Mary Zophres was, fittingly enough, on a costume trailer when she was announced as a Best Costume Design nominee at the 95th Oscars. The go-to costume designer for filmmakers such as the Coen brothers and Damien Chazelle, Zophres was previously nominated for 2010's True Grit, 2016's La La Land, and 2018's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
"This is my fourth nomination — I can't believe I just said that sentence — and I'm just thrilled to be nominated with this film," she tells A.frame. The film is Babylon, Oscar winner Chazelle's maximalist ode to Old Hollywood, which received three Oscar nominations: for Florencia Martin and Anthony Carlino's production design, Justin Hurwitz's original score, and Zophres' costumes.
In Atlanta, where she was at work on her next film, the designer walked onto set and, "Everybody started clapping. And I was mortified, because it was too much focus on me. That's why I'm behind the camera!" she exclaims. The day's celebration was not the depraved bacchanal of Babylon's Roaring Twenties, with its sex, drugs, and an elephant, because why not? But, "My team brought a cake and ice cream, and they decorated the whole truck and somebody got flowers. There was some pre-planning. I was like, 'You really thought this was going to happen?' Because I would never — I'm way too superstitious."
Still, "I am so proud to be nominated this time, because I was all in," Zophres says. "Not that I'm not all in on every movie I do — it always feels like that — but this one was my biggest project to date."
Zophres and Chazelle first collaborated on La La Land, then reteamed for the writer-director's 2018 Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man. And though Chazelle had been working on Babylon for nearly 15 years at that point, Zophres didn't hear a word about the project until he sent her a finished screenplay. "I had no idea what I was going to read," she remembers, "and I just... My jaw was dropping."
Babylon is set at the end of the '20s, as the silent film era comes to an end with the advent of talkies. The film follows an ensemble of movie stars and ingénues, producers, lowlifes, artists, and hangers-on as they fight tooth and nail to make it in the nascent film industry, retelling the origin story of Hollywood as it has never been told before. "Our two previous collaborations were pretty much the polar opposite of Babylon. It was naughty!" Zophres says. "I was like, I am so in. Whenever, wherever, however. Count me in."
The scope of what Zophres was signing onto was also immediately clear to her. "As you're reading the script, you're like, 'Oh, there's another change for Nellie. There's another change for Jack. There's another change for Lady Fay.' It starts to rack up in your brain," she recalls. "It was written 'thousands of men on the battlefield' and '500 men from Skid Row.' He was specific with numbers. I was like, 'Are we really going to do that many people in the battlefield?' And Damien was like, 'Oh, absolutely.' That's when it became excruciatingly clear about how gigantic it was."
Zophres began her research a full year before production was set to begin, challenged by Chazelle to eschew the flapper dresses and cloche hats that have become cliché of the 1920s and find inspiration that was historically accurate but also surprising. The designer filled thousands and thousands of albums full of movie posters, publicity stills, and candid photos of the era.
"I was in no way hamstrung by the research, but I think having it be embedded in my brain, it gave me the freedom to design freely for the characters in the film," reflects Zophres. "I feel like the clothing and the costumes help tell their arc and their story well." She cringes, "That sounds so conceited. Oh my god."
But it's true that the costumes do convey the arcs of the characters incredibly well.
Compare, as an example, two dresses worn by Margot Robbie's Nellie LaRoy, a self-proclaimed starlet based on silent era star Clara Bow. Nellie enters the scene during the hedonistic opening party sequence, wearing tap shorts and a scarfed top made of 1920s silk. Zophres' concept was that the outfit would look almost DIY, like Nellie pulled it together herself for the party.
"It was a big collaboration between Damien, Margot, and myself," she explains. "It was a costume that needed to accomplish a lot, which was to introduce a character, and to tell part of her backstory. Also, it had to work within the choreography." (Nellie is discovered by a producer while thrashing around the dance floor, high on life and cocaine.) "It's red, so it draws attention. And red has been used since the advent of color. It's a very evocative color. It's power. It's carnal in a way — there's a reason why The Lady in Red has that infamy."
The look is both era-specific, inspired by a photograph Zophres found of Anna May Wong, and timeless, and she can still remember the moment Robbie tried it on for the first time. "We were like, 'Okay, that's it.' We knew. It's kind of an aha moment."
"It was so beautiful, and then to get all that fake puke all over it, I was like, 'Really? Here we go!'"
The red number is also the polar opposite of the mint green gown that Nellie wears later in the film, as she attends a stuffy party thrown by William Randolph Hearst in an attempt to rehabilitate her public image. Even the designer's sketch for the ruffled dress differs from the other designs she drew for Nellie. "My other sketches were much more impressionistic." But the idea behind the Hearst dress is that Nellie has been dressed by high-brow gossip journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), which is reflected in the rigidness of the drawing itself.
"She's almost being strangled by the dress," Zophres says of the gown's high collar, one of the few times that Nellie is completely covered on-screen. "She flips out at the party, and part of it is the dress. It's literally driving her crazy." Nellie proceeds to make a spectacle of herself, ranting and raving at the upper-class snobs and gorging herself on shellfish like a "degenerate f*****g animal," before projectile vomiting all over Hearst himself.
"I knew that we'd have to make multiples of that dress because of the vomiting. And it takes almost a hundred hours of man time to make the ruffles in that dress," Zophres bemoans. "It was so beautiful, ad then to get all that fake puke all over it, I was like, 'Really? Here we go!' But we got to keep one in pristine condition, so it's there for in perpetuity without fake vomit on it."
That accounts for two costumes for one character. Babylon features six leads, more than 100 speaking roles, and some 250 cast members, not to say the least of the myriad background actors. In total, the costume and wardrobe department created 7,000 costumes for the film, a mammoth task executed with limited resources. "I've never made so many decisions in a day as I did on this movie," Zophres says. "It was like, 'Yes, no, green, blue, this tuck, this stitch, blah, blah, blah.' Every day, all day. Because it was such a fast-moving train, I couldn't get bogged down in worrying about whether my gut was correct. I just went for it."
And most of the pieces were handmade. Zophres ran an in-house tailor shop on the Paramount lot to make the women's clothing, with Dale Wibben responsible for building Robbie's outfits. The suits worn by Brad Pitt, Diego Calva, and the men of Babylon were made by outside tailors. Zophres' team included assistant costume designer Nomi Shichor ("I could not have done it without her"), supervisors Laura Wolford and Hope Slepak, costumers Kelly Porter and Yen Do, and head dyer and distressing artist Sarah Brown. "She also hand-made a chicken costume for the party," Zophres laughs. "She came in on the weekends and we worked at night together to do it."
"The craftspeople that were on my show were just... They blew my mind," Zophres wonders. "I could just cry, because I just love them all so much."
The all-consuming dedication to each and every look is even more impressive considering many of them are only visible in passing during a large crowd scene, or as the camera is whipping by.
"To be honest with you, I watched the movie in slow motion," says Zophres. "What I love about it is that you feel the layers and you feel the density, and if I go around that corner, there's still going to be stuff going on there too. But I did watch the movie in slow motion, because I'm just like, 'What an effing cool costume that is!' And you see it for a nanosecond. But when I saw it in slow motion, it made me very happy. I was like, 'Oh, it's so beautiful.'"