Oppenheimer's costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, was surprised but delighted when Christopher Nolan sent her an especially unexpected reference photo: David Bowie in the 1970s. J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as "the father of the atomic bomb," had a very distinct silhouette, but Nolan felt that the photo of Bowie captured a particular essence that he wanted his film's star, Cillian Murphy, to embody.

"It was so fabulous," Mirojnick says. "David Bowie was very thin and had a wiry physical appearance. He wore a hat, with these broad shoulders and this luminous costume. Somehow, it matched Oppenheimer in a very abstract way."

Oppenheimer follows the eponymous theoretical physicist across multiple decades of his life, from the 1920s to the 1950s. The biopic tracks him from a young university student wrapping his brain around experimental physics to director of the Manhattan Project, where he oversaw the development of the world's first nuclear bomb. "All of these scientists were like the rock stars of the time," Mirojnick points out. "They were the men who would change the world, so anything goes. Their individuality was very apparent and proud and really, they were all very self-confident."

For the veteran designer, it was subtle and decisive costuming that brought the world of Oppenheimer to life. Selecting each tie or sock or coat felt incredibly weighted — but once she got it right, there was no denying the magic of witnessing the characters appear in front of her. "The actor disappeared in seconds after putting the clothing on," she says. "It's something that I haven't experienced really in a very, very long time. That's how special this film was."

At the 96th Oscars, Oppenheimer is the year's most nominated film, with 13 total nominations, including Best Picture and Mirojnick's first nomination for Best Costume Design. "It is a dream come true!" she said of the recognition. "Having the privilege to work alongside Chris Nolan and the entire Oppenheimer team has been one of the greatest thrills of my career."

Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick behind the scenes of 'Oppenheimer.'

A.frame: When you read the script for Oppenheimer, what was it that first attracted you to the project?

It was from Oppenheimer's point of view, and I had never read a script with the first person point of view. It was totally different than anything that I'd ever read. It was brilliant, and so engaging. As big as the script was, you couldn't put it down. There were so many thrilling aspects, there were so many personal aspects, there were so many epic aspects. And it covered so many different types of genres within one film, in a way, that it kept you on your toes throughout, turning page after page — all 180 pages! But what was so riveting about it was the combination of an intimate story in an epic landscape, so all the details were very, very crucial.

What were your initial conversations like with Christopher Nolan about the costumes for Oppenheimer? What was your first glimpse into the vision that he had?

The first glimpse wasn't a glimpse. It was very clear and very succinct from the start. There was so much research, and it's one of those films that you can draw from as much research as you want to delve into. However, one of our first notes was, "We're not making a documentary. We are going to absorb all that we see, and we're going to adapt it." It was a great note to begin with. And what became obvious to me in looking at all of the photos of Oppenheimer through the decades was that his silhouette did not really change. It was very handsome. The tailoring was beautiful. The silhouette was a bit more advanced than a standard silhouette of that time. The fabrics looked very fine to me, even in black and white photos. He looked amazing.

Chris and I talked about that silhouette not changing, and then with that, of course, we discussed making amends in each decade. He did not want to make a "precious" period film. And what that means is that sometimes you find in other period films that the specificity of little details gets in the way of the overall imagery, the overall silhouette, the overall character. And so that's what he meant by "precious." So, for example, we decided that Oppenheimer would be the only person in the film that will wear a hat. That was something that set it completely off the rails of a traditional period film in a way. He also wanted to be able to relate to a modern audience, that was what he was really looking for. Because this was such a massive epic tale, but at the same time, it was so very intimate.


Each character has such a massive arc spanning across different decades and geographic locations, but also spanning ideology shifts. How do you go about planning costumes around both those seismic shifts and those very personal, very intimate shifts?

It was necessary to look at the overlay of modernity. That was a very big element of how to approach each character in each decade. So, what we had to do first was actually dissect the essence of each period. What was the color palette? What were the fabrications? What was the silhouette of each period that we were going to tell the story within? And where did each character stand in each one of those periods? Because we had to kind of just extract that essence of each period so that it could flow from one period to another. You'll always know the time and place, you'll always feel that time has gone on, and you won't be looking at the costume going, "Where am I? What am I supposed to feel now?" And so on.

I really did use an organic approach, because so much of it needed to have a specific feeling. It needed to be seamless. The essence of the period needed to be 100 percent, first and foremost, before designing what the whole entire character would be. Each character obviously had different needs and so on, but Oppenheimer was certainly the fellow who had an arc that brought him into his power. And then, his complexity became even more obvious as time went on.

As you mentioned, Oppenheimer's personal style remained quite consistent throughout his life. But you made these very subtle alterations to his silhouette as he grew older and more powerful. How did you approach those near-microscopic changes in his appearance?

