It was too late for me to major in it but I really loved it. So that was the beginning, a film class. Then I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do because the film class I took was a pretty small department and you directed one week, then you might be in front of the camera one week or doing the lighting or cinematography. I knew that I did not want to be in front of a camera but I was not sure whether I wanted to do set design or costume design or cinematography.
I dabbled in all of it then when I had my first teenage job as a costume person, I was a PA on Born on the Fourth of July. The designer said take this big mound of clothes and sort it in 50s/60s/70s and I knew how to do it. I felt so confident. It was very naive when I look back on it. I use to shop in vintage stores and thrift stores when I was a younger teenager but also my parents had a clothing store when I was a kid. I think that combination helped it feel like home.
I remember sorting the clothes and she was so happy with the way I had done it. That made me feel good because I like to please people. I was like okay, I am going to be a costume designer. I knew I wanted to work in the movies because I loved movies and have ever since I was a little kid. Then I realised you can actually work in them through this film class. It was that day that I sort of decided in my 20-year-old brain that I am going to be a costume designer.
I think it does have a lot to do with my parents buying a clothing store. I mean they opened it when I was about 7 years old and I worked there every day after school. After I did my homework I use to work in the store. Essentially I have been dressing people since I was 7 years old.
That’s how it happened for me. I started out as a PA, I then was an assistant designer and then after I did The Hudsucker Proxy as an assistant, it was such a huge show and I thought I am ready.
I was very young. The first job I had was on a movie that was about a college campus. I think my youth helped me get the job. The studio was like ‘it is not that big of a budget, this director wants her, she has never done anything before but okay she is going to work for cheap so okay’. Then yeah I got my first job.
The Coen Brothers
M: I was an assistant to the costume designer for The Coen Brothers, I assisted him quite a few times and he was really my mentor. His name was Richard Hornung he was ill and honestly, it was bittersweet for me because he was going to do Fargo. Then he got sick and when Joel and Ethan visited him in the hospital he said he really can’t do this movie. They asked him ‘do you recommend anybody?’ and he recommended me and another person who had been working with him. I did the interview and I got the job.
I remember going to see Miller’s Crossing and I was a huge fan of them. Raising Arizona came out when I was in college and I saw it and I thought wow. I loved it. Then I became a fan of theirs, it was actually with Blood Simple then Raising Arizona. I remember travelling two hours to go see Miller’s Crossing because I was on location somewhere in New Mexico when that came out.
Even when I was on The Hudsucker Proxy I was like ‘Holy Cr*p The Coen Brothers’. I don’t remember opening my mouth that much, I took notes all the time. Whenever Richard had a meeting with them, I would just be listening to them talk. Every now and then we would make small talk but I was really quite nervous around them because I was in awe of them. So when they asked me to do Fargo I screamed right in the middle of there office. I think they were pleasantly pleased with the outcome. I mean luckily they have hired me ever since.
I love my job (knock on wood). I try to choose very carefully who I work with and sometimes I have a misstep but working with them has made me feel like a very lucky costume designer. They always have interesting projects.
Also, other filmmakers are fans of there work. I am sure that is one of the reasons Damien hired me for La La Land was because he was a fan of his films. I was very excited about La La Land and I had loved Whiplash. I really was keen on working with Damien and I had the good fortune of working with him again on the film we did last year called First Man.
Anyway, that is the very long story of how I got started.
V: I think that is an amazing story, to be honest, it seems to have all worked out really well for you. So with them bringing The Big Lebowski back into cinemas (20 years later) what is it like for you? Seeing that people still love the work that you have worked on and that it still holds a significance to people.
M: I mean it is so hard to believe. When you make a movie you have no idea and sometimes you think ‘oh my god this is fantastic’ but no one responds to it. Then you do something like The Big Lebowski and this was very early on in my career, this was only the second time I had worked for The Coen Brothers.
It was a great script and we made the movie and thought it was great. When it released it was basically a flop, the critics did not care for it, the studio did not know what to do with it and it was in theatres for maybe a month before it disappeared. Then slowly but surely it began to have this life which took everybody by surprise.
I will tell you how much little everyone thought of it and I would never do this now because I learnt my lesson on The Big Lebowski. At the end of The Big Lebowski to recoup some of the money because they were always on a shoe-string budget. The producer said there is this place called ‘It’s a wrap’ who would buy the costumes. You box them up and they buy the costumes and store them up for free and then when the movie is released they sell them in the store. Now I know what I know and I had no experience at the time, it was like my fourth film and I was like okay I will be a team player.
I remember one time I was driving and in the window of ‘It’s a wrap,’ there was the outfits that Jeff Bridges and Julian Moore wear in that dance/dream sequence. I pulled over and I was like I am going to buy those things. The store was closed it had not opened yet and I ended up getting busy and never did it. So the clothing for that movie has become a collector’s item and we had no control over what happened to it. Eventually, a lot of the things have come round to being in the hand of collectors. Initially, all the clothing ended up in just regular peoples hands as I don’t think collectors were interested in them at the time. People purport to have the original sweater that Jeff Bridges wore, we had to knit multiple ones of that. There is a costume house in the valley that says we have the original and I was like ‘no I thrifted that’ I thrifted the original and we made the multiples.
Anyway, we had no idea! Sometimes I watch it and I don’t know… A friend of mine who really, really loves it, likes to watch it stoned. I don’t know if that has something to do with it. Now that pot has become more legalised in the United States but anyway, people really love the movie. A lot of friends of mine have it in there top 10. I think it is great, there are other Coen Brothers films that I love more.
V: It is definitely a wacky one to watch the first time around.
M: You know in some weird way it is about getting stoned. It is also about friendship. That is what it is to me when I see the movie that is what I think of. They have to be good friends to put up with each other.
I remember Joel and Ethan told me that Jeff Bridges, they met him and wrote it for him that he said ‘I stopped smoking pot a few years ago’ and they said ‘you don’t really have to smoke pot you can just pretend’ which then he agreed to do it. Even to this day, I think more people know Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski.
But yeah it took us by surprise and I still kind of don’t get it. I mean I am not a stoner at heart and I think that has a lot to do with it.
V: Do you have a period or style of clothing that you like to design for?
M: I do enjoy designing period films, I mean you get to sort of create a world and have a lot more control of it. See, I am control freak so I like that a lot more. It is almost like painting a picture as sometimes when you work on a contemporary film you don’t have the budget. When you are doing a period film, they have a budget and they have to do fittings for all these people and they know ahead of time. They know the types of people they want, the look for the scene ahead of time so you get to create that world. It is built into the budget of period films which sometimes is not the case with contemporary films.
I do enjoy it, I mean Interstellar was supposed to be in the future, a dystopian future. I shouldn’t say dystopian, I wanted it to have more of a classic look rather than ‘oh this is a horrible time’. Christopher Nolan was in agreement but other than that I have never really done a movie in the future. I would like too but for one reason or another, it has never happened.
I don’t have a particular favourite, I just like doing period films.
V: Any style is your sort of style!
M: Yeah I guess you could say that! I like the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and later 19th century. I have not done earlier than that either, which I would like to do. There is still time, I am not done yet!
Well, that is all the time I had with the lovely Mary Zophres. I really enjoyed doing this interview, everything about her career in Costume Design is so interesting. Mary has incredible talent and incredible stories to back up that talent. This gets to show you a side of filmmaking you might not have put much thought into. All roles in filmmaking are important and Costume Designer is no different. Maybe it has inspired you to pursue a career in that role yourself. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this and thank you to all who allowed this to happen.
They will be re-releasing the Coen brothers’ cult classic hit The Big Lebowski (1998) back in cinemas from 24th September 2018 to celebrate its 20th Anniversary.