Oppenheimer had to go from being a very young man to a very old man. Having a similar silhouette was a blessing in a certain way, because with that silhouette, we were able to build to the point of his opening of Los Alamos. I'll give you an example of what I mean by having the essence of a period. When it's the '30s and we use a three-piece suit, the tailoring is really important, because Oppenheimer himself was a very bespokely tailored man. He came from a wealthy family. His father imported fabrics from Europe. He knew what was good, and he knew how to present himself. Subsequently, the chaos that was really riddling his soul was absolutely masked by a purposeful presentation to the outside world.

In the beginning, at Berkeley, we started with a three-piece suit, and that three-piece suit was his uniform. It became his signature, and it had a particular silhouette. How it evolved to the time of Los Alamos was that we changed the silhouette slightly by taking away the waistcoat from the suit. We added a broadness to the shoulders, a little bit more voluminousness to the trousers. It all masked his physical fragility. It was a very purposeful look that he created to step into his power and become the leader and the man who was about to change the world. Oppenheimer stepped into his power and it was like he's superhero personified. So, it's those simple elements. It's the tailoring that counts. And so, when he picks up his hat, and he picks up the pipe, it's a very purposeful look. It's not one that we made up. He knew what he was doing. There was an iconographicness to what he was looking to create that was very purposeful. So, by the time he picks up that pipe, he's the man.


You'd worked with Robert Downey Jr. before. What was it like to collaborate with him again to bring Lewis Strauss to life?

I worked with Robert 32 years ago on Chaplin, and when we did Chaplin, we created The Tramp [costume] on Robert. We cut it on Robert, we saw how he moved, and within seconds, you saw Robert Downey Jr. fade into Charlie Chaplin and become The Tramp. When Robert walked into the fitting with Chris and Emma [Thomas] and myself, as soon as he put on the suits, the shirts, the ties, as soon as he put those eyeglasses on, he came out from behind the screen, and it was the same exact feeling. Goosebumps ran all over. Robert was no longer there. He was Lewis Strauss. It always brings tears to my eyes in a way, because it's really an emotional reaction to watching an actor actually become the character that they will now inhabit.

With Strauss, we created for him a beautiful monogram that was our little Easter egg on all of his clothing. It was on his shirts, on his hankies, inside his suits, everything. But what was great about choosing the fabrications and designing Lewis was that he was going to be shot in black and white. And the thing about shooting in black and white on our film was that we had to be able to shoot it in color like five minutes later. So, there were no tricks that sometimes you use in creating clothing in black and white. We looked at fabrication that was within the gray scale, and we used an iPhone black-and-white filter to check and see what would read and what wouldn't read.

How did you approach costuming the women in Oppenheimer's life — Emily Blunt's Kitty Oppenheimer and Florence Pugh's Jean Tatlock — and their respective journeys?

When we start with Kitty, she is very, very elegant. She comes from a wealthy family, and she has beautiful clothes. She has a very cool palette. She has a lot of ambition. She is a worldly woman. And Oppenheimer himself was quite the ladies' man. So, they were attracted to one another and immediately fell in love — or fell in lust. But it was quite different than Jean Tatlock. Jean Tatlock was the passion, Kitty was the ambition, and there's a slight difference. Kitty was refined, and so we never really veered away from cool blues, a pale vanilla, a purposeful kind of taupe or a bit of brown. All of the combinations were very sophisticated, and she was a sophisticated lady. As we proceed through the story, her downfall during the time on Los Alamos, we did those costumes by actually taking her all apart when we were fitting her.

We had a bunch of vintage clothing, and we just put it in a heap on the floor. And I would say to Emily, "Emily, pick up what you want, and put it on." And she'd put it on. And sometimes, she looked awfully great and cute, but sometimes she looked too cute. And we went, "Nah, that's too much of a costume. We have to take apart. It has to look like you picked it up from the floor." So that gave us a very disconnected kind of feeling, and that's what we were after. And then after the bomb, she became somewhat of a hardened woman. And I think that all of that is established beautifully through the design of Kitty's makeup and hair and costume. It's a very sharp silhouette, a very, very sharp silhouette. It was suiting that gave her a hardness, and in her own way, her own strength again.


The sheer scale of Oppenheimer would be daunting to any costume designer. Coming out on the other side, is there a secret to pulling off a production of this magnitude?

There were 73 speaking parts in our film. And the 73 speaking parts, they were in different decades, but some went over very large periods of time, and so we basically used the same foundation in creating each character. Each one of our actors came in with such a vast knowledge of the characters that they were portraying. We were always able to get a specificness of their idiosyncrasy to be able to apply to the character. It was wonderful. It was a film like no other, because each and every time you put on a costume or costume pieces, or you decided to make a shirt, or to make a tie, or do a particular jacket, or add a shoe, every actor, you didn't know who they were. They were only the characters.

And we tried to be as truthful as we could. That's makeup and hair and everything together. And the great thing about collaborating with Chris and Emma is that everyone is there from the very beginning. Anybody that is going to create the character, we talk about it at the very beginning, we know how we're going to proceed, and we go about it in a very cohesive way, because we all get on the same page from the very, very beginning.

By Sara Tardiff

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.

Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Costume Design category for an interview.


